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Tsukiji and Toyosu – Old and New Kitchen of Japan

2018.10.15

On 6th October 2018, the world-famous Tsukiji Fish Market closed its door after 83 years.

Kitchen of Japan

Tsukiji dealt with 480 types of fish daily, together with 270 varieties of vegetables, and was renowned as the world biggest fish market.  The lively morning auctions of tuna attracted many tourists from inside and outside Japan despite the fact that it started at 5:30 in the morning.

Opened in 1935, in the midst of steep inflation caused by food shortage and market dominance by a few large corporations, Tsukiji Market was at the time the future for fresh product distribution and fair pricing. 

The predecessor, Nihonbashi Market, was the mercantile centre of Japan since the early 17th century.  At the beginning of its life, it was on the waterfront with canals connecting the inner-city.  But the development of the city stretched the land outwards to the bay, and many waterways were filled to accommodate the growing population.  By the time it was devastated by the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, it was almost landlocked, and the move became necessary.

Tsukiji was chosen for its prime location with excellent transport connections, adjacent to the vibrant shopping streets of Ginza. With rapid economic growth and continuing population increase, combined with the development of food freezing technologies, the trading of seafood items expanded.  In the 1990s, 800,000 tonnes of fish and seafood went through the market annually.

In the 2000s, the supermarket chains started dealing directly with the traders and producers.  The logistics and internet sales pushed the direct trades up.  The change in diet and decrease in population also contributed by 2016 to the decline in goods going through Tsukiji to half of what it had been at its peak.  Even then, according to research by Tokyo Metropolitan City, it is twice as big as the second largest market, Mercamadrid, in Spain.

Not Just Quantity, It Is about Quality and Variety

Tsukiji is a worldwide brand, the world’s largest fish market.  It is developed and sustained by professionals who work at the market and restaurant owners and chefs who are serious about freshness and taste, to serve the best to their customers.

What is more critical to the Tsukiji brand, is quality rather than quantity. 

Fish and seafood from all over Japan and overseas all go through the early morning auction at Tsukiji.  The buyers, called Naka-Oroshi, purchase them in large case lots from producers.  These professionals with Hawkeyes evaluate the prices of the stock, depending on quality, availability, and market trend. They know what their clients are looking for, as well as making sure they do not get overpriced.  They take the morning purchases to the stalls, fillet a large tuna that could weigh around 400 kgs, treat blowfish to make them safe, and process them according to clients’ requests. 

Producers across Japan appreciate the expertise of Tsukiji Naka-Oroshi and send the best catches there, to make sure that they go through the best traders to reach to customers who would enjoy them the most.

On the other end, there are over 20,000 clients, including the top sushi chefs across Tokyo, who come for the best catch of the day.  Their clientele is the most experienced consumers with discriminating taste, who dine at top restaurants around the world.  The restauranteurs cannot afford to compromise the quality of the ingredients.  For chefs, Tsukiji is the most reliable market from the quality and variety point of view:  There can always be found the best and the most desirable fish.

Inbound tourists increased to see the traditional, bustling trading customs, with the recent recommendation from TripAdvisor.  There were 33,799 visitors in 2016, up more than threefold from 2013, and nearly 70% from overseas.

Closure, New Phase, and New Brand

At the time of the shutdown, on the 6th October 2018, 530 traders were operating in Tsukiji.  Upon the move to the purpose-built Toyosu market, some of them will cease to trade.

The move to Toyosu was not an easy decision.  For some customers, it will be a little further away, 2.3 kilometres towards the seafront.  Those who work and buy at the fish market see it as an inevitable and exciting move, but are nervous at the same time. 

The Tsukiji Outer Market, with 400 stores which sells utensils and fresh produce, stayed after the fish market moved.  It grew together with the fish market, provided Naka-Oroshi traders with their breakfasts, shared customers who required the best knives and the most exquisite wares to serve the fish they bought at the market. 

The stall holders feel the responsibility to keep the Tsukiji brand, the kitchen of Japan, although the primary function moves away. Uncertainty looms, but merchants here hope to keep on serving traditional customers but also are open to welcome new visitors, especially tourists, who are expected to increase towards the 2020 Olympics.

Brand Tsukiji is set to remain in a different format, and the challenge for the new Toyosu Market to build its brand power to match its predecessor begins now.

 

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