My Morning in the Land of Styrofoam and Ice

The sky over Tsukiji was the color of Ridley Scott’s hair.  The boy was up early, tracing the satellite signals to a place not the meeting point.  GPS fail under a light rain.  Perhaps the taxi hadn’t left him at the designated corner, and now the metal roof that kept the sky off his head blocked the signal.  The other outsiders were on the far end of an invisible radio link, somewhere in the crushing crowd.  He was flying blind; despite its moniker, the phone had no eye.  Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.

No.  It was.  Mitsui-san appeared out of the mist, beckoning the boy and his local cohort.  “The auction ends soon; we should hurry a little,” he called in a slight accent, ducking from the sidewalk into an industrial garage.  Trucks, hand and power, executed an impossible choreography of loading and driving off with their precious cargo, sprinting to the customers across the city with their goods losing value by the minute.

Weaving among the trucks, they made their way to the auction site, small carts adding another layer to the fabric.  Flat beds two meters long, with a converted lawnmower engine in a 55 gallon drum attached to the front wheel.  The modern electrics were worse.  Same form, but no warning sound.  Live in your peripheral vision or be crushed.

It wasn’t too late.  The last of the tuna was still being auctioned.  Flash-frozen at sea, the carcasses lined the floor, auctioneer standing over, clipboard in hand.  This was the start, the hopper into the massive infrastructure that keeps this country fed.

Buyers kept their hands up, fingers flashing the ok sign, or thumbs-up, until the called price hit their limit.  Five minutes more and it was done.  The mobile partitions came down, the steel-solid blocks of fish marked, loaded, and carted off.

Melting occurred over distance, like weather in Hawai`i, pipelined from two hours earlier when the auction had begun.  20 steps away, a man with a flat axe hacked bones from a quarter fish, while a dozen bandsaws meowed like a hungry cat, converting the tuna from a streamlined biological apparatus to familiar triangular foodstuffs.

30 steps further, the fish sections had a sheen of molten ice, still firm enough to cut, but beginning to recover from the seagoing deep freeze.  Anything might be used to reshape the cubist chunks.  Two-handed saws.  A katana.

He cut my fish.  Cut it with a sword.  How weird is that?

When the primary protein for a country begins deteriorating within minutes of thawing, vast resources will be bent toward efficient distribution.  Raw fish is only worth eating for a few hours; the network of buyers and dealers that starts here makes the difference between good sushi being cheaply plentiful and being a dimly-glimpsed vision in a happy dream.  Tsukiji market near Shinagawa is one of the starting points for that network.

The boy’s home country did not have a system like this.  He preferred not to eat sushi at home.

Further yet from the input side of the system, the fish was fully thawed, sliced into useful size pieces, and ready for shipment and quick consumption.  Much of it left before reaching this state, but what didn’t could no longer maintain temperature on its own.  Large frozen chunks, weighted with thermal inertia, can be handled in the open with tongs and gloves.  Slices thawed or thawing need assistance and protection.  Protection was stacked everywhere, snow-white styrofoam boxes and chunks of ice in any size needed to protect the quality.  Kill the fish, but honor its exalted flavor.

The outsiders were welcome here but grudgingly.  The buyers and sellers had a country to feed, and no time to wait for gorram tourists.  Anywhere was in the way, everywhere was someone’s lifeblood staked out in white paint on the concrete floor.  The market had recently been re-opened to outsiders after a period of closure due to certain unpleasant incidents.  Or so the rumor went.  Yes, thank you for visiting, please hello.  Yes, enjoy your stay.  Yes, please take the joke photo titled “You Shoulda Seen the One that Got Away”.  Very funny.  First time anyone has thought of that, today.  Now please go purchase something.

The outsiders moved to the farthest part of the market, where the restaurants huddled in narrow alleyways.  It was nearly 7AM.  They had been there 90 minutes and were getting hungry.

Rapid distribution macht fresch; no distribution makes perfection.  This is why the outsiders were here.  If not perfection, the closest available on this lonely crowded rock.  This is not sushi, it’s art.  Pure freshness, prepared without delay, arrayed with colored ground and graphical balance, carefully framed and contrast stretched to give the illusion that the photons it reflects have some correlation with its true beauty.

This is not art, it’s sushi.  The best in the world, as far as the outsiders know.

The artists are paid well for their work.  At least, someone is.  36 US Dollars for breakfast, and worth every Yen.  Worth the half hour in line for one of the 12 seats.  There are other restaurants at the market, but Mitsui-san had assured the outsiders that this was worth waiting for.  It was a transparent attempt to strengthen their working relationship, and the outsiders fell for it net, ship, and bandsaw.  They would be back.  Oh yes, they would be back.

1 Response to “My Morning in the Land of Styrofoam and Ice”

  1. 1 ycycle

    That’s some fish story. How big was it?

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