Lost and found

An early-morning visit to Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market leads to a surprising catch.

Published April 9, 1999 12:09PM (EDT)

Jet lag had sent me to bed early, and had awakened me by 3 a.m. -- about the time my Tokyo tour companions came staggering in from the hotel bar. As they fell into bed, I tiptoed out, heading into the blackness with "Tsukiji market" written in Japanese on the inside of a matchbook, and the name and address of the hotel embossed in gold on the outside. Confident that the little Japanese I had learned would carry me through, I greeted the cabby with a polite honorific salutation. He grunted and rasped a totally unintelligible guttural response. I asked where we were and he rasped, "Nyu Otani Hoteru," the name of the hotel. I asked the direction we were heading, and he grunted, "Tsukiji sakana-ya," Tsukiji fish market. No more conversation. No more information.

There was little traffic on the night streets of Tokyo until the taxi neared Tsukiji, the world's largest fish market, which sells 5 million pounds of seafood a day. We turned up and down little alleys a dozen times in the final half-mile, passing ever growing battalions of small trucks and divisions of motorized carts. Then the driver grunted one last time and deposited me in front of a maze of large buildings that looked like airport hangars. Fires in metal trash cans lined the road and warmed hands.

I joined a processional of shadowy figures and marched into one of the hangars. All around me were men dressed in shades of gray, dark blue and black -- jackets, pants, sweatshirts, sweaters, everything. The knee-high boots in which they sloshed were all black. Some wore baseball caps, but even they were drab. Needless to say, I was the only one wearing a pumpkin-colored flannel shirt with a camera around the neck.

Narrow wet aisles separated thousands of small stalls, each selling one or two items. In the center of the stalls were salespeople with straight black hair and smiles that seemed permanently affixed to their faces. Each was surrounded by wooden boxes and stainless steel trays full of glistening, slippery harvest from the oceans of the world. The containers were edge to edge on tables illuminated by large unfrosted light bulbs that were strung every few feet from small pipes suspended from the ceiling. The yellow glow made it all even more surreal.

Some of the fish were smaller than a thumbnail, some had razor-sharp predator's teeth and some wore faces befitting a "Star Wars" bar scene. There were at least three different kinds of eel, all squirming in glistening tangles, and more colors and sizes of shrimp than I had ever imagined. There were sea cucumbers, cockles, jellyfish, yellow and green groupers, red snappers, yellowtail and barracuda, small squid and huge squid, flanked cuttlefish and octopus, raw and cooked. Those that were cooked were white-fleshed inside and dark red outside if they had been pickled or golden if they had been cooked in soy. The variety of fish roe, too, was incredible: silver gray, pale yellow, iridescent orange, golden and crimson; these delicacies were displayed sitting unadorned, clinging like barnacles to strips of seaweed, or encased like sausages in semi-transparent tubes. Seaweed came in all shades of green, from lime to dark forest, and in black, brown and dark purple. The clams, oysters, scallops and crabs went from teaspoon-tiny to platter-large. There were miniature periwinkles and giant conch.

The vendors were friendly and much more communicative than the cabby. They seemed amused by my exuberance and curiosity, and answered my questions as slowly and as simply
as they could, as if they were parents responding to an inquisitive toddler.

Closer to dockside I saw dozens of large tables with electric band saws; workers in surgical gloves and rubber aprons operated on 200-pound headless and tailless frozen tuna bodies. They would cut the tuna lengthwise along their backbones, then load them onto carts for delivery to the buyers' mini-trucks waiting outside. The place sounded like a sawmill.

Beyond these were tables where skilled filatures were wielding extra-sharp knives with blades longer than their arms. Adjacent to these tables lay row upon row of tuna and marlin bodies, neatly arranged side by side; buyers with small pocketknives scrutinized them one by one, now and then cutting half-inch slices into the tail end of the fish. The frost-caked fish skins were marked in thick red kanji characters, which I presumed to be the name of the buyer or seller.

A bevy of buyers stood nearby, bidding on these cadavers to the animated hoarse staccato of the auctioneer, who stood elevated above them. The clipped baritone mile-a-minute syllables sounded like the typing pool in an old-fashioned newspaper office. Most amazing to me were the elements that were absent: No fish smells, no slime and no blood-stained aprons. Japanese fastidiousness ruled even at the fish market.

Beyond the auctioneer, large doors opened to the docks. The bright sun was about 60 degrees above the horizon. I was surprised, but my watch confirmed that nearly five hours had passed. Now it was time to reconnoiter with the hung-over tourists back at the hotel. But which way? I had no idea.

One vendor, who had been patient with me and had struggled
to welcome me in English two hours before, smiled at me and bowed slightly as I tried to find my way out. He had exhausted his English with the greeting, but was adept at charades-style
communication. I returned his smile and his bow, carefully bending my head a little more than he had, as a sign of respect. "Sumimasen" -- excuse me -- "New Otani Hotel, doko desu ka?" "Yukkuri,
: Slowly, please, he replied.

I handed him the matchbook with the hotel's name, and we both tried our best. The hotel was not nearby, however. I had to walk to a bridge and out to a main street, then a few blocks to a subway station; I had to change trains after a few stops and walk about a half-kilometer from the station exit nearest the hotel. He tried to draw me a little map but seemed unwilling to give it to me because it was rough and not to scale. He was a stern self-critic and kept apologizing. He frowned and tucked his chin under the neck of his black windbreaker. I had never learned the words for left, right, east, west or straight ahead. I apologized for disturbing him and thanked him as profusely as my limited language skills allowed. I was going to take my leave when we both said, "Gomen nasai" -- I am sorry -- in unison, as if we had been rehearsing. Both of our faces erupted into ear-to-ear smiles. I wanted to hug him, but settled for extending my hand. He took it in his and accepted the bond of a handshake.

He became resolute; he raised his chin high, puffed out his chest and chuckled deep in his throat. He obviously had hatched a plan. He asked me if I knew Japanese numbers. I nodded yes. He asked me to count and I counted to twenty, then by tens to 100. He smiled and bowed slightly. He then opened his cash box, gave me a large bill and directed me to change places with him. He pointed to the golden, soy-cooked octopus pieces in the metal tray, and slowly articulated an order: "Tako....ichi kiro han, kudasai."

I got the message. I lifted a plastic bag
onto the scale, pretended to fill it and pressed my index finger down to move the needle on the dial to 1.5 kilograms. I calculated the cost, took the bill, gave him change and presented him the
empty bag with a bow and a thank you very much. When I gave him
back the bill, he pointed to the cash box and I deposited it. Mr. Yamamoto introduced himself and so did I, repeating each other's names aloud and exchanging salutations. He then rather
abruptly hurried away and left me behind the counter to tend his money and tentacled wares. I surmised that he had gone off to find an English speaker to give me directions.

A small gray-haired woman in a long dark raincoat walked by three times. The first time she stole a glance out of the corner of her eye as she hurriedly stepped by in her plastic rain shoes. The second time, she paused ever so slightly, then quickened her pace and turned away after a closer look. Finally, she stopped and whispered in a high falsetto that she wanted half a kilo of the octopus. Her eyes darted back and forth from the octopus to her purse to the scale, but she avoided my eyes. She extracted exact change and handed it to me from the greatest distance possible. She watched the scale as I put successive pieces into the plastic bag with metal pincers. When I reached the half-kilo mark, she inhaled barely audibly, and bowed her head almost imperceptibly. I handed her the package with a bow, a thank you and a smile. Her eyes were trapped and she smiled back. She placed her package into a crocheted shopping bag. She seemed very pleased with herself for her courageous purchase from the large, bearded gaijin in the loud shirt. Me too! I noted the sale on a small pad next to the plastic bags; I would have affixed a gold star had there been one.

Mr. Yamamoto returned with a little boy who was barely visible in a down jacket and a knitted ski cap that looked like Grandpa's. He wore knitted gloves. The boy could have been 6 or 7. He hopped up on the wooden stool and took my place. Before I could figure out how to brag about my sale without destroying my veneer of humility, Yamamoto-san was steering me down the aisle.

We walked briskly through one cavernous building, then another, and out a door into a small alley. We negotiated the maze to and over the bridge and onto a commercial street with open-fronted shops selling shaved flakes of dried bonito for making soup, sushi bars and utensil stores that displayed impressive arrays of knives. He walked quickly and silently. I had to press to keep abreast. At each turn he smiled at me and angled his head a few degrees in our new direction.

We descended into the subway. He bought two tickets from a vending machine and we were off. He seemed less willing to play charades with me in this public place than he had in the familiar proximity of his fish stand. He used hand signals to beckon me in and out of the spanking clean subway cars. With his hand opened, palm facing downward, he flexed his four fingers toward his palm two or three times rapidly, signaling me to follow. Weaving through the underground masses, we could not walk side by side. I followed very closely behind him and marveled at his agile figure, walking rapidly but never touching another human, even with the brush of a sleeve or elbow.

We exited onto a busy street in an upscale neighborhood. I resumed my position at his side, a quarter of a pace behind, like an obedient dog who had been instructed to heel. Well-dressed business people glided past us. A boy on a bicycle with a 4-foot-tall bundle of magazines on the back beat us through the crosswalk. Six or eight blocks later we arrived at the door of the hotel. He refused payment for even the subway tickets. I offered him a drink inside but he politely refused. We repeated our bows and handshakes. He
gave me his business card, which I could not read, and I gave him my business card, which he could not read. "Sayonara, dewa mata" -- goodbye, until next time, he said. Then he hurried away down the drive toward the street without a backward glance.

Inside the lobby, the clock read 10:45. My tour mates were heading into a Western breakfast buffet.

"Where did you go?"

"To the fish market."

"Why would anyone want to go to a fish market? Didn't it stink?"

I donned the requisite smile and nodded my head, not to affirm, but to leave them, politely. "Sayonara," I said softly, but from a deeper, more raspy part of my throat. That is how we, the working men of Tokyo, speak.

By Lenny Karpman

MORE FROM Lenny Karpman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------