Tsukiji was dead. Contrary to all expectations, when we arrived there wasn’t a single soul to be seen. The place was deserted. Disconcertingly so. We wandered with a growing sense of trepidation, wondering what might have happened? … I’d previously read an article on Tsukiji in the National Geographic (November, 1995) which had said that Tsukiji – the largest and busiest fish market in Japan – never slept. In fact, the place had famously inverted day and night, with its employees sitting down to dinner and cold glasses of beer at the end of a ‘hard day’s night’, just as the rest of Tokyo was waking up and starting to think about breakfast.
Located south of Ginza, Tokyo’s Knightsbridge, on the edge of Tokyo Bay, Tokyo Central Wholesale Food Market, more popularly known as Tsukiji – meaning “reclaimed land” – dates back to the Edo Period when, following the disastrous Great Fire of Meireki (also known as the Furisode Fire) of 1657 which destroyed nearly 70% of the capital, much of the debris from the city was used to consolidate this area which was previously marshland. It then became a place occupied by the grand mansions and large gardens of the feudal elite, the daimyō lords of the outlying provinces, where they lived when they were visiting the Shogun’s capital, as they were periodically obliged to do. Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868 the area became a special residential district set aside for foreigners. The area changed its character once again after another natural disaster, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, when the market relocated here from nearby Nihonbashi. The current market complex began operation in 1935, but, as it occupies an area of prime real estate close to the upmarket retail and business districts of Ginza and the Tokyo waterfront, over the years it’s often been proposed to relocate the market elsewhere, and, currently it looks very likely to do so in order to allow redevelopment ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games.
From the lavish photos accompanying the National Geographic article which I’d read, I was expecting to see the water sloshed halls of the market teeming with battered white polystyrene boxes filled with glinting heaps of ice and a myriad array of fish with iridescent scales glittering under rows of electric lights, and the market’s distinctive electric carts flying about the place, weaving in and out of the aisles and deftly dodging collisions with oncoming forklift trucks and other delivery vehicles. The produce sold here is brought in from all regions of the Pacific and beyond – eels from the waters around Taiwan; salmon from the coastal waters off Chile; enormous tuna from the Southern or Antarctic Ocean south of Australia; as well as, sanma (秋刀魚) and hokke (ホッケ) two kinds of mackerel from the local waters around Japan (these are two of my favourites when in Japan, they’re delicious when grilled over hot coals), not to mention all the many kinds of sea slugs, sea urchins, plus plenty of different types of shellfish and seaweed too. Around some two thousand tonnes of seafood pass under the auction hammers here daily. The maguro マグロ (tuna) are a sight to behold – depending on the quality, their huge shiny silver frozen carcasses can sell for between 600,000 and one million Japanese Yen apiece (100 Yen currently being just over 50 pence, so up to almost £5,500!).
Tsukiji Hongan-ji, built in 1934 is one of the largest and most Indian-looking of Tokyo's Buddhist Temples
Tsukiji is quite a sight to behold, hence why a lot of overseas visitors to Tokyo rouse themselves early from their hotel beds on at least one day during their visit to see it, but naturally, for locals alike, it’s also a Mecca for food lovers in quest of the freshest sushi and sashimi. There are lots of places here to sample perhaps the most distinctive of Japan’s signature culinary delights. Having wandered around the bizarrely empty place for a while we eventually found one small restaurant open down a side street, next door to a little knife vendor’s shop, selling the sharpest knives of varying sizes for filleting fish and slicing the finest (in both senses of the term) cuts of sashimi. Here, at this little family run eating house, we found out why the whole place was so quiet. What we initially thought was our misfortune to have turned up on a closed day turned out to be our very good fortune, as today was the day of the Tsukiji Shishi Matsuri – a local Shinto religious festival.
Mikoshi (御輿) are very ornate, gilded sacred palanquins which are used throughout Japan to parade an effigy of the local kami 神 (the spirit, god, or genius loci) of a Shinto shrine through the streets of its district or town. Often these mikoshi do not carry the actual sacred effigy from the shrine itself, but rather a ritually invested totem or substitute imbued with the spirit of the local kami. These processions are far from the dour, solemn perambulations which the expectations of Westerners and their own experience of Christian pageantry might naturally expect, but are often in fact rather boisterous and exuberant spectacles, as the locals shake and jostle the mikoshi through the streets whilst singing and chanting as they go. According to some of the books I’ve read this liveliness is a relatively modern custom and in some parts of Japan a more sedate style of procession is apparently still practiced.
Sitting in the restaurant we gradually became aware of the rising hubbub as the procession from Tsukiji’s Namiyoke Inari-jinja, the local shrine, approached. As the sound grew louder I stepped outside with my camera and was swiftly engulfed, cut off from the restaurant, as a great surge of people, all dressed in the colours of their local wards, swelled to completely fill the narrow street. The teams carrying the mikoshi were wearing short jackets, called happi (法被), and split-toed canvas shoes with rubber soles, known as jikatabi (地下足袋), both of these are common kinds of everyday work wear. Some of the men looked like they’d forgotten to put on their trousers, but this was because they were wearing fundoshi (ふんどし), a traditional kind of loincloth. They were carrying a number of different mikoshi. I’ve read that these can often be extremely heavy, and can even weigh in at around a ton. I managed to shoot a couple of short films which really caught the vibrant atmosphere and noise of the procession.
A little book on Japan’s native Shinto religion which I own, titled Shinto: The Kami Way by Sokyo Ono (Tuttle, 1962), gives the following explanation: “As a rule, the procession may be said to have one or more of the following meanings: (1) It may signify the going out to welcome to the shrine a kami coming from a far-away world or coming down from the kami-world (shinkai). This may be the reason why in some cases a procession in starting from a shrine is calm, as if travelling incognito, while on the return journey it is sometimes merrily animated or proceeds in the darkness with all the lights in the shrine extinguished. (2) It may signify a visit to some place in the parish which has a special spiritual or historical significance for the kami. (3) It may be an occasion for the kami to pass through the parish and bless the homes of the faithful. (4) And finally it may commemorate the historic processions of some Imperial messengers or feudal lords on their way to a shrine. Probably in most cases the procession has some historical significance related either to the appearance of the kami, the founding of the shrine, or some outstanding historical event in the life of the community.”
There was a real, joyous and lively atmosphere of community as the procession swelled and filled the neighbourhood, with lots of friendly, smiling faces all around. As the procession moved on and so began to thin I managed to dash back across the street through the throng of people to the restaurant, to finish our meal. The restaurant owner joked that I’d been gone so long he thought I’d been swept away by the merry tide of revellers. If Tsukiji was dead at the start of this, the day I first visited it in 2005, it certainly ended by coming to life in a most unexpected and interesting way.