There’s Something Fishy in Tokyo – Tsukiji market

The wondrous Tsukiji market

When westerners get in their cars every morning, it’s safe to say very few think actively and empathetically for the assembly-line workers who built the machine; the burns, cuts, or scars production may have caused them, or even their deteriorating health from years in factory life. The same could be said for construction workers who build our homes, or even the ER nurses working forty-eight hour shifts to make sure we are healthy. What doesn’t fit into this category, what is increasingly scorned and mourned publicly, is the toll that is taken on all those associated with the food we eat. We have become, on a general level, much more conscious of what goes into our bodies and how it gets there.

Who is harmed or treated unfairly to put this slab on our plate? How are the original sources (the cows, pigs, and yes even the soil contaminated to make vegetables grow larger and quicker) being abused? These issues surround no one food source more than the Japanese fish trade, which in Tokyo at least comes to a head as a world-renown destination and darkly-viewed ground zero for these issues.

Tsukiji market  Tuna

This issue is so vast, and our time to travel and explore is often so limited that we’ll restrict our view into Tokyo as a travel destination and learning opportunity through the eyes of my personal favorite kind of fish: sushi. One of the first things you’ll notice, or at least should be on the look out for, is how much of the fresh authentic sushi that you’ll find in almost any restaurant is more likely to have been caught ten miles from your home than it was even one hundred miles from your restaurant.

Nearly a quarter of all Bluefin tuna imported into Japan comes from the United States, and that’s just one fish. The sushi trade has been as lauded as it’s been criticized for it’s comparatively pure reliance on supply and demand. As governments have more and more protected the Bluefin tuna, its demand has gone up. Early this year, one Bluefin sold at the famous Tsukiji fish market auction for $1.8 million USD.

But this is meant to encourage your exploration, not discourage your sense of what makes Tokyo sushi authentic. The Tsukiji market’s Outer-Market is loaded with retailors for personal consumption while the auctions and wholesale trade takes place in the Inner-Market. Browsing through the market it seems there are two ways of seeing the fish before you: you can hold firm to the irrationality of these tuna flown in from New England to sell to locals, as well as New England tourists, a food that forty years ago was considered disgusting by most Americans and Europeans.

Or you can see what is still beautiful about the Japanese relationship to these fish. Many of the markets that import from around the world send “tuna techs” as they are known to New England, Spain, Croatia, and the other tuna exporting countries to teach fisherman how to properly catch, cut, and determine which fish are of the proper quality to be sold at Tsukiji. It may seem neurotic or controlling but it is neither. It comes from a place of pride and respect for the fish and consumers alike.

Auctioneer at Tsukiji market

Locals and in-the-know activists will surely have their own views on where to travel to get the “truth” about the international fish trade but for curious travelers and non-ideological investigators, Tokyo should be embraced specifically for the range of views one can take away from it. Moving beyond the market, an important part of any investigatory trip is to view your subject “in action.”

The small restaurants Daisho Siusan, Tonsui, and Sushi Sawada are frequently praised as the best of the more traditional end of the sushi spectrum. Also make sure to carve out some time to visit restaurants featuring the distinctly Japanese, kaitenzushi method of serving. Also known as “conveyor belt sushi” these restaurants often have no menus and very few servers.

Instead a long conveyer belt with plates of one or two pieces of sushi roves its way throughout the restaurant and patrons pick and choose the bites they want. The plates are often colored different to represent the price of each piece. This is as entertaining an experience as it is eye opening.

The lack of westernized sushi entrees like the ubiquitous  Sushi/Sashimi Combination For Two is reflective of the respect for the fish themselves and the food as its own cultural institution. Sushi is to be savored not merely ingested.
More “contemporary” approaches to the cuisine can be found almost anywhere but I recommend seeking out those who hold as true as possible to the ancient ethos of sushi culture to get the best understanding of how this fish is regarded and, perhaps, why some are willing to do almost anything to keep it available.  The catching and trading of sushi-grade fish is not a perfect system but not all those involved with the trade are out to do harm to consumers or the fish themselves. It’s a complex relationship that is best understood on the personal level.

Spending time at the Tsukiji market and taking several hours to eat one piece at a time will if nothing else bring you closer to understanding, if not totally approving of, the journey these fish take throughout our physical and cultural lives. And for many, that is precisely what sushi in Tokyo is all about.

There’s Something Fishy in Tokyo (And It’s American Made)

By T.S. Allen