This article, transcribed here in its entirety, was published in the National Geographic Magazine on November 1995.
Then book a flight to Tokyo.
The importance of fish to the Japanese diet and the country’s economy is well illustrated by Tokyo’s huge fish market. This article from National Geographic explores the Tsukiji, the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market, which is one of the largest wholesale fish outlets in the world.
THE GREAT TOKYO FISH MARKET – TSUKIJI
Frozen assets, bluefin tuna worth top yen are readied for Tsukiji’s morning auction. The market’s clamourous labyrinth of stalls showcases all manner of seafood – from live sea eel to pickled octopus – and reflects well-ordered confusion of Japanese society. Says Tsukiji scholar Ted Bestor, “Tsukiji revels as much about Japanese culture as it does about Japanese cuisine.”
By T.R. Reid
Hawking the World’s Costliest Fish
A torrent of transactions wrings sweat from auctioneer Masami Eguchi, who sells 200 tuna in half an hour, or about one every nine seconds. “I have to recognize the highest bidder instantly, ” Eguchi says. “No delays are allowed.” Casting sidelong glances like high-stakes poker players, silent buyers signal bids for numbered tuna with hand gestures. By fingering slivers of flesh beneath a flashlight, bidders discern subtle distinctions in fat content and colour, key selling points that sway the price of a premium tuna from $6,500-$11,000 – and up.
The long, cold trip to Tokyo came to an end for tuna number 197 with a thud, a bonk, and one last cavernous clunk as the huge fish toppled off the truck and skittered across the slippery concrete floor. Two, maybe three days earlier, this torpedo-shaped bluefin had been searching for its supper in the chilly waters off Boston. Now—netted, gutted, flash-frozen to 76 degrees below zero, and transported via cargo jet halfway around the world—197 was itself on the verge of becoming somebody’s supper, served up on the polished wooden counter of a sushi bar where diners would pay $11 an ounce for this succulent delicacy.
The place that transformed 197 from just another fish in the sea to one of the world’s most expensive foodstuffs is a sprawling, teeming, cacophonous corner of reclaimed land on the edge of Tokyo Bay. Its formal name is the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market, but in Tokyo everybody calls the place Tsukiji (pronounced skee-jee), for the neighborhood where the market stands. Fairly substantial quantities of meat, mushrooms, maple syrup, pickles, potatoes, peaches, and other foods move through this market every day. But the heart and soul of Tsukiji is fish.
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