Anyone visiting Tokyo would benefit greatly from a visit to this immense city’s fish market on the outskirts. It is an unforgettable experience for anyone who likes where and how the food arrives in markets.
Tsukiji is the largest fish market, not only of Japan, but also in the world.
Activities start as early as four a. m. and an hour later this huge market hums with the sounds of workers carrying fish (fresh and frozen) from stalls to buyer’s trucks.
Japanese are the world’s biggest fish consumers, averaging approximately 35 kilograms per capita. The country is small (the size of California) and has a population of 120 million. Arable land is limited, and Japanese have always relied heavily on the sea for their protein.
Ironically, Japanese-style beef is world famous for its succulence and taste, although cattle were introduced to Japanese only a little more than 200 years ago. They have developed techniques to make the beef taste better than anywhere else.
Since fish and seafood in general are so important, a central market evolved in Tokyo to ensure an orderly flow of products from fishermen to restaurateurs and retailers.
The Ongashi or Riverside fish market dates back to the 16th century. The shogun (ruler gave permission to fishermen from Tsukudjime and Osaka to supply the palace with their best catch of the day. After the delivery to the palace, the rest of the catch was sold at Ninonbashi and Ongashi districts; these two districts are now Tsukiji.
Today, the Tsukiji fish market
is located on the outskirts of Tokyo. It supplies the city of 18 million and turns over more than 2500 metric tons of fish daily, much of it imported from many parts of the world including Canada, the U S A and Mediterranean countries, specially Italy. Sicily is an excellent source of tuna, which Japanese cherish. Sicilian tuna fishermen used to catch tuna, and many still do, by netting.
Quantities caught were sustainable, but in the last 30 years modern sonar-equipped specially designed tuna boats have efficiently over fished diminishing stocks. Much of the tuna caught today is considerably smaller than the 300-kilogram specimens of the past.
Japanese are so fond of tuna that they designed and manufactured deep freezers capable of flash-freezing tune (at – 70 C) after gutting the fish. At this temperature the freshness is preserved.
Much of the tuna caught in the Mediterranean is exported to Japan and prices have escalated to unprecedented heights. Japanese value the fat belly of tune for their sashimi, and willingly pay small fortunes for a portion in a fine restaurant specializing in sushi and sashimi.
annual sales amount to over four billion dollars.
Japanese municipalities operate 88 wholesale markets, of which 54 specialize on fish 19 on flowers, and ten on meat.
At Tsukiji, fishermen and their agents start displaying their daily catch at 3 a.m. for inspection, for the 5.30 a.m. auction, followed at 7 o’clock by that of vegetables, and 7.30 for flowers. Transactions occur fast and furious. At I p.m. the market is thoroughly cleaned ad readied for the following day. All frozen ad fresh fish is auctioned daily and prices fluctuate according to supply and demand.
The Tsukiji market occupies several hectares where importers, exporters and traders have their offices. Their agents dominate auctions, but large department stores with restaurants are starting becoming important participants.
Tsukiji has become a tourist attraction for those who like to witness the hustle and bustle of a busy market, and see fish species they have never seen.
Coffee shops in Tsukiji are worth visiting, if for nothing else, but to observe people (workers and restaurateurs) how they interact, conduct business, relax, and nourish themselves.