Tsukiji in Transition Part 2: Fish & Dish
- In: Food and Drink
- Tags: fish market,Food and Drink,Tokyo
“Just cut the head off like so,” explains Kazuhiro-san (Kaz), effortlessly slicing the head from a silvery-skinned mackerel. With his razor-sharp fish knife, he cuts horizontally into the body, using the backbone as a guide. In one fluid motion, he releases a plump fillet of glistening pink flesh for the class to see. For the rest of the class, I tried my hand at filleting saba (mackerel), skinning tai (snapper), and shucking kaki (oysters), imitating Kaz-san's demonstration in a classroom nearby Tsukiji Fish Market.
A clean cut into an ocean fresh snapper – Photo by Chris Mollison
Next step: cut along the back -- Photo by Chris Mollison
Our ingredients were not procured from the banal ice displays of a supermarket fish counter. These beauties were hauled out of icy waters in the wee hours that morning, packed in ice and whisked away to the cavernous halls of the world-famous Tsukiji Market. Along with the 2,000 tons of marine products that move through the labyrinthine inner market daily via motorized turret trucks and handcarts, our fish made its way to various vendors’ (mid-level wholesalers) stalls.
Sadly, this situation will no longer exist come November 2 when the inner market moves to a new site in Toyosu. Amongst the 630-some odd vendors here, the question of whether the move will be for the good is still in contention. For all of the positive reasons – such as modern and safer facilities – many negatives remain. Primarily, the largest loss will be of many skilled, knowledgeable vendors who simply can't afford the move. But aside from the vendors themselves, plenty of secondary actors' livelihoods depend on the daily activity of the inner market, and thus, hinge on the move. Outer market vendors (discussed here), volunteer guides, restaurants, townspeople, and tour companies and cooking schools (like Kaz-san's) and the neighborhood itself will be dramatically affected when the inner market businesses are no longer here. Can they survive the move?
Trying desperately not to cut my fingers in class – Photo by Chris Mollison
From Fish to Dish
My morning began just outside Tsukiji’s inner market entrance, where I met up with Kaz-san and his wife Arimi-san, the duo behind Fish & Dish, a unique Tsukiji tour and cooking class service. The couple offers a rare insider’s look through the ins and outs of the market, followed by a sushi-making class. Participants get an unparalleled experience of learning step-by-step how to break down whole fish to slicing and plating. For a more detailed look at a previous tour and class Odigo took with Fish & Dish, read here.
Let Fish & Dish show you a memorable experience of Tsukiji – Photo by Chris Mollison
Dressed in matching navy tees bearing the Fish & Dish logo, Kaz-san and Arimi-san warmly greeted each member of the tour. We gathered in a loose huddle as we headed toward the inner market warehouse, dodging turret trucks zipping by left and right. Dressed like a market veteran in knee-high rubber boots, Kaz-san led us through a dizzying maze of narrow aisles, at times no wider than my shoulders. Stopping occasionally at various stalls, Kaz-san and Arimi-san introduced us to their favorite merchants for tuna, oysters, mackerel, squid, and snapper – ingredients commonly used in Japanese home kitchens.
Getting a lesson on oysters – Photo by Chris Mollison
Checking what's seasonal and fresh – Photo by Chris Mollison
Kaz-san is no stranger to the market, or fishing for that matter. Born and raised in Numazu, a major fishing port in Shizuoka Prefecture, Kaz-san spent his childhood fishing with his dad, a fisherman. While working there as a fish merchant, he perfected his knife skills. After he moved to Tokyo, he worked for a wholesale trading company buying and selling marine products and got to know various Tsukiji vendors.
Kaz-san is a Tsukiji insider – Photo by Chris Mollison
“While I enjoyed my job, I always wanted to share what I love and what I know about the fishing trade with my friends and others. Everyone should have access to high-quality fish. I wanted to show people that buying and preparing whole fish isn’t intimidating,” says Kaz-san. His passion led him to start a catering service in his free time, making sushi at friends’ parties. After buying whole fish at Tsukiji in the morning, he would demonstrate how to clean, cut and put together a fresh sashimi platter. Naturally, friends became interested in buying their own fresh fish, prompting Kaz-san to start giving tours of the inner market, a seemingly inaccessible maze even to many Japanese.
Selecting fish for class – Photo by Chris Mollison
In no time, friends of friends began to ask for tours and demos as Kaz-san’s unique service spread by word of mouth. As what started as a hobby grew busier by the day, Arimi-san jumped in to help plan, promote, and operate the business. With a background as an editor and event director planning large-scale events, Arimi-san possessed the ideal business acumen to grow the business. She also speaks near perfect English.
An Immersive Experience
While the couple’s background stories couldn’t be more different, what they shared was a passion for offering visitors a genuine experience, rather than a touristy one. Gimmicky tours, still prevalent in Japan, may have worked ten years ago, but are no longer cutting it for the modern traveler. Recognizing this need in the tourism market for something more authentic, Arimi-san and Kaz-san pioneered an immersive Tsukiji experience.
Using a traditional urokotori fish scaler – Photo by Chris Mollison
Cooking classes in Japan, generally speaking, usually are geared toward beginners who may need lots of supervision, handholding, and basic kitchen know-how. Fish & Dish takes a different approach. Recognizing that travelers nowadays are more kitchen savvy and adventurous than ever before, Kaz-san and Arimi-san actively encourage their students to get hands-on with ingredients. What’s most refreshing is they don’t underestimate guests’ abilities or potential. After watching Kaz-san’s demo, we tried preparing fish ourselves, step-by-step. Despite making some mistakes, the experience was as challenging and fun as the fish was tasty.
Learning to shape sushi properly – Photo by Chris Mollison
Following Kaz-san's instructions to a tee – Photo by Chris Mollison
Time to eat! Snapper sashimi with sake – Photo by Chris Mollison
Changing Times at Tsukiji
Tsukiji Market appears now in every Tokyo guidebook, in every language. In the last few years, the inner market has become a tourist destination for food lovers, photographers, the jet-lagged, and sushi-crazed. With this influx of tourism, tour companies and cooking classes, interest in Tsukiji, in general, has risen exponentially.
With the inner market moving, Fish & Dish will have to reshape their tour services. Along with the dozens of tour companies and countless guides that offer Tsukiji tours now, Fish & Dish sees the move as much of a loss for business as for traditional culture.
“Lots of the small family-run vendors won’t be able to afford to move to the new site. They’ll have to close down. Creating a food culture is not done through new facilities, but through people. Losing workers who have generations of skill and experience is a loss for Japan,” says Arimi-san. This sentiment is shared by a large number of market vendors, who view the move as closing a door on a very special part of Tokyo’s history. If and when the building is taken down, with no remnant remaining, Tsukiji’s heyday will become only a distant memory. These hallowed halls, with 80 years worth of real-life stories, are irreplaceable.
An inner market vendor checking inventory – Photo by Chris Mollison
While disappointed, Arimi-san and Kaz-san recognized early on that to keep their business, they must pivot from their initial plan. As a relatively young company, helmed by young, bright founders, Fish & Dish is in a unique position to redefine – and refine – their services. Change is hard. For many of the long-established businesses at the market, complacency will be the norm, even in the face of changing times.
But Fish & Dish has already begun to change course. They’ve started planning an outer market tour, already collaborating with vendors who will become tour highlights. And starting late August, they will kick off a tour and class at Osaka’s Central Wholesale Market, the second largest fish market in Japan.
In addition, Arimi-san and Kaz-san will continue to teach the fundamentals of selecting fish, boning and cutting it, and sushi-making techniques. They even have a similar class for kids!
"It's important for young kids to know where the fish they eat comes from. Not the supermarket. But fresh from the ocean, as whole creatures. When they understand this, they will have a better connection with food," says Arimi-san.
Kaz-san and Arimi-san having a laugh in the outer market – Photo by Chris Mollison
With less than four months until the move, tourist interest in Tsukiji has exploded. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which governs the inner market, has recently begun to tighten regulations in response to merchants’ growing complaints of the crowds being a hindrance to work. Up until now, inner market tours – while not permitted under market rules (without advance scheduling) – were never actively banned by officials. In fact, hundreds of tour groups flow through each day. Oddly, even though tours are restricted, the “general public” has free access after 9 am. Note: This time was recently changed to 10 am after an accident in the inner market.
The daily grind in the inner market – Photo by Chris Mollison
“We got a letter from market officials summoning us to a meeting,” says Arimi-san of a notice she received in June. Of the dozens of tour companies, only Fish & Dish and two others were singled out to immediately stop giving inner market tours. Arimi-san and Kaz-san were pressured into signing a harshly worded agreement, shaming them for their actions. They also promised not to give further tours else they be subject to a penalty of being banned from the inner market. Luckily, after consulting with a lawyer, Fish & Dish have found ways to continue legally showing guests around the market.
But one questions whether such harsh measures to control visitor flow are justifiable especially considering the short time left on the market’s tenure. Objectively, curtailing market traffic doesn’t seem like a smart move, especially when so much of the market’s livelihood depends on tourists.
“We’re sad about the recent restrictions. Everyone has a right to see and learn about Tsukiji Market before it ends. We love and are proud of its atmosphere where people can feel its history and see the everyday lives of real people,” says the couple. Indeed, the tides are changing on this piece of living history. Go before it gets too late.
Get an insider's look at Tsukiji with Fish & Dish – Photo by Chris Mollison
Want to learn more about sushi and sashimi? Check out the Odigo theme page!