Standing on a Tokyo street corner at 4am, I'm wondering why I'm not tucked up in bed, rather than looking for a taxi in the cold. We're headed for Tsukiji, the home of the world's biggest seafood market. It's an experience that should be had now as the market in its current form will close next year.
While Tokyo sleeps, armies of porters, wholesalers, auctioneers and packers work to ensure that the staple of Japanese cuisine makes it to plates across the country.
The tuna auctions are our destination and our driver seems puzzled by this early excursion. As he drops us at the Kachidoki Gate we find a line of bleary-eyed tourists clutching yellow sheets of paper handed out by a security guard as the line grows steadily. It is the ticket in and tells you that you are one of just 120 people per day to be granted access in two groups.
As we file into a building on the edges of the market we're handed green fluoro vests and line up. A video outlines the strict rules of your entry to the Inner Market, a place closed to anyone but market staff and wholesalers until 9am each day. We're led through the chaos of the market, the air thick with the smell of fish smokers, as porters steer around us on pallet trucks.
Reaching the warehouse where the auctions take place we're hemmed between boxes and rope barriers. Lines of once-majestic tuna lie on the concrete floor, pulled into neat lines by porters with poled hooks.
Wholesalers inspect the tuna, weighing up the quality and what they are willing to pay. Tuna is big business, with bluefin at the new year auctions reaching record prices of $1000 per kilogram. At more than $350,000 for one huge specimen, it's not difficult to see why the bluefin are prized and endangered.
With multiple auctions taking place, the auctioneers need to stand out and be heard among the din so they ring a brass bell as they stand on a wooden stool. The ringing stops and the auction explodes into life, the auctioneer lurching backward and forward, at times on one leg as he takes mere nods and a tip of the hand as bids. Auctions can last for less than 60 seconds - in fact, the bell ringing that precedes them can be longer. Ending abruptly, the auctioneer doffs his cap, gives the slightest of bows and steps down as the porters mark the bidder's name on the tuna, then hook and drag them away.
Arriving back at the edges of the market, our thoughts turn to breakfast. If you've come this far, dragged yourself from your bed, the experience of a sushi breakfast should not be missed. Daiwa is among the best and, as such, queues can be expected but then there's comfort in knowing you are getting the best in town. Sitting at the cramped counter, the chef asks if the omakase is OK. He may refer to it as the set menu but in effect it's the chef's choice.We nod enthusiastically and the eating begins. Heaped piles of sliced ginger and a dollop of wasabi are placed on a wooden plank in front of us, with the familiar bowl of miso soup. Prepared just inches from us we eat maki rolls, sea urchin, tuna belly, horse mackerel and more. It's an efficient operation which ensures that within 20 minutes you have eaten, paid your bill and are exiting from the back of the restaurant. For those who attempt to linger, the chef will tell you when time is up and point you towards the cashier. After all, there are others queuing for their brief taste of some of the world's freshest sushi.
'The West Australian' is a trademark of West Australian Newspapers Limited 2013.
All rights reserved.
Select your state to see news for your area.