Something’s Fishy in Tokyo

Spend a morning in sushi heaven

By: Jim Calio

TOKYO It’s early morning at the famous Tsukiji fish market in downtown Tokyo. Huge frozen tuna carcasses, their heads and tails cut off, sit in long rows in a warehouse that stretches for 100 yards or more. They are encased in frost, the mist rising into the cool morning air. Some have red markings that indicate their weight and quality. But all wait, still and lifeless, for the auction to begin.

It is, by some accounts, the best show in Tokyo the tuna auction in what is reputed to be the biggest fish market in the world. Tsukiji sprawls over 53 acres not far from the glitzy Ginza district on the shores of Tokyo Bay. Every day, more than 2,500 tons of fish are bought and sold to hundreds of wholesalers, restaurateurs and even homemakers.

The variety of seafood is endless over 400 kinds, from penny-per-piece sardines to golden-brown, dried sea slug caviar, all sold in hundreds of stalls. It is estimated that one-third of all seafood consumed in Japan passes through here.

But the main event is the early morning tuna auction.

Before the auction begins at 5:30 a.m., experienced buyers wander up and down the rows of frozen tuna, carefully inspecting the meat, cutting into the tail section to judge its color and quality.

Then, the action begins. Several dozen auctioneers, equally spaced apart, standing on chairs or wooden crates, start barking out coded language only the regulars can understand. A nod or wave of the hand, and a tuna weighing 175 pounds and costing over $2,700 is sold. (Freezing does not affect the taste, by the way.)

Of course, tuna is not the only fish sold at Tsukiji. There is every kind of sea creature imaginable all for eating in the many warehouses that make up the market: shellfish from China, fish from off the coast of Japan and even lobsters from New England. And, in other parts of the market, produce is sold, as well as kitchenware and other household goods.

But it is the tuna auction that attracts the buyers and sellers, and not a few tourists, who must be careful not to get run over by the orange three-wheeled carts that haul the carcasses back and forth from warehouse to truck.

And, of course, after watching the auction and walking among the stalls of moist, gleaming fish (amazingly, there is no “fishy” smell, and the place is hosed down every night), there is only one thing to do: Have a sushi breakfast at one of the many small restaurants adjacent to the market.

You know it’s going to be fresh.


This spring, American Airlines began daily nonstop service between Los Angeles and Tokyo, opening up a Southern California market that has proved to be very strong for the airline.

As a passenger on one of the first flights, I was happy to discover that first-class cabins are outfitted with sleeper seats, with reclining backs and an extended leg rest. With the flat, six-foot, six-inch bed in place, Bose earphones on and the lumbar panel and headrests fine-tuned, I stretched out flat for seven hours in dreamland.

“Los Angeles has such strong cultural and commercial ties to Japan that the route makes sense,” said Tokyo-based managing director Nancy Knipp. “In fact, we planned to do it long ago, but 9/11 put everything on hold.” According to Knipp, demand for the 9½- to 10½-hour flights has been strong since April, when the airline reported a 116 percent increase in transpacific travel. (When we flew to Tokyo in May, only 10 of the Boeing 777’s 223 seats were unoccupied.)

Individual monitors, movies, satellite phones and computer power plugs are standard in some seats. And if your clients are AAdvantage Club members: a roundtrip flight earns 10,902 miles.


Anne Z. Cooke

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