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Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012

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Market moments: (from left) An amorous octopus makes like a codpiece; a tourist poses with a clapboard catch; and the bluefin tuna that fetched a record price of more than $700,000 at the first auction of 2012. KIT NAGAMURA PHOTOS


Fish tales of Tsukiji

Streets are bathed in indigo hues when I emerge from the Hibiya subway line's Tsukiji Station, heading for Tsukiji Oroshiuri Shijo which, though its name translates simply as "Tsukiji Wholesale Market," is actually the world's largest fish market. At 6 a.m., it's too late to catch the famed tuna or melon auctions, but I've got scaled-back ambitions. Fish stories and a filet or two will do.

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Tsukiji's iconic tare turret trucks

Heading south on Shin Ohashi avenue, with Tsukiji's Jogai Shijo (outer market) on my left, I pass through clouds of steam from sidewalk ramen shops. What changes there must have been in this area, I muse, since it first began to rise as landfill from Tokyo Bay in the Edo Period (1603-1867). By the mid-1600s, fishermen living on both the new mudflats of Tsukiji and raised islands across the Sumida River were netting the primary source of protein for the estimated half a million residents of Edo (present-day Tokyo).

Edo's main fish markets were located in Nihonbashi, but they were moved to Tsukiji after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. Prior to that move, Tsukiji, still set off from the city by a canal, served as a designated Restricted Foreign Settlement, a concession in the wake of U.S. Cmdr. Matthew Perry's forceful opening of Japan that led to 1854's Convention of Kanagawa. The American School in Japan, Rikkyo (St. Paul's) University and Seiroka (St. Luke's) Hospital all spent their early years in Tsukiji, though only St. Luke's remains there now.

Entering the market's backstreets — backwaters? — the oily tarmac flashes with fish scales and flyaway bits of Styrofoam. Inside, frenetic snarls of bikes, trucks and handcarts are outmaneuvered by Tsukiji's own transport of choice: the propane- or electric-powered tare. These zippy three-wheeled trolleys, like horseless chariots, give their drivers an elevated view of the narrow channels between trucks, wooden palettes and ice chests. Operators try to avoid squashing tourists, but as the entrance guards to the market warn, it's the visitor's job to avoid the tare, not vice versa.

I've pared down my belongings according to market rules — no bulky bags, no baby stroller, no Lady Gaga shoes — but I'm still relieved to reach the first islet of calm, a warren of small shops and eateries off to the left of the entrance.

Here, I peruse wholesale baskets of shiitake mushrooms, jars of neon-pink pickled ginger stems, canisters of yuzu-flavored green tea, and fluffy tamagoyaki (rolled egg crepes).

I cut into the Tsukiji branch of Aritsugu, a sword- and knife-makers since 1560. Store director Kazuo Nozaki expertly unsheathes an oroshi bocho, the thrillingly long blade used to quarter massive tuna that can weigh 270 kg and more. Even without its handle attached, the knife Nozaki shows me stretches 137 cm, which is longer than the swords with which Aritsugu's reputation was made. "How much for this beaut?" I ask. "¥178,500," Nozaki responds, "but even with daily sharpening, it should last 10 to 20 years."

Both Aritsugu and Masamoto, another venerable knife-makers nearby, fill with customers, so I depart. Serious queues have formed to enter places less about knives than what they slice: sushi. Patience and several thousand yen buys the ultimate Omega-3 breakfast here.

I belay my appetite, though, and veer off to the left of the shops, where I locate Tsukiji's Namiyoke Inari Shrine. As the name suggests, the shrine offers fishermen "wave protection." "That's something we could all use," I think in light of last year's giant tsunami, as I offer a quick prayer for its victims.

Heading now for the inner market, I stop to chat with two blonde tourists, 46-year-old Kaylene Blood and her daughter, Georgia, 15. As they peruse tea tins at a shop named Hattori Kanamono, I ask what brings them to Tsukiji. "We belong here," Kaylene says. I tilt my head, puzzled. "My great-grandfather was Setsutaro Hasegawa, from Sapporo. He emigrated to Australia in 1897, was interned in the war, but didn't get deported. He stayed and married," Kaylene explains.

I gaze at both blonde Bloods, astonished.

"We're visiting my brother, Andrew Hasegawa, who lives here," Kaylene continues. "But it's our very first day in Japan." I wish them happy fishing in their ancestral home.

Finally, I splash through puddles of melting ice to the dramatic curve of the inner market, which was laid out in a crescent to accommodate the freight line that once serviced the market.

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Faces in the crowd: "Tsukiji Playboy" Yuji Furuta (left) toys with a quick lunch at dawn; while Kaylene and Georgia Blood from Australia soak up their ancestral roots in Japan as they enjoy the market vibe, stopping at Hattori Kanamoto to buy pretty tea tins from shop owner Junko Hattori.
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I pop in at Machiko, a shellfish stand filled with tubs of oysters and trays of shirako ("white children," or cod milt). Boss Kiyoshi Machiyama points to his employee, Yuji Furuta, and says, "Take a picture of the Tsukiji Playboy." Poor Yuji, who looks a bit like Italian actor Giancarlo Giannini, smiles obligingly. When I ask his age, he says, "52." Machiyama and his wife crack up. "Add a decade," shouts Machiyama. Furuta waggles his eyebrows at me. Already, I see how things work here; there's a loose, comfortable camaraderie, and then before you know it, you want the aphrodisiacs Machiko sells.

Thanking the Machiko team, I wander off through a wonderland of crustaceans. At Shirai Suisan, I find two of the largest tairagi (fan mussels) imaginable — more than 35 cm long. Their underwater nacre forms a double rainbow. Before the viral YouTube "Double Rainbow Song" infects my brain, I escape.

Swimming along, I hit the live-fish area. At shop Tsukuino, one guy deftly guts anago (conger eel), and a bit further downstream, at wholesaler Yamahachi, I find a coldwater tank boiling over with viscous bubbles. "What's inside," I ask. "Live octopi," answers 42-year-old owner Tomokazu Sekiguchi. He kindly hauls out a hulking cephalopod squished in a blue net bag. I can't really see it. With an indulgent sigh, Sekiguchi eases out the specimen, holding it aloft like Medusa's head.

Then the fun begins. Squirming mightily, the octopus somehow gets two of its tentacles attached to Sekiguchi's slick apron, then slides down to secure an eight-armed lock on his groin. Sekiguchi is not having it, and tries to detach Octopussy. He pries one arm free, which wanders off to suck plastic bags off hangers and rearrange tools on tables. I'm transfixed, but Sekiguchi calmly whistles over reinforcements to help him re-bag his powerful groper. We laugh when I mention that this is one octopus that clearly didn't get the "Don't touch anything at Tsukiji!" memo.

Next, at Yamasan Akiyama, I meet owner Shinichi Akiyama, 70, who recalls his youth at Tsukiji. "Noon is the end of the fishmonger's day," he says. "We used to go eat and drink at those places just outside. But now, it's too packed with tourists, too expensive. Back then we made tons of money and blew it all in (bars and clubs in) Ginza," he says suggestively. Born and raised in the Kobune (literally, "little boat") district of Nihonbashi, Akiyama says the business is in his blood. "When you think about it," he reflects, "the meat we eat has only three or four animal sources. It's boring. But fish change with the seasons and the variety is endless."

Akiyama introduces me to the market's "rising star," Yasuhiro Yamazaki, 42-year-old president of Yamaharu, a firm that manages 14 tenpo (stalls), the largest share of space at Tsukiji. Yamazaki is hoarse when he says hello in English. "Big voices win at the auction," he explains.

Customers swarm his stalls, but Yamazaki multitasks as he recounts his college studies abroad and early plans to take a white-collar job. "I never wanted to be in the rubber-boot business," he says. "But I learned the trade from my father, and then one day the depth of the tradition and complexity of fish grabbed me."

Yamazaki supplies fish to 15 countries overseas and 11 of Tokyo's Michelin-star restaurants. I ask him for a dinner suggestion. He selects two silvery numbers, and before I can say "filet," he's tossed them to his employee Shigeru Mizuno, 72, who cleans, debones and wraps them in a flash, spouting recipes as he goes.

I take the fish with glee. But now the clock is ticking. As Yamazaki points out, "fresh fish has no smell" — but there's surely a limit.

I speed by pods of gawkers at the tuna-processing stalls, and head for the management offices of the market, which is run by Tokyo Metropolitan Government. There, I pose the question of the day: Will the market relocate to Toyosu in Koto Ward, the allegedly polluted former site of Tokyo Gas? Management head of the new market development Yuki Ono, 49, says it will. "Land decontamination has begun, and the move will commence in 2014," she says. "Tsukiji will close by March of 2015."

Perusing the new market design, I find it gridlike and sterile, with relatively few stalls. Ono nods, but insists the spirit of Tsukiji's workers will survive the move. Some, however, including Yasuhiro Yamazaki — who has posted a YouTube comment on the issue (at www.youtube.com/watch?v=nOpinpcTmeI) — vehemently oppose the move, fearing that food safety and liquefaction at Toyosu could render this wave of change a disaster.

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