TOKYO • A Japanese sushi entrepreneur paid a record US$3.1 million (S$4.2 million) for a giant bluefin tuna yesterday as Tokyo's new fish market, which replaced the world-famous Tsukiji last year, held its first pre-dawn New Year's auction.
Bidding stopped at a whopping 333.6 million yen for the enormous 278kg fish - an endangered species - that was caught off Japan's northern coast.
Self-styled "Tuna King" Kiyoshi Kimura paid the top price, which doubled the previous record of 155 million yen, also paid by him in 2013. "It's the best tuna. I was able to buy a delicious, super fresh tuna," the sushi restaurant chain owner proudly told reporters.
"The price was higher than originally thought, but I hope our customers will eat this excellent tuna," Mr Kimura said after the auction.
Tsukiji - the world's biggest fish market and a popular tourist attraction in an area packed with restaurants and shops - moved in October last year to Toyosu, a former gas plant a bit further east.
Opened in 1935, Tsukiji was best known for its pre-dawn auctions of tuna, caught from all corners of the world, for retail sale by everyone from top Michelin-star sushi chefs to ordinary grocery stores.
Especially at the first auction of the new year, wholesalers and sushi tycoons have been known to pay eye-watering prices for the biggest and best fish.
Despite the fish market's relocation, the auction ritual remained intact. Before dawn, buyers in rubber boots were inspecting the quality of the giant fresh and frozen tuna by examining the neatly cut tail-end with flashlights.
At 5.10am, handbells rang to signal the auction was on and the air filled with the sound of auctioneers yelling prices at buyers, who raised fingers to indicate interest.
In a roar of wholesalers surrounding the day's best tuna, an auctioneer hammered the top price as the Kimura side outbid his rival in a thrilling head-to-head battle.
Japan consumes a large portion of the global bluefin catch, a highly prized sushi ingredient known in Japan as "kuro maguro" (black tuna) and dubbed by sushi connoisseurs as the "black diamond" because of its scarcity. A single piece of "otoro", or the fish's fatty underbelly, can cost dozens of dollars at high-end Tokyo restaurants.
A tuna similar in size to the one just sold would, on a normal day, fetch around US$60,000, according to the BBC.
The new market has opened its auction warehouse to let visitors witness the event from a balcony, in the hope of becoming a must-see spot for tourists, like Tsukiji.
"Finally, the first New Year auction was held at Toyosu market," said market official Yoshihiko Otaki. "We have a lot of tuna here like we did in Tsukiji," he added.
Tuna is prized around the world for its use in sushi, but experts warn growing demand has made it an endangered species.