For decades Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market has been a major tourist attraction and commercial hub. Its urban aesthetic made it a popular background for music videos and video games. But its main draw was the early morning tuna auction. Every morning from around 3am sleepy revellers would line up with enthusiastic tourists in the hopes of seeing a giant Bluefin tuna sold for thousands of dollars.
The market was a cultural institution as well as an economic one. A market had been situated on the site since the early 20th century. And in fact it was the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. That was, until 11th October 2018 when the City moved the market to a new location in the Toyosu waterfront district.
This new area is akin to a vast sterilised version of Canary Wharf. Much like London Docklands, it is serviced by its own above-ground light rail system, connecting the market to various shopping malls and attractions.
Multiple reasons have been given for the market’s move. On several occasions the City had banned all tourists from the tuna auction — citing the sheer number of visitors and problems associated with them. After 2010, the City limited the number of people who could attend the auction to a maximum of 120 per day, on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Others have cited the valuable real estate the market sat on, adjacent to the popular Ginza shopping district. The land itself was created during the Edo period after 1657. It was reclaimed from the Tokyo Bay, hence the name Tsukiji, which means ‘constructed’ or ‘reclaimed’ land.
For sure, there will have been a number of health and safety related concerns and the growth of the market to consider. With the imminent approach of both the Rugby World Cup and the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020, the City will be expecting a large upsurge in visitors.
The problem with moving the market is that in the process it has lost its character. The City has succeeded in sterilising the experience of a historic and popular bustling market.
Now visitors are segregated from the market by thick panes of glass two or three stories above the market floor. They are funnelled through an endless series of narrow lifeless corridors between separate buildings. There is a limited selection of food stalls that lack the capacity to cater to all the visitors that walk through its doors. And the retail market that has been created in one of the buildings feels like walking around a very clean but very large, empty car park.
Tokyo is not the first, nor will it be the last city to inadvertently remove the heart from one of its star attractions. Certainly it is hard to maintain the essence of a place, particularly as they age and grow, whilst ensuring the safety of the people who work there and visit. Cities also face constant pressures for resources and seek optimal use of their land. All over the world major cities face this pressure when it comes to balancing economic and cultural interests.
London’s Covent Garden Market is a prime example of efforts made to move a market once it had outgrown its old location. An Act of Parliament passed in 1966 removed the fruit and vegetable market at Covent Garden to a new location near Vauxhall. After a successful campaign to preserve the original market, its central Piazza and environs have now been redeveloped as a mixture of restaurants, boutique shops and market stalls, catering for tourists from all over the world. The newer market functions like an industrial wholesalers with some creative workspaces and a flea market on the weekends.
The outer market still remains at the old Tsukiji market. It contains a mixture of wholesalers, retail shops and restaurants. All sorts of curiosities can be found in its shops, and the sushi is some of the freshest you will find. Perhaps like the old Covent Garden the inner market at Tsukiji will also get a new lease of life.
So if you have time in Tokyo, skip Tosoyu. Head straight for the outer market to experience some of that famous Tokyo hustle and bustle.