The Great Gut of the City

 June 2006 — text & photos by Austin Pick

"Tokyo is the most epic and confounding expression of chaos by a national soul otherwise famous for its love of order." —Steve Erickson

Early summer in Shinjuku, Tokyo's racing brain from stem to cerebrum, the nervous cluster of Kabuki-cho's red-lit, sexy sleeplessness shadowed by monoliths of government administration, skyscrapers arcing in edifice above the dense synaptic convolutions of stores and signs bursting over narrow lanes in a communication of primary colors, sending pinball minds to riccochet and spin down the snaking gray streets and through the tubed tunneling passage ways of Shinjuku Station, said to be the world's busiest train depot, a nucleus of humans moving in fluxing confusion along arteries of technological transit, ever cellular...

More than three million people, on average, pass through Shinjuku Station daily, as part of Toykyo's enormous commuter and consumer flux. We swam through too, sometimes separated, among a sea of floating faces, binary blips amidst the frictional shuffle of our species seen as gene swarm, the station like an industrious hive, an underground city in miniature, buzzing with activity. As our point of departure for other explorations of Tokyo, we navigated Shinjuku and its station often enough to become fairly familiar with the frenetic regular cycling of the crowds. Entering the station at dawn one morning and finding it almost empty, however, made the oddest impression of all, and only heightened our sense of the bizarre buzz of transience reverberating there, like caffeine encoded in concrete. We waited in the anxious quietude, slowly waking, and a wrong train later found ourselves sliding with the early morning sun through Tokyo's very stomach, already gurgling...

Tsukiji Fish Market, near the Sumida River in central Tokyo, is the largest wholesale seafood market in the world, fluorescent open-air gills wet with blood, seawater and slime, coughing with the congestion of commerce and truck-rumble, breath like a shipwreck. They say Tsukiji handles more than 450 varieties of sea creature, allegedly edible, and even a brief exploration of the market is enough to convincingly establish that the Japanese will eat anything from the sea: everywhere monsters still acrawl in their shells; urchins sulking spinelessly in brine; tubs of goopy indistinct protean flesh; piles of tiny bug-eyed and bony dried fishies; the snakish coils of eels writhing in their own blood; frozen gray hulks being drawn through bandsaws; piles of salaciously curved seaweed, weirdly glowing roe, and dismembered tentacles stacked in styrofoam. Tsukiji is a panoply of the grotesque and beautiful, an edible museum of organisms that distantly echo our own ancient origins, miracles of the oceans all washed up on Tokyo's crowded dinner table. And most of it, despite appearances, is admittedly delicious, or at least worth trying. Tsukiji is the great gut of the city, churning the catch into something consumable—the chewing that occurs later, in restaurants and homes, only a formality, almost...

Tuna, prized in Japan, is the centerpiece of the Market, which begins formally every morning with a massive auction of the fresh and frozen fish. It is estimated that Japan is responsible for fully one third of the world's total tuna consumption, including eighty percent of the world's diminishing Bluefin stocks, and much of the best tuna selection likely passes through Tsukiji, where wholesalers saw, slice and shave the great torpedoed bodies down into steaks, flakes, sushi, sashimi and other favored forms, the choicest meats reserved to be eaten raw, red and delicate. Tsukiji's auctions are an increasingly old-fashioned organ of Japanese business, however, where quality is critical and tuna are considered as one would evaluate a sumo wrestler, individually examined for muscle bulk and the smooth, delectable fat of an open-ocean animal. Even the enormous quantity of fish moving daily through Tsukiji Market accounts for only eleven percent of Japan's tuna. We eat the seas.

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The rowdy and industrious atmosphere of the Market is part of it's charm, it's bewildering morning magic. We come as tourists, of course, as do others, but the Market is not a tourist "attraction." There are no buses or guides, no cordoned walking paths or brochures. Tsukiji rushes forward, fish flying, and we are permitted to look around so long as we don't get in the way. This is unusual in Japan, in a culture where things tend to be structured, where behavior and even emotional response are often carefully encoded into patterns of social expectation and obligation. Take a picture here. Drink tea over there. Cry at this event. Travel in numbers. It is said that the Japanese are tourists in their own country, and this begins to clarify why many attractions in Japan feel like experience factories, spectacles standardized for the efficient processing of persons. Forest paths have been paved, temples turned into high-traffic museums, and artifice erected wherever necessary.

At Tsukiji, however, the market's momentum plunges us into the visceral immediacy of an intestinal maze, into the sharp-focus of bright bare bulbs, styrofoam and sea-slime, knives and numbers. We flop gasping in this sudden onrush, trying to avoid being run over by market carts carrying 800-pound fish and not stopping. Tsukiji Market is real, exasperating and fecund, disgusting and lovely, and it returns us, reeling, to our senses.

Later though, feeling entirely shot thru and sticky with fishiness, we passed on a breakfast of the world's freshest sushi, and left the fish there in Tokyo's stomach, uneaten and already settled...

Yours with Love. Stay Wide >> A  


"...Shinjuku, Tokyo's racing brain from stem to cerebrum..."

"...dense synaptic convolutions of stores and signs..."

"...sliding with the early morning sun into Tokyo's very stomach..."

"...the sharp-focus of bright bare bulbs, styrofoam and sea-slime..."

See More >> Photo Essays: Tsukiji Fish Market | Kyoto's Temples in the Fall

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