Tokyo: Excess vs artisan

by Mars

We watched the Olympic Games opening ceremony on Friday afternoon and fondly reminisced about our trip to Japan’s capital almost a decade ago. Of all the cities we’ve had the privilege of visiting, Tokyo stood out. It was the city’s culture, vibe, fusion of modernism and tradition, and food that caught our attention.

While we were there we took in the tourist sights and sounds. One of the most famous experiences that was recommended to us was the Tokyo fish market and of course, when in Japan, you have to experience the food, which is nothing short of incredible. Few cities in the world can deliver exquisite food as consistently as Tokyo.

Food is extremely important to the Japanese and every meal that we had was beautifully presented and the portions were never excessive. The sushi, as you would expect, was always extremely fresh and prepared to perfection, and one of the standout discoveries for me was unagi (fresh water eel), which is smoked and usually served on a bed of rice with dried seaweed.

Regrettably, the excellence of the seafood comes at a hefty environmental price as we saw firsthand at the fish market. We visited Tsukiji fish market in Shinjuku Gyoen (it has since moved to a new location in 2018) which was made famous for its tuna auctions. The current record is $3.1 million for a 278kg bluefin tuna that was purchased by a sushi restaurant chain.

As we entered the market we were taken aback by the sheer magnitude and sprawling size across 230,000sqm, and by how much seafood there was on offer.

At first, we were awestruck by the scope and expanse, because we had never seen a fish market of this size despite us being extensive travellers. We were like excited children and we wanted to eagerly explore the market because everywhere we looked we saw fish and sea creatures that we had never seen before, and frankly never even knew existed. We were mesmerised, because we felt like we had gone diving and were surrounded by crustaceans, shellfish and other exotic creatures.

Excited, we separated and started to experience the market taking loads of photos of the hustle and bustle. When we hooked up again after our 20 minute solo expeditions, our guide proudly told us that the market sells between 1,600-2,200 tonnes of seafood every day.

It was then that the reality set in. We were standing in the middle of the market where these enormous quantities of fish were being sold after being pulled out of the ocean. This vast quantity – every single day. Very quickly, our awe and excitement dissipated and turned into a chilling reality that everything that surrounded us was unsustainable on almost every level and was extremely damaging to the environment.

This was even more distressing as the bulk of our previous holidays were mainly spent scuba diving and snorkelling enjoying the splendour and beauty that the ocean has to offer from graceful manta rays to clown fish and anemones.

We left the market confused and bewildered. We had been in Tokyo for a few days before our visit to the fish market and we had experienced the warm hospitality of the Japanese people and their very deep appreciation for food and nature. This is a country that exudes respect and honour. So there was a major disconnect that a country that values quality and small portions could be plundering the oceans to this extent.

And we were guilty of supporting this trade because we did eat a lot of sushi and seafood during our visit, but it was a real eye-opener to see our planet’s resources exploited to such an unsustainable degree.

What astounded us further is that this is one market in Japan, and given how many seafood markets and restaurants there are around the world, it beggars belief that our oceans can be that plentiful to keep them stocked up for human consumption on this scale.

And not surprisingly they’re not. As bountiful as our oceans appear to be, tuna, as just one example, has become so popular that fish experts want to put it on the endangered species list. In fact, scientists have predicted that wild seafood sources will collapse and cease to exist by 2050 if fishing practices don’t change.

As a polar opposite to the excess and profligacy of the fish market, we have Japan’s fresh produce industry. The Japanese are passionate about fresh produce – excellent quality, luxury, gourmet fresh fruit and veg. We went into numerous stores and delis that sold premium fresh fruit specimens and vegetables and were always taken aback by the prices. This fruit is typically given as a luxurious gift (for weddings or other very special occasions) and in some instances Japanese people reward themselves with fruit as a special treat.

What’s special about these gifts is that they are seasonal and the symbolism of fresh produce as gifts is that you’re bestowing the colour, taste and smell of the season to the recipient. A lovely sentiment. Since fruit is perishable, it will be eaten and the gift won’t add clutter to their homes, as Japanese homes are typically small, compact and minimalist.

If you’re wondering why the fruit is so expensive and luxurious, it’s because (like most things in Japan) they’re grown to be perfect in every respect. They are usually grown by small farmers (not massive corporations), which makes them extremely exclusive and sought after. Pollination is often done by hand, and they even fit fruit with little hats to prevent them from being scorched by the sun on searing days. They will also often grow one fruit per branch or vine to extract maximum flavour and nutrition. It’s a meticulous practice with extreme attention to detail, which is why (nearly a decade ago) two mangos cost £32 and a pair of melons would have set you back £170.

We had a bowl of grapes on arrival in our hotel room that were grown in Yamanashi prefecture (which we now know is renowned for growing grapes) and they were amongst the tastiest grapes we’ve ever had. You can have a look at them in the image gallery below – every grape is exactly the same size.

We ate them before we ventured out to explore the city on that day and the hotel never explained that these were gourmet, specialty specimens. We naively scoffed them down like the were just really tasty supermarket grapes; while we acknowledged their notable flavour and taste, we never fully appreciated what lengths the farmers went to, to grow these perfect bunches. Had we known, we would have savoured them more.

Japan painted a very clear picture of the battle between excess and artisan. At the same time, it was puzzling to see a highly evolved and educated nation appreciate the splendour of their luxury fruit and veg, and that celebrates its cherry blossom and connection to nature so passionately, condoning and supporting extracting fish from the sea at unsustainable levels.

Now that we’re trying to live sustainably and grow our own veg, the balance between excess and artisan is ever clearer to see. Less is more, and if we are to alter this planet’s course away from environmental disaster there has to be a fundamental change in our collective actions. As humans living in a modern, materialistic world we have become accustomed to glut and overabundance in every aspect (food, fashion, entertainment, travel, communication – you name it), and have learnt to take things for granted.

This glut produces mountains of waste we can’t dispose of and releases pollutants into the air that are severely disrupting the stability of our climate.

The planet may seem robust and resilient since it has given life to organisms, animals and ecosystems for over three billion years, but the systems that offer life are fragile especially when they’re overused and abused. These systems have unquestionably become overburdened and the world is taking strain.

We don’t have to grow specialty fruit like the Japanese in order to have a positive impact on the environment in our personal lives. We just need to avoid the excess, find the middle ground and get our lives balanced, even if that means doing something small like growing your own tomatoes and basil, and always knowing where all of your food is coming from.

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