When I initially received the assignment to check out what goes on behind-the-scenes at Toyosu (aka the world’s largest seafood market) – I wasn’t looking forward to it. The itinerary looked crazy (waking up at 2AM, tuna cutting at 3AM, tuna auction at 4!?) … and it wasn’t exactly the Maldives. But I also knew it wasn’t a privilege afforded to many, so what was a couple of sleepless nights?
It turned out to be one of the best and most interesting experiences I’ve ever had; proving that some things are worth waking up early for.
If you haven’t yet heard of Toyosu, it’s the modern, new successor of the historic Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, which moved its wholesale operations there in October 2018. The old market was popular with tourists (especially for its tuna auctions) and was deeply entrenched in Japanese culture, so much so that it was called ‘Japan’s Kitchen’. But it was also old and susceptible to the elements. Toyosu, located some two kilometres away by the Bay of Tokyo, would have better, upgraded facilities, streamlined processes, more hygienic conditions, temperature control – all the works. And spanning 40 hectares, 1.7 times larger than Tsukiji, it would be one of the world’s largest seafood markets. Close to 400 wholesalers and businesses made the move.
6AM: Arriving bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to Toyosu, we were led by Ken-san (our guide and contact for the trip) into the Intermediate Wholesale Fish Market. A typical day at Toyosu starts as early as 8 or 9 PM the night before, when trucks bearing seafood from all over Japan arrive to offload their goods, which are then sent to various parts of the market for auctions, packing, export, etc. The place was still a hive of activity during our visit, the floor slick with moisture and ice. There were piles of Styrofoam boxes everywhere we turned, and we literally had to dodge the electric turret trucks as they zoomed past bearing cargo. Tourists are not allowed within the premises, so wayward journalists would do well to get out of the way lest they become pancakes.
We were taken to the packing facilities, where seafood is packed for export. In order to keep everything fresh, temperatures are kept at between 3 to 5 degrees Celsius, and the workers operating forklifts could be seen bundled in thick jackets, beanies and gloves. The temperature was so cold the camera crew that came with us had a hard time getting their equipment to work properly. I was expecting seafood to be everywhere, but everything was neat and orderly – most of the items had already been packed inside the boxes.
My knowledge of fish extends to salmon, tuna, mackerel and dory.
The seafood business at Toyosu is a massive machinery, and the process can get pretty complicated. The gist of it is that there are three ‘first wholesalers’, who are responsible for getting seafood from various suppliers and fishermen from all over Japan. A portion of these is for direct export, but the bulk will be sold / auctioned off to intermediate wholesalers, who make up most of the businesses at Toyosu. These intermediate wholesalers then liaise with sushi shops, hypermarkets, hotels, restaurants, etc, or work with distributors, for domestic consumption or export. What’s stopping them from ‘jumping the queue’, so to say? ie why doesn’t an intermediate wholesaler get his supply straight from the fishermen? Well, the Japanese have very traditional work ethics, and violating these business practices, oftentimes built over generations, is a big no-no.
We were scheduled to interview Yasuhiro Yamazaki-san, the company president of Yamaharu Co., Ltd ie the largest intermediate wholesaler in Toyosu. The main shop, which consisted of several lots, was packed with boxes, leaving a small walkway for customers to squeeze through. The variety was astounding, with loads of seafood I didn’t even have a name for. There was an area where staff members could perform ikijime on live fish. Ikijime is the traditional way of slaughtering fish to maintain the quality of its meat, as it is killed instantly without a struggle, preventing the release of lactic acid and ammonia from muscle movement.
I had always imagined Japanese company presidents to be stern corporate culture-types, but Yamazaki-san was nothing of the sort. Dressed in a hamaguchi (a traditional headband) and rubber boots, his demeanour was friendly. Even so, he had an obvious leader vibe: one whom employees would respect and follow through thick and thin because he’s hands-on with the work, not just telling people what to do from a cozy office chair. Having been in the business for close to three decades, he was obviously very knowledgeable about seafood, sharing with us many pearls of wisdom, from what season certain fish was best consumed, to how to determine if a fish was fresh or not. The Pacific Saury, for example, would develop a yellow tip on its beak once it has been out in the open for awhile. Another thing that fascinated me about the entire setup at Toyosu is how businesses and their customers have relationships dating back years and years. Many of the patrons that come to shop at Yamazaki-san’s shop had obviously been with him for a long time, and they bantered with him (as well as other staff members) like old friends.
A giant oyster the size of someone’s head.
Yamazaki-san shared that the most expensive seafood he’s ever auctioned for (in relation to its portion) was … drum roll sea urchin. 750,000 yen (about RM28,000 / 7,000 USD) for one kilogramme, to be exact. Does he even make a profit? “When buying these things I only think about supply good quality items to my customers, so I always instruct my people to not think about profit when doing the auctions. Think about supplying customers good quality.” was the answer.
All isn’t hunky dory, however. The seafood catch has been going down year-on-year, with Yamazaki-san sharing that the catch for sanma (ie Pacific saury) was only 1/30th the previous year – one of the worst he has ever seen. Still, he isn’t too pessimistic, as he believes that the seasons have changed and that good seafood is still available – it’s all a matter of catching them at the right season.
We ventured up to the fourth floor of the building, which houses Uogashi Yokocho. Here you can find a bunch of shops catering to restaurant chefs and culinary professionals, with items such as kitchen utensils, high-grade chef knives and more – but they also have stalls selling souvenirs, snacks and spices for general visitors. There weren’t many visitors during our visit, because there was a typhoon the night before and some public transportation was still grounded.
3AM: Chugging coffee from Family Mart and trying to keep our eyes open, we returned to Toyosu – this time to watch the tuna cutting. When you talk about prized seafood in Japan, tuna always comes to mind. The specimens we saw – wheeled in on trolleys and hauled onto the cutting table – were gigantic, clocking in at 80+ kilos. I later learned that these were actually farmed tuna, ie they were smaller than wild-caught tuna that average between 200 to 300 kilos wtf. There are several types of tuna; the most expensive being the bluefin, followed by yellowfin, skipjack and albacore.
Slicing the tuna up is no mean feat, and it was fascinating to watch. Larger tuna had to be managed by two workers. The knives they used were long like machetes, but less curved. We chatted up the boss and he mentioned that it might take an apprentice up to two years to master the art of cutting up a whole tuna. More impressive was the fact that the carcasses were sliced clean with very little meat left on the bone – the thin layer covering it was almost translucent.
What’s your favourite cut of tuna? Mine is otoro (tuna belly). It has this melt-in-the-mouth texture that’s indescribably umami. It’s also the most expensive.
Killing time while waiting for the tuna auction.
Making our way to the tuna auction observation deck, we passed through an information centre for tourists, which had a replica of the largest tuna ever caught and sold at Tsukiji – a beast weighing half a tonne – captured back in the 1980s. Bluefin tuna can live up to 40 years, so imagine how long it must have taken for the fish to get to this size!
At Tsukiji, a select number of visitors each day were allowed to enter the auction floor. This is no longer the case at Toyosu. Instead, you watch the process from a second-floor deck, separated by foggy glass. To be frank, it doesn’t make much of a viewing experience. If you book in advance through the Toyosu website, you can get a little closer (the first floor), which was where we were. You’re still separated by a glass, but the top is not covered and you can at least hear what’s going on.
4.30 AM: The tuna auction begins around 4, and lasts for about an hour. There is a section for frozen tuna, and a section for fresh tuna. Toting torchlights, buyers inspected the fish, checking the colour and fattiness. When the floor opened, signaled by the ringing of a bell, buyers raised their hands using teyari, or digit gestures, to indicate their bids and the quantity of products they want to purchase. It was like this magical sign language that only they knew; I could barely keep up with the raised hands before the auctioneer called out who had won.
5.30AM: Auction over and the sun rising, we made our way to the third floor where there are restaurants. More coffee!
Tsukiji’s most famous sushi joint – Sushi Dai – moved with it when the wholesale operations relocated to Toyosu. The queue is insane, and you’ll often have to wait for several hours just to get a seat, but some people swear by it. Photo above is of another (less crowded) shop. Of course, all of the seafood served at the restos come directly from the market itself.
There’s a nicely landscaped garden at the rooftop of the building, which gives visitors beautiful views of the Tokyo metropolitan area from across the Bay.
10 AM: Our next interview was with the president of the largest first wholesaler at Toyosu, Hiroyuki Taguchi-san of Daiichi Suisan Co., Ltd.
Like Yamazaki-san, Taguchi-san has been in the business for many years, half a decade, to be exact. Prior to the interview, I had heard that he was good friends with many notable businessmen, politicians and people in high places, as befitting the president of a large company – but again, was pleasantly surprised at how down-to-earth he seemed to be. This man has over a hundred employees under his wing, but was insisting we eat the cakes like an elderly grandpa spoiling his visiting grandchildren. Speaking of grandpas, Taguchi-san’s grandfather was a pioneer at Tsukiji, so this was very much an old family business. He patiently answered all our questions even though we went way past the allocated time.
We popped over to the fruits and vegetable market in another building, then came back to get the equipment we left behind. There was some sort of exhibition / event going on so we stuck our nose there as well. It turned out to be some sort of food expo where distributors and wholesalers were exhibiting the best of their products, from fresh seafood to processed goods. Of course we couldn’t say no to free samples…
We finally wrapped up around 1PM, having spent the last 12 hours filming and interviewing. It was tiring af, but I was glad for the experience, and to understand better the process of how the seafood that we enjoy gets served from farm to fork, or ocean to chopsticks (?? lame). I was also touched by the passion and dedication that many of the people – Taguchi-san, Yamazaki-san, as well as all the staffers – have for their work. It’s not just about money, but also delivering the best, and there’s a strong sense of pride in what they do.
IS TOYOSU FISH MARKET WORTH VISITING FOR TOURISTS?
Tsukiji had that traditional charm which attracted tourists from all over the world, but it was also bad for business because it’s difficult to sell stuff when you have hordes of tourists and their cameras getting in the way of your actual customers, crowding the store and messing up items. Toyosu was built primarily for business, with all the comforts of modern technology: being indoors, it has temperature control according to product, and the loading bays are designed for trucks rather than trains as they were with Tsukiji.
That isn’t to say you shouldn’t visit, because they do have facilities for tourists, ie the observation deck, the restaurants, the rooftop garden and the shops. Plans are also in the works for a recreational area with its own onsen and shops where visitors can buy fresh vegetables and fish. If you want an insight into the seafood industry in Japan, Toyosu is a worthwhile stop.
Getting to Toyosu can be tricky since it’s a bit out of the way. If you’re taking the JR Yamanote Line from Tokyo Station, travel to Yurakucho and switch to the Yurakucho Subway Line, headed to Toyosu. There, take the Yurikamome to Shijo-mae Station, where you’ll alight and see signs directing you to the buildings (accessible via pedestrian walkways). Else, take a taxi from nearby Odaiba.
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