Bells, bids and traffic jam as world's largest fish market reopens in Tokyo

TOYOSU, Japan (Reuters) - The world’s largest fish market resumed operations at a new location in Tokyo on Thursday, after final auctions last week at the previous facility in Tsukiji, one of the top tourist attractions in the Japanese capital.

The long-delayed opening of the gleaming new $5-billion Toyosu market on reclaimed land was marked by a minor truck fire and an early morning traffic jam.

As its first tuna auction kicked off at 5:30 a.m. (2030 GMT), the halls filled with the sound of bells and the shouts of traders, who also used hand signals in the scramble to get the day’s best produce.

“It might take some time to get used to,” Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said. “Together, we would like to develop this as the core market of Tokyo, and Japan, and make the Toyosu brand better day by day.”

The 83-year-old Tsukiji market drew tens of thousands of visitors each year to a warren of stalls laden with exotic species of fish and fresh sushi in a tourism boom key to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic plan.

But it had become dilapidated and unsanitary, city officials have said in planning the move to Toyosu, further away from central Tokyo, a relocation delayed many times since it was conceived 17 years ago.

Kimio Amano, a 45-year-old seller of blue tuna, said he was concerned about the location.

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“There are some customers who said they are not coming any longer because it is too far,” said Amano. “Let’s see what happens.”

More than 80 percent of Tsukiji fish traders oppose the move, a survey by a group fighting the relocation showed.

Although demolition work started at Tsukiji on Thursday, a group of fishmongers protesting against the move forced its way back in.

In 2016, toxic substances were found in soil and groundwater at Toyosu, the former home of a gas plant, prompting Tokyo to spend an extra 3.8 billion yen ($34 million)to dig hundreds of wells to pump out groundwater.

In July, Koike declared the site safe after experts signed off on additional clean-up measures, but some traders remain skeptical.

A rat infestation was another problem at Tsukiji, often dubbed the “kitchen of Japan”. Tokyo authorities have set aside 35 million yen ($312,000) for extermination in the year beginning in April to allay the fears of nearby residents that demolition could spread the rodent menace.

Nearly 1,800 rats were killed in the last six months using devices such as mousetraps and adhesive sheets, one official said, adding that it was impossible to estimate the size of the total population.

The old site will provide temporary parking for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics before becoming a tourist center.

Reporting by Kwiyeon Ha and Mayuko Ono; Writing by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Clarence Fernandez