Is it closing time for Tokyo’s legendary Tsukiji fish market?

Thilo Thielke & Juergen Baetz  –

There are moments when Shibata San feels wistful as he makes his way through the bustling Tsukiji market. Soon, after more than 80 years, the largest fish market in the world is to be moved from Tokyo’s district of Chuo to the neighbouring area of Koto.
For a city like Tokyo, this is just a stone’s throw away – but for fish merchant Shibata, it marks the end of an era.
Massimiliano Ziano, an Italian who is chef de cuisine at Tokyo’s Hotel Peninsula and one of Shibata’s regular customers, agrees. “The flair of the Tsukiji is unique,” says Ziano.
The Japanese are virtually obsessed with the quality of ingredients in their meals, and this passion is on display wherever you look at the Tsukiji.
One of Ziano’s favourite activities is accompanying hotel guests, along with a fish merchant, to the famous tuna fish auctions. A maximum of 120 visitors who show up before 5 am are given free entry each day to watch the auctions.
A price tag of more than 1,100 dollars for a single fish is normal. But this is nothing compared to the price for the very first tuna fish of the new year.
While it is said to bring good luck to the buyer, it will certainly bring a great deal of attention; in 2013, the head of the restaurant chain Sushizanmai paid around 1.5 million dollars for the year’s first catch. Given the nationwide news coverage the event garnered, the investment was certainly rewarded with publicity.
The 2017 New Year auction was probably the last one to be held at the old site. The market, which dates back to the 16th century, should already have moved at the end of 2016 in order to make room for the press centre for the 2020 Olympic Games.
However, Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike stopped the billion-dollar project, not out of nostalgia but rather because the new site in Koto was contaminated.
Koike is still intent on moving the market, even though there is, as of yet, no definite timetable for the move. Ultimately, the Tsukiji site is to become a food theme park.
The fact that the Tsukiji market could not move because the projected new site was contaminated is rather ironic. After all, the previous Tokyo governor, Shintaro Ishihara, was intent on moving the market because he deemed it to have become too grimy.
The Tsukiji has little in common with the gleaming covered markets of Mediterranean countries: its nondescript halls covering an area of some 40 football fields are starting to show their age.
Cold neon light is reflected in the puddles gathering on the cold concrete floors, and the air is thick with the smell of fish, algae and the exhaust fumes of the three-wheeled vehicles that speed down the aisles, carrying the vendors’ wares.
Every conceivable marine animal that lands on a plate in Japan’s restaurants – and in Japan, virtually everything can wind up on a restaurant plate – is to be found by the thousands in the market’s ice-filled styrofoam boxes.
In one area, there is a pool of water for the trade in living marine animals. Wooden pallets in the next hall hold frozen slabs of tuna fish measuring up to two metres, from which small portions are sliced off for enthusiastic buyers.
“The products that one admires at the Tsukiji market are the foundation for the success of Japanese cuisine,” says Ziano, an assertion backed up by the statistics on the country’s top restaurants.
The Michelin Guide this year lists no fewer than 121 two- and three-star restaurants in Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo. By comparison, France’s total is 113.
Tokyo, with 12 three-star restaurants, is the world leader. “Perhaps this is in part thanks to the Tsukiji,” says the wistful fish merchant Shibata. — dpa