It was at the top of my list of "must-dos" when I finally got to Tokyo a few years ago. The city's Tsukiji Fish Market, which is the largest fish market in the world, had been recommended to me by my friends who had visited Tokyo before me and just about every travel guide. I had to check it out.
I was overwhelmed even before I stepped inside. There were people and transport trucks everywhere, not to mention men scooting around on turret trucks, small versions of the pallet-carrying trucks I had seen in factories, all around me. The scene was so confusing, I wasn't even sure if the market was one building or a complex of many. (I still don't know.) I followed the zebra crossings very carefully to safely make my way inside. There, it was even more chaotic. Narrow aisles—buzzing with more men on turret trucks—were surrounded by fish of every size, colour, and texture stacked in buckets and sytrofoam containers. The smell of seafood was inescapable, but by then I had been living in Asia long enough to get used to it quickly.
The wholesale market was never intended to be a tourist attraction. Tourists, in fact, actually cause more problems by getting in the way of workers. There are few places to eat inside; restaurants and retail markets are located in the jogai, outer market. The real attraction is the wholesale fish auction, located deep inside the complex. To help prevent tourist interference, there is now an imposed limit to 120 tourists per day.
The market acts as a middleman between fishermen and restaurants. Shipments of fresh seafood arrive in the evenings from locations around the globe, then are auctioned off almost every morning. It's big business. According to the documentary Sushi: The Global Catch, tuna at Tsukiji can sell for US$100 000. Once sold, the fish are packed up again and moved to restaurants around Tokyo and the rest of the world.
As Tokyo prepares for its Olympic Games in 2020, the New York Times reports that the wholesale fish market at Tsukiji, which opened in 1935, will be moved to Toyosu. This location, a few miles from its current address near the Ginza district, will allow fishing ships to dock closer to the market and speed up the transportation process.
Since the 1990s, sushi has become a global favourite dish. As income levels rise in less economically developed countries like China and India, more and more people are able to afford meat and fresh seafood. Tastes become more sophisticated. Bluefin tuna, as a result of the sushi craze, has become severely overconsumed and overfished.
It all began in 1972, when five tuna fish were transported from Atlantic Canada to Japan. Japan Airlines was exporting goods to North America, but flying back with empty cargo planes because there was little to import. In an effort to save the expense of flying empty, JAL began looking for something, ideally something expensive, to carry. The answer was tuna from Prince Edward Island. It took some trial-and-error experimentation, but eventually JAL came up with a refrigeration technique to keep the fish fresh for the long journey. The fish travelled by road from PEI to New York, where they were packed in a JAL cargo plane on a long-haul flight to Tokyo. It took just four days.
"From the day that fish arrived in [Tokyo] and got the auction price that it did, that was the beginning of the globalization of sushi," Wayne MacAlpine, the Canadian cargo rep for JAL who led the project, told The Globe and Mail. "What happened after [that] is seafood became this luxury food that reflected access to the global economy. Anybody who was willing to pay for it could eat fresh fish as if they were sitting on the coast of any ocean around the world."
Sushi has been around as a local Japanese dish for hundreds of years. It was first made as a fermented dish, but in the 1820s it was transformed into a "fast food" and sold as street food at outdoor stalls in Tokyo, then called Edo. (Two hundred years ago, when sanitary conditions in Japan were less-than-ideal, wasabi was used to prevent food poisoning.) Thanks to MacAlpine's team at JAL, it has become a global phenomenon.
After checking out Tsukiji Market years ago, I went to a sushi restaurant in Tokyo that workers at my hostel recommended to me. I don't remember its name anymore, but I remember it as being one of my favourite dining experiences—and, of course, some of the best sushi I've ever had.
Sitting at a bar that surrounded the chefs, plates of sushi passed by us diners on a conveyer belt. I wasn't yet familiar enough with raw fish to know exactly what was on the plates, but it didn't really matter. As they passed by, I picked out a few that looked not-too-crazy. Plate colours determined the cost; at the end of the meal, servers added up the plates to calculate my total bill.
Living in Vancouver now, my taste for sushi has only increased. With all the sushi restaurants here (TripAdvisor ranks 180 of them), it would be difficult to avoid it in this city. But as this seafood grows more popular around the world, are we demanding too much?
BoutiqueJapan.com has a great guide to Tsukiji Fish Market, including transportation tips to help you get there and visitor guidelines to follow.
The Vancouver Aquarium has created the Ocean Wise app to help Canadian sushi- and seafood-lovers choose more sustainable options. In the USA, there's the Seafood Watch guide and app from the Monterey Bay Aquarium.