Theodore Bestor

Retailers and restaurateurs begin to arrive shortly after 7 A.M. Until then workers in the stalls busily sort the morning's purchases and prepare seafood for sale-until about 10 or 11 A.M., they are occupied in filling buyers' orders.

The stalls are awash with seafood of almost every conceivable species shape, color, and size. Black tubs of live eels (unagi) stand by a cutting board in one stall; next door, crates of crabs packed in moist sawdust spill out into the aisle. Colorful rows of fresh snapper (haTnadai), perfectly matched in size, are set off by the blinding whiteness of a Styrofoam carton. Clams spread by the square meter across shallow tanks. Amorphous mounds of grayish pink monkfish (anko) liver spill over the edge of trays. Each stall differs from the next, none dealing in more than a tiny fraction of the several hundred species of seafood available at Tsukiji in any given season. One stall displays mountains of red and white boiled octopus; in the stall beyond that, trays of golden fried fish cakes; over there, squid still oozing black ink; across the way, fish pate in neat pink-and-white blocks. Around the corner, an apprentice wields a meter-long knife to carve an enormous tuna carcass; in the next stall, a woman carefully arranges clams on dozens of trays; further down the aisle, an old man watchfully stands over open crates full of sawdust and wriggling shrimp.

Although freshness is everything, few stalls enclose their products in refrigerators or under glass. Most of their seafood is in the open, to catch the critical eyes of buyers who want to see—and perhaps smell, touch, or taste—the products for sale. So even on the hottest summer days, dealers display most seafood in open cases, on beds of crushed ice or underneath blocks of dry ice suspended in mesh bags a few inches above the counters. Drifting tendrils of vapor lazily coat the displays and swirl off into the aisles.

The stalls stand in twelve rows (with about 140 in each row), lining six major aisles in the fan-shaped complex between the auction pits and the market gate. From the auction pits outward toward the gate, the row? are numbered from 1000 to 8000 and then labeled i, ro, ha, and ni (a Japanese equivalent of A, B, C, and D); the older, numbered eight rows date from the 1930s and the 'alphabetical' final four were added in the late 1950S. Two enormous sheds cover the older stalls, with two aisles and four rows of stalls per shed. Hazy skylights illuminate the sheds' high corrugated metal roofs and aging skeletons of girders. It is a murky workaday setting, but light, airy, and roomy when compared with the four rows of newer stalls. These are underneath an elevated parking lot and hence have low ceilings, thick concrete pillars, and no natural light. And since the four newer rows are on the inner curve of the fan, the stalls themselves are generally narrower than those in the numbered rows. Stalls average about seven square meters, depending on location; those packed in the sections where the curve is tightest are barely wide enough for two people to stand shoulder to shoulder.

One stall is much the same as the next, simple and unadorned, differing primarily in the kinds of fish a wholesaler specializes in and the sorts of equipment that specialty requires. The four stalls of Chiyomaru, a tuna dealer, contain little more than a few large cutting boards, a collection of swordlike knives and axlike cleavers, a couple of open-topped ice chests large enough to display meter-long slabs of tuna, and a table saw in the back for splitting frozen carcasses. Next door, the stalls occupied by Konami, a wholesaler who specializes in 'sushi ingredients' (sushidane), have a bank of tanks for live fish, surrounded by display tables for fresh catches of the day. Across the way at Maruju, the proprietor skewers, skins, and fillets live eels on a blood-stained cutting board standing next to stacks of black plastic buckets filled with the day's wriggling stock. Beyond him, Tsukumoto, a wholesaler who deals in fish pate, has nothing but a few cartons opened for display and a busy fax line.

Merchandise spills out from the tiny stalls into the aisles, usually well past the small metal markers sunk into the cobblestones that indicate the outer limits of the stallholders' space. Passage is difficult, and a leisurely stroll is impossible. Buyers lugging square wicker baskets may temporarily block an aisle while they make a purchase, but they are politely yet impatiently pushed aside by other buyers hurrying to get to their suppliers, by stall workers rushing to deliver purchases to a retailer's waiting van, or by uniformed auctioneers delivering documents to the wholesalers. In the wider passages that intersect the rows of stalls, hundreds of motorized carts relentlessly push through the crowds. Traffic signs ban the use of these carts and hand trucks along shopping aisles during the morning's prime shopping hours after 7 A.M., but the carts continually dart along the perimeters and down transverse passageways, transporting fish from auction to stall and from the stalls to the loading docks where retail buyers collect their purchases. Large signs hang over each aisle, listing nearby shop names, intersecting aisles and passageways, and traffic regulations for that section of the marketplace, but market regulars plunge through, rarely checking their location.

Each morning an estimated 14,000 customers flock to Tsukiji's stalls. A plump middle-aged man dressed in expensive golf clothes swaggers along carrying a leather handbag holding the cash to pay for live fish for his upscale Ginza restaurant. An old woman with a rectangular bamboo basket slung across her bent back selects minuscule amounts of shrimp, octopus, mackerel, and tuna for her tiny retail shop on a back street in a downtown residential neighborhood. A wiry elderly man in a drab gray work uniform cracks rapid-fire jokes with stall workers as he inspects salted salmon and fish cakes he ordered yesterday by fax for delivery this morning to his clients, a chain of box-lunch take-out shops. A gaunt man dressed in khaki work pants and a fisherman's vest, with a perm of tight ringlets and tinted aviator sunglasses, a folded sports newspaper tucked inside his high rubber boots, saunters like a hoodlum up to a high-grade tuna dealer to select two kilos of fresh jumbo tuna for his sushi bar near a major Tokyo railway station. A serious young man, a tie and white shirt peeking out from underneath his windbreaker, pores over a clipboard and a hand calculator as he directs first one wholesaler and then another to send five crates of salmon and 14 kilos of crab to this supermarket branch, 10 kilos of octopus to that branch, and 7 kilos of tuna to yet another. Towards morning's end, a mall group of intrepid homemakers—bravely disregarding the stall signs that boldly state 'No retail sales'—giggle at the adventure of buying a kilo of tuna at wholesale from a stall owner who is only too happy at that late hour not to own the fish for another day.

Stalls are open, set apart from one another by refrigerated cases, display tables, fish tanks, or stacks of crates. A few stalls (particularly those that deal in processed seafoods) have built-in display shelves and roll-down shutters or gates that can be closed after hours, but most are simply open, their goods protected only by a few padlocks on freezer cases. Wholesalers do not worry much about secure storage because many of them have little stock beyond their day-to-day supply. What they purchase at auction in the morning, they sell by the close of business a few hours later. Dealers who handle frozen or processed products may, for longer-term storage, rent a locker in a freezer warehouse operated by the wholesalers' federation or by one of the large auction houses. Stock on the stall floor must be sold, not moved from freezer to display and back again. Traders pack the lofts over stalls in the older sheds (where ceilings are higher) with boxes, knives, and other odds and ends; larger equipment, such as carts and table saws, clogs the narrow passageways that run behind each row of stalls.

Plain painted signboards distinguish one stall from the next. These boards simply post the shop name, its telephone and fax numbers, and the kinds of seafood it handles. Lighting and signs are regulated. Market rules prohibit colored lighting that might obscure or disguise the quality of the seafood, so naked, untinted light bulbs dangle everywhere and bathe the stalls in even, direct light. A few of the larger wholesalers who control several adjacent stalls have invested in modest decoration: a colored awning stretching across their several stalls, perhaps a blue-and-white nautical color scheme for refrigerators and cashiers' booths, perhaps even track lighting to highlight display cases. Amulets and votive icons from popular mercantile lore decorate some stalls: a large papier-mache Daruma doll, a bamboo rake (kumade) festooned with good luck symbols, or a figurine of Ebisu or Daitoku, gods of good fortune and patron saints of shopkeepers.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.