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At Japan's famed Tsukiji fish market, some tourists stink

Foreign visitors flock to the Tokyo landmark. When they misbehave, officials want to toss them back overseas.

March 12, 2009|John M. Glionna

TOKYO — For workers at the popular Tsukiji fish market, the final indignity may have been when the intoxicated British tourist licked the head of a frozen tuna.

In the now-notorious incident, captured by a Japanese TV crew, an irate market official shouted in English, "Get out! Get out!" as the man patted the tuna's gills.

Every day, hundreds of sightseers gather in the predawn gloom to witness one of the most popular events on the Tokyo tourist agenda: the daily tuna auction. Clogging busy travel arteries, tourists gawk at the sheer size of a market as big as 43 football fields. Each year it handles tens of millions of visitors and 600,000 tons of seafood in 480 varieties -- 1 of every 5 fish caught on the planet.

But some visitors misbehave (one tipsy female tourist stripped naked as her male friends hauled her around on a wooden handcart used by wholesalers), infuriating market officials so much they recently closed Tsukiji (pronounced skee-jee) to outsiders for several weeks during the busy New Year's buying season.

Lighting a stubby Hope-brand cigarette, fish cutter Saito Shiro says many foreigners don't respect his profession.

"They get in the way," says the 75-year-old Tokyo resident, who has worked in the market for more than half a century. "They walk around without paying attention to their surroundings."

The market relented in January, but the mood is still a bit frosty in the series of drafty warehouses that make up the market, where tourist Bart Brinkman says he feels like a fish out of water.

"I don't blame them," says the 37-year-old export consultant from the Netherlands, already wide-eyed as he wanders the market at 5 a.m. "These people are very serious about their work. I wouldn't want tourists running around my business."

All around him, sullen men in baseball caps zip about on motorized three-wheeled carts, taking corners like New York cabdrivers. Others in rubber aprons and boots brush past with flashlights and large fishhooks, pointy ends facing outward.

Their message: Stay out of my way or pay the price.

Now that the crowds have returned, the debate has too: Can tourists be trusted in Tsukiji?

The issue symbolizes the culture clash between foreign visitors and residents of a nation that prizes manners and orderliness.

"More than 99.9% of Japanese know how to obey the rules," says Brinkman, who travels here frequently. "They're just not used to dealing with hordes of often drunken Westerners who see this place as some sort of amusement park."

Market officials have learned their lesson. They've asked hotel managers not to send too many tourists their way. They've posted signs in five languages warning visitors to watch their manners during the auctions. Others prohibit cameras with flashes, which can blind buyers from the arcane hand signals used in the purchase process.

As onlookers jam into a narrow aisle roped off from the auction, one man snaps pictures with a high-speed camera, his flash sputtering. Two uniformed guards with rubber batons rush to tap him on the shoulder.

Bystanders frown. They fear another tourist ban that would rob them of the pleasure of walking Tsukiji's 1,700 stalls, which sell giant crabs, bright red octopus and just about every other marketable sea creature.

Many know the place considered the kitchen of Japan probably will be relocated and modernized, thus diminishing the charm of a market that has been in the same spot along the Sumida River since 1935.

City officials plan to move Tsukiji by 2014, replacing the hundreds of colorful hand-pulled fish carts with high-tech conveyor belts and an electronic tagging system.

For now, though, the market still functions much as it did when it was founded in the 16th century, when local fishermen supplied the then-shogun at nearby Edo Castle.

At dawn, workers ring large cowbells to summon the tuna bidding. Fussy brokers are still inspecting rows of hulking frozen bluefin tuna the size of refrigerators, whose tails have been cut off to provide a window to the color and fat content of the flesh.

As spellbound tourists look on, buyers use flashlights to peer inside the gutted fish, rolling samples of meat between their fingers. They wield 3-foot-long hooks to roll the big carcasses. Tags show where and when each tuna was caught and by what method.

The regimen is more than just kicking the tires of a used car. It's a display of kata, the ancient Japanese notion of ideal form, whether it's origami, a martial arts pose or a broker in search of the perfect piece of tuna.

Buyer Osamu Maruyama calls each tuna an individual.

"They're like humans" says the 52-year-old, in a red jumpsuit soiled by blood and fish guts. "Some are tall, some skinny, some are fat. I look for the young fresh ones. The elderly tuna are not so fresh. It's the same with people."

As the auction wraps up for the morning, workers use handcarts to pull the purchased fish to nearby stalls where they will be hacked into pink chunks bound for sushi restaurants worldwide.

Australian Bernard Murphy is a bit disappointed at the show: "We were hoping they'd throw the fish like they do in Seattle."

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john.glionna@latimes.com

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