Fishy deals at 'Japan's lively kitchen'
IT WAS two in the morning and I was waiting on a Tokyo sidewalk in the pouring rain to see some dead fish.
My brother and I had planned a trip to the Japanese capital earlier this month to witness the legendary tuna auction at Tsukiji.
Dubbed "the world's largest fish market" and "Japan's lively kitchen", the 23ha landmark was set to close down in November, with its replacement to open in Toyosu.
That is, until newly minted Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike suspended the relocation indefinitely on Aug 31, over worries of noxious chemicals in the ground at the new site and ballooning construction costs.
By then, we had already booked our plane tickets and accommodation at the nearby Ginza Creston hotel.
And to be precise, it was only the Inner Market - the wholesale market for the professionals and where the tuna auction takes place - that was going to be moved, while the more touristy Outer Market will remain where it is.
Still, here we were, in a queue of mostly other foreigners outside the Fish Information Centre at Kachidoki Gate.
The number of visitors to the auction is limited to 120 per day in two groups of 60. The first is admitted into the auction area at 5.25am and the second, 5.50am.
Spots are given first come, first served. Entry is free.
Although registrations typically begin at 5am, some online guides said they're starting the process earlier in the light of more visitors, like us, hoping to experience the market before the curtain falls.
When we reached the front of the queue, we were handed dark-green vests to be worn as proof of registration and herded into a small room. Inside, the first group, in light-green vests, had already been filled.
A short while later, one of the wholesalers entered the room and gave a short talk.
He introduced himself as Kosei, a Tokyo-ite, born and raised, who's been in his line of work for 19 years.
There are 700 wholesalers like him plying their trade at the Inner Market, selling produce to shops, supermarkets and restaurants.
According to Kosei, the average price per kg of tuna is between 3,800 and 5,800 yen (S$51 and S$79). With the average tuna weighing 100kg and being 1.5m in length, that works out to between US$3,000 and US$5,000 (S$4,100 and S$6,800) per fish, he added.
The record for the highest price was set three years ago at the first auction of the year, usually when buyers try to outbid each other to celebrate the coming year and for "good advertising".
The tuna was sold at an eye-watering US$1.5 million or 700,000 yen per kg, Kosei said.
"Winter is when the prices get most expensive because it's the best season for harvest," he added.
He also mentioned that frozen tuna - kept at minus 60 deg C - can be up to a year old, while refrigerated tuna would have been caught just a few days ago.
Kosei explained that a tuna can be divided into three parts: upper, middle and lower.
The upper part of the belly is the most expensive, at 18,000 yen, while the lower part on the spinal side is the cheapest at 5,000 yen.
"How long does it take to cut a tuna?" someone asked.
"Thirty minutes," he replied. "It takes three people: One to do the cutting, one to hold the blade with a towel, and one to hold the fish so that it doesn't slip."
"Where is the best tuna in the world?" another audience member queried.
"Northern Japan, or to be exact, Oma in Hokkaido," he answered.
"The Japanese love bluefin tuna, but the tuna don't love the Japanese," he quipped.
GOING ONCE, GOING TWICE...
I took a nap after Kosei's talk, only to be rudely awakened by my brother when it was our group's turn.
We were led by grumpy security guards through the damp thoroughfares as speeding forklifts and buggies swerved around us. If any of them ran over us, it won't just be the tuna on the slab.
Finally, we reached a massive warehouse. Inside were rows of fish laid on the ground with their tails lopped off and flanks scribbled with numbers in blood-red.
Curiously, the smell wasn't as bad as I expected, probably due to the toe-numbing temperature.
The potential buyers milled about like cops at a crime scene, inspecting the bodies.
They shone flashlights at the exposed flesh and used a hook to dig a little meat from the tail to rub in their fingers.
Kosei had mentioned they were judging the fat content: A moderate amount is good.
A few minutes later, a man stepped up onto a crate and rang a bell. That was the auctioneer, announcing that the bidding has begun.
He spoke in rapid-fire Japanese as the wholesalers gathered around him. For each bid, a buyer would use his fingers to indicate his price; one finger being 1,000 yen per kg, two being 2,000 and so on.
Kosei had said they had to work fast or the fish would spoil. The onus was on the buyer to get a good price because he was the one who assessed the fish.
Before long, some men began hauling fish - presumably the ones sold - away to mark with sticky notes and the guards started barking at us to exit.
And just as soon as it started, it was over: My brother and I were back out on the streets, the rain subsiding to a light drizzle.
There was nothing left to do except take a walk around the chaotic Outer Market, which was packed with tiny stalls selling every seafood item imaginable, from whale meat to flame-torched scallop with cod sperm. If it lives in water, you'll find it here.
I'm not much of a seafood fan, so I settled for a can of Kirrin beer from a vending machine (the legal drinking age in Japan is 20 years old; apparently the minors must be very honest).
As my brother and I waited in yet another line, this one for tamagoyaki or what I call "egg on a stick", I reflected on Kosei's parting words.
Towards the end of his speech, he was asked on his thoughts about the impending move of the market.
"The new place costs a lot of money and Tsukiji has been here for 80 years. It'll lose its history and I'll be sad," he said.
"My wife and the government have the same problem: They like a lot of things, but can't afford them."