Photo/IllutrationTourists shop at Tsukiji Uogashi in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward. (Shiro Nishihata)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Six months after the relocation of Tokyo's iconic Tsukiji fish market, shops and wholesalers in the outer market are doing their utmost to keep their heads above water and draw in new and old customers alike.

"We're not relocating!"

The Tsukiji Jogai Shijo (outer market) shopping district promotion association set up such posters and signs to get the message out, encouraging shoppers to continue coming to the area even after the closure of the fish market after more than 80 years and its relocation to the capital's Toyosu district in October 2018.

Much to their relief, the streets and atmospheric alleyways of the outer market continue to be a favorite destination of tourists on any given day.

Shops selling popular items such as "tamagoyaki” (Japanese omelet) and “kaisen-don” (rice bowl topped with sashimi) still see long lines of customers.

Still, long-established business owners such as Kunio Matsue have a sense of loss and inevitable change.

“The number of Japanese tourists has dropped and stayed that way,” said the 45-year-old president of popular tamagoyaki shop Tsukiji Yamacho.

“Some customers were surprised to see us and said, ‘I didn’t know that you are still in business here,’” Matsue grumbled.

Unlike Toyosu, the outer market has a distinct atmosphere, with low-rise shops made of wood nestled against each other.

The number of foreign visitors to the outer market has gradually recovered since the closure of Tokyo’s bustling center of seafood trade.

It makes Matsue feel that, “Foreign tourists actually know better that the outer market is alive and well.”

Tourists started flocking to the outer market area around 2000 when the Toei Subway Oedo Line Tsukiji-shijo Station opened . Magazines and TV programs featured the market and casual eateries to show the world how people enjoyed eating “donburi” (rice bowl) topped with fresh seafood or other ingredients in the bustling public market.

Before that, however, the outer market was originally a “town for professionals in the food business.”

Chefs and professional buyers used to purchase fish and vegetables inside Tsukiji fish market, and then shopped in the adjacent outer market's abundant line-up of specialty stores, which sold such products as dried bonito shavings, “kombu” kelp, “nori” seaweed, tea, dressed meat, cutlery and cooking utensils.

Such professional buyers have decreased from Tsukiji since the fish market relocated last year.

An owner of a sushi restaurant in Tokyo recalled: “In the outer market, we were able to carefully select a piece of kombu and a sheet of nori. At the Toyosu market, however, fish intermediary wholesalers are located far from the building where fruits and vegetables are sold. It’s hard for me to store-hop there, and I can’t afford to travel to the outer market.”

The distance between Toyosu and Tsukiji markets is two to three kilometers.

Akio Suzuki, 70, chairman of the outer market’s shopping district promotion association, said: “At Tsukiji, it used to be that the inner and outer markets supplemented each other and comprised one market. But the inner market’s relocation to Toyosu divided the two.”

Toritoh, a poultry and eggs shop that Suzuki serves as chairperson of, moved the opening time up one hour to 3 a.m. to accommodate the new situation and started making deliveries to clients’ restaurants and the Toyosu market where many people gather.

As a result, additional expenses including manpower and other costs have risen to about 1 million yen ($8,952), Suzuki said.

Similarly, Yamacho, whose biggest clients are sushi restaurants, has started delivering items to Toyosu on a daily basis, as such restaurant owners stopped coming to the outer market.

Thanks to such efforts, sales for the professionals have not fallen, but manpower costs related to deliveries have ballooned.

The Tokyo metropolitan government in January proposed a plan to build a venue for large-scale conferences, exhibition centers and other facilities expected to draw 25 million visitors a year at the site of the former Tsukiji fish market.

Store owners in the outer market are trying to find ways to keep satisfying both professional chefs and tourists in the fast-changing landscape.

In November 2016, Chuo Ward opened a new complex called Tsukiji Uogashi in the outer market so that chefs would continue to make purchases in Tsukiji after the fish market’s closure.

About 60 intermediary wholesalers of marine products and fresh produce currently run a store in the complex.

From early morning to 9 a.m., chefs and professional buyers take priority, so that they can weigh products thoroughly.

After that, the stores sell seafood and vegetables to the general public. For the intermediary wholesalers, traditional clients are chefs and buyers for supermarkets, but the ward decided to open the complex to everybody.

Some wholesalers have expressed concerns over the increase in tourists, while others are finding new ways to attract more customers.

Katsuyoshi Suita, 54, president of Suita Shoten, which sells kombu, said the streets tend to be packed with tourists, affecting his business and delivery services.

“It's important to keep the two (tourists and professionals) separate. We have to engage in trade with long-time loyal customers in a no-nonsense manner,” Suita said.

Meanwhile, Oumiya Meat Store, which has been selling nothing but raw beef for about 90 years, opened a shop in the back alleys in January serving drinks made of sake lees and “onigiri” (rice balls) wrapped in roast beef.

Masahiro Terade, 55, president of the long-established specialty store, said, “With the approaching 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, I want to promote Tsukiji as a place where people can enjoy authentic food and culture.”

(This article was written by Yuka Ariyoshi and Noriyasu Nukui.)