The thousands of wholesalers who keep Tsukiji fish market running day and night have been at work for several hours when it starts filling up with weekend shoppers and tourists eager to sample the ultimate Tokyo culinary experience — a sushi breakfast.
Long lines form outside restaurants as traders whizz past on small trucks laden with boxes of every type of seafood imaginable: huge slabs of tuna, hunks of whale bacon, octopuses, scallops and sea squirts.
If it lives in the sea and is edible, there is every chance it can be found among the hundreds of stalls at the world’s biggest fish market and the sprawling nerve center of a multimillion-dollar commercial operation.
The shouts of shopkeepers beckoning customers mingle with tourist chatter in a host of languages.
However, much of the market is to fall silent soon. In October, the core of its business — the hundreds of wholesalers that provide seafood, meat, fruit and vegetables to restaurants and shops across Japan — are to move 2km east to new waterfront premises in Tokyo’s Toyosu District.
The many shops and restaurants crammed into the maze of narrow streets on the market’s periphery would remain, but its commercial heart — the wholesalers — would be transplanted to a new building that holds none of the charm of the market, which has stood on the same site since 1935.
About 1,800 tonnes of seafood, worth billions of yen, pass through the Tokyo central wholesale market — its official name — every day. In addition to almost 500 varieties of fish, it sells 270 types of fruit and vegetables imported from around the world. Its 42,000 workers keep the market running around the clock.
The loss of the shitamachi (“downtown”) atmosphere that has turned Tsukiji into a major tourist attraction is not the only problem occupying the minds of market workers.
They were supposed to have said farewell to their overcrowded, aging premises and moved to Toyosu in November 2016.
However, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike abruptly halted the relocation after evidence emerged that the new site — built at a cost of ￥588 billion yen (US$5.3 billion) — was contaminated with dangerous toxins.
Surveys revealed levels of arsenic and cyanide above government standards.
Benzene up to 100 times the limit was detected in groundwater, while mercury levels between five and seven times the national air-quality standard were found in the new building’s basement.
Red-faced authorities struggled to explain why contractors had failed to fill hollow concrete chambers beneath the building’s floor with clean soil to prevent chemical leaks.
“No one has any idea how this is going to work out,” said Yoshinobu Uka, whose business specializes in tuna sushi from the Kochi region on Japan’s Pacific coast. “There will probably be a dip in customers to begin with and road access to the new site is going to be a problem. Lots of people who work as wholesalers will leave, so that will affect the atmosphere.”
Polls taken among the market’s 500 or so wholesalers found that most were against the move.
However, earlier this month, Koike confirmed the new market would open on Oct. 11 after experts declared the area, formerly the site of a gas plant, safe following a cleanup operation.
“Safety has been secured in the market’s ground area with consideration for future risks. It won’t affect human health or perishable foods,” said Tatemasa Hirata of the Open University of Tokyo, who headed the panel of experts.
Michiharu Chino is one of many Tsukiji employees who oppose the relocation, fearing that cautious clients will refuse to buy the new market’s produce while doubts persist over its safety.
“I’m really worried about safety standards at the new place,” said Chino, who acts as an intermediary between wholesalers and clients.
“I don’t believe Koike’s claim that Toyosu is safe and I know that lots of my customers are nervous about it too. No one, especially people with young children, will want to eat fish that has been handled there. But now the decision has been made I have no choice but to go there for my seafood,” Chino said.
There is no shortage of evidence that the current site is poorly equipped to cope with demand.
The demolition of the market is expected to trigger a major exodus of rats to other parts of the neighborhood.
Preparations for the move will disappoint tourists, who from the middle of next month will no longer be able to observe auctions of enormous frozen tuna, snapped up before dawn each morning and sliced up with bandsaws and frighteningly sharp knives before being shipped to restaurants and supermarkets.
A spokeswoman for the market said public viewings of the auction would be revived at the new site, with tourists able to watch tuna being sold along a specially built aisle.
However, shopkeeper Hitoshi Sannohe believes that what is left of Tsukiji will continue to attract visitors after the wholesalers have moved on, citing Koike’s plans to turn the area into a “food theme park.”
“Tourists come here to eat and take in the traditional atmosphere, and I don’t think that’s going to change,” said Sannohe, whose store has been selling dried seafood at Tsukiji for 40 years.
“But we’re going into uncharted territory, as the market has been in the same place for such a long time. I and other shop owners are uneasy about the future, but all we can do is wait and see,” Sannohe said.
Robbie Swinnerton, a food writer for the Japan Times, was confident that standards would be maintained at the new site, with seafood stored more hygienically and sent on to customers faster than is possible now.
However, the relocation will also mean the loss of a cherished part of Tokyo’s history and culture, he said.
“I really see this as the end of an era,” he added.
“Tsukiji is the last bastion of traditional shitamachi culture, which has already been eroded by tourism and redevelopment. When it goes, Tokyo will lose a large part of its soul,” Swinnerton said.
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