Taking advantage of our circadian rhythms, Elizabeth and I arrived at the Tsukiji Fish Market just before 5am, which was just early enough to get us into the second and final tour of the daily tuna auction. After a 45 minute wait, we donned blue vests, walked through the busy traffic, and were directed into an observation area in a huge room, filled with deep frozen tuna.
All of the tuna had been prepped for the auction with a several different paint and paper labels. Most interesting was a deep cut just above the tail, used by the buyers to inspect the quality of the fish. A series of boot-clad fish assessors, each with a wooden-handled metal hook, examined the fish meat in the cut, often shining a flash light on it, and sometimes smelling or tasting it.
Some of the inspectors also checked out a slot, apparently where the entrails were removed.
The auctions took place in a rolling fashion, moving across the floor from group of fish to group of fish. As the auctioneer got closer to the groups of fish near us, buyers, with numbered tags on their hats, started congregating at the tail end of a group of fish. Some guys continued checking out the frozen tuna right up until the auction started.
A stool was set up so the auctioneer could see the bidders. Although he used different syllables and sounds than an American auctioneer would use, it was the same sort of verbal deluge of enthusiasm that you’d expect, so it was immediately clear to me and Elizabeth that the auction had started.
In short order, 10 tuna were individually auctioned off as the buyers raised their hands to indicate that they wanted a particular tuna at a particular price.
An assistant kept track of who bought which fish, marking them after the auction by sticking pieces of paper to the frozen fish with a bit of water. Soon after the auction, porters used metal hooks to hoist the individual tuna onto hand carts, or electric carts. Most of the fish were then butchered in the market with big band saws and were either sold at booths within the market, or were trucked away by wholesalers or large institutional buyers.
Apparently, the market has had an off again/on again relationship with tourists, who wander around, slowing down the busy traffic, without actually buying much. As a compromise, two tours of the tuna auction are offered every morning before 6am, but the main market isn’t open to visitors until 9am.
We wandered around at the booths that were open around the edges, mostly selling vegetables, but there were also booths with scales, knives, seaweed, and rice. We chose a restaurant that wasn’t too crowded and an early breakfast of sashimi.