ON A THURSDAY at 4:15 a.m. in Osaka, Japan, I stepped inside a freezing-cold hall in the middle of the city and stood before a row of whole tuna from all around Japan, the Indian Ocean, even the Atlantic. A siren sounded and a man stepped up onto a wooden bench right behind the fish and rang a large bell. The morning’s tuna auctions had begun. The auctioneer bellowed in an otherworldly voice that sounded like he had an extreme case of vocal fry. Chef Noguchi Taro, a friend and Kansai native who runs a tiny, eponymous restaurant in this city, turned to me and said: “I have absolutely no idea what he’s saying.”
We stood in the inner sanctum of Osaka’s Central Wholesale Market, close enough to touch the hulking tuna laid out on the cement and read the tiny, hand-held chalkboards on which the wholesalers beside me scrawled out numbers to make their bids. When a fish was sold, the auctioneer’s assistant wrote the number of the buyer on a slip of paper, then dipped that into a small bucket of water so that it would adhere when he plastered it across the fish’s gills.
Tokyo undoubtedly hosts the world’s most important tuna auctions, conducted for many decades at Tsukiji market, though recently relocated to Toyosu, a newly built facility about two miles away. But here’s the dirty little secret about the Tokyo fish market experiences tourists dream of: The most interesting areas of Tsukiji had been off-limits to visitors for many years and, in Toyosu, tourists are barred entirely from entering the active sections of the inner market. As for the famed tuna auction itself, at Toyosu as at Tsukiji before, outsiders will have to content themselves with short and restrictive tours that usually require them to arrive in the very early morning and wait in line for three or four hours. At Toyosu they can see—but not hear or smell—the auction from a viewing deck above, completely removed from the action. The hourslong waits for the best sushi in these markets’ restaurants guarantees that almost all the diners will be tourists.
So what’s a discerning visitor to do? Go to Osaka.
For the last five years I’ve haunted the early-morning markets of Osaka, experiencing something very close to what Tsukiji offered over a decade ago: You can enter freely and witness the bidding process firsthand, then wander the aisles of wholesalers’ stalls while fish are cut, deals are made and seafood is bountifully displayed. You can stroll right into the oldest nigiri sushi restaurant in Osaka, attached to a market, and eat next to fishmongers finishing their shifts and businessmen, known as salarymen, still out for the night. None of that has been remotely possible in Tokyo for years. You don’t need a guide to visit Osaka’s fish markets as long as you’re mindful that these are active workplaces and you stay out of the way of buyers and sellers.
“ ‘A drunken salaryman kept screaming ‘Octopus, Octopus!’ at the chef.’ ”
After I left Chef Taro and the tuna auction I hopped on a rented bicycle and, just after dawn had broken, crossed the Aji River, cruising past the neon lights of Namba en route to the Kizu Ichiban Market. Osaka boasts a number of satellite markets around the city whose sushi places are often open early for breakfast. The best is Kanaezushi, which the same family has operated for 118 years. Toshihiko Ohara, 45, stood behind the counter next to his father, Masao, 75, and, as they assembled my meal, the younger man related Kanae’s history. “I’m the third generation of sushi chefs in the family,” he said. “In the war years, customers had to bring their own rice for us to make sushi with.” They served me my first plate of sushi which, at Kanae, always comes in sets of four. Today’s first plate featured kawahagi, tilefish, topped with its own liver; toro, ultra-fatty tuna; grilled sawara, Spanish mackerel; and stewed hotari-ika, firefly squid. “We serve Edo-style sushi, which originated in Tokyo,” said Mr. Ohara, “but in Osaka, we use more sugar in the sushi rice and we like a lighter taste in the sauce.”
Later I traveled to another fish-market neighborhood, Tsuruhashi, known for its large Korean-Japanese population. Its market sprawls along narrow, covered alleyways packed not just with fish vendors but also with Korean barbecue joints and pickle sellers with dozens of kinds of kimchi. Before sushi as we know it ever appeared in restaurants in Japan, it was sold from outdoor street stalls, as fast food. Standing sushi bars still exist in Japan, but here in Tsuruhashi I saw, for the first time ever, an outdoor standing sushi stall, Sushikou, separated from the sidewalk by just a yellow cloth curtain that hung to waist level.
Beside me, a drunken salaryman kept screaming “tako, tako!” (“octopus, octopus”) at the bedraggled chef. When a party of three entered, the five of us stood shoulder to shoulder, filling the place to capacity. We could glimpse the city’s colorful streetlights out the side as we ate. Pedestrians passing by glanced in at the fish. As the salaryman wolfed down his octopus, the chef calculated his bill based on the color and number of plates piled up in front of him. “We’ve been here 65 years,” the sushi chef told me. “As far as I know, we’re the only place that still serves sushi outdoors.” Much of today’s obsessive foodie culture focuses on the product and the cooking process, not on the atmosphere, the look and the feel of where you eat. Tokyo may have better tuna on auction and finer high-end sushi establishments, but when tourists line up in droves at Toyosu or pack its restaurants, they may as well be in Paris, London or New York. What’s missing there is what Timothy Leary once dubbed set and setting: the immersive feeling you get when you’re the only outsider witnessing a dawn auction; the atmosphere that surrounds you when you belly up to a sushi stall in the middle of the city, right on the street, with only Osakans.
THE LOWDOWN / Osaka’s Fish Bonanza
THE MARKET: Osaka’s Municipal Wholesale Market in Noda is the place to see the fish auctions, starting at 4:15 a.m. The market is closed on Sunday, Wednesday and most holidays. (honjo-osaka.or.jp/)
EATING THERE: Osaka’s best sushi breakfast is at Kanaezushi, inside another market, Kizu Wholesale Market, near Namba. It’s open from 4:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on days when the market works and closed most other days (81-6-6649-1308). For standing sushi on the street, visit Sushikou in Tsuruhashi, open only in the evenings every day and afternoon on Sunday, with room for just five or six people at the counter (81-6-6762-7680). Some of the best sushi in Osaka is at Michelin-starred Amano in Fukushima (81-6-6454-7008). For creative use of fish in a tiny, ten-seat counter-only space, visit Noguchi Taro in Kitashinchi (81-6-4796-8222).