22 April 2005

The big thing to see at the Tsukiji market is the tuna auction. Rows and rows of tuna, frozen or not, are pored over by dealers. Each of them is carrying a short-handled gaff and a flashlight. The tuna themselves have been gutted and some of them have had their heads removed. All have had their tails removed and an inch-thick cross-section sliced through at the tail, left attached at the bottom, to show the flesh of the tuna. Additionally, there's a flap sliced along the grain of the muscle near the tail. Dealers examine, poke and prod and test these two chunks to determine the quality of the meat, but they also lay into the tail end with their gaffs and dig out a chunk of frozen meat. This is rubbed between thumb and two fingers in front of the flashlight beam until it's a pink paste. This ostensibly tells them the level of gristle and overall quality of the fish. As 5:30 nears, the dealers post themselves in the vicinity of the lot they would like to buy. The quiet room gets quieter. People start checking their watches, despite the clocks on the walls.

At 5:30 on the dot, the hall fills with the ringing of two bells, each held by an auctioneer. Japanese is not a strident language, which is maybe the reason that the auctioneers don't really fill the room with their crying, but the auction does satisfy, with arcane hand gestures, rolling and semi-ululating crying, and massive fish hauled by two or three men with hooks at the moment of purchase onto waiting hand carts. It's still going when I wander away to find breakfast. Outside the market, there are restaurants and market stalls. I settle on a place filled with locals and have a breakfast of miso soup, green tea, and raw tuna over rice. A little pricey at 1350 yen, but the tuna was absolutely astounding, the flavor bright and meaty, the texture firm but not hard. After breakfast, I headed across the way and bought a santoku knife from one of the merchants. After I selected it, the old man took it in the back and ground it to a keen edge, demonstrating the sharpness by slicing a sheet of paper. He said the knife was carbon steel, which means it'll develop a rust patina over time, but that's sort of a mark of the hardcore chef.

The subway back to the hotel was quick, about half an hour. I got back in time to shower and dress and get to the office a little early.

20 April 2005

I dressed and went downstairs to catch a cab. The concierge had written out "Tsukiji fish market" on a taxi card for me and I was prepped for the $40 price tag of the ride. There aren't any trains early enough to get you there before the place closes down. The link in the previous post gives the particulars of the market, so I won't go into the details of what it is.

The taxi dropped me off on the corner where there were a few other gaijin waiting around, ready to head in. Walking past all the trucks and carts parked outside the market, toward the bustle, it was clear that this was an operation on a scale I'd never seen before. This is a real commercial fish market.

In Lagos, Portugal, where I lived a couple summers in the early 90's, they had two fish markets. One was housed in the picturesque halls near the docks and stayed open until noon every day. It was filled with haggling, shouting, picture opportunities, and sunburnt Sussex wives on holiday. The real work, the real market, was about 10 minutes drive away, in a grim cinderblock building with concrete floors, which was closed by 9am every morning. No Kodak moments there. Mostly just buyers and fishermen consuming toxic SG cigarettes and bifanas and bicas and medronho (respectively, pork sandwiches, espressos, and horrid liquer, pronounced mi-DRON-yuh, the Portuguese fisherman's morning meal, by which I mean his lunch, considering he was up at ass-o'-clock when you were rolling into the dance club from the just-closed bar).

Anyway, Tsukiji replaced the sandwich and firewater with instant ramen noodles and coffee. I think they have come around to the simple fact that, though green or black tea might be better for you, coffee just works better in the eyelid-prying department. The cigarette kept its place as the friend of both a cup of coffee and those who make their living with their hands.

Every day, thousands of tons of fish is moved around this market by hand carts and these cars, which are basically a diesel engine in a drum that's attached to a platform. I decided as I walked the 200 yards or so from the street to the stalls that I'd take off the iPod, not only to savor the experience more, but to keep my ass from getting run over. I wandered among the styrofoam-stacked stalls and noticed that, without the buzz of the diesels, the place would have been rather quiet. No loud conversations or haggling. Just a lot of business. The narrow thoroughfares through the low-roofed stalls and between the stalls and the tuna warehouses where the auctions take place were all choked with traffic of the engined, hand-wheeled, and pedestrian variety.

A Google image search for "tsukiji market" made me realize that my only having a disposeable film camera was not really a problem. Plenty of people have documented what the place looks like, obviating the need for my cruddy photos except the two that document my actually being there. There are thousands of images. I've now been there and I can say that that's what it looks like.

The tuna halls were laid out with hundreds of black, slick fish some three times my size, some I could carry alone. One hall had thawed or maybe fresh tuna, but most had frozen whole tuna. It was a little rough to look at all those huge, beautiful creatures laid out in death, awaiting the sashimi knife and the end of a couple of chopsticks. In fact, good for you or not, the whole place had a lot of death about it. Didn't matter that it was "only" fish paying the ultimate price just for being delicious. A small crisis of conscience, quickly averted by a gurgling stomach.

More to come.