The rasp of tuna saws, the whirr of electric carts and the patter of the fishmongers — on Saturday they will all fall silent, as Tokyo’s legendary Tsukiji fish market closes for the final time.
By the end of the following week, the market known as “Japan’s Kitchen” will be up and running again at its new location, an austere concrete hangar located 2km across the bay at Toyosu.
Tsukiji is a symbol of the global food trade, the home of Japanese cuisine, and is one of Tokyo’s most popular tourist attractions. Its gritty, shitamachi (downtown) atmosphere exemplifies an older Tokyo that is gradually disappearing in favour of glittering high-rise towers.
Losing the market — and the abdication of Emperor Akihito next year — has prompted a moment of introspection and nostalgia in a nation that is normally quick to embrace the new.
“Tsukiji is closely attuned to the subtleties of Japanese food culture and to the representations of national cultural identity that cloak cuisine,” wrote the Harvard anthropologist Theodore Bestor in the introduction to his 2004 book, which helped add to Tsukiji’s fame.
“But this is also the market that drives the global fishing industry,” Mr Bestor wrote. “From sea urchin divers in Maine to shrimp farmers in Thailand, from Japanese longliners in the Indian Ocean to Croatian tuna ranchers in the Adriatic.”
Opened in 1935, the ramshackle market processes thousands of tonnes of fish from around the world every day, before shipping them out to the world’s most demanding sushi chefs.
Its unique structure — seven central wholesalers sell to an array of specialists, who in turn prepare the fish for restaurants and shops — made it a theatre of seafood.
Jet-lagged tourists would queue to watch the early morning tuna auction before a sushi breakfast.
The inner wholesale market supported an outer market of restaurants and shops. They will stay behind in Tsukiji when the wholesalers move to Toyosu, leaving tourists the choice of visiting one, both or neither.
Fish consumption in Japan is falling as the population ages and the young choose to eat more meat, but Tokyo remains the gourmet capital of the world, with twice the Michelin stars of any other city.
The new Toyosu site may never achieve the Tsukiji mystique. But some things will never change. As Hiroyasu Ito, chair of the market association, points out: “It’s going to be us working there. That humanity isn’t going to disappear. We’ll be just the same.”
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