My first glimpse of Tsukiji fish market’s big, daily tuna auction is surreal: A thousand frozen blue fin tuna – weighing between one and two hundred pounds each – laid out in symmetrical rows on a concrete floor. That first look through a scratched plastic peephole, blurring the edges of the scene, makes it evermore otherworldly.
A pair of cavernous auction rooms sit at the far back of the market. Entry to each is through eight big yellow canvas roll-down doors, each bay representing a different company. Beginning around three a.m. the big fish are laid out; an hour later buyers or their representatives – from restaurants, supermarkets and vendors within the market – arrive to begin their daily inspection. This being Japan it is all very prompt: At 5:30 the first side of the room is auctioned, at 6 the second side. By 6:15, 6:20 at the latest, tuna are being dragged out and loaded onto carts to be sent all around Tsukiji, Tokyo and cities beyond, some destined for as far away as China.
Tuna are the biggest business in the world’s biggest fish market. Japanese love their blue fin and pay dearly. The biggest and best sell for $50,000, $80,000, occasionally more than $100,000. For a single fish. Last night we visited a high-end sushi joint in the chi-chi neighborhood of Ginza, which had split the cost of this year’s traditional “first” tuna with another restaurant, on January 8th – for a 129 kilos (261 pounds) tuna they paid more than $104,000. For the next several days’ lines stretched around the block for a taste.
The tuna come to Tsukiji from all over the world; Japanese processing boats scour the Indian Ocean, Mediterranean Sea and elsewhere buying up everything they can. They are not alone. One result of this rapacious demand, according to the World Wildlife Fund, is that blue fin tuna may be wiped out in the next few years.
This morning laid out in neat rows, still wearing sheen of frost and numbered with red food die there would appear to be no worry about running out of tuna. Each fish is split along its belly and a chunk has been cut out of its side to be used as a handhold. The tail has been cut off and a circular piece of meat dangles there by a thin piece of skin. A flap of meat has been cut flayed back near the tail, which is the main spot of inspection. Apparently the back and forth motion of the tail generates lots of oil in the fish and the more oil the better.
More than one hundred buyers mill about the frozen fish, in a kind of uniform: Blue coveralls or jacket with company name in white on the chest. Rubber boots. Ball cap with official badge indicating the buyer’s number pinned to its peak. The tools of the trade are simple: A flashlight, a wooden handled metal hook for lifting and probing, a cloth or paper towel hanging from the belt for wiping off fingers and hands post probing, a tiny notebook for jotting in and a cell phone for communicating with an absent boss. My favorite shopper is tall for a Japanese and wears a green windbreaker the same color as his dyed green hair, which is swept back Elvis-style. He’s got to be in his sixties, wears thick glasses and jokes with everyone around him as he inspects.
The inspection is equivalent to the kicking of a new car’s tires. With one finger the flap of meat near where the tail used to be is lifted and a flashlight shined on the exposed meat. Sometimes the flap is held back with the wooden handled hook, the density of the meat of the meat tested with hook or simply eyeballed. If they like what they see they will whack at the meat with the metal hook, opening up the still mostly frozen tuna and then dig into it with their fingers, pulling out a red morsel which they roll in their fingers into a ball. Sometimes they take a big sniffing of the rare meat. I half expect them to pull a bottle of soy out of their pocket, juice it up and have a taste. I watch to see if they slip the meat into their pockets for later, but instead they most often drop it onto the floor, wipe their fingers on the towel hung from their belt and move onto the next fish. The biggest buyers bid on lots, buying a half-dozen at a time; some are here for an individual fish.
I’m curious about the hierarchy of the market and try to ask a couple Japanese men standing beside me. My assumption is that the auctioneers must be near the top of the heap. They say no, contending that everyone at the market – whether truck driver, fish cutter, icemaker or auctioneer – is equal. I ask who owns the market and they say they think it is three men. Which makes me wonder if it’s anything like the Fulton Fish Market in New York, which was long “administered” by the mob? One thing is clear: There are very few women and no Caucasians (“too tall,” they are told if they apply).
At exactly 5:30 the first of the two morning auctions begins with frantic hand bell ringing by four simultaneous auctioneers, each representing a different company, each standing on a blue step stool in front of one of the bay doors. Each rings with a different fervor and pace, beginning to shout out loud as the ringing increases. With a quick doff of his ball cap – to the fish, or the spirits at large? – each is off, shouting and gesticulating, faces turning bright red, yelling what sounds to the non-Japanese ear something like, “TACO TACO TACO …. HIPPO HIPPO HIPPO … SAMPLE SAMPLE SAMPLE … TACO TACO TACO … SAPPY SAPPY SAPPY …” at the top of their lungs.
Each auctioneer has a personal style, bobbing and weaving and shouting in odd fashion, each channeling some kind of individual tuna god. My favorite is a tall man in a blue jumpsuit and brown ball cap, wearing thick glasses and a # 2 pencil stuck in a sleeve pocket. He notates madly in a little book even as his calling gets louder, more fervent, his face maroon, eyes glancing up towards the fluorescents as if he were channeling directly from the god of the sea, yet somehow registering the subtle finger lifting from buyers until calling out the Japanese equivalent of GOING … GOING … GONE. As he shouts a pair of men on either side note with pencil on paper the winning bids and then quickly mark each fish sold with a thick black magic marker.
The whole shebang lasts about ten minutes, sending several hundred fish towards cutting tables scattered around the sprawling market.
Twenty minutes later the second half of the warehouse is auctioned. I keep my eye on an individual buyer, representing a vendor inside the market. I watched him study a particular fish – at one point turning his back to it and grabbing it between his legs, I’m guessing to judge its weight? As soon as his bid was accepted he turned his ball cap around – the number on the metal plate pinned to its peak is his i.d. – he pulled out his hook, grabbed his fish and began dragging it towards the door. Using the handhold cut in its side he hoisted it onto a waiting, man-pulled cart and trailered it off into the maelstrom, on its way by day’s end to someone’s table.