Saturday, January 16, 2010

Tsukiji: Big Fish Out Of Water

Stats have it that there’re almost a hundred centralized wholesale markets in 56 cities across Japan: 50-odd for fish, 19 for flowers, and 10 for meat. Tsukiji, here in Tokyo, is the heftiest of the lot; in fact it’s the biggest fish market in the world. Remember the scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the U.S. government stores the Ark of the Covenant at the warehouse that stretches off into the horizon, without apparent end?

Tsukiji is just like that.

Also known as the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market and as “Tokyo’s Kitchen” - or more simply Tsukijishijo in Japanese - it everyday handles somewhere in the vicinity of 2,000 to 2,900 metric tons of seafood, dabbling in over 400 varieties of aquatic vertebrate, crustaceans and cephalopods (this includes 300kg slabs of tuna).

Employed to oversee the whole circus are around 65,000 people. This in effect makes Tsukiji the largest fish graveyard on the globe, as well as one of the bigger wholesale food markets in general.

It’s located near Ginza, just a brisk walk from Tsukijishijo Station on the Toei Oedo Line or alternatively the Hibiya Line’s Tsukiji Station.

Inside the market they have auctions in the wee hours, and the best time to be there is around 5:30am - though don’t wear your best footwear as parts of the place are awash in fish blood and hosed-down produce. It’s not really for the light-of-heart or vaguely animal rights-conscious, let alone people on the cusp of vegetarianism for ethical reasons, as you’re going to see a lot of sea creature carcasses, guts, squirming eels, and very big live craps tied in shoddy Gordian knots.

But you also get to witness people practicing their slice-and-dice techniques on both frozen and fresh tuna and swordfish, using intimidating sword-like shivs of their own that’re over a metre in length - just steer clear of the gas-powered go-carts and the guys lugging around huge blocks of ice, as they’re even more dangerous.

Set up early on in the 17th century by shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa, this sprawling hub was originally a more humble affair located near Nihonbashi Bridge, not far from the current Tokyo Station.

But after the general destruction of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, the market was shifted to reclaimed land in the Tsukiji area - right next to a small Shinto shrine called Namiyoke Inari-jinja, built on the water’s edge of Tokyo Bay (before land was reclaimed from the sea to eventually house the market) in the mid 17th century.

Inari is apparently quite the chipper deity in Japan, with around 32,000 shrines (over a third of Shinto shrines in this country) dedicated to the Japanese kami of fertility, rice, agriculture, industry, worldly success - and foxes.

Thus the shrines are usually decked out with not only vermilion-coloured torii-gates, but also a bunch of statues of kitsune (foxes) who may or may not be messy eaters since they have bibs tied round their necks.

Namiyoke Inari-jinja itself also goes for much dragon and lion iconography, since the original attempts at land reclamation, commenced in the 17th century by the Tokugawa government, were often washed away in storms. When success was actually achieved, people celebrated by lugging round dragon floats - symbolizing control of the clouds - and a huge shishi lion’s head, renowned for its oddly calming roar that was probably aimed at virulent nature itself.

After the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market was relocated next door, Namiyoke Inari-jinja became the unofficial guardian shrine of the marketplace, and it’s dotted with memorial plaques and statuettes donated by several of the market’s trade groups.

In June every year, the shrine plays host to the rather wild Tsukiji Shishi Matsuri festival, which harks back to the original purpose of Namiyoke - lions, dragons, and all - and in turn underscores the more recent relationship with the neighbours, as many of the market’s traders are those people sweating under the mikoshi.

But Tsukiji isn’t just festivals, shrines and fish.

It was the star of the 2008 film Tsukiji Uogashi Sandaime (築地魚河岸三代目, also known as Third Generation Tsukiji Fish Market Man or The Taste of Fish), directed by Shingo Matsubara of Ultraman: Tiga fame, and based on a 2000s manga series by Masaharu Nabeshima and Mitsuo Hashimoto; then again, the story here centers on a businessman who quits his high-flying bank job to work for his father-in-law at the fish market.

Tokyo’s Kitchen also pops up in the ‘90s manga version of Shota no Sushi (将太の寿司, Shota’s Sushi or King of Sushi) by Daisuke Terasawa, and - while I’m unsure if it appears in the live-action spin-off that played on Fuji TV in 1996 - I have it on good advice that the market features in Haikei, Chichiue-sama (拝啓、父上様), a.k.a. Dear Father, starring Kazunari Ninomiya (Letters from Iwo Jima, and the voice of Kuro in Tekkonkinkreet), which was broadcast on the same channel 11 years later.

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