It was 3:30 am when I finally worked up the courage to leave Jonathan’s, a 24-hour diner in Tokyo’s Chuo ward. I walked out into the frigid winter air with four cups of coffee simmering in my belly and at least half a dozen disposable heating pads strapped to my extremities. I could have been tucked between the warm covers of my AirBnB bed, but instead I’d decided to brave the cold and pay my final respects to the world’s most famous fish market: Tsukiji.
Since its opening in 1935, visiting Tsukiji has become a pilgrimage for many visitors to the Japanese capital. Word of its gritty allure has spread, and its intrepid fan base of sightseers – who would rather watch the gutting of a 200lb fish than admire the city’s beloved cherry blossoms – has grown. Many people head to the famous live tuna auction as early as 3 am to watch the intense bidding over some of the world’s most expensive fish – so there’s a long and lively tradition of taking the last train at midnight to the Chou, heading to a scrappy karaoke bar, then killing time at Jonathan's with other fish-market goers, making friends and ordering Sapporos or bottomless cups of coffee until the market opens.
But all of that will change in November, when Tsukiji relocates from its current shabby wooden warehouses to a new location in Toyosu, 2.5km away. Tsukiji Uogashi, the new, more-polished iteration of the market, will be geared to tourists, with a glimmering multi-storied glass structure, set daylight business hours and a designated observation area from where visitors can watch the action. The impending closure – including the strong possibility that the infamous tuna auction will not be open to the public – has evoked cases of premature nostalgia to many Tsukiji market lovers.
From Jonathan’s, I followed my friend Takao, a Tokyo native, into the outer market, Jogai Shijo: a tight labyrinth of alleys filled with small restaurants and produce, pantry, and knife shops. When the inner market closes in November, this outer market will stay – though with much of its clientele leaving for Toyosu, many businesses are uncertain about their future.
Shopkeepers were already rolling up their stall doors to serve the day’s first customers, and a few pepper-haired men in rubber boots and overalls were slurping steaming strands of ramen from porcelain bowls in the golden glow of an all-night sushi bar.
Wholesale middlemen and local chefs were stocking up on the day’s ingredients – diaphanous bonito flakes, buckets of glossy shredded seaweed, fresh wasabi stems and piles of niboshi (dried sardines). My stomach rumbled at the sight of fresh uni strips resting in their lavender shells. I zoomed my camera lens toward a stack of freshly fried crabs; one waved its claw at me from beneath a crusting of Panko crumbs.
We continued onto the inner market, Jonai Shijo, where shopkeepers were passing out fresh samples of tuna like saltwater alms to the pilgrims that journeyed here through the night. I didn’t think I could hold out for the traditional breakfast – kaisendon, a bowl of rice and sashimi – so we tided our hunger over with a couple of onigiris on-the-go, rice balls filled with warm, oozing orange roe. At the market entrance, two elderly men lingered over a makeshift table of stacked styrofoam, splitting a pot of tea and picking away at a pile of scarlet tuna scraps.
Inside, beneath the hall’s decrepit rafters, were fish stalls run by roughly 14,000 people, many of whom have worked here for decades or even generations. It’s estimated that 50,000 people can be in the market on any given morning. Amid the chaos, the chatter between purveyors sounded like the staccato of a knife on a cutting board. Men in industrial smocks cut frozen fish with a jigsaw, and the glint of steel knives and tuna scales were everywhere.
Each stall was packed with stacks of styrofoam coolers filled with ice water and fish – mackerel, eel, prawn, salmon trout, abalone, herring roe, ark shell, sea urchin – illuminated by bare incandescent bulbs. Just as I paused to gawk at a man severing a tuna head, a forklift truck came barrelling toward me. The teenage driver, a cigarette pinched between his cold blue lips, madly waved at me to get out of the way. I leapt into a stall where the floor was a mess of melted ice and flounder blood, staining the white soles of my tennis shoes an intestinal pink.
Tsukiji was never intended to be a tourist attraction – indeed, many of the market workers greet the scores of outsiders with outspoken frustration and dismissal. But in an odd way, that’s actually become the allure. While the rest of Tokyo is governed by extreme order and politeness, Tsukiji offers a catharsis to those buttoned-up mores, creating a safe zone where people can yell and toss around bloody fish guts without being considered rude.
Despite all the tourists, stallholders have mixed feelings about the relocation. Some turned away from my questions and refused to discuss it. For others, the words momentarily melted their stoic expressions into looks of longing. One man told me that he’s worked at the market for 57 years. “I will miss this place. It’s been my second home since I was a young boy. But there’s no point in being sad. The deal is done and so it is what it is now.”
Another man, who has worked at Tsukiji since 1960, was slightly more transparent about his emotions. “I will miss the little things here that makes Tsukiji what it is. Like being allowed to sell even the smallest scraps of fish. At the new market, I hear we won’t be able to do that. Only the bigger, more profitable selections will be allowed to be sold.”
Over our breakfast bowl of fresh tuna, salmon and amberjack sashimi at a freestanding counter in the outer market, I asked Takao what he will miss the most about Tsukiji. He lifted his eyes to the old television just beyond the counter, which was airing a Japanese game show, then said, “I will miss the chaos, the grit.”
I understood what he meant. It’s not about the fish. The fish, if anything– thanks to the new refrigeration system – will be better, and the market safer and more Instagram-friendly. What can’t be moved to Toyosu is the character.
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