Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 26, 2021
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A different scale

An early morning excursion uncovers Tokyo's seamy underbelly -- tuna belly, that is

''So, how early do you wake up?" Mr. Kawai asks me. It's my second afternoon in Tokyo, but it's not the first time I've noticed a mischievous twinkle in the eye of the retired tourism official who is serving as my guide.

We've just spent hours cruising through Harajuku, one of the city's most colourful districts, and are now installed in a funky café, sipping green tea floats and planning tomorrow's visit to Tsukiji, Japan's largest fish market, where a world-famous tuna auction takes place each morning.

"Depends what you mean by early," I respond, innocently enough.

The mischievous twinkle reappears. "How about a 4am wakeup call?" he says, barely pausing to acknowledge my astonished expression. "We'll meet in the lobby."

The next morning, I arrive bleary-eyed at the ground floor of the Imperial Hotel to find Mr. Kawai waiting for me, looking serene and refreshed after just a few hours of sleep. Although I'm not quite as rested, I have to agree there's something exhilarating about being awake before the digital alarm clocks of the capital city have bleeped its 12 million residents into life, before the subway begins delivering them in smooth loops through Tokyo's intricate network of neighbourhoods, before the traffic lights start choreographing crowds through vast intersections.

Exiting onto the street, we're almost the only souls navigating a strange darkness percolated with the promise of morning. The curtains of one-storey noodle shops tucked under the train tracks flutter as we pass, a Godzilla statue stares back at us amidst the still-dark department stores of the Ginza shopping district. We walk by the decorative facade of the old Kabuki-za Theatre, which has hosted traditional masked performances for more than a century and the quiet Indian-style Hongwanji temple that caters to the Shinshu Buddhist community.

Sleep with the Fishes
Approaching Tsukiji market, signs of life become more apparent: more cars, more noise, more and more men in coveralls careening around on forklifts. If Tokyo is just waking up, this place has pulled an all-nighter. As we make our way into the vast concourse of warehouses, it's easy to believe that 90 percent of the seafood sold in Japan passes through here, 2000 tonnes daily. It does so at a dangerous pace.

Big trucks reverse with crazed beeping sounds, tractors spew propane fumes, scooters zoom by maniacally. Wholesalers gesticulate, distributors slam truck doors, labourers schlep and shout. Deliveries appear and disappear from shadowy recesses at a frenzied pace. In this atmosphere of barely controlled chaos, it's obvious why ambulances are a common sight at the gate.

We jump out of the paths of oncoming vehicles. We call for directions. We follow pointed fingers. We run for our lives. We're breathless by the time we make it to the wholesale area, where we wend our way through a maze of stalls dripping with iced creatures I've never before laid eyes on and then duck through a doorway into the auction room.

Suddenly we find ourselves in an alternate universe -- outside the sun may be rising, but in here it is as bright as noon. In a cavernous space, under blazing lights metres above, stretches an endless sea of tuna. The grey and black expanses rest on palettes above the wet cement, mouths gaping, skin gleaming, like a massive art installation. Each fish is arranged according to the same ritual: tail cut off, placed to the side, a round of pink meat juxtaposed against the greyness.

If you've never met a whole tuna, its size might surprise you. The largest of the species can reach three metres in length and weigh in at half a tonne. They've been flown in from all over the globe, including Canada, Australia and Indonesia, as Japanese fisheries can no longer meet citizens' demand for premium maguro, as it's called here.

The auction is very much a male domain; there must be more than a hundred men in monochrome work suits and galoshes angling their way through the maze of fish. They shine flashlights into the mouths of the tuna, searching for defects, checking for freshness. They scoop minute quantities of flesh from the tail, rubbing it between their fingers, expertly gauging quality, consistency, grade, value. They stand in small groups, discussing the finer points, not looking at each other but staring off at some fixed spot in space where, I imagine, a series of calculations is being visualized.

Auction Action
When the bidding starts, uniformed auctioneers pull out tiny wooden crates, step onto them, and begin to rock back and forth like adherents in prayer. Their shoulders hunched, they hold miniscule notepads, jotting down offers, ringing little bells to indicate a sale. Above the crowd, their heads create a rhythmic motion, their voices creating a singsong flow. Auctioneers anywhere have a bizarre intonation, it is always somewhat hypnotic, a kind of call and response swept up in a deeper rhythm that ceaselessly moves towards its ultimate coda -- the highest price.

At Tsukiji, I feel I am taking part in an ancient practice, one that has unfolded in precisely this way for eons. The words "whale music" come to my mind. In fact, despite the ban on commercial whaling, traditional minke whale meat is still sold here, its flesh red as sirloin, just one of the 450 species available at the site.

When all is said and done, around 6am, the 81-kilogram specimen in front of us has sold for one million yen -- that's almost $10,000, but some fetch the same price as new car in Japan. Slipping across a narrow alleyway, we find it laid out on a low table, in the midst of being dismantled by a man holding the sharpest of sharp knives. Like most tuna, it will find its way into the sashimi, nigiri and maki that are held in such reverence here, and the aspect of Japanese cuisine that is best known outside the nation itself.

Sadly, the global sushi trend of the last two decades has contributed to the overfishing that has resulted in a decline in marine stocks the world over. Japan's love affair with all things aquatic has not been immune to those pressures.

Tokyo's riverside fish markets, called uogashi, date back to the 16th century, when fishermen licensed to purvey seafood to the shoguns of Edo Castle began auctioning the remains of their catch near Nihonbashi Bridge. Just months after the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 destroyed many of the city's markets, Tsukiji became seafood central.

Known as Tokyo's pantry, the overcrowded site now contains an astounding 1500 stalls. However, it doesn't see nearly the tonnage it once did, and while the tuna auction is still a thrill, old-timers say it's not as dramatic as the days when bargainers regularly got into fistfights. My early morning visit offered a glimpse into the past but also into the future, the mix of modern pressures and rooted rituals from which Japan's sensibility emerges.

Tsukiji still has a reputation for some of the best sushi in the world. On the periphery of the wholesale area the little storefronts of Uogashi-Yokocho sell everything from pickles to rubber boots to seafood treats. At dawn, its dozen or so eateries boast the same tough faces and dangling cigarettes as the denizens of North American diners waiting to get down to the business of breakfast.

Mr. Kawai and I stop at one such no-frills spot, and have a steaming cup of green tea and a sashimi plate slapped down in front of us. Compared to bacon and eggs, it seems a clean and healthy way to start the day. And the bowl of tuna, salmon, scallops, whitefish, spring onions and wasabi is so meticulously fresh that if I could coin the phrase melt in your mouth, I would do it here.

The Shogun's Garden
Not far from Tsukiji, past the headquarters of the Yomiuri newspaper, Hamarikyu Garden offers another glimpse of history. Though it shares the same waterfront, and also occupies land reclaimed from the Sumida River, the stillness of the park couldn't be a greater contrast to the hum and hustle of the market.

What was once the favourite duck-hunting ground of the shoguns is now a leisure spot for urbanites in need of some respite. Anyone caught up in the fast-paced, high-octane world of electronics in Shinjuku, or who has tumbled through the neon nightlife of Shibuya, should come here to decompress. The cicadas and birds are loud, but so are the silences.

At the entrance, I'm greeted by the powerful presence of a 300-year-old black pine. Apparently planted by the sixth shogun Ienobu Matsudaira, it is the oldest and largest of its kind in Tokyo. The thick, burly branches and delicate needles, amazing in all their living detail, create an enduring foreground against an expanse of office towers in the distance, where the faceless grids of the Shidome business district fill the sky. There is a serenity and simplicity to both aspects of this scene.

A stroll through this green oasis evokes the Edo Period, from 1603 to 1868, when Japan was under the rule of the shoguns, and Tokyo was known as Edo. Ienobu's father built the garden and established a villa here in the 17th century, filling in tidal flats at the mouth of the river. Different members of the Tokugawa shogunate added their touches over the years, until the dynasty came to a close in 1868, when the last tycoon, Yoshinobu, landed here in defeat aboard a warship from Osaka and retreated to Edo Castle on horseback, marking the end of an era.

After the Meiji Restoration in the 1800s, the garden became a "detached palace" for the Emperor's family until the city took ownership in 1945 and set to work repairing damage incurred during the fire-bombings of the Second World War.

Today, the garden is all graciousness, elegance and Zen-like moments: I find myself thinking about the natural elements themselves as much as the spaces between them. Human contemplation of beauty is evident in winding paths, cedar bridges, pagodas and a teahouse that serves pots of fine matcha to soothe the soul. I spend the next hour climbing miniature mountains, looking out at the bay and watching the wildlife around an immense seawater pond. Views here change with the seasons -- cherry blossoms, fields of peonies, plum groves, eternal pines -- much as they have for centuries.

By sunset, we are back in downtown Ginza, the commercial district of choice among the moneyed classes. It's home to Seiko watches and Shisheido beauty products, enormous department stores like Matsua, Mitsukoshi and Mastuzakaya, the Sony Building by Yoshinobu Ashihara and the Maison Hermès by Renzo Piano. In addition to non-stop stores, it contains countless galleries, clubs and restaurants.

Seated at Tofuro restaurant for supper, an establishment just off the main crosswalk on "Corridor Street" (a passageway between Shimbashi and Yurakucho stations), I find that the meal before me reflects my experiences of the day: the ingredients of Tsukiji and the landscaping of Hamarikyu. The laquered box full of mysterious elements achieves a balance of textures and colours that dares me to put some trust in tradition -- perhaps the most charming and challenging aspect of my visit to Tokyo.

"Are you going to bed early?" I ask Mr. Kawai as we finish our meal.

"Depends what you mean by early," he quips.

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