A 612-pound tuna sold for a record $3 million at Tokyo's new fish market, but it's got nothing on the legendary one it replaced. I visited it before it closed.

KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty ImagesPresident of sushi restaurant chain Sushi-Zanmai, Kiyoshi Kimura (R), displays a 278kg bluefin tuna at his main restaurant in Tokyo on January 5, 2019.
  • Last week, restaurateur Kiyoshi Kimura paid a record-breaking $US3.1 million for the first tuna sold in the new year at Tokyo’s brand new Toyosu Fish Market, which opened last October.
  • Toyosu replaced the legendary Tsukiji Fish Market, which was famous for decades as the best place in the world to get fresh fish.
  • I took a walk through Tsukiji Market two years ago before it closed to see what it was like in action. It was a crazy place not meant for tourists.

Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market was once known as the “Wall Street of fish.”

Every day, fishers, wholesalers, and the owners of Japan’s top sushi restaurants used to gather to buy and sell more than $US21 million of the freshest fish in the world.

In recent decades, the market unexpectedly became one of Japan’s top tourists attractions. Thousands came to try to get a glimpse of the market’s world-famous tuna auction, where a single tuna once sold for $US1.76 million.

Last October, the Tokyo government moved the market from its original location in central Tokyo to a new $US5.42 billion site east called Toyosu Market.

The Toyosu Market has continued with the world-famous tuna auctions. Last week, Kiyoshi Kimura, who owns the Sushizanmai restaurant chain, paid $US3.1 million for the first tuna sold in the new year, a 613-pound fish.

Though Toyosu has improved refrigeration, earthquake resistance, and sanitation facilities, it isn’t the legendary Tsukiji Market.

I took a walk through before dawn at Tsukiji two years ago – when it was off-limits to tourists – to see what the iconic market was like in action.

Here’s what it was like:

The Tsukiji Fish Market was once located in the Tsukiji district in central Tokyo. It was bordered by the swanky shopping district Ginza and the Sumida River.

Google Maps directions »

The best time to visit was before sunrise when fishers were bringing in their catch and fishmongers were preparing fish for sale.

There were two parts to the market. The jōgai-shijō was a mix of sushi restaurants and shops that sell everything from wholesale restaurant supplies to groceries. The jōnai-shijō was where wholesalers processed their fish and sold to restaurants. There was also a wholesale produce market, which was the part I visited.

You knew you had reached the jōnai-shijō when you started seeing signs like this. While the wholesale market opened at 3:00 a.m., tourists weren’t allowed in until after 10:00 a.m. But business was all but done by then, so I went about 5:00 a.m.

The market was a busy workplace. These trolleys whizzed down every alleyway at full speed, carrying boxes of fish from dealer to dealer. You needed to be on your toes. The fishmongers wouldn’t slow down for wandering tourists.

Tsukiji Market was first established in 1935, but the tradition of riverside fish markets, or “Uogashi,” dates to 16th-century Japan. At the time, the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu, gave fishers the right to fish so long as they supplied food to Edo Castle. Fishers would sell leftover fish at a market near the river.

Source: Tsukiji Fish Market

The market became one of the top tourist attractions in Japan, but it wasn’t intended that way. It was a place for business. Restaurant and market owners came every day to pick the choicest pieces of seafood for their business.

There were some 900 licensed wholesalers crammed into the inner market. Each had a small stall from which to do business. It looked like they do all their order taking and accounting by hand.

In back, I found a little store where fishmongers could buy snacks, newspapers, and even supplies for cleaning fish.

More fish passed through Tsukiji than any other market in the world. Some estimates suggest that the market did more than $US4 billion in business a year.

Source: CBSNews

The market sold over 480 different types of seafood each day, as well as 270 different types of produce. Harvard anthropology professor Ted Bestor, who studies Japanese sushi culture, called it “the nerve center of a global fishing industry.”

Source: The Guardian, CBS News

Fish were brought to the wholesalers packed in Styrofoam boxes. The fish were then cleaned and put out for sale.

The real star of the market was the Pacific bluefin tuna, considered in Japan to be the “king of sushi.” It seemed like at least half of the fishmongers’ stalls were cutting, cleaning, or preparing bluefin tuna. Commercial fishing has diminished the species to dangerously low levels.

Source: “60 Minutes”

The most famous part of the market was the tuna auction, which happened daily at about 3:00 a.m. Only 120 visitors could view the auction each day. Most bluefin tuna sells for between $US2,000 and $US20,000, depending on the size and the fat and oil content, which determines the taste of the fish.

Source: Reuters, Tokyo Cheapo, CBSNews

The New Year’s auction was a major event, with bidders paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to win the best tuna. Hiroshi Onodera, the owner of restaurant and food-service company LEOC, won the final New Year’s auction at the original Tsukiji site last week, paying $US323,000 for an 890-pound tuna.

Source: Reuters

The New Year’s tradition has continued at Toyosu. Kiyoshi Kimura, who owns a chain of sushi restaurants in Japan, won the first New Year’s auction at Toyosu. He paid $US3.1 million for a 613-pound tuna.

KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty ImagesPresident of sushi restaurant chain Sushi-Zanmai, Kiyoshi Kimura (R), displays a 278kg bluefin tuna at his main restaurant in Tokyo on January 5, 2019.

Kimura had won the auction for six years running before 2018. His $US3.1 million tuna broke record price he paid in 2013 when spent $US1.76 million on a 489-pound tuna.

Source: Business Insider

The tuna in Tsukiji and the new market is delivered all over the world frozen or on ice less than 24 hours after being caught. Then the fishmongers have to clean and defrost the giant fish.

Next up is cutting the massive tuna into small pieces with a bandsaw. The market was a very noisy place, full of rumbling trucks, yelling fishmongers, and the constant buzz and screech of saws cutting through fish.

The wholesalers then cut the tuna into sellable pieces for the top sushi restaurants in the city. Some wholesalers will even massage the fish or have conversations with it as they cut.

Source: CBSNews

All that’s left are the discarded fish guts. Yum.

By the end of the work day, there were a lot of Styrofoam boxes. A forklift carted the boxes away.

Seriously, I had to watch out for the scooters. The fishmongers have no time or patience for tourists.

After I was done touring, I went to one of the sushi joints in the main market for a kaisendon, or sushi-rice bowl. It was the best sushi I’ve ever had.

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