Tokyo is known for its neon lights and armies of salarymen who spill out of office towers in often indistinct neighborhoods.
But amid that giant urban crush is Tsukiji fish market, the world’s largest. In a city in a rush to wipe away its history, the market is a gem that evokes Japan’s pre-World War II past and its love of food.
The wholesale market on the banks of the Sumida River several minutes from Ginza opened in 1935 and is best known for its predawn tuna auction. But navigating the market’s cramped and slippery corridors can be treacherous and, while fascinating, is primarily for viewing, not sampling.
The retail market next door is more inviting. Roughly 8 square blocks, the outer market, or Jogai (pronounced JOE-guy), is chockablock with small, family-owned retail shops selling fish and meat, seaweed and sweets, knickknacks and kitchen supplies. Shopkeepers with raspy voices invite passers-by to look at their goods or eat in their restaurants, some of which are tucked away in alleys.
In my dozen years working in Tokyo, including several at The New York Times bureau across the street, and on my annual visits since then, my wife and I have never grown tired of wandering the market’s mazelike streets. We stock up on dried seaweed, Japanese snacks and other sundries, and dine at surprisingly affordable restaurants. We love the shopkeepers and their gravelly voices, quick wit and candid opinions.
Yet this gustatory wonderland is in danger. Next year, the Tokyo government will move the wholesale market a few miles away to Toyosu. There, mammoth fishing ships will dock next to the market, speeding delivery of tons of fish. A road that the city is building will pass through where the wholesale market is now, to connect the Olympic Village for the 2020 Tokyo Games with the main sporting venues about 10 miles away.
When the wholesale market vanishes, Tsukiji will lose some of its working-class feel and potentially some of the merchants who now cater to the market’s many workers, something that makes some people in Jogai anxious. The topic is never far from their minds, and on recent trips to Tokyo, we have spoken with shopkeepers to get a sense of what lies ahead for our favorite haunt.
The good news for visitors to Tokyo is that many of them expect the market to continue to be a magnet for some of the freshest food in the city. But they fear that without the wholesale market, Jogai will lose some of the buzz that made it unique. Four of them shared stories about their decades in Tsukiji, and their hopes and worries for the future.
Tourists flock to the many sushi bars in Jogai because of the fresh fish. But ramen is the daily fuel for many of the market’s workers.
For three decades, Goro Wakabayashi has provided that fuel from his impossibly cramped ramen stand that faces Shin-Ohashi Dori, the road along the west side of the market. We’ve wandered past his open kitchen, the size of one tatami mat, dozens of times and marveled at the lines of people slurping his noodles and broth with gusto. We’ve joined them, too, as early as 7 a.m.
The operation is hyper-efficient. Wakabayashi’s kitchen includes just four gas burners, a sink and a hanging closet and shelves for bowls. There are only three tiny stools at the 6-foot-long counter, so most customers stand at makeshift tables by the curb.
Each day for more than 30 years, starting at 5 a.m., Wakabayashi, his wife and now their two sons have served hundreds of bowls of ramen, mainly to workers looking for quick calories during their breaks.
“The busiest time for us is when most of Jogai is quiet,” he said. “A lot of people who come here every day have to eat fast. These people can’t wait long.”
Wakabayashi’s most basic dish, chuka soba, costs just 700 yen, or $6 at 117 yen to the dollar, and because he uses thin noodles, he can make a bowl of it, topped with bamboo shoots, a dollop of scallion and a few slices of pork, in less than 90 seconds. The savory-salty mix, slurped loudly, warms your stomach and keeps you going for hours.
During Japan’s go-go years, Wakabayashi sold about 300 bowls a day. He serves about half as many customers now because more restaurants have opened in Jogai and more people order fish by fax or online instead of visiting Tsukiji to shop.
Now he frets about what will happen when the market workers, in their Wellington boots and industrial smocks, disappear.
“I don’t know if the customers will keep coming when the wholesale market leaves,” he said.
To offset the decline, Wakabayashi, who worked as a salaryman before taking over the shop from his father-in-law, sells a packaged version of ramen by mail order. Sitting in a small storeroom behind his ramen stand, he showed us a box that costs 1,300 yen and includes two packs of noodles, soup mix and vacuum-packed vegetables and pork.
To generate extra income, he has added other items to his menu like chashu-men, with a few extra slices of smoked pork, and wantan-men, which includes several dumplings.
But having spent decades waking up at 3 a.m. to get to the market to make his soup, Wakabayashi, 67, wondered what’s in store for his tiny shop, which shuts at 2 p.m.
“Little by little, I will hand off the business to my sons,” he said. “It’s a customer-driven business and they’re still getting used to it. You have to draw out customers. People want to feel good coming here.”
Left unsaid was how many customers will still come once the wholesale market is gone.
Obayashi Shoten is tucked in the back of Jogai, off the path that most tourists take. Wandering the area one day, we saw a signboard in front of a three-story building that had black-and-white photos from decades past of the original owners of the shop.
Akiko Kawanami, the cheerful, soft-spoken woman who now runs the shop with her brother, explained that the photos were of her grandfather and father who, like her, made katsuobushi, or dried bonito flakes that are used in soup broth and other dishes.
One morning after business slowed down, she described how the flakes are made. A company in Kyushu takes the meat along the spines of bonito, tuna or mackerel, boils it for two hours, smokes it eight times and then ferments it. The process takes four to six months and shrinks the meat into rock-hard sticks.
Kawanami shaves them into gossamer flakes using old machines in the basement. The salty flakes, which melt in your mouth, are packed in plastic bags and put in cartons to be shipped.
For years, her shop catered primarily to ryotei, restaurants that specialize in elaborate and expensive traditional Japanese dishes. But ryotei have slowly disappeared as tastes and corporate expense budgets have changed. Yet because Kawanami is focused on restaurants, not workers or tourists, she doesn’t expect a big decline in sales when the wholesale market leaves.
“Since I was small, the same customers have been coming here,” she said. “Quality is our main selling point.”
Kawanami, 42, said she suspects that the neighborhood will continue to evolve. She would know: She grew up above her shop and remembers the conversations of the shopkeepers and the squeaky brakes of the bicycles riding past that are disappearing. To her, Tsukiji is a collection of neighbors who look out for one another.
“I used to long for quiet mornings in a residential neighborhood,” she said. “Like mornings when you can hear birds chirping.”
These days, the market is filled more with tourists who arrive by bus, not bicycle. At first, Kawanami was taken aback. Now, she hopes that more of them visit her shop.
“In the beginning, I didn’t know how to deal with” the tourists, she said. “Putting aside whether people buy or not, our shop has become a social place, which is a lot of fun for me.”
Starting at 5 a.m. most days, Kenichi Yonemoto flits in and out of his narrow coffee shop on Harumi Dori, the main road that runs past Jogai. In black pants, white shirt and herringbone vest, he hands out laminated menus and serves coffee, iced coffee, coffee jelly and other such items.
Big chains like Starbucks and Tully’s have cafes several blocks away, but Yonemoto’s place feels more like a neighborhood clubhouse. At the small tables inside and outside, shoppers, regulars and tourists rub shoulders. Many linger over cups of black coffee and cigarettes.
“The chain stores don’t come here because of the limited hours,” he said. “But I open around the time the trains start running, so I’m on the same schedule as the people who come to Tsukiji.”
Because he is outside his coffee shop often, tourists ask Yonemoto for directions and restaurant recommendations, which he happily provides. He grew up in Tsukiji above the bread shop that his mother opened in 1960. Sensing a growing demand for coffee, he turned the shop into a cafe in the 1980s and has kept his prices down.
“Tsukiji is about customers who want fresh and cheap food, so the coffee should be reasonable, too,” he said.
As a member of the local shopkeepers association, he has his finger on the pulse of the neighborhood. He cannot do anything about the departure of the wholesale market, and he is not sure what will replace it.
But he noted that the Chuo Ward government is building a market nearby for the dozens of purveyors from the wholesale market who will not move to Toyosu because of the higher rents.
That’s why, amid all the angst about the future of the neighborhood, Yonemoto, 63, opened a second, larger coffee shop near that minimarket and put his daughter in charge.
“People are worried,” he said. “But if Jogai fits into the plan, it will be good.”
When I returned to Tokyo in 2011 to help report on the nuclear crisis in Fukushima, I often ran out of the office to grab dinner at the main branch of Tsukiji Sushiko.
Night after night, Osamu Semba, the shop’s floor manager, greeted me. Upbeat and curious, he made me feel welcome. Maybe it was because his business had slipped or maybe it was how he treated everyone. Either way, he took my mind off the tragedy that consumed the rest of my day.
Every visit since then, Semba, 52, has greeted us as if we had been away a week, not a year.
Sushiko caters primarily to office workers, so it is unlikely to be affected when the wholesale market moves. The menu, packed with grilled fish, sashimi and appetizers like grilled stingray fin, is geared more to people with time to linger than workers dashing back to the market.
“We have a lot of regular customers, people I’ve gotten used to and feel part of their families,” Semba said.
Thanks to Tsukiji’s transformation into a hub for serious diners, more tourists are arriving. Even on Sundays, which used to be slow, the restaurant draws a crowd, he said.
That is good news for Semba, who always seems eager to help. After working in sales, he joined the restaurant business when he was 36 and was forced to pay his dues, washing dishes and cleaning up, not preparing food.
“I didn’t touch a knife,” he said. “It was a pretty tough life.”
Every afternoon before the doors open for dinner, he and the staff stand in a circle and read passages from a book of motivational business practices written by Kazuo Inamori, the founder of Kyocera, the giant ceramics and electronics maker.
Because of his former life as a salaryman, he knew about corporate entertaining, which made him a natural host.
Even without the wholesale market, Semba is sure that diners — my wife and me included — will continue to flock to Tsukiji in search of fresh fish and that he will be there to receive them.
“Basically, I’m a salesman, so I know how to serve,” he said.
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