Clint Eastwood, in the The Good, the Bad and the Ugly once said that there are two kinds of people: those who dine at restaurants, and those who see nothing wrong in standing up for their meal in front of a guy who’s nonchalantly cooking it with two butane blow torches (well, yeah, I took a bit of liberty with the transcription, haven’t I?).
Judging by the picture above, and from the fact that I stood there, at the top of a small queue, excitingly waiting for my food to be weld…ehm, cooked in front of me, I suspect I’m in the second category.
Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market is one of those places dear to the Lonely Planet guide writer – and, by default, for those who read and religiously follow him. Located a stone throw’s from the posh parade of Ginza shops, Tsukiji is almost exclusively famous for the tuna auction, which has the incredible power to drag tourists out of their hostel bunk bed and into buses in the dead of the night. I know it, because I did it myself as well, once (and arrived too late).
My older, supposedly wiser, self would embark in such a silly-o’clock endeavour only if lured by the promise of alcohol, or if forced by a work contract; so this is why this next visit to Tsukiji happened well past the wee hours of tuna auctioning. And my purpose was not to gawk at men in wellies measuring the circumference of frozen fish carcasses but, rather to browse and eat.
An often-ignored side of Tsukiji, in facts, is the one that chugs into life once all that measuring-auctioning-buying-transporting-and-chopping business is done. It’s the bit where the chopped tuna – as well as any other possible form of life that happens to swim, crawl or move in Poseidon’s world – is showcased, neatly packaged and sold to punters. In other words, the market.
Tokyo had a multitude of markets throughout its history. Tsukiji’s ancestor, it is said, was called Uogashi, or riverside fish market, established by the local shogun on the banks of the river Sumida sometimes in the XVI century. Time passed, Edo became Tokyo and Tokyo became capital, and then the great Kanto earthquake of 1923 flattened Tokyo down. Ever an organised bunch, the Tokyoites decided to build a large fish-and-seafood wholesale market, eventually making it the busiest in the world.
I arrived at the corner between Haruni and Shin-Ohashi dori at the crucial time of the morning where the flow of activity is ebbing away from the main market and into the outer one. Tsukiji is arranged with a main building shaped like a lower case j; the point is the fruit-and-veggies market, which everyone seems to ignore, whereas the body is the main fish hall itself, where the much-coveted auction goes on. At the time of my arrival, however, things were going quiet over there, and the outer market was buzzing with activity. It’s not a surprise, then, if my feet and nostrils led me there.
The outer market is a grid of narrow streets reserved for pedestrians, sometimes arranged in arcades with small hole-in-the-wall eateries catering for the market labourers who are going off shift after a night spent providing seafood for the hungry capital. As you venture deeper into the maze, though, things begin to change: restaurants and noodle bars become sparser, replaced by fishmongers, sellers of dried bonito flakes, bags of matcha green tea and stacks and stacks of algae. It seems that every business is a family one, with three generations labouring under the light bulbs, quality bursting at the seams and yet none of that “organic”, “free range”, “vegan” nonsense in sight.
The streets, in the outer market, are busy with punters coming in to do their weekly or daily shopping and the lanes at the fringes of the place are busy with vans, mopeds and those quintessentially Japanese trolley trucks, half flatbed half washing machines. There isn’t a fixed wheel bicycle, or a selfie stick, within a city block.
Please click on the picture to start the slideshow.
As soon as I started developing an appetite I found the best candidate to quell it. The stall was small, perhaps than two meters wide, and barely arranged: a few scallop shells, laden with molluscs; a box filled with chopsticks, and a pile of paper plates. Behind them, ogling out benevolently in the dim light, the red glow of the grill. I needn’t to ask for an English menu to decide.
Orders made, the cook proceeds to put a scallop shell, the one I’d indicated even though I meant any of them, on the grill. Then, with the nonchalance that underlines practice, he grabs two portable blow torches, one per hand, turns them on and directs the blue, hot flame towards the base of the scallop shell. A divine fragrance, salty and lemony, starts rising from the grill. Other people – enticed by the smell, perhaps? – began piling up in a neat queue behind me, whilst I concentrated on not salivating like my dog used to do when she spotted us eating roasted chicken.
The snack, eaten in a corner of Tsukiji’s outer market, between whizzing trolleys and mopeds, was delightful. I left in a state of deep satisfaction, but also tinged with a bit of sadness, for I had read, before my visit, that Tsukiji had a Damocles’ sword hanging above it, and the thread is getting thinner and thinner. The land on which the market stands is prime real estate, within a handful of stops from Tokyo’s central rail station and a few steps away from the new sprouting of skyscrapers that now adorns Shimbashi. Plans are well underway to move Tsukiji somewhere else, in some nondescript industrial areas of the Kanto plain, leaving maybe just a small section – the outer market, perhaps? – as a legacy to what once stood there. But the outer and inner markets are two halves of the same apple, what sense would the former have, without its main source of goods and of customers?
The move is scheduled for November 2016. Things might change, and I dearly hope they will, but in the meantime the only thing to do is to visit Tsukiji, whilst it’s still there.