One of the great perks of being able to travel as much as I do is getting the chance to compare and contrast similar things, only in very different places.
Things like synagogues in locations as disparate as Boise Idaho, Havana Cuba, and Helsinki Finland; or like the beach in Sydney Australia, Tulum Mexico, and Ibiza Spain; or like the street food in Mexico City (scorpion and bugs), Beijing (noodles and spiders), Edinburgh (deep-fried haggis) and Lake Atitlan, Guatemala (best tacos ever).
Or like a visit to the tuna auctions held each morning in Honolulu, USA, and Tokyo, Japan.
Pier 38, Honolulu, USA
I was in Honolulu recently, for the purpose of handing my kids over to my ex-wife after our annual end-of-year holidays. Meeting her in Hawaii saved me from having to escort the children from LA back to Australia. But, I asked myself, seeing that I’ve had to endure the unspeakable “hardship” of traveling all the way to Hawaii, why not make a short trip out of it?
Thus explaining how it is we came to be in a Honolulu hotel room, wide awake at 3:00am from jet-lag and frantically scouring the internet for something to do. Never mind that the sun was still hours away from rising, and not another soul was up and about. And also explaining how it was that on the spur of the moment, at 4:30am and in total darkness, we made our way to Honolulu’s harbor, for the sole purpose of watching folks auction some fish.
Although as unplanned excursions go, this one was especially brilliant.
You see, it turns out that Honolulu is the home of the only fresh tuna auction in the United States. Rain or shine, it kicks off at 5:30am, in a warehouse on Pier 38, and has done so six days a week, every week since 1952.
However, before the daily auction can start, the product first needs to arrive. So all through the night a motley fleet of fishing boats chugs into the harbor, moors at the pier, and unloads the precious cargo: thousands of kilos of fresh fish, plucked only hours before from the pristine waters that surround Hawaii.
So on our arrival at Pier 38, that’s the first thing we saw: dozens of mostly small boats, docked alongside the pier, with seagoing sounding names like “The Queen Alina”. From which fish of all sorts were being offloaded, dumped unceremoniously into massive wheeled crates for immediate transport into the market. In the process every fish was getting weighed and tagged, so as to identify exactly which boat it had come from. And some of the bigger fish, being too heavy to lift manually, were hooked up to cranes, hoisted high into the air for weighing, and then dropped heavily into the waiting crates below.
Each boat was staffed by a crew of hardy-looking men (there were no women involved anywhere that morning – clearly, commercial fishing remains the exclusive province of men in Hawaii), dressed mainly in bright yellow plastic breeches. So the air was thick with the smell of fish and the ocean; the dark night punctuated with the grunting sounds of men hard at work.
But never mind that they were busy, the boat crews were all incredibly friendly to us. As we paused to watch them, they happily chatted, explaining their fishing techniques (in Hawaii strict rules apply to how fish are harvested, so as to preserve fish stocks and quality, with all fish caught by hook and line; no boats in the fleet use nets), showing us the fish in their catch (tuna, moonfish, swordfish), and posing for photos.
At one boat a wizened old man pointed to a building at the center of the pier, and told us that we should head inside, so that we could see the fish auction take place. I was a bit hesitant – everyone around us seemed to be incredibly busy, and it felt like we would only be getting in the way. But the old man said we were welcome to go in. So we followed his direction, through a dangling plastic screen that separated the warm night air outside from the refrigerated air inside, pausing only at a station where we were required to wash the soles of our shoes in a bath of lukewarm water.
But that was it. No other formalities were required, and presently we found ourselves inside of a cavernous, brightly lit warehouse, where hundreds of weighed and tagged fish were lined up on row after row of ice-heaped pallets, ready for sale. We were the only visitors there that morning – everyone else was involved in the business of the market – and I felt a little bit self-conscious strutting about in my shorts, hoodie and Adidas running sneakers.
As we walked up and down the lines of fish, we saw that each had had a small chunk of its meat cut from the tail, and sometimes another small bit taken from elsewhere on the fish. These cuttings had been placed on top of the fish, thus allowing buyers to quickly ascertain the fish’s quality. As one fellow explained to me (even inside the very busy auction area, everyone was incredibly friendly and chatty): “the little sample lets us quickly check things like color and fat content – the best quality tuna will have bright red meat with white fat streaks – and we can tell freshness from how clear the eyes are.”
At 5.30am a bell rang, and then the real work of the market kicked off in earnest. A clutch of about three dozen men in heavy parkas – wholesalers, restaurant buyers, and retailers from around Hawaii and beyond – gathered around a sizeable tuna that was laid out on ice at the end of a long row of pallets. There was a fair amount of pushing and shoving as the men jostled for position, each quickly giving said fish the once-over to assess its quality.
Then the auctioneer began yelling and accepting bids based on a price per pound. The bidding went back and forth, fast and furious. And within a matter of seconds it was over, the victorious bidder noted on a piece of paper by a nearby clerk. Then the entire throng – the auctioneer, the buyers, and us – shuffled a few steps down the line, and the process began again with the next fish on the block.
It continued this way as the men slowly moved along the lines of pallets, with fish after fish falling under the hammer, as it were. No-one seemed to care that we were hovering about too, and at one point I was kind of tempted to throw in a bid of my own. But then I thought better of it. I mean, I could have won, right, and then what would I have done? A 200 pound tuna is probably not something I could have easily packed in my hand luggage (airlines really can be quite fussy these days).
So instead we just followed along, fascinated by the process and caught up in the energy of it all. Although after about fifteen minutes I had seen enough. Not to mention that I was shivering from the biting cold inside of the temperature-controlled warehouse. So we made to leave, even though the auction was far from complete, and would continue for a few hours yet, normally wrapping up only around 9am.
As we got to the exit, I paused to take one last photo – of a sizeable tuna yet to be auctioned. I asked a man hovering nearby what he thought the fish would sell for. He gave it a quick look, and then pronounced with some authority: “About eight or nine bucks a pound, so that is a $700 fish!”
I guess I was supposed to whistle in admiration. I mean, that is a lot of dough for a fish. (I later read that the Hawaii fish auction churns through about 15,000 tons of fish a year, valued at about $250 million). But actually, I just smiled and if truth be told, found myself thinking: “only $700 – how cute is that?”
Because hearing the value of that fish immediately turned my mind to another fish auction I had the great privilege of visiting, over ten years ago, in Tokyo, Japan. Compared to which the Hawaii fish auction was like amateur hour at a local fishing club.
Tsukiji, Tokyo, Japan
From 1935 until October 2018 (so only a few months ago), there was a fish market at Tsukiji, on the riverfront in central Tokyo, not ten minutes away from the upmarket Ginza shopping area. But calling Tsukiji a “fish market” is a bit like calling a limited edition souped-up Ferrari a “car”.
Tsukiji was, in fact, the world’s largest fish and seafood market, and one of the world’s largest wholesale food markets as well. (To be fair, it still exists, only that in October of 2018, after years of speculation and preparation, the market at Tsukiji was shut forever and relocated to a much larger premises in Toyosu, about five kilometers away on the Tokyo waterfront. Meanwhile, the very valuable Tsukiji site is being slated for redevelopment after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, until which time it will serve as a parking lot.)
In any case, until its recent relocation Tsukiji consisted of a huge ‘outer market’, a sprawling mess of seafood retailers, vendors, stalls, stores, restaurants and eating-houses; and an ‘inner market’, a central core at which the market’s main wholesale and auction activities took place.
Public access to the outer market of Tsukiji was allowed, but entry to the inner sanctum was strictly restricted to registered market participants only. This was because the inner market was a place of serious business, with huge fish auctions taking place daily from 5am to 10am. And what with thousands of tons of product moving in and out amidst the frenetic activities of buyers, wholesalers, agents, intermediate wholesalers and auctioneers, the market authorities had decreed that the inner market was no place for camera-toting tourists.
There was, however, one exception to this strict “keep out” rule. Each morning a small number of visitors- 120 to be precise, arranged into two groups of 60 each – were allowed supervised entry into the wholesale market, to watch the tuna auctions take place. It was an organized tour of sorts, I suppose, and attendance was free, albeit on a first-come-first-served basis. Meaning that advance reservations were not possible, so the only way to assure yourself of a spot on the tour was to get to Tsukiji well before 4am, be one of the first 120 people to put your name down on the list, and then wait around in the pre-dawn until the tour and the auctions began.
Yet despite the early hour, hundreds of visitors from around the world still turned up every night to vie for a chance to see the Tsukiji tuna auction spectacle, many arriving as early as 2:00am. Indeed, I can tell you from first-hand experience that there is nothing quite as crushing as getting out of bed at 3:00am on a freezing, snowy Tokyo January morning, and arriving at Tsukiji in a state of near-hypothermia an hour later only to find out that a large busload of tourists had arrived 20 minutes before, and as a result, you will not be able to see the auctions today, please come back tomorrow, so sorry, arigato gozaimishita ...
I did eventually get to watch the Tsukiji tuna auctions take place (actually, on two separate occasions) and both times it was well worth the wait: a spectacle like no other. A symphony of movement, noise, smell and ritual that procedurally, at least, was very similar to what I saw last week in Hawaii. Although what set Tsukiji apart was its scale, which was somewhat bigger than the fish market in Hawaii, or, in fact, just about any other market I have ever been too.
This is because Tsukiji handled sales of about 750 different kinds of seafood and related products – everything from seaweed to caviar, sardines to whale. At its peak the market was home to about 900 dealers and 65,000 workers, who collectively moved about 600,000 tons of seafood a year. You don’t need to be a mathematician to figure out that this is a fuck-load of fish, by any standard. Although for reference, this means that Tsukiji was about 50 times bigger than the busy fish market I saw in Hawaii.
And in relative value terms?
Well, remember that $700 tuna I saw waiting in line for auction in Hawaii? A couple of weeks ago, at the first Tokyo fish auction for 2019 (held at the new Toyosu market site) a 612-pound Bluefin tuna sold for a record 333 million yen. That, dear readers, translates to oh, only about $3 million. Yep, that’s right – $3 million, for a single frikking fish, which equates to about $5,000 per pound. Or about 25 times more expensive than an equivalent amount of silver.
All of which just goes to show how serious the Japanese are about their fish, and how much of a big deal the Tokyo fish auction is – unparalleled anywhere else in the world. And which also goes some way to explaining a meal I had at Tsukiji many years ago, which even to this day remains one of the great eating experiences of my life.
You see, scattered all throughout the Tsukiji outer market were numerous restaurants and hole-in-the-wall eating houses, many open only in the early morning to cater to market workers knocking off once their night’s work was done. And, unsurprisingly, these were widely touted as among the best places to go in Tokyo for cheap but incredibly high quality seafood.
So after watching the tuna auctions on one particular visit (I was with my ex-wife at the time), we headed into one of these places, and claimed a seat at the counter. There we ordered a platter of mixed sushi and sashimi that was prepared to order by the bandana-clad chef-proprietor behind the counter. It was magnificent – a huge serving of tuna, salmon, whitefish, octopus, shrimp, roe, etc., all artfully arranged, and all fresh from the market that morning.
The chef spoke a bit of English, and as he sliced up the fish and molded the sushi, we got chatting. In the course of which he explained to us that in the case of tuna, the best variety is maguro (Bluefin), and the best cut of meat is the fatty section from the belly of the fish – the toro. Of which the o-toro is the absolute very best, very fattiest, most desirable bit. He also told us that choice cuts of high-grade o-toro can become objects of obsession amongst true connoisseurs, and are thus the subject of the most intense bidding at the daily auctions, often selling for astronomical prices.
So I challenged him, and asked if I could have two pieces of sashimi cut from his very finest piece of o-toro. At which the chef smiled, turned to what looked like a padlocked refrigerator at the back of his store, opened it, and took out a small piece of fish. I mean, seriously, I kid you not: his best fish was kept under lock and key!
Then, with a great degree of reverence and ceremony, he proceeded to elegantly slice us two pieces of the fish, and placed them on a plate in front of us. Which we then proceeded to eat, one piece each, in two relatively small bites. No soy, no wasabi, no garnish – just the fish.
And then the chef gave us the bill. The massive platter of mixed fish and seafood sushi and sashimi, more than we could finish: that was about $40. And the two bits of o-toro? Well, they were $180. So a paltry $90 per bite…..
But here’s the thing: I didn’t even blink. Because I have to say, that morsel of o-toro was one of the most deliciously pure things I have ever eaten. It practically melted on my tongue, and if ever anything could be said to have tasted like the essence of the ocean, that was it. Even if, on a bite-for-bite basis, it was the most expensive thing I have ever put into my mouth.
More than that though, in eating that o-toro it felt like I was enjoying something truly special and ‘of Tsukiji’ – a unique experience that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else in the world, and a moment that would live on with me forever. Which, if you think about it, is priceless, and something you can only get when you travel.
Like I said at the start, getting to join the dots on similar things found in different parts of the world – experiences, sites, history, food – is one of my greatest travel joys. It is an exercise I always find to be endlessly fascinating, mainly because the parallels never cease to amaze. And, quite frankly, the things that bind us together into a single humanity seem so much more compelling to me than the differences which so often keep us apart.
Even when those parallels are to be found in something as seemingly insignificant as, well, fish….