Traveling to Tokyo threw my my sleep schedule out of whack, so I found myself wide awake at 3 or 4 am for the first few days. Eventually I quit trying to sleep and took the opportunity to ride my bike around Tokyo in the wee hours. One morning, I biked clear across the city to Tsujiki fish market, the largest wholesale fish market in the world and the epicenter of the global sushi industry.
If you’ve ever read or watched anything about the decline of the world’s fisheries, then you’ve probably seen images of Tsujiki. In person its completely immersive, bordering on overwhelming. Its so huge you can’t see the whole place in one visit, jammed wall-to-wall with fish of every imaginable proclivity, dark and slippery and forklifts running full-tilt in every direction. This is one place in Japan where the famous Japanese manners don’t apply. You’re likely to get run over by a load of squid if you don’t watch yourself.
The star of the show here is the bluefin tuna, or maguro, a huge, highly-prized fish. Once maguro was only popular in Japan, but the rise of the global sushi culture has lifted all boats, so to speak. The finest bluefin sell for thousands of dollars each at Tsujiki, and then get flown all over the world the same day. Unlike other desirable fish, such as salmon, you can’t raise bluefin in captivity. They must be caught in the wild, and this huge demand is driving the species to the brink. Scientists believe the bluefin could go extinct in our lifetime.
After leaving the market, I ate a bowl of mixed sashimi in one of the little stalls on the outer edge of the market. I thought maybe the reddish fish in my bowl could be maguro and it didn’t taste like anything special to me. What’s all the fuss is about, I wondered? Maybe the best cuts are so expensive now that us mortals only get the least tasty bits?
A few days later, I had the chance to learn how wrong I was. It was my final night in Tokyo, so I decided to splurge on a little French-Japanese bistro that I’d walked past several times on my way to the station. There wasn’t an English menu so the waitress gamely attempted to translate for me, but I didn’t fully understand what I was ordering.
It was one of the best meals I’ve ever had. The main course was thin slices of smoked fish with a dark red color and silky texture and indescribable flavor. Yup, maguro. No wonder these fish aren’t doing too well. What’s even crazier is that dish only cost 1000 yen, a little less than ten dollars, at a VERY NICE restaurant in a trendy part of Tokyo, which is one of the most expensive cities in the world. Ten dollars for a serving of fish that is going extinct. My salad cost almost as much.
On a brighter note, my visit to Tsujiki also introduced me to the wide world of traditional Japanese preserved fish. The outer edge of the market is filled with stalls that sell all manner of tasty fishy treats, most of them made with smaller, more common fish species. These are fermented or smoked and combined with everything from ginger and cherries to walnuts and seaweed. They’re amazingly tasty, inexpensive, and they keep for several months without refrigeration. Like the Tlingkit or Haida peoples of the Pacific Northwest with their smoked salmon, the Japanese took the necessity of preserving fish and turned it into a high art form. I spent a long time sampling the many flavors at Tsujiki.
Maybe if all us global sushi lovers started appreciating Japanese preserved fish, the bluefin tuna might stand a chance of survival? Just sayin.