17 August 2009


When we first considered the possibility of an international assignment, there were two logical choices from the standpoint of Karen's job: Paris and Tokyo. There was business justification for each, each has an office that does the same work she does in the States, the official business in each location is conducted in English, and Karen had good working relationships with people in both offices.

Never having been to Asia, and speaking just 1 word of Japanese (nagura, a soft chalk stone used to create a slurry on Japanese waterstones used in the last step of sharpening chisel and plane blades; not terribly useful in everyday conversation, but I pronounce it with vigor), I preferred Tokyo, figuring that if you're going to go somewhere to live differently, it's hard to imagine a place more different than Japan. Karen, who had actually been to Tokyo, suggested that a.) Tokyo was maybe more culturally separate than would be comfortable, b.) Tokyo was perhaps too big and dense to have any hope for riding or racing bikes, and c.) even if we don't speak French beautifully, we can at least recognize the letters. As usual, the woman presents some reasonable arguments. And Paris has offered both plenty of good living and plenty of “different” from our life in Philly. No complaints on that choice.

Still, once I've got an idea in my head, I'm a dog with a bone, and so when it looked like she was going to travel to Japan for business again, I was all over a companion air ticket like a hipster on a fixie. As has become a recurring experience in traveling for her job, we went through a will-she-won't-she go period until about 12 h before departure, which meant I was preparing for going alone (not going wasn't really an option worth considering), lining up alternative hotel arrangements and the like via internet. A little stressful, but if living abroad has taught us anything, it's that dealing with the unexpected is to be expected, and that with a little thought, things can usually be made to work out in some flavor of well enough. In the end, her trip was on. I grabbed my passport, and away we went.

I'd bought several guide books, but thanks to the mad scramble for alternative travel plans, was a bit behind in planning my site-seeing itinerary when we landed. In the reading I'd done, one suggestion stood out against all others for both the level of interest and the purity of logic: on the first full day in Tokyo, when you're probably up at 3:30 AM anyway, visit the Tsukiji (pronounced something like tskeejee) fish market.

So it was that we were en route by 5:00 AM, well before the famously overwhelming Tokyo rush-hour crowds would descend, but still far from riding empty trains. On transferring from the JR Yamanote circle line to the Hibiya subway line, we saw several men and women in tall rubber boots, and since it was too early for a 'cross race, we locked in on them and followed them to the market.

Almost nothing in Tokyo, neither street nor building, is labelled with addresses. So finding specific places of interest can be a challenge. However, the Tsukiji market is so big as to be easily found by even the most jet-lagged tourist, rubber booted guides or not. It's hard to overstate the size, busyness, and role of this place in Tokyo's food chain. In its sprawling, packed, complex, over 1000 vendors sell their wares. More than 2000 metric tons (that's about 4.5 million pounds) of seafood moves through this market each day, nearly all of it before 9:30 AM. Wholesalers buy lots at auction very early in the morning, transport their purchases back to their stalls, then sell to their customers, mostly retail vendors and restaurant suppliers or chefs. The alleyways in the market are tiny, wet (from constant hosing and spilling water), and teeming with sea products of all shapes, sizes, and quality. There's an abundance of sparklingly fresh, exquisite seafood: fish with perfectly clear eyes, gorgeously red gills, and perfectly firm flesh, mollusks in bubbling water with their shells open and trying to feed, squid that still have translucent pigmentation, and live eels and fish swimming in barrels or styrofoam containers of clean water. But not everything off-loaded from a fishing boat was caught that morning or handled deftly. Seafood is expensive everywhere, and even in a seafood-adoring place like Japan, there need to be products for all price points. So there are also wholesalers moving fish with clouded eyes and a bit too much give in their flesh. Nothing as nasty as what's for sale at most of the Philly fish markets, mind you, but more pedestrian than the dreamy voiceovers might have you believe. And for all of the awe the amazing variety and quality of the bounty elicited, the implications of the sheer quantity (here and all over the world) on ecological resources were hard to ignore. No matter where you come at it from, Tsukiji is a powerful experience.

The sense of chaos is hugely entertaining. In any given stall, there's an orderly and ordered efficiency of hyperactivity, but the alleyways are a jumble of mini forklifts, motorized carts and wheel barrows, heavy with enormous tuna purchased at the auction (for as much as 20 million yen, or roughly $210,000, per fish) and barrels of fish in sloshing water. People in stalls cleaning live fish and eels, running bandsaws, breaking down giant tuna, or cutting blocks of ice by hand. It's a decidedly low tech place, which in Tokyo's ultramodern context somehow makes it even more moving. It'll be interesting to see how the market changes when it moves across the bay in a few years. It'll no doubt be a different flavor of amazing.

The outer market, where there are more stands selling seafood but also everything ranging from produce to kitchen gadgets to rubber boots and wooden Japanese slippers, goes on for blocks. We had breakfast at 7:30 in a small stand with maybe 10 seats at a counter, where we ordered from a large board of pictures outside while waiting in the considerable line. An ample bowl of rice groaning under 4 thick pieces each of 2 to 4 kinds of sashimi (tuna, salmon, and toro (fatty tuna belly) featured most heavily), with or without sea urchin (uni) or salmon roe, with wasabi, a small bowl of pickled vegetables, a bowl of miso soup, and a glass of tea for $15-25. Now that's what I'm talking about.

That the Japanese aren't French (or Parisian, anyway) took only moments to figure out that first morning. The elderly Japanese woman sitting next to me at breakfast told me in a little broken English, considerably more gesticulation, and a whole lot of smile that my chopsticks skills were impressive for a freakishly big, ugly white guy, a sentiment that was expressed again a few days later by one of Karen's work colleagues at dinner.

I think I'll put that on my resume.

One of the few times the freakishly big, ugly white guy knew where he was going in Tokyo.

Bumper cars in the roads outside of the market.

For wholesalers only, the tuna auction room, post-auction. Japan is largely a cash-based society, but it's hard to imagine these guys are carrying around 100 million yen for their morning's purchases.

Gorgeous fish, this. Let's follow it on its journey through the market ...

Headed for the bowels of the market. There's a lot of traffic in here, a lot of time-sensitive business being conducted in small spaces, rather like a professional kitchen, which requires a high degree of awareness and familiarity to be safe. If you're not paying attention here, it's easy to get run over. The outermost stalls might take 15 min or more to get to from the auction room. These guys would rumble along for about 5.

Tools of the trade: can't use a little knife on a big fish. When you've spent 6 figures (7, in yen) on a fish, you don't hack it apart willy-nilly or hastily. Some fish are cut frozen, using bandsaws. But a lot of them are still cut by hand, by real professionals.

The midline bones are connected to the ... well, never did learn my fish anatomy.

Using an oroshi hocho (a knife with a 150 cm long flexible blade; the guy closer to the camera is holding the blade with a towel) to cut along the entire carcass to release the filet.

Voila-- filet of tuna, carried on a big plank of wood about the size of a back-board. A large tuna can weigh about 1000 lbs, and individual filets can weight 200 lbs or more. They're then broken down further.

Though all of the giant tuna look amazing, prices per kilo of flesh depend on the quality of the fish, how it was handled, and on the cut. Prices range from ~$20/pound to well over $100/pound. Toro, with so much fat it's visibly marbled, commands very high prices. We saw slices of tuna cheek (anybody who knows Karen knows that the cheek is the best part of just about any fish) at the sushi restaurant we ate our last dinner in Tokyo going for $50 per piece. The less glamorous parts are smushed up, bagged, and sold for use in tuna rolls and such. There's a reasonably good video of the whole tuna process here.

Though there's no question that the giant tuna are the stars of the show, there's a an amazing supporting cast. See this and this (it's long, but even the first couple minutes give a sense), or if you favor professional productions, this for videos.

No idea what these are, but they're profoundly ugly. And probably delicious.

The eyes don't lie... hard to find squid this fresh in Paris.

I think this guy is hauling mostly produce away from the market, but it looks like he's got 1 styrofoam container on there.

Patience will be rewarded: waiting for breakfast. Hello, Tokyo!

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