It is 4.10am, and I am already late. I sprint down the Kachidoki Bridge, its spine curving over the gently rippling Sumida River, past inky outlines of the Tokyo Bay, and arrive, slightly breathless and sweaty, at the registration counter. At 4.14am, I am the absolute last person to be allowed in. A couple who arrives just after me is crestfallen. With a sigh of relief, I step into the small holding room and settle down among the more fortunate pilgrims. We wait.

It feels sacred. The pre-dawn awaking, the anxious journey, the fear of being shut out of the sanctum sanctorum, the fervour of all those who seek, the waiting, the jostling to get a vantage point for darshan, and then, when it’s all over, a sense that a veil had been lifted, a deeply held secret revealed.

It could have been a high temple, a grand mosque or a magnificent church, but it is, in fact, the world’s largest fish market. And I am about to go into the holy of holies: a tuna auction of epic proportions.

An aerial shot of the Tsukiji market. Photo: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

But these statistics reveal nothing about the real significance of Tsukiji to the global seafood trade. For that, you will have to step into the “big fish auction room".

At 5.25am, uniformed guards guide the first batch of us to the auction—the second, and last, will follow at 5.50am. We pick our way through a stream of motorized carts zipping up and down, sidestepping the big forklifts and waiting for the trucks to pass. This is peak hour at Tsukiji. And then, just like that, we are inside.

In a room the size of six tennis courts, row upon row of giant, ice-cold bluefin tuna line the length of the floor. From a distance, they look more like smooth stone, with a clean layer of frost upon them, and if it weren’t for their immense size and the bright-red tail steak that had been cut open and allowed to hang for inspection, you wouldn’t know these were the tigers of the ocean—predators who sit at the top of oceanic food chains.

The award-winning marine biologist and author of Song For The Blue Ocean, Carl Safina, describes the bluefin tuna as “one of the most awesome creatures on earth, a warm-blooded fish capable of swimming at highway speeds and crossing oceans; then finding its way home in a trackless ocean". Indeed, their scientific name, Thunnus thynnus, comes from the Greek verb thuno, to rush.

The prized bluefin tunas at the market
The prized bluefin tunas at the market

On any given day, an Atlantic bluefin tuna caught off the coast of Maine will be bought by a local broker with links to Japanese auction houses using prices set by Tsukiji at the previous day’s auction. The fish is then stuffed into a long “tuna coffin" and trucked to John F Kennedy International Airport in New York City, where it will catch a flight to Tokyo’s Narita International Airport. When these fish arrive, they are immediately hauled away to the inspection area, placed next to catch from the rest of the world—Atlantic bluefin from Italy, Spain, Turkey; Pacific bluefin from California and Chile; southern ones from Australia and Indonesia—and also from Japanese ports such as Oma on the northern coast. The importer or auction company will take their bluefin, grade it and decide which of the 86 wholesale markets in Japan the tuna should go to. If it is deemed good enough for Tsukiji, it will be loaded on to trucks and sent to the auction house.

By 11pm, all the fish have arrived and workers start to prepare them for the auction room, labelling each with its country or port of origin, metric weight and the name of the selling agent. By 3am the floor will start to fill up with wholesalers inspecting the fish laid out in rows over wooden pallets. At 5.25am, the auction begins, and it’s all over by 6.30am, sooner if there are not that many fish. A typical half-ton Atlantic bluefin can sell for $30,000 (around 18.7 lakh) or more.

At the ceremonial auction that takes place on the first Saturday of each year, a bluefin might go for millions of dollars—as it did in 2013 when Kiyoshi Kimura, owner of a popular sushi chain, Sushi Zanmai, paid $1.76 million for a 489-pound (around 220kg) catch—or for next to nothing ($37,500), as it did in January. Once sold, the tuna from Maine will be carted away either to the intermediate sellers in the inner market or straight to a restaurant, where, within hours, it will be devoured by sushi eaters across Tokyo.

Kiyoshi Kimura with his $37,500 bluefin tuna in January. Photographs by Akio Kon/Bloomberg

In the global tuna trade, the most feared word is “domestic". A “domestic" refers to a fish not good enough for Tsukiji. That means a fish that could have gone for $40-50 a pound will now be deemed worth a dollar or two at most. If your tuna is not good enough to make it to Tsukiji, you might as well not have killed it.

This is what Theodore Bestor, anthropologist and author of several papers and books on Tsukiji, is referring to when he says: “Tsukiji creates and deploys enormous amounts of cultural capital around the world. Its control of information, its enormous role in orchestrating and responding to Japanese culinary tastes, and its almost hegemonic definitions of supply and demand allow it the unassailable privilege of imposing its own standards of quality—standards that producers worldwide must heed."

Yet, for all its global significance, Tsukiji remains a charmingly old-fashioned and quaint riverside market. Settled in the 1920s, after a great earthquake and fire extinguished the former fish market at Nihonbashi, it has remained more or less the same for decades. Repeated moves to renovate or relocate it have all had to be suspended for a variety of reasons. The newest plan is to move it by 2016, but for now Tsukiji continues as it always has, doing the most important things the old way, wearing lightly its mantle as the “central node" of a multi-billion-dollar global seafood industry.

Chefs prepare sushi at Sushi Zanmai, Kimura’s restaurant chain.

Like a diamond merchant peering at a rough cut, they are looking for the right colour, the right fat content, the texture of the flesh and the flavour of the core. They make little notes, scribbling in their wet pads with yellow pencils. By the time the auction begins in earnest, they will have made their decision and know how much to gamble on each bid.

In an exquisitely photographed pocketbook guide on sushi called Jiro Gastronomy, Jiro Ono, the protagonist of the documentary Jiro Dreams Of Sushi, and the only sushi chef to be awarded three Michelin stars eight years in a row, writes: “A day without maguro means a day a sushi restaurant cannot open for business."

While maguro, the Japanese word for tuna, has been a staple of the Japanese diet for centuries, that country’s obsession with it really began as it was entering the “bubble years", its two decades of blistering growth.

By the early 1960s, high-speed trucking and the advent of refrigeration had created a whole new market for fresh seafood. Suddenly, Tsukiji could command not only what was fished out of the Sumida or Tokyo Bay, but also spectacular catch from as far as Oma and Hokkaido on the northern coasts, Kyushu in the south, and even international waters.

As demand grew to meet supply, prices climbed steadily, making the meat more expensive, and even more popular. A 1994 essay in Harper’s Magazine quotes Sadanori Gunji, author of The Flying Bluefin Tuna, as saying: “In Japan, we are concerned with status in all things, including food. It is necessary to have food with a higher status than any other, and that is the toro of the giant bluefin."

The final thrust for the bluefin to go truly global—and for Tsukiji’s ascendancy as the “market at the centre of the world", as Bestor calls it—was Japan Airlines’ (JAL’s) decision to fly tuna back on the cargo planes that took Japanese goods to the US but almost always returned empty.

It was to be an experiment. Desperate to make the return flights commercially viable, a young JAL cargo manager in Tokyo, Akira Okazaki, bet on tuna—he needed something that would demand a high price from Japanese buyers and was perishable enough to merit the high cost of air transport.

The auction in progress.

Chalked up in history as the “Day of the flying fish", 14 August 1972 became the first day when tuna—five Canadian bluefins—were put on a truck to JFK Airport and then freighted in the bellyhold of a JAL flight to Narita, to arrive in time for the auction at Tsukiji. They fetched $4 per pound—a handsome price indeed, considering that till then, the visiting fishermen who caught bluefin would have to pay locals to get rid of the kill.

Since that day, giant tuna from New England and Canada—generically known as the Boston Bluefin—has remained among the most valuable of all tuna auctioned at Tsukiji, with only tuna from Oma giving it competition.

Soon, Tokyo couldn’t have enough of toro. It became a superstar of sushi; no self-respecting sushi place could afford not to have otoro, the most fatty part of the toro, on its menu. Within a few months the value of the bluefin tuna jumped by 10,000% on the Japanese market, with similar spikes throughout the world. By the 1980s, thanks to migrant chefs in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles had fallen in love with sushi. What was once cat food in most of the US had become the trendiest sensation in haute cuisine.

By any reckoning, humans have been catching bluefin tuna for at least 3,000 years, probably more. The Phoenicians and Carthaginians had a taste for it, the Sicilians had the annual rite mattanza, the massacre of tuna, and the Spanish almadraba, a network of nets that stretch in the sea like walled cities awaiting the migrating tuna, is the subject of medieval poetry.

But it wasn’t until the Japanese developed a real taste for it that global tuna stocks plunged. The worldwide population of bluefins had remained stable through centuries and up to the 1950s, but since then stocks have declined more than 96%. In 2011, the International Union for Conservation of Nature listed the Atlantic bluefin on its endangered list; it categorized the Pacific bluefin as “vulnerable" in 2014.

Japan, which consumes 80% of the world’s bluefin tuna, has consistently maintained that if there was a trade ban on it, as has been proposed by the United Nations, it would simply ignore it. When it came up for vote in 2010, Japan successfully lobbied member countries to defeat the motion. However, Japan acknowledges the pressure on the species and has committed to cutting the catch quotas for juvenile bluefin tuna in the northern Pacific by 50% from this year.

When the time comes, a diminutive man in blue overalls steps on to a rickety wooden box close to me and starts to rock in a soft rhythm, almost as if he were about to break into a mellow tribal dance. He rings a bell, and its peals call the buyers to attention. He speaks continuously to encourage the bidders and drive up prices. His voice has a certain cadence to it, and it feels like he is reciting a metered verse. In response, the bidders make the slightest, the most inconspicuous, of signals to let him know what they have in mind.

On an average it takes less than 5 seconds for one bluefin to be auctioned. From where I stand, I count five giants sold for a few hundred thousand dollars in less than 20 seconds.

This is only the buying and selling of fish, but it feels like the goings-on of a secret society, a cult with impenetrable rites and intricate rituals, its peculiar pattern of beats and chants guiding the movement of solemn men and dead fish swiftly and seamlessly.

Standing on the side, squeezed into a narrow space, I feel like a peeping Tom, an intruder. The auction is a popular “thing to do" for tourists, but it is not a tourist act, not a show you can buy a ticket to. I feel grateful for having seen the swirl of oceans, the interconnections in our world, expressed so gently, delicately, in a sliver of sliced fish laid atop a perfectly hand-shaped bit of vinegared rice.

Getting there

All Nippon Airways flies direct from New Delhi to Tokyo. All other flights from Indian metros to Tokyo have one or more stops. If you book well in advance, you can find tickets for around 40,000.

Places to stay

If you are a fan of ‘Lost In Translation’, stay at the Park Hyatt Tokyo ( 33,000 a night for double occupancy; www.tokyo.park.hyatt.com) in the neon-laden Shinjuku, where the movie was shot. For a more traditional Japanese experience, try the sprawling Hotel New Otani ( 13,000 a night for double occupancy; www.newotani.co.jp/en/tokyo).

Places to eat

For some fresh sushi, try Sushi Dai or Sushi Zanmai in the Tsukiji outer market. For true indulgence, eat at the world famous Sukiyabashi Jiro in Ginza. But you will probably have to request a local to reserve a table for you three months in advance. A tasting meal of 20 pieces will cost you around 14,000.

Things to do

There’s plenty to do in Tokyo apart from visiting the Tsukiji market. Ginza is great for high-end shopping, Shibuya for drinking and high-street buys, and Shinjuku for all things wild and neon.

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