Tokyo Tuna Market’s Closure Marks End of Era

There used to be one thing that every visitor to Tokyo wanted to see. It wasn’t the Kabuki drama, the Ginza shopping district, sumo wrestling or even views of Mt Fuji. It was the Tsukiji Fish Market.

The largest fish and produce market in the world, Tsukiji has been drawing tourists for years, including some who get out of bed around 3 am to watch the famous bluefin tuna auction at 5:20.

Tsukiji’s last day, Oct. 6, was very like any other day, except for the speeches. “Like it or not this is the final day,” said Yutaka Hayama, president of Tokyo Fish Market Wholesale Cooperative. “We will start a new chapter of our history here.”

The auctioneers who held their last tuna auction on the old site had supplied fish for Tokyo’s top restaurants for more than 80 years and attracted visitors from around the world, drowned by its gritty charm.

The fishmongers moved over the week to their new market at Toyosu, about 2 km. from Tsukiji. It has many modern advantages over the former site, including air conditioning so they don’t have to smother the fish in ice to keep from spoiling.

The big frozen fish arrive by truck, ship or aircraft and are displayed on large concrete slabs, as registered dealers walk around to inspect the haul and determine which fish they may bid on and for what price.

Traditionally, the most important tuna auction takes place on the first working Tuesday of the new year, sort of a way of welcoming a prosperous the new year.

A prized 200 kg tuna can fetch the equivalent of US$100,000. If that seems like a lot to pay for a fish, recall that in the recent past they have sold for as much as an astounding $1.7 million.

What do you do with a million-dollar fish? At US$25 a serving as sushi, the proud owner would still have to sell about 68,000 servings to break even, which is a lot for even a huge bluefin tuna.

The record-breaking auction is generally considered to have been mostly a kind of publicity stunt by Kiyoshi Kimura, president of Kiyomura Company, owner of a chain of sushi restaurants. Since then the prices paid for Bluefin tuna have come down to earth.

In the past visitors were welcome to attend the tuna auctions on a strictly first-come-first served fashion. Tourist manuals advised those wanting to see the auctions to come early (really, really early) as only 120 people are allowed to attend in two shifts.

Those who don’t want to get up at 3 am to attend the tuna auctions were still free to move around the market, although trading is mostly over and the market closes temporarily around 1 p.m. for cleaning in anticipation of the next days’ trading.

Regretfully, visitors will not be allowed to roam around the new market as they did in olden days. Many of the sushi shops and other restaurants that operated around the market’s perimeter are staying in Tsukiji, keeping at least one link with the historic market.

The Tsukiji market had been at its current location since 1935, sandwiched between the famous Ginza district and the waterfront. In early Meiji days, Tsukiji was more famous as the main international settlement in the newly reclaimed water front Tsukiji roughly means reclaimed land in Japanese.

“Tsukiji is too old, too small, too dirty and too dangerous to be used as Tokyo’s kitchen,” said former governor Shintaro Ishihara, who first championed the move early in his administration. He might have added that it was also rat-infested.

Even some of the long-time traders accept that the move to larger quarters is inevitable. “I wanted to stay in Tsukiji, but it is also true that the market has aged significantly after 80 years,” said trader Takeshi Shibyama.

The move to the new location was delayed by the considerable chemical pollution problem stemming from a disused coal gasification plant operated on the site by Tokyo Gas. Tokyo’s present Gov. Yukiko Koike postponed the move several times until she was finally assured that the pollution has been cleaned up.

The new market will be about twice as big as Tsukiji, with more improved environmental controls. The public will not be able to watch the tuna auction and will not be allowed to wonder freely though the market as they used to do now. This pretty much ends the market as a tourist attraction.

The Tokyo government plans to turn the market into a transit hub for buses to be used during the 2020 Olympic Games. Longer term, it might be become a waterfront park where visitors can enjoy the lights of Tokyo Bay at night and visit the posh Ginza shopping district by day.