It’s not yet two in the morning when we step out of the Airbnb luxury apartment in Ginza, Tokyo, where we are staying two nights. We get into brisk momentum, mindful that it’s a fifteen-minute walk and visitor queues for the tuna auction at the Tsukiji Fish Market begin very early, especially on a Saturday. The kindergartner trots along gamely, Pinky on lookout from his head. The Tsukiji neighbourhood is still rather awake at this hour. While most stores are closed, there is a surprising volume of vehicular traffic and several Tokyoites are still about – on their way home or having supper at streetside noodle shops.
There are already about eighty persons standing quietly in line outside the Fish Information Centre at the Kachidoki Gate. A notice at the counter informs: “Tuna auction. Registration about 2:15–3 am. No reservation. Daily 120 max.” We know there will be two auctions: the first at 5.25 am; the second at 5.50 am. I count the heads before us and suppose we might make the second group of sixty visitors, so I relax, releasing my grip on the kindergartner’s sweaty hand. Pinky, on my shoulder and quiet so far, also heaves a sigh of relief.
As it turns out, we aren’t required to remain standing for long. At 2.30 am, the officers in charge of the visitors usher us into a holding room, and hand each of the grownups a coloured vest – yellow for the first group, green for the second – and an information sheet about what to expect from the auction. The kindergartner leans back into my body and prepares to take a nap. The experience is new to him, and I know that this anticipation will override his usual restlessness for a while. Pinky sings softly.
At 4 am, we are pleasantly surprised to be addressed by a wholesale fish trader, Kohei. He wears a blue baseball cap and has a long white cloth dangling from his belt, and he also has a sickle and a large red torch, the tools of his trade. “I’m not so busy today,” he jokes by way of introduction, “so I came to talk to you about the tuna auction.” Kohei’s thin, wiry frame and small eyes belie his twenty years’ experience at Tsukiji. “I work 4 am to 4 pm, twelve hours,” he tells us. “After work, I go to the supermarket to buy groceries and return home to prepare dinner – not tuna! ¬– for my family.”
At 5.30 am, our signal is finally given. Big Guy hoists the sleeping boy onto his back, and I pick Pinky up – she’s also fast asleep – and deposit her into my tote bag. Everyone is ushered into a cold room at the Inner Market. We watch as the auction bell is rung and the auctioneers use rapid hand signals to indicate their bids. The auction for each tuna is over in seconds — “faster than a computer,” Kohei had said – the speed being essential to preserving the freshness of the fish. In between each auction, the traders use their sickle to scrape a little flesh from the tail of the fish and rub it between their fingers to assess the fat content. They also use their flashlight to evaluate the colour of the fish, looking for a bright red colour. None of them take any notice of the tourists.
In twenty minutes, our session is over. As we exit the cold room into the now busy market outside, the kindergartner opens his eyes and squints into the sea of vehicular traffic, momentarily confused about where he is.
“Is it playground time?” he asks, voice raspy. In my bag, Pinky snores.
Jocelyn Lau is based in Singapore as a writer and an editor. LIFE OF PINKY is a series of very short fiction she has been writing over the past two years. She hopes these stories will one day be published into a single collection. Visit: http://www.kucintabooks.com.