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Roll up, roll up for the greatest food show on earth: Tokyo’s Tsukiji wholesale fish market is the Louvre of the oceans, a food lover’s paradise. More than 2,000 tonnes of seafood pass through Tsukiji’s 80-year-old halls every day.
It is my Disneyland and my Mecca rolled into one. But if you want to see it for yourself, book a flight soon. Although Tsukiji is one of Tokyo’s biggest attractions, the local government is closing it down and plans to clear these valuable acres of real estate adjacent to glitzy Ginza to make room for apartments. Tsukiji could close as early as 2016 before relocating to a new, mall-style venue on the man-made island of Toyosu in Tokyo Bay. The new market is scheduled to open in summer 2016.
Rumours of Tsukiji’s demise have been circling for years but as the construction company dug into the new site on Toyosu, it kept finding the soil to be contaminated and the date was pushed back with each discovery. Progress has been driven by Tokyo’s 2020 Olympics: the road to the Olympic Village is to pass under the current market. This could be your last chance to see what is, perhaps, the world’s ultimate attraction for food lovers.
Tokyo’s first fish market began life a few miles north of Tsukiji about 400 years ago on a spot next to the original Edo castle (long since razed), and close to Nihonbashi Bridge in today’s business district. Fish not consumed by the castle were sold on the streets here, and this is where Edomae-style sushi, now beloved around the world, first evolved. Several Tsukiji companies can trace their histories to this original market, which was lost to the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923. Tsukiji replaced it, opening in 1935.
I have spent many happy mornings wandering Tsukiji’s cobbled aisles, dodging the stevedores’ wooden carts, squeezing between the stacks of polystyrene packing cases, marvelling at the almost total absence of fishy odours (even last August, when temperatures hit 40C, miraculously, the place smelled merely of the sea).
There is always something different to see, varieties of seafood unfamiliar or unavailable elsewhere. They range in size from dried baby sardines, not much larger than an eyelash, to tuna as big as your sofa and great blood-red chunks of whale meat. The variety of white fish is bewildering and then there are the crabs, as well as live eels, buckets of writhing loach, prawns, oysters, clams, sea slugs and, my favourite, sea urchins.
The star, of course, is the maguro, or tuna. Up to 2,500 tuna of 150 different grades can pass through the market in a single day. The record price, for a 222kg fish, was just over £1m. Tuna dealers are the unofficial kings of Tsukiji. On a recent visit, I asked Minoru Nozaki, one of the main tuna dealers, what he thought of the plans to move. “It will cost a lot,” Nozaki said, “and the rents will be much higher.” Rents have been controlled for Tsukiji’s 80-year history but in the new market they will be as much as four times higher. He estimates that each stallholder will pay £13,000 moving costs and that about half won’t make the move.
“I have been protesting against the move, like many here. I don’t think it’s proper to have food on top of contaminated land. Everyone is frustrated. The more they dig for construction, the more contamination they find.”
You could be forgiven for thinking that Tsukiji is all about fish. It isn’t. Tsukiji is actually two markets, an outer and inner market with the latter home to the fishmongers – 1,600 vendors in all. For me, the outer market is just as interesting. This is where you find the small shops selling traditional Japanese foods such as pickles, tofu, dried beans and noodles, as well as the kitchenware stores.
Only the inner fish market is set to move: Tsukiji’s outer market will stay but many wonder how it can survive without the bait of the fresh seafood at its centre. Masayuki Usami, a vendor of dried beans, likens the split to Tsukiji’s heart being ripped out. “You’re breaking a whole piece into two pieces,” he told me. “When you come to Tsukiji, you can get everything you need for Japanese cooking – the fish and the garnishes. If it separates, you’ll have to visit both, which doesn’t make sense.”
Tokyo’s new fish market in Toyosu (within walking distance of the Olympic Village) will be 80 per cent bigger. It will also be brighter, with better facilities for the stallholders, and a larger, better-arranged restaurant area for tourists. It will be altogether more sanitised and, to some critics, more boring.
“The new place will be more like a regular shopping mall but one that happens to sell fish,” says Reiko Yoshikawa, a Tsukiji guide. “I really doubt it will have the same appeal to tourists, the same atmosphere and traditions.”
For now, Tsukiji remains in one piece: the original Japanese convenience store. If you are planning to visit, my recommendations are these: Tsukiji’s sushi restaurants aren’t actually all that great – there are far better ones nearby in Ginza. Tsukiji’s are mostly for tourists and, since they started appearing in Chinese guide books, the queues are absurd.
Don’t take young children, pushchairs, luggage or rucksacks. Wear the kind of footwear you would choose for a winter’s walk on the beach. And, of course, be prepared for angry shellfish.
Michael Booth is the author of ‘Sushi and Beyond’ (Vintage)