Since we’re on holidays in a country that doesn’t wake up until lunch, we figured, why not get up at 4am and see what’s going on then?
Well, for starters, the nearby okonomiyaki establishment known as the “Big Pig” was still open, so that’s good to know for future reference. Not much else seemed to be happening though, so we thought we’d go down to Tsukiji and see where the action was.
And action there was aplenty. Tsukiji is the site of the central fish market in Tokyo, and it’s the size of a small suburb in other parts of the world. Although some areas are off limits to tourists (or “visitors” as we’re more politely called there), visitors can access part of the tuna auction area during certain times, hence the early start.
Ok, so where I said “action” above, I should perhaps more accurately have said “constant struggle for survival”. The main body of the market is made up of hundreds of wholesaler stalls containing boxes, tanks, tubs, and any other receptacle capable of containing seafood. The stalls seem to evolve organically, and there’s very little space between them, but this doesn’t seem to be a problem for the dozens of motorized trolleys that zip dangerously around the confined spaces, going much faster than it seems like they should be allowed to and filling the air with diesel fumes.
Having naviagated these hazards, we made it to the tuna auction area. Even though we’d arrived during the visitor access period, it seemed like a lot of the really serious fish had gone early. I should stress, however, that the ones we did see were by no means the runts of the litter; it’s just that, instead of being the size of a sumo wrestler, they were more like the size of a well-fed teenager. We did catch tantalising glimpses of their larger cousins through open doors with guards standing ominously in front of them, though, and we also saw some rattling along on the trolleys after being auctioned off. The sheer size of them was really astonishing; I had no idea tuna got so big.
After the auction area we took a stroll (much more perilous than that makes it sound due to aforementioned carts) through the wider market area and saw every kind of fish and seafood imaginable, both alive and dead. We also managed to see some of the lucky purchasers of the aforementioned massive tuna butchering their prizes with knives almost as long as me (no joke, we have photos).
By then it was about 7am, so what could be more natural than stopping off for some sushi? I couldn’t handle it at that hour, but Sim was keen to try some of the tuna he’d just seen, so we joined the crowds at one of the many sushi establishments in the market area that cater to the masses. I’m told it was pretty spectacular, but then, that goes for all the sushi we’ve eaten so far in this country.
After a nap to catch up on all the sleep we’d missed out on this morning, we thought we’d complete the circle of life with a trip to Tokyo Sea Life Park. One stop on the train line before Tokyo Disney (whose towers can be glimpsed from afar), the star attraction of Tokyo Sea Life Park is its donut-shaped tank containing 2,200 tonnes of water, in addition to a number of species of tuna.
So it was a bit of a themed day: we even got to see some huge yellowfin tuna, the kind that had so recently been packed in ice and auctioned off, swimming around their tank (though I’m convinced none of them was as big as the ones we glimpsed at the market this morning). Mostly they just sort of glided around the water, but once or twice, one of them put on a bit of speed, and then it was amazing to see how fast they can go: when they want to move, it suddenly seems like they’re one big muscle.
So, dead and alive, in the water, on the plate and on the floor of the auction room, a day of tuna it has been. Also a day of seeing live eels beheaded, getting sprayed with fishy water, laughing at girls ruining their inappropriate footwear and being in constant peril from reckless cart-driving. It’s the circle of life.