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May 20, 2006


Dominic Armato
Between scurrying around Tokyo, sleepwalking through my return to the States and then, unfortunately, running off to a family funeral, finding the time to blog the past couple of weeks has been a little difficult. But the upside is that I now have a ton of backlog material to get through, and while I should probably wait and slowly build to what I consider Japan's main event, I can't wait any longer.

While in Tokyo, I finally visited one of the culinary wonders of the world, the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. That's a touch misleading, as my father took me there when I was maybe 14 or 15, but it's been so long that I barely remembered my previous visit, except for the vague notion that it was really cool. I also originally saw it later in the morning when a lot of stalls had shut down, and I hadn't seen it since the growth of my appreciation for food markets, so I've been angling for a return visit our past few trips. I'm glad I finally made time.

Tsukjii is the largest fish market in the world, handling more than 2000 metric tons of seafood daily. And as we all know, metric tons are both larger and cooler than plain old tons. In any case, it's a lot of cool fish. The market is divided into three main sections. First, you have the innermost area where the tuna auctions are held, which is off-limits for those who aren't licensed wholesalers (unless, as it turns out, you get a special visitor's license ahead of time, which I may just need to research for my next visit). Then, you have the "outer market", which is where the 900 or so wholesalers make their wares available to the general public in a buzzing, densely packed covered market. Lastly, you have the surrounding neighborhood, where many small shops sell their wares on the street, many of them including fish purchased at the market proper. Of course, the surrounding neighborhood isn't limited to fish, but includes all kinds of food products, including meats, produce, kitchenwares, dry goods and others. I cruised through the surrounding neighborhood only very, very briefly, but I could spend an entire day exploring it, and I hope to on a future trip. The focus of this post, however, is the outer market, which is absolutely breathtaking. Of course, fish back home isn't anything like what we get in Japan, and this market is exactly why. My meager ability with words can't possibly do justice to the scale and energy of the market, so we'll make this a photo-heavy post with commentary. Be warned... many megs worth of photos are after the jump, but I've tried to provide reasonably-sized thumbnails that you can click on to see larger images.

Photos abound after the jump.

Dominic Armato
Upon first hopping off the train at Tsukijishijo station (conveniently, a single stop from our hotel), I wasn't entirely clear on which way to go to get to the market. I had assumed I'd be able to figure it out once I got there, which, it turned out, wasn't a bad assumption. My nose first set me on the right path, with one exit tunnel smelling like a subway, and the other smelling of brine and fresh fish. I started searching for one of the surrounding area maps that are prevalent throughout the Tokyo subway system, until I saw this fellow walking off in determined fashion. Based on his dress, especially the boots, I had a hunch that I could follow him straight to the market. He didn't disappoint.

Navigating the streets surrounding the market early in the morning, when it's busy, is a tricky and dangerous proposition. They're buzzing with hundreds of these little cars, which have platforms on the back to carry fish, huge circular wheels on the front to allow for manuevering in tight confines, and drivers who seem largely unconcerned with pedestrian safety. They're also fast, built like forklifts, and have a metal plate of a bumper on the front, the bottom of which is just above the average person's ankle. I can't imagine that a close encounter with one would amount to anything short of hospitalization.
Dominic Armato

Dominic Armato
Sadly, this one didn't turn out too well, but it gives you a good sense of the outer covered areas of the market, where hordes of the previously mentioned vehicles, along with tons of delivery trucks, are parked. At this point, it smells more of diesel than fish, and the traffic is incredibly dense, only heightening the earlier pedestrian danger. But it's here, under cover, that the energy of the market starts to take over.

This is a repeat of the first picture at the top of the post, but it gives you the best sense of the market itself. It's comprised of six or seven aisles, curved into a quarter circle. The vendors' styrofoam coolers spill out into the aisles, making them extremely narrow. There's never room for more than two people to pass, and frequently the only way to get through is single file. Because of the curve, though the market sits on a single city block, each aisle is nearly two city blocks long, and packed to the gills with fish... nnnnno pun intended. Every 150-200 feet, the main aisles are crossed by slightly wider radial aisles, where the motorized fish cars of death are buzzing through. Occasionally, there will be a stall selling food or equipment for the fish purveyors, but I walked most of the market and only encountered three or four. It's pretty much an enormous square city block of solid seafood.
Dominic Armato

Dominic Armato
The two photos above show the enormous frozen tuna carcasses that comprise a huge portion of the market's traffic. Very early in the morning (around 4:00, I believe), these tuna are on display in the closed area of the market, where the assorted vendors can peruse and place bids. The name of the highest bidder is painted on the side of the fish in red ink (which you can see in the photos), and this bidder then hauls the fish off for sale at the public market, or to a processing plant, or to be sold overseas. My understanding is that a great amount of the tuna caught in the Atlantic is shipped to Tsukiji for sale, and then shipped BACK to the States for our consumption. Ineffecient, but centralized. Here, you can also see a chopping block and one example of the impressive arsenal of oversized cutlery the merchants use to carve up their piscine products. To give a sense of scale, the tuna carcasses here are 4-5 feet long without the tails, and the head of that axe is the size of a dinner plate.

Dominic Armato
Here, my ladylove stands over a large yellowfin tuna, which is one of the most common types used for sashimi. The larger ones have been removed, but here you get a pretty good look at the yellow fins that give the fish its name. I get conflicting info on whether yellowfin is or isn't synonymous with ahi, so I don't know what to believe. My impression was that ahi is always yellowfin (interestingly enough, considered by the Japanese to be an inferior tuna, and I'm inclined to agree), but some say ahi can also apply to bluefin and bigeye. I suspect the latter two uses are incorrect, along the lines of "Kobe" and "wasabi", but I'm not certain. In any case, though I didn't get a good photo, many of the vendors had perfectly carved fillets of toro, the fatty belly of the tuna, that were absolutely perfect and dirt cheap. I had a good pocketknife, and I briefly considered buying one and picking up a bottle of soy sauce on the way back to the hotel. But I ultimately decided that it would probably be best to leave the fish selection to the experts. On top of which, all it would take was one unscrupulous vendor who figured he could pass off the wormy garbage fish on the unwitting gaijin to completely ruin the trip.

Dominic Armato
On the left is a common sight at the market. The vendors take slices from the fish and lay them out to show the relative color and quality. I'm not sure if these are taken from different fish, or if they're sections of the same fish, or what the numbers mean, exactly. But though it doesn't show very well in this photo due to the glare, these were laid out in order from paler pink to deeper red, left to right. On the right, some more tuna... or its head, in any case, upside down and viewed from behind. This head was a good foot and a half across, not counting the fin.

Dominic Armato
Here's another fellow. I have no idea what he is, but he's enormous. Almost perfectly round, and about three feet across.

One of my favorite pictures of the bunch. This guy would haul live, flopping fish from the large tank to his left, do a little prep on the cutting board, and then toss them in styrofoam coolers off to his right. It was a very cursory kind of prep, and I'm not entirely sure what he was doing, but it went something like this. First, he'd hold the live fish down, stick the end of his knife into the gills, and sever something bony, with a crunch (spine, perhaps?). Then, he'd almost but not completely sever the tail, and fold it back. He'd then take a long, thick wire, insert it into the tail end of the fish and slide it in, almost the full length of the fish. He'd then jiggle it around a little bit, remove the wire, and toss the fish in one of the styrofoam tubs. I'd love to know what he was accomplishing with either step, if anybody knows. I have my own thoughts, but they're pure speculation.
Dominic Armato

Dominic Armato
Of course, not all of the stalls are so bloody. In fact, most aren't. Here, clockwise from the top left, are bins of parcooked octopi, piles of significantly smaller octopi, some incredible looking fresh shrimp, and fresh squid. There were plenty of live shrimp too, but they didn't photograph nearly as well.

Dominic Armato
And speaking of live seafood, there's plenty of that, as well. First is a sizeable bivalve known in Japan as mirugai, and in the States as geoduck, or sometimes giant clam. It does have a certain clamlike taste, but it's dense. Then there's a giant crab of some kind (this fellow was a few feet across), and at the opposite end of the spectrum, little tiny crabs the size of quarters. It's too bad I couldn't capture the motion, as these guys were constantly scurrying around the tubs enclosing them. At the bottom left is a live squid, a couple of feet long.

Dominic Armato
Here's another one of my favorites. This is, I believe, what's known as an Australian lobster, spiny lobster, or... at the risk of planting the B-52s in your head for the rest of the day... rock lobster. Technically, they're not lobsters, but it still frustrates me to no end that we can't get them in the States in any form other than frozen. It makes sense, I suppose, given that transporting live crustaceans that far would be prohibitively expensive for an item that's already rather pricey, but it's a downer nonetheless. On a couple of occasions, we've had Australian lobster tail sashimi in China, and with a good shot of wasabi it's really wonderful. These fellows were packed in what appears to be sawdust, juniper branches and, oddly, plastic lemons... for presentation, I can only assume?

Dominic Armato
There are plenty of other items that are less common in American markets, as well. Of course, you can get these both, but you usually have to find Japanese market to do so. On the left is one of the stalls that sells all kinds of roe, from what types of fish, I have no idea. On the right is a stall that exclusively sells tiny dried fish, which I'm fairly certain are the kind I had on the Jakko Yakko.

Dominic Armato
And then there are some items that I can't even identify, much less procure. I saw a couple of stalls like the one on the left, selling something that looked a lot more like meat than seafood. It was in large chunks, fairly bloody, and a deep red color. As such, I have a strong suspicion that it's whale, which is fairly common in Japan, though I've never tried it. As for the one on the right, I have absolutely no idea. Though you might think so from the photo, I can assure you that it wasn't a vegetable. If anybody can positively identify either of these, I'd be curious to know.

I'm always amazed by the knives at the Japanese markets. Though you can't always tell when they've been beaten up, they're stunning works of craftsmanship. And at Tsukiji, what's equally amazing is their size. This is a middle of the road specimen, about three feet long. I saw a couple on which the blade alone was longer than I am tall.
Dominic Armato

Dominic Armato
Another one of the things I love about a market like Tsukiji is seeing some of the critters in their natural state, before they're cleaned and packaged for sale in standard supermarkets. On the left is some kind of scallop that I can't identify. I saw plenty of the shells I recognize, symmetrical and ridged. But these scallops, abundant at Tsukiji, were like those here, which looked more like giant mussels with pointy hinges when they were closed. On the right are sea urchins. Of course, I think most people who eat the sushi are aware that it's the spiny black fellow you see here, but it's neat to see one cracked open such that you can see exactly what part of the critter you're eating.

Dominic Armato
Aesthetically speaking, one of the most beautiful items at the market is the eel. They're mostly presented like this, cleaned and sitting in water. I suppose some are probably put off by the blood, but it's a stunning color and I find it really beautiful. Of course, there are also many stalls that sell the fillets cleaned and skewered, ready for grilling. And many are already grilled and sauced. This is as close as Tsukiji gets to prepared foods.

Then, there are a couple of photos that I snapped for purely artistic purposes... if I hadn't been so hell-bent on cataloging items, I could have come back with a horde of these. Stunning photos abound at Tsukiji.


Now that I have an unhealthy obsession with Animal Crossing: Wild World and go fishing for virtual fish all the time... I actually recognize many of these fish that were formerly a mystery to me!

Notably, the stripey Barred Knifejaw, the Red Snapper (though I could identify that one prior to AC, I appreciate him now more than ever for his lovely selling price of 3000 bells), and I think your huge mystery fish might just be an Ocean Sunfish, or something like it at least.

Ah Animal Crossing... both fun AND educational!

The giant round fish is an opah. Tasty. Also the scallops, look like pen-shells to me. Great site...thanks for posting it.

Opaaaaaaaah, I should've known!

Thanks for the heads-up... don't suppose you have any idea what those dirty white pod-lookin' things are? :-)

Hello, Very nice page.
The picture next to the whale meat is called takomanma in Japanese and is the ovary of octopus. If you do a google image search for it you'll get more pics.

Mike, you're awesome. Thanks! I was 95% certain about the whale meat, but I had absolutely ZERO clue on the takomanma. I'm fascinated! I certainly haven't tried everything over there, but I can't remember the last time I hadn't even HEARD of something. And the only references I can find on the web are either in Japanese or scientific papers. Since they're in Tsukiji, I can only assume they're meant to be a foodstuff. How are they prepared? Have you had them?



Glad I could be of help.
Have a look at the pics on the following page. http://www.searesh.com/takomanma.html
The translation is below. I'm sure there are others but This is the first one I found. I haven't tried it myself but will make sure I do if I see it.
Need anything else let me know.

YANAGIDAKO comes out in the spring. It's called TAKOMANMA。
Like Shiokara and Uni(sea urchin) it has a very rich and sweet taste.
It is popular at restaurants and revolving sushi shops in Hokkaido and goes well with sake。
It is easy to prepare and keeps well in the refrigerator.
Please try it.
Three Takomanma about the same size.
Three octopus worth.
Each was about 300 grams so about 1 kg is fine.
Thsi time I all three were about the same size but usually size varies.
There are many eggs inside it each sack.
They resemble grains of rice.
Make an incision anywhere in the sack.
It should turn inside out easily.
I only had a cutter knife
Once turned inside out they should look like this.
Quite grotesque?
I think they look beautiful:)
All the eggs are joined at one point so chop them all off there.
They look like this.
Put them in a tupperware dish.
10g salt
A little sake
A little soy sauce
A little dried red chilli pepper
Mix well
This recipie is a light colored version.
Leave them overnight and they should turn out like this.
They are also good with less salt and a little more soy sauce.
Another way is to use sour soy sauce with bonito stock.

Very sorry, forgot to check my post before posting.
The Ovary of Yanagidako (the particular type of octopus) comes out in the spring. it's called Takomanma...and a few other careless typos..

That's fantastic, Mike... thanks so much!

Now... if I only had a local source for takomanma :-)

I believe the mystery prep being done to the fish to paralyze them. Somehow it keeps the fish alive when purchased until the cook finishes the job in the kitchen. Not entirely sure how, but that's what was explained to me.

nicely documented experience at Tsukiji, much better than most of the ones i've read. making me in the mood for some uni pasta.

About 3 years late, but: The mystery prep is called Ike Jime and it's the preferred method for processing the fish for sushi/sashimi. you sever the spine right behind the skull and then cut into the base of the spine near the tail to gain access to the spinal column. Then you run a thin piece of metal (similar to piano wire) through the spinal column to destroy the nerve tissue on the inside. The fish slowly bleeds out, the nerve tissue in the muscles continues to fire "involuntarily" and the quality of the flesh is preserved.

There's a serious deep dive into the the technique and it's results on the Cooking Issues blog:


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