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Tsukiji Market was a major tourist attraction in Tokyo, drawing both domestic and overseas visitors. The market area consisted of retail markets, restaurants, and restaurant supply stores. Before its closure in 2018, it held the title of being the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. The market was established on February 11, 1935, as a replacement for an older market that was destroyed in the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923. On October 6, 2018, the market closed, and the wholesale operations were relocated to the new Toyosu Market.
I had the fortunate opportunity to visit Tsukiji Market in 2016, just two years before it closed and moved. I led a small group of travelers, and the market was one of the highlights of our visit to Tokyo.
While tourists were allowed to enter after 10 o'clock, once the active trading had concluded, it was advisable not to arrive after 11:00 as most vendors and staff were engaged in cleaning and other preparations. The most dedicated visitors could witness the Tuna's Auction, which took place at 5 am. However, in order to secure a spot, one had to arrive well before 5 am and be prepared to wait in line, keeping in mind that only 150 tourists were allowed entry.
Tsukiji Market was officially opened on February 11, 1935, and on the same day, Tōkyō-Shijō station was also inaugurated. That year marked the beginning of operations for the three major markets - Tsukiji, Kanda, and Koto - under the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's Central Wholesale Markets system.
Within the market there were sushi restaurants, small pubs, and a market for exotic Japanese goods such as seaweed and tea, as well as souvenir shops. We were able to dine at the only sushi restaurant open at the first day of our visit. We managed to get a table, and everyone in the group enjoyed delicious and authentic sushi. It was probably the most genuine sushi experience one could have. On the following days, when I visited the market by myself, the queues outside the sushi restaurants were massive. Perhaps visiting on a non-working day allowed us to have that unique sushi experience.
It is said that Tsukiji Market offered the widest variety of fish and seafood in the world. Personally, I struggled to recognize many of the species available. It was also a challenge to consider eating something that looked so different and often stared back at me with wide eyes (many fish and marine creatures were sold alive in large containers or small pools filled with water). What left a lasting impression was the diligent work ethic of everyone involved - the constant washing, cleaning, and enthusiastic selling without much idle talk.
The market handled over 480 different types of seafood, along with 270 other types of produce, ranging from inexpensive seaweed to the most expensive caviar, and from tiny sardines to 300 kg tunas and controversial whale species. Overall, the three seafood markets in Tokyo collectively handled more than 700,000 metric tons of seafood annually, with a total value exceeding 600 billion yen (approximately 5.4 billion US dollars in August 2018). At Tsukiji alone, around 1,628 tons of seafood worth 1.6 billion yen ($14 million USD) were typically sold on any given day. The market had approximately 900 licensed dealers, and the number of registered employees varied from 60,000 to 65,000, including wholesalers, accountants, auctioneers, company officials, and distributors.
The market was divided into blocks, and at the end of each block, there were counters where women collected payments from the traders. Small electric cars were used for transport within the market, minimizing air pollution. Surprisingly, despite the large-scale trade and the volume of fish being processed, the market did not have the overpowering smell of fish and waste that one might expect.
The market opened most mornings (except Sundays, holidays, and some Wednesdays) at 3:00 a.m. with the arrival of products from around the world via ship, truck, and plane. The unloading of tons of frozen tuna was particularly impressive. The auction houses, known as "oroshi gyōsha" in Japanese, estimated the value of the incoming products and prepared them for auction. Buyers, who were licensed to participate in the auctions, inspected the fish to determine their bidding preferences and prices.
The auctions typically began around 5:20 a.m., with only licensed participants allowed to place bids. These bidders included intermediate wholesalers ("nakaoroshi gyōsha") who operated stalls in the marketplace, as well as other licensed buyers who represented restaurants, food processing companies, and large retailers.
The auctions concluded around 10:00 a.m., after which the purchased fish was either loaded onto trucks for shipment or moved to the various shops within the market using small carts.
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