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Firefighters operate at the fire site at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market. REUTERS/Toru Hanai


By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese police and fire investigators sifted through the charred wreckage of parts of the world's largest fish market, a day after fire tore through seven buildings at the popular Tokyo tourist site.

The 80-year-old Tsukiji market draws tens of thousands of visitors a year to its warren of stalls laden with exotic species of fish and fresh sushi.

No people were injured in the fire that broke out late on Thursday and sent grey smoke billowing over the city, but 935 square meters of shops and restaurants in seven buildings were destroyed, a Tokyo Fire Department spokesman said.

"At this point we can't say anything about the cause, it's still under investigation," he added. "There's no information indicating arson, but again, it's still too early to say."

Media reports said the fire appeared to originate in a three-storey building and that people in the area had reported smelling smoke prior to the fire's start in Tsukiji's "outer" market - an area packed with informal restaurants where tourists can tuck into fresh seafood plates and sushi.

Most establishments in the area, which bustles with customers during the morning and early afternoon, had already closed for the day when the fire began. The Tsukiji "inner" market, where most seafood wholesalers are located and world-famous tuna auctions are carried out at dawn, was not affected.

In June, Tokyo's governor announced a long-delayed plan to move Tsukiji from its current site on some of the city's most prime real estate to a man-made island with contaminated soil. The outer market is not scheduled to move.

Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike said the market's age and vulnerability to a big earthquake meant it had to be rebuilt.

At the fire's peak, some 66 fire trucks and scores of firefighters worked to extinguish the blaze, their efforts hampered by narrow streets and tightly-packed buildings. The fire was brought under control around midnight and extinguish Friday morning.

Among the places destroyed was a ramen noodle shop extremely popular with foreign tourists, media said.

"The second floor's a total loss, and everything on the first floor was completely soaked," one shop owner told NHK public broadcaster.

(Editing by Nick Macfie)

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