Monday, December 31, 2007

The man who pays the piper calls the tuna


The combination of jet lag and not having slept on a futon since I was a student (and then mostly under the influence of mind bending drugs) meant I woke up early on my first morning in Tokyo. Very early. Lucky then that being in a ryokan in Ginza I was a stones throw away from the single largest concentration of fish and fish mongers on Planet Earth (outside of a major body of water). An unlikely destination for someone on four or five hours sleep but the one place in Tokyo I was keenest to see.

You know those 1000 places to see before you die books? The ones that will probably mean the death of us all as the planet heats up to boiling point as we all rush about seeing then all? Yeah, well, my mental list had the Tsukiji Wholesale Market pretty much at the top and here I was, one chilly, frequent map consulting walk away, with one thing on my mind. Tuna.

The streets were empty and the usually all pervading neon dulled as we walked through the darkness before dawn. The people people on the streets were being drawn in one direction as we walked with that slight sense of aprehension I've learnt you get trying to find anywhere in Tokyo. Then, after fifteen minutes walk a moment of recognition. Something deep within my nerdish soul knows we've arrived. A Blade Runner moment (I'll be peppering references to the film through out my posts over the coming days - sorry, I'm a card carry geek boy and so can't help myself) as a sea of people driving tiny vans and cool little motorised pallets, steered with what I can only describe as a ships wheel appear. A throng of busy hard nosed fish mongers, porters and dealers smoking, shouting and generally ignoring the directions of the uniformed officials waving little lightsabers to direct traffic. Here and there bemused tourists getting unceremoniously shoved out of the way. It almost feels like home.


Once you're in the market proper the bedlam eases ever so slightly, and the serious business of fish is evident. Fat round tuna having arrived from across the globe, sits waiting to be dissected. Each is proudly wearing a number dictating what the sage and wise tuna men of the fish market have decided is its place in that days tuna firmament. In the general bedlam I'd missed the tuna auction but the results weren't hard to spot. Fish 5 and 6 were particularly impressive looking, but then again so where 29 and 30 so proof, if proof were needed that I'm not good at judging the individual merits of large pelagics.

Watching the tuna men take one of these animals apart is more akin to surgery than fishmongery. Basically, these guys use a series of what can only be described as razor sharp meter long swords to take them apart. I've been contemplating buying one ever since I saw the market tuna traders using theirs but I'm not sure what customs would make of it (coupled with the frankly pornographic manga comics I've inadvertently picked up) so I've had to make do with picking up cheap kitchen knives (more on that very exciting moment later). The quivering ruby red cuts of meat that were left after all this endeavour and displayed by the traders were heartbreakingly pretty, every hue of red you could think of; scarlets, burgandies to candy pinks, they made me hungry and frankly horny (must be the manga).

Walking through the inner market is bewildering. Serried ranks of clams, plastic tubs of eels swimming in their own blood, fish still gulping for air being filleted, mussels the size of rugby balls, squid lined up like bullets in meter long pallets, enormously fat lipstick red octopi in piles, fish, fish and more fish. Stuff that is unrecognisable, frightening or just plain bizarre; proof of God's fever dream during creation, a Darwinist box of delights eliciting more ooh and ahh's from me than Blackheath on the 5th November. A bloody marvel.

Traversing the outer market and eying up the noodle stalls for breakfast I was conflicted. The porters were tucking into bowls of ramen, slurping them up noisily but I was hungry for tuna, I needed that protein rush. Knowing that the places in the market were probably tourist traps we bit the bullet and silently gorged on fatty, slick tuna. They weren't the most delicately slices of fish, nothing like some of the sashimi I've eaten since but they satisfied something deep and carnal and they cut through the deepening jet lag to give me a boost until breakfast.


cookiecrumb said...

Oh, lord, did I see Jonah inside that whale?

Sui Mai said...

F*ck I'm hungry.

Trig said...

Did you happen to see the programme with Rick Stein on his Japan tour? There was plenty footage of those guys filleting hundreds of tuna in enormous cold rooms with those incredible "swords".

Helen said...

Tokyo is one of my dream destinations! Thanks you for the fascinating insight.