It's a Tokyo ritual: Before dawn, in the center of the city, tuna is lined up like torpedoes on the concrete floors of seven auction houses. Buyers in rubber boots swing and prick fish with long hooks to test for prized fatty flesh. Multimillion-yen deals get under way.
The world's largest fish market - and perhaps its noisiest - is coming to life.
But change is wafting through the drafty warehouses, steamy noodle stands, and honking trucks of Tsukiji market. After decades of controversy with neighbors, the decision was made to move Tsukiji outside of Tokyo. A shopping theme park will take its place, marking the end of a gritty landmark in a city where taxi drivers wear gloves and clean streets bathe in neon.
No Bubba Gump operation, Tsukiji is big tuna business. The market's 57 acres handle 1 million tons - $6 billion worth - of marine products, fruit, and vegetables a year. One record bluefin tuna pulled in upwards of $100,000. More than 50,000 people come on business every day to the bustling spot, home to the market for more than 65 years.
Wholesale buyers and sellers aren't the only clients. Chefs come to find the best bargains, and consumers turn up with shopping baskets. Hundreds of tourists pour in every morning to wander the waterlogged aisles filled with buckets of crabs, heaps of purple octopuses, piles of silver eels, and an endless variety of fish.
City planners hope to draw even more people - and income - with a complex modeled after San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, featuring shops, museums, housing, restaurants, and a cooking school. It will also include a souvenir shop and cultural facilities for visitors.
Not everyone thinks this is a step forward. Antirelocation posters dot Tsukiji market. Many workers have strong emotional ties to Tsukiji and worry about how to cover the hefty moving costs.
"I don't know how I can save money to buy a refrigerator, a counter, and other things at the new location," says one restaurant owner. "I'm just trying to survive now."
The sukijinakaoroshi (middleman's) Union, which represents 900 wholesale companies, has voted against the move to the 93-acre location, slated to open in about eight years. "Despite the conveniences of a larger site, we want to stay because we've been here for many years," a union official says.
Others say times have changed, and the facilities are too small to cope with the demands of a city of 11 million.
"Over the years, morning business has spilled onto surrounding side streets and main roads," says Yoshimasa Ikeuchi, project manager of the city government's plans for the Tsukiji market. "Residents resent having trucks double-parked outside their homes. There are also hundreds of injuries and fender-benders a year amid the rush and crowds."
The new market will have technologies that Tsukiji lacks, like computerized trading information and distribution systems. Computerized auctions will make the auctioneers redundant.
"A lot of people objected when the Nihonbashi Fish Market was moved to Tsukiji nearly 70 years ago, but it worked out," he says. "To survive, you have to evolve."
The US does a whopping $1.8 billion worth of business with Tsukiji market, says Tomohiro Asakawa, a commercial-fisheries specialist. He notes that "Tsukiji market" is a respected and well-known brand name. He worries that without it, the new market may experience difficulties.
Tokyo's first central market was at Nihonbashi, which dates back 400 years to the days of the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, who established his government at Edo, now called Tokyo. He brought fishermen from Osaka to Edo, so they could supply fish to Edo castle.
The market moved to Tsukiji in the 1930s, and served during World War II as a food ration center. In fact, while much of Tokyo was wiped out by fire and bomb raids, Tsukiji and the surrounding areas came through undamaged. Old buildings remain in a district that is rich in history.
Many at Tsukiji are third-generation shop owners and workers who fear that a move will ruin them.
"I was raised here since I was kid," says Hiro Yamada, who owns a store. "It's my home and once the market moves, we will lose a lot of business."