The air was cold and the hour early as we sped toward the market. Buoyed on by our love for seafood, we’d gotten up only a few hours after we’d gone to bed. Struggling to open our tired eyes, we’d skipped showers in favour of 10 more minutes in bed, before getting dressed and heading out into the cool night to hail a taxi.
After much wandering we finally found one; a muted yellow, it looked as though it were trying its best to mimic it’s American counterpart - only this was Tokyo. Rapping on the window, we waited patiently for the driver to roll it down before mumbling a one word question: ‘Tsukiji?’ Stifling a large yawn before gawking at the early hour (3:30am), he reluctantly signalled us to get in the back and primed the motor. On the second try it roared to life - an alien sound at such a peaceful hour - and we accelerated off toward the Sumida River. Despite the lack of traffic and perhaps proving that he was still half-asleep, the driver drifted from lane to lane in a sluggish, listless manner, though rather than cause alarm the gentle swaying and swerving had the opposite effect of (almost) lulling us back to sleep - I suspect the driver too. Twenty minutes later we pulled up outside what looked to be a derelict warehouse and, after paying the driver his fare, climbed out to investigate.
The distinctive scent of seafood came in on the breeze and filled our nostrils as we both breathed deeply - it certainly smelled like the right place. The huge and imposing silhouette of the warehouse bore down on us like some sort of prehistoric predator, it’s two tiny lights out front beckoning us to come closer. Glancing at one another apprehensively, we slowly started toward them. From within we could hear the muffled sound of machinery compliment the subdued shouts of workers. Around the side we found an open door, the bright light emanating from within casting a white square on the shadowed ground beneath our feet. Caught in it, we were forced to squint painfully. Shrugging our shoulders nonchalantly, we stepped inside.
The place was gigantic, far larger than I think either of us had ever imagined. Bubbling tanks of water branched off in various directions and seemed to go on for eternity, the creatures within all writhing with life. To our left a muscled man eyed us curiously as he dragged a long, thin blade across a whetstone used for sharpening such things; if we hadn’t known any better we might have thought we were fair game in a place like this. Quickly we moved down one of the wriggling isles, completely in awe of all the different species and fantastic colours on display. Avoiding slippery scales and reaching tentacles, we made our way down to where the tuna auction was held.
Exiting the emporium we found ourselves in a neat square. I felt a jab to my ribs and looked at my friend accusingly, who merely pointed toward the far wall. Lined up along the floor were the tuna, their immense bulk almost the size of me, all lined up ready for auction. Following a line of Japanese businessmen that had silently materialised nearby, we walked into a room that featured more of the giant fish. Realising that the auction was about to begin, we stood quietly at the back and let them get on with it. An old man stepped up on to a crate in front of the small group. Bowing deeply, he said something in Japanese, smiled, then began the auction. Clearly a veteran, his words came fast and furious, and it was all we could do to keep up with who the lead bidder was. Evidently, it was a rotund man in slacks, who beamed warmly when the hammer finally fell.
After the auctions came to a close we left Tsukiji via a door to our right. The sun was beginning to creep over the horizon and bleary eyes everywhere would soon awaken to a new day. Here at Tsukiji, however, the pace continued to ramp up as workers buzzed past on forklifts, sprayed down baskets of fish and sliced up the catch of the day.
Amazed and a little astonished with the place, I turned to my friend and without thinking heard the familiar words roll off my tongue: ‘So, what do you fancy for breakfast?’
Grinning as a man emptied fishy entrails into a bin nearby, he replied: ‘Sushi?’