This is the first part of a two-part post on the Tsukiji Fish Market. We’ll cover the star of the show: the tuna auction. We’ll talk about the rest of the market in a later one.
Warning: This post has graphic content. Those who are squeamish should not continue reading.
Most of us have had sushi at least once in our lives. There really is nothing like it in the food world. I enjoy that first bite, feeling the tenderness of the fish against the texture of the rice. But have you ever asked yourself how it got there?
Today, we had the chance to see it for ourselves. We visited Tsukiji Fish Market, a full-fledged fish market operating right in downtown Tokyo. While you can find pretty much everything that crawls, floats, or swims in the sea there, the star of the show is the tuna. Every year, 700,000 tons of seafood enter those gates, freshly delivered by fishermen before being sold, processed, sold again, and then sent off to a dinner plate near you. We had the chance to see all the steps in the process, including the best part: scarfing down the freshest sushi in the world.
After tuna are caught, gutted, and frozen, they come to the fish market. The fishermen then sell those frozen tuna to intermediate wholesalers through an intricately choreographed bidding process that we got to watch.
To get there, though, was a journey of its own. The market only allows 120 people a day to get tickets for the 5 am auctions, so you have to get there early to beat the line (see another guide here). We woke at 2:45 am, stumbled out of bed, then – half-asleep – piled into a taxi. After a half-hour of stumbling around the market, we finally found it! Amazingly, by 3:45 am, half the spots were already gone! By 4:15 am, tickets ran out.
The auction was like nothing we had seen. Row upon row of frosty tuna lay before us. They looked more like gray teardrops than fish, each with their own red mark denoting their owners. The only hint of their former lives was the pink flesh at the cut tails.
Slowly, the buyers filtered in, each armed with a curved all-purpose hook. They silently eyed the tuna, choosing a bid.
A few minutes later, an auctioneer appeared. He called the buyers, then began swaying as he rhythmically conducted the auction. The buyers motioned silently with their fingers. The fish now had new owners, made official with a new slap of red paint.
Overall, the process was a beautiful dance between buyer and seller. The buyers quickly, elegantly, and (impressively) silently went about their task. Then the auctioneer came out, rousing the group. The end result? Whole tuna sold for over $6,500 a fish.