TO the professional bidders at the world's largest seafood market, the secret of buying giant tuna lies not so much in the nose as in the fingers. Before the sun rises on Tokyo Bay, the bidders are already at the market, known as Tsukiji, Tokyo's pantry for primary protein. With flashlight and small pick in hand, the buyers chop off dollops of flesh from the tails of hundreds of tuna, which lie steaming in the morning cool on a cement floor. The tuna have been unloaded off ships and planes from all watery corners of the globe. Some are fresh, most are frozen.

The buyers roll the tuna tidbits between their well-trained fingertips, feeling for freshness, texture, and the elusive qualities known only to the picky palettes of Japanese sushi-eaters.

In less than an hour, they select their catch for the day. Auctioneers then clang brass bells to start the bidding and the fingers go into action once again.

The bidders, wearing baseball caps with yellow identification tags, speak in a finger language as subtle as Kabuki, but as aggressive as samurai warfare. The finger talk is incomprehensible to outsiders.

One giant tuna can go for as much as $10,000. If two bidders signal the same price, the tie is broken by having the two play a children's finger game: rock-scissors-paper.

By 7 a.m., all the tuna are sold and stacked on hand carts, heading for the long knives of sushi chefs.

The tuna auctions are just the center ring of Tsukiji. In all, about 1,600 wholesalers sell almost every kind of creature that swims or floats in the sea, from African octopus to lethal blowfish to Icelandic whale meat.

Tsukiji is a sea world without the sea.

In all, some 450 species and 2,600 tons of marine products are sold in the covered dockside market. About 50,000 retail buyers go to Tsukiji each day, from restaurateurs to mom-and-pop fishmongers. In one year, Tsukiji sells about $5 billion worth of fish and other seafood to satisfy the cravings of Tokyo's 12 million people, one quarter of Japan's population.

When Raisa Gorbachev visited the market in April, she spent nearly an hour walking through the market's maze of brightly lit stalls. Fish merchant Teruo Ojihara gave her a 6.6-pound flounder that a KGB guard carried away.

More than food, fish are found in almost all aspects of Japanese culture. Fish are offered on Shinto altars, and carved wooden fish have long held up tea pots on old-fashioned hearths. An imaginary sea creature, shachi, adorns the roofs of many old shrines.

To the Japanese, the oceans are their oyster. An average Japanese will eat almost a quarter pound of seafood every day, whether it's $15-a-serving sashimi or a McDonald's fish sandwich. Meat consumption is on the rise, but seafood has the Japanese hooked.

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