Friday, October 02, 2009

[Travelogue] A fish story

[Note: this entry was actually written two days ago.]

When we got back from dinner I was dead tired, having gotten up at 3AM to go to the Tsukiji fish market, and when I woke up the next morning we were back in Japanese territorial waters and so back in radio silence, hence the long delay in posting this. So where was I?

Oh yes, Tsukiji fish market. Did I mention that it was big? Oh yes, I believe I did. But it bears repeating. If you're a fish you can imagine a sign on the door that says, "Abandon all hope ye that enter here." After seeing Tsukiji it's a wonder there's a fish left in the sea. And in fact, Japanese fishermen are making a pretty good dent in the world's population of tuna. I am given to understand that the bluefin tuna is nearly extinct, and a damn shame too because it's really tasty. Bluefin tuna definitely drew the short straw when it came time to decide how attractive they would be for human consumption.

The scale of the market is matched by the scale of the tuna that pass through there. Every morning at 5AM is the famous tuna auction, which is well chronicled in educational videos. It has become so famous that the auction area is now off-limits to the public. I drew a very stern rebuke when I tried to sneak in to take a picture. ("Out! Out!" with a finger pointed at me. Given how polite Japanese usually are that's probably the equivalent of a New Yorker saying, "Get the f*ck out of here you little piece of gaijin sh*t!")

Shortly after my failed attempt to surreptitiously photograph the tuna auction I discovered that there's actually a visitor's area where they will let you go in and watch. Under the auspices of officials holding signs in English with stern warnings about how to conduct yourself ("No flash photography!") you file into the auction area, which is a huge refrigerated warehouse, one of many. Inside, the floor is covered with the biggest fish you have ever seen, all frozen completely solid. (There are other areas where they sell thawed tuna.) The smallest was probably 80 pounds, and the largest was easily several hundred. They move them around with huge meat hooks, and the largest require two or three people to wrangle.

But the most remarkable thing about Tsujiki is not its size but the fact that the world's largest fish market doesn't smell like fish. I don't mean that it doesn't smell *much* like fish, I mean that it doesn't smell like fish *at all*. And thereby hangs a tail (pun intended).

At the tuna auction, the bidders assess the quality of the tuna by taking small samples from the base of the fish's tail. In order to take these samples they have to thaw the tail out a bit, which they do by running water onto the fish with a hose. While this operation was proceeding there was a man whose job it was to squeegee the floor in order to usher the water into a drain. He was actually doing this the entire time the water was running, which seemed to me to be a complete waste of effort. Why not just let gravity do the work? I came up with a theory, having to do with the Japanese veneration of tradition and unwillingness to question the established order of things, about why this person would engage in such an apparently useless activity. But I learned later that there is actually a good reason for him to do this: when water is flowing over the fish, little bits of fish flesh and scales get washed off. If the water were allowed to simply run into the drain, these fish bits would settle out of the water like silt and stick to the floor, where they would rot. If you actively squeegee while the water is running, you keep the place clean. And that sort of attention to detail is why the world's largest fish market doesn't smell like fish.

All of which leads me to wonder why the Japanese have not (speaking in terms of economics now) taken over the world. They are industrious, bright, incredibly well organized, and they clearly have a meticulous attention to detail, which is why they make the world's best cars, the world's wizziest electronic gadgets, and the world's cleanest fish markets. I used to think that the U.S. was on the path to long-term decline because we don't make anything any more. But here in Japan they not only make stuff, they make really good stuff. And yet they are in still in the throes of a recession that has lasted fifteen years and counting. Apparently my model of how the world works still needs some tweaking.

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