A Tourist’s Experience: Buying Tuna at Japan’s Tsukiji Market – A Lesson in Culture & Marketing
Tokyo, Japan 3:00 am
Just 5 hours prior, we had traveled halfway across the globe from our humble abodes in New Orleans. Jet lagged from our 14-hour flight, we dragged ourselves out of our hostel capsule rooms and down the street for the 15-minute walk to Tsukiji Market. It was dark and cold, yet we could make out several others heading towards the same direction.
Once at the market entrance, officials directed us towards a holding area where we were instructed to put on blue penny vests and sit packed in groups with other jet lagged tourists on the left side of the room on the floor. The floor on right side of the room had already been packed and filled with other jet lagged tourists all wearing green penny vests. Arriving at 3:15 am, we were number 100 out of the 120 spectators Tsukiji Market allows to observe their business daily.
We were informed that Tsukiji Market is a real fish market, where real business and auctions occur daily. Our observation was a courtesy awarded to us, yet respect was vital. Conversations were to be limited and flash photography was disallowed. We were also informed that each group would be granted 20 minutes of observing the auction. The first group would observe from 5:40 to 6:00 am and second group from 6:00 to 6:20 am. We looked up at the clock and wondered how the time would pass. Fortunately for us, the time leading up to the auction was extremely educational.
– Tsukiji Market –
As I sat in amazement of the concept of warm canned coffee from a vending machine, a relatively young auctioneer, named “Tim”, commanded the room’s attention. He was there to give us a history lesson on Tsukiji Market. He was relatively young because he had only worked in the market for 20 years.
He explained that he still was not an expert in valuing Tuna. The valuation process of Tuna is an art form that takes many years to cultivate, yet mistakes can still be made. Tim proclaimed the two most important factors in valuing the tuna are understanding what quality of tuna you are seeking and evaluating the fat content of said tuna via tactile feel.
Prior to the auction, bidders go around valuing all the tuna and hitting the tails of the tuna with pick axes. They then take pieces of the flesh and tactilely discern the fat content of the meat. The process of the actual bidding on the fish was explained to be very efficient, comprised of fast hand signals and shout-singing of bids. Prior to seeing the auction, I’m left with the impression of film depictions of the US stock market in the 1990s with lots of people gathered around yelling and shouting, holding pieces of paper, and somehow being productive. When we arrived in the market it was anything but chaotic; it was an organized, precise song and dance.
– First Auction of the Year –
According to Tim, Tsukiji Market is one of the largest fish markets in the world. They hold auctions every day except Sunday throughout the year. He explained the desire to move the market as the market itself sits on some of the most valuable real estate in all of Tokyo, however, plans to move the market have been suspended.
One tourists asked what was the most expensive tuna ever sold, which I was surprised to learn was well over $1 Million USD. Tim explained that every year on the first Saturday of the year in January, the market holds an auction for the first Bluefin Tuna of the year. It is considered an honor and symbol of status to win the bid for the first tuna of the year. This tuna is sold at a much higher price than market value. The practice is viewed to highlight the demand for Tuna as well as remind others of the limitations on the resources the ocean can provide.
Back in 2013, Kiyoshi Kumura, owner of many Japanese sushi chain restaurants, paid $1.76 million for the first Bluefin at Tsukiji. Tim explained that of course no Tuna is worth that much money, but the true value of that exchange was the publicity. Press from all over the world covered the story and gave Kimura as well the fish market a solid return on their investment. My experience at the Tsukiji fish market was illuminating how the Tuna market in Japan is rooted deeply in tradition.
After your tour has concluded be sure to check out some “breakfast” sushi. We went to Daiwa-Sushi; it was the best sushi I have ever had and they prepare right in front of you!
By Alex Rondon