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In the Raw

Tokyo's sushi, from port to plate.

Sushi in Tokyo begins before dawn. Throughout the night, thousands of trucks make their way down center-city streets to the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, commonly known as Tsukiji. They come bearing delicacies like uni (sea urchin roe), light and smooth as whipped cream; jewel-like ikura (salmon roe) that break open on the tongue; and aeabi (abalone) still writhing in their shells. There are more exotic specimens, too, such as the pillowy livers of anko (anglerfish), grotesque hunter of the deep seas; and the pearly, brain-like swirls of shirako (cod milt).

It is often said about Tsukiji: If it lives in the sea and is edible, it is here. In the evening, well-heeled Tokyoites will pay hundreds of dollars to sink their teeth into raw fish, a pleasure that seems almost prosaic in its hunter-gather simplicity. What they’re really paying for is the accumulated, hereditary knowledge that ensures that the best fish in the world winds up in the hands of the city’s best chefs. And it all starts at Tsukiji.

“The fishmongers are specialists in what they do,” explains Yukari Sakamoto, author of Food Sake Tokyo. “Just as a doctor can diagnose patients, fishmongers are trained, and their experience allows them to grade seafood as sashimi-grade or not.”

Sushi simply means raw fish on rice (sashimi is raw fish without rice). There are many kinds, such as chirashi-zushi, a smattering of toppings on a bowl of rice. Most restaurants, however — from Tokyo to New York to London — specialize in nigiri-zushi. Literally meaning “hand-formed sushi,” this is the kind that is molded with both hands in that hypnotic back-and-forth motion that gives sushi-making the aura of an ancient ritual. The result: a gently arching slab of fish mounted on a bite-sized pedestal of rice.

Nigiri-zushi (pronounced “nee-gee-ree,” with a hard “g”) originated in Tokyo and is a relatively recent development. For most of its thousand-plus-year history, sushi wasn’t about freshness at all. It was about preservation. The combination of rice and salt (later swapped for vinegar) was selected for its fermenting properties rather than flavor. Nigiri-zushi was a product of the modern city, created by street vendors in the 19th century for a busy populace that couldn’t wait for the fish to ferment. Improved sanitary conditions helped. So did the fact that Tokyo was located right on a bay with a ready supply of fresh fish.

Twentieth-century development of the waterfront means that fish is no longer sourced from Tokyo Bay; on the flipside, the development of the highway system means Tokyoites can now get their uni from the shores of Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido. The cuisine is constantly evolving with the times.


Dawn at the world’s largest fish market

The city streets are now drained of their neon lights and crowds, and men in tracksuits and down vests, knit beanies and rubber boots unload styrofoam crates of fish on ice from the market’s truck bay and drag giant, frozen tuna across the ground with metal hooks. Coming to their aid are a flotilla of minor forms of transport: wheelbarrows and wooden handcarts, diminutive forklifts and a motorized trolley, which is driven forward, backward and sideways one-handed through the market’s narrow passageways.

As the world’s largest fish market (five times the size of Tokyo’s baseball stadium and visited by some 40,000 people daily), Tsukiji is the picture of organized chaos. It’s a short walk from Tokyo’s posh Ginza district — close enough for those in rubber boots and those in Louboutins to occasionally share a sidewalk — but the difference is night and day. The market is a low-slung complex with a corrugated metal roof and cobblestone paths, built in 1935 and an anomaly in a city forever striving for the fashionable and the new.

Tatsuo Sato arrives at Tsukiji around 4 a.m. He’s a nakaoroshi, one of the intermediate wholesalers who purchase fish from the big auction houses to sell to the sushi chefs who visit the market each morning. There are 669 nakaoroshi at Tsukiji and about one-third of them deal in maguro (Bluefin tuna). Sato is one of them.

Each day, the market moves about 1,800 tons of seafood, resulting in approximately US$15 million in sales. But far and away, the biggest moneymaker is maguro.

On the floor of the auction room, hundreds of tuna lie side by side. Tuna from Australia and Cape Town, Ireland and New York. Tuna that crossed oceans in the cargo bellies of passenger planes. Tuna from Japan too: The Japanese consider the best tuna to be from Oma, a small town in the northern Aomori prefecture where fishing is still done by hand. Increasingly, there is also farmed tuna, which is likely to dominate the market in the future, given the increasing global demand and dwindling number of wild-caught tuna.

They’re big beasts, slick and round, with a row of spikes lining the ridge between the fins and the tail. Sato points out a particularly large specimen, weighing in at 313 kilograms.

The nakaoroshi, identifiable by small plaques pinned to their caps, weave up and down the aisles examining the fish, trying to estimate how much they’re worth. At their disposal: a flashlight (for peering down the middle of the gutted fish) and a small, hooked pick. Some of the tuna will sell for more than $10,000, though no one will know if each was worth it until after the fish is sold and cut open.

“Every tuna is different. The auction is a gamble,” says Sato, age 50, who started working in the market at age 18.

To aid the nakaoroshi, the auction houses rank the tuna based on their own estimates. The tails are also severed to allow a small section of meat to be inspected. Sato is concerned with color (a healthy blush is ideal) and fat content. The more fat, the more of the prized o-toro — the marbled, fatty, melt-in-your-mouth meat cut from the belly — the fish is likely to contain.

“I learn by doing,” says Sato, giving a frozen tuna a good thwack with his pick, testing for resistance. “Fat doesn’t freeze,” he explains.

The auction begins at 5:30 a.m. with the ringing of a bell. The auctioneer chants and the nakaoroshi respond with a series of finger signs that look, to the layman, like shadow puppets. Approximately every seven seconds, a tuna will be sold.


Five generations of expertise

At 7 a.m., Masatoshi Yoshino gets on his scooter and drives the 10 minutes to Tsukiji from his home in Nihonbashi. There, he makes his rounds as a sushi chef with an eye for quality, visiting the same 10 or so vendors as usual.

“Every morning, I go to the market and do my best to pick out the most delicious fish to serve to my customers,” Yoshino says.

Sometimes he buys exactly what he planned to buy. Sometimes he’ll pick something up on the recommendation of a nakaoroshi.

“We work together,” says Yoshino of his relationship with the market middlemen.

It is a relationship he inherited from his father.

Yoshino, 46, is the fifth-generation chef at Yoshino-zushi Honten. Unlike the typical caricature of the sushi chef — taciturn and exacting — Yoshino effuses warmth and playfulness, eyes twinkling. He’s not fussy about rules or etiquette.

“If people eat and enjoy, that’s good,” he says.

Yoshino-zushi Honten is a family business, opened in 1879. Yoshino’s father, 73-year-old sushi chef Shojiro Yoshino, still lends a hand at the counter; his wife and mother work behind the scenes. (The sixth-generation Yoshino, still in junior high school, hasn’t yet made up his mind if he will follow in his father’s footsteps.) The family lives above the shop ­— a common practice a century ago but not so much today.

The chefs at Yoshino-zushi Honten have been making nigiri-zushi for almost as long as nigiri-zushi has existed.

“Good sushi is sushi that doesn’t fall apart when you eat it,” explains the elder Yoshino. “You should be able to pick it up, dip it in soy sauce, and then, when it’s in your mouth, the rice should separate into individual grains.”

Both father and son trained for years before they earned a spot behind the counter. It’s not just that the execution needs to be flawless; it needs to be second nature, done by touch and not sight, so that the chef can keep up an uninterrupted banter with the diners across the counter while he makes their food.

At Yoshino-zushi there are about 40 different sushi toppings to choose from, including alien-looking shellfish; glittering, silver-skinned kohada, the younger Yoshino’s personal favorite; and seasonal treats like buri (adult yellowtail), a surprisingly rich white-fleshed fish pulled from the frigid waters of the Japan Sea.

There are two ways to order at a sushi restaurant: a la carte or omakase — a course of dishes selected by the chef. Ordering omakase is certainly the easiest. However, one of the charms of sushi, the elder Yoshino believes, is that you can eat exactly what you want, when you want, letting whim and fancy take over.

The dinner hour at Yoshino-zushi is now in full swing. Men and women fill the dozen seats at the counter, drinking beer from dainty glass cups. As Yoshino places a variety of meticulous cuts of fish in front of each one, small cries of delight ripple throughout the space.

In a few short hours, another day at Tsukiji will begin, and the Bluefin tuna that Yoshino handpicks will become yet another masterpiece of flavor, texture and presentation — the best fish in the world in the capable hands of one of Tokyo’s finest.

Rebecca Milner is an American writer who has lived in Japan for more than a decade. She’s the co-author of several guidebooks to Tokyo and Japan and a dining columnist for the Japan Times.