In Tokyo, a wholesaler typical day starts at 1:00 am. He wakes up, he dresses up and quickly eats a simple breakfast made of a bowl of rice, miso soup and ume. He travels to the Tsukiji fish market to work in his family-owned intermediate wholesaler, founded by his grandfather almost a century ago. At 2:00 am, when he arrives, the market is already full of activity: trucks zip between stores as they carry piles of boxes full of fish, unloaded from the vehicles of dozens of traders.
Meanwhile, Tokyo sleeps.
“This is Tsukiji. When I sleep, I dream about fish. When I am awake, I think about fish and about what sort I will find for my clients today."
Tsukiji is a big piece of land reclaimed from the sea, only a few blocks away from Ginza. The fish market handles 87% of the total marine products managed by the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market, which comprehends other 2 markets, Adachi and Ohta. About 450 kind of fish are received daily, equal to 2 thousand tons of product. It's one of the biggest markets in the world. Originally, the fish market used to be a wholesale market for the professionals only: the items sold there were generally too big for a small family to buy. However, some of the wholesale shops started retailing high-end products for ordinary customers.
Tsukiji fish market has over the years become more than just a market - seafoods have long played a starring role throughout Japan's meals. It has become an iconic, cultural landmark.
Tsukiji's complex comprehends two main areas: the wholesale fish and produce market, and the retail market. The former is a dark and damp maze that somehow never cease to fascinate visitors from all over the world. The latter, known as Jogai Shijo - Tsukiji's Outer Market - is a rambling and lively fun labyrinth of alleys where dozens of fishmongers, artisans and sushi shops have been running their business for generations.
In conjunction with the boom in the popularity of Tsukiji the number of locals and tourists paying a visit to the market has been constantly increasing. And even tough experiencing the vibrant Tsukiji market may be perceived as a great opportunity for learning about the functions of a central wholesale market, both the wholesaling and reselling areas are busy places during the early morning hours. Various problems have arisen in association with the increased number of tourists, especially at the early morning auction held in the tuna wholesale area. Problems related to temperature control issues caused by the entry and exit of large numbers of unauthorized persons, and related to visitors impeding the auction and other trading activities. For these reasons, tourists are currently not allowed to enter the tuna wholesaling areas.
The constantly increasing amount of locals and tourists that visit both markets in Tsukiji forced the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to think about a relocation plan for at least the wholesale and produce market.
"Tsukiji is too old, too small, too dirty and too dangerous to be used as Tokyo's kitchen."
Everyone knows that the existing sanitation levels are poor, and relocating the market to a new site will help improve them to appropriate industry standards. For this reason it has been decided that the wholesale fish and produce market will be relocated to a more modern facility in Toyosu, Koto Ward. The new market is supposed to be 40% larger, and will free up valuable seaside real estate owned by the metropolitan government that will be re-used as the city prepares to host the 2020 Olympic Games.
The new area will be divided into three separate buildings and, unlike its predecessor, the space reserved for tuna auctions will be housed in one facility. All the intermediate wholesalers will be located in another. The wholesale market will become completely closed off from outside, with temperature-controlled buildings to keep the produce in a cool and hygienic environment. The closed structure will also regulate public access, so that people will no longer wander about freely as they do in the market at Tsukiji.
The moving was supposed to be finished by the end of November 2016, but the soil at the relocation site has been found to be contaminated.
The site once housed a gas plant and the soil remains dirty: fishermen are shocked by both the pollution and the sky high rents, and half of them will not make the move to Toyosu. It just does not seem to be a convenient place. Not for wholesalers, neither for retailers or tourists.
The re-designed market is completely utilitarian and computerised, and it could very well be deleted from tourists' must-see list. Without them, it’s questionable if these little shops would be able to make a living in the new area of Toyosu.
In July 2015, the labor union for the fish market’s intermediate wholesalers revealed that only few companies have decided to end their businesses in Tsukiji. It is still unclear just how many companies will move to Toyosu out of the current number, and the figures of intermediate wholesalers who will continue their activity is rapidly decreasing due to a lack of heirs who can continue their legacy.
Kasami and his son are the third and fourth generation of a fish wholesaler family working at Tsukiji. And they’ll likely be the last. “The idea of Tsukiji ending is sad. I was raised here. I used to play in this market as a kid.”. As they prepare to move to the new market, the hope that customers will come too is balanced by the fear that they will not, as there is not yet much public transportation available.
Everyone in Tokyo seems to have an opinion about Tsukiji. The very things that give the market so much character are what have led some people to push for a more modern facility. But even in the final months of Tsukiji, there’s still resistance to the new site.
“I’m strongly opposed. The soil there is bad,” says fish seller Takasago. “We deal with food, so if all that gets into it, it would be terrible. It's not true that the soil is clean".
For most of them it would have been fine if Tokyo's Metropolitan Government just fixed some things in Tsukiji, but it looks as if they are being moved for a highway to be put in for the Olympics in 2020. "It’s already been decided, so we have no choice but to go”.
When Tsukiji's wholesale market does finally close, a cluster of neighboring retail shops in the Jogai Shijo will remain.
Kaede’s family has operated a shop in the Outer Market, selling katsuobushi - smoked and dried bonito fish used as an umami flavouring - for 80 years. She grew up in the small building above the shop.
“It will just be the outer market, and we have no idea if it will be able to live on by itself,” says Kaede, worried about a decrease in clients.
There are a few landmarks in modern Tokyo. Some of them are the symbol of the time that is, some of them symbolise the time that was. And then there are some that transcend time. The Tsukiji Fish Market is not only an iconic place of the capital of Japan.
For a lot of people it represents the place where they belong. It has always been their home. But this place that has stood time could soon change forever, as the main part of the wholesale fish and product market is expected to be relocated to Toyosu area.
The fishmongers and the artisans that have been calling this place home for decades will hopefully stay, despite the challenges that such change might bring. Tsukiji as we know it may not be the same again, but its traditions and character will be there as long as its people will remain.