Fukuoka fish are jumping

by Stephanie Gartelman

FUKUOKA — First-time visitors to this sunny city are often told with a certain friendly belligerence that Fukuoka’s seafood is the best in Japan. Usually, just a glimpse of its sparkling harbor and rugged natural coastline is enough to whet their appetite to test this claim.

Year-round generous catches are netted here of fish that follow the warm Tsushima current northward, feeding on rich plankton fields near the Tsushima, Iki and Goto islands.

Fukuoka’s specialties — squid, shrimp and aomono (blue-skinned mackerel, sea bream and the like) — are caught within 200 nautical miles of the coast. They’re unloaded as fresh fish, never frozen, which is why, explains Shigenori Matsuo at the Fukuoka Fish Market’s management division, simple dishes like sashimi or grilled fish taste so good here.

“The cold waters of Hokkaido admittedly produce firmer, fatter fish,” he says, “but that also means more calories, something not all consumers want.”

Tokyo’s sheer buying power means much of Japan’s best catch ends up in the capital, but it also means heftier prices. The appeal of Fukuoka’s seafood, says Matsuo, is its low prices and the freshness of its aomono.

Western Kyushu is dotted with minor ports where smaller fishing boats sell their catch, but most crews bring their haul directly to the Fukuoka Fish Market. This is the fifth-largest wholesale fish market in Japan after Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Sapporo. It’s located in Fukuoka’s windswept docklands in Nagahama, a 15-minute walk from downtown.

Fishing boats and overland trucks deliver their catch here at 9 nightly. The dark warehouses come to life around 3 a.m., when the goods are auctioned to 60 brokers who then sell it on the premises by 6 a.m. Eventually, there are more than 350 restaurant- and store-owners here, jostling for the best buys of the day.

Top ryotei (traditional restaurants), such as the prestigious Osaka-based Kitcho, pride themselves on seafood their chefs hand-select at the Nagahama market that day.

“Fukuoka’s fish is very different from what’s available in Osaka, so we’ve designed a special menu here to bring out its delicate flavor,” said Kitcho’s manager, Shoji Yuki. Another restaurant, the hip Sushi Den, opened next to the market last year.

“We wanted to make sure we got the best aomono for sushi. We also air-freight the fish twice weekly to our head restaurant in Denver, [Colo.],” explained manager Koichi Kizaki.

Vendors from the city’s fresh-food markets, such as the historic Yanagibashi, also shop at the Fukuoka Fish Market daily — a fact warmly appreciated by the public, for whom that market is off-limits.

“Our family has bought fish at Nagahama for 50 years to make hoshi-ago (dried flying fish),” said Shinobu Matsuoka, who has a shop in Yanagibashi, where local restaurant owners and householders alike snap up his famed hoshi-ago and other seafood.

Interestingly, half of Fukuoka’s nightly catch bypasses the local auctions. It’s placed on ice and transported directly to Hiroshima, Osaka and Tokyo at midnight, arriving at markets there by noon. Brokers later pay Fukuoka wholesalers that day’s prices.

“Today’s smooth roads, and trucks fitted with refrigeration and fish tanks mean that even delicacies such as puffer fish or tiny kibinago sardines can quickly reach consumers across the country,” Matsuo says. “These days, any fish is available anywhere.”

The efficiency of today’s distribution system has not, however, altered the fact that “less fish now arrives in Nagahama,” grumbles broker Yasuhiro Abe.

This is because Japanese fishing grounds have been depleted, and also because fewer young people work in fisheries. As a result, increasingly more seafood brought to the market is from foreign countries. Nearly 10 percent of the total catch in 2001 arrived on Chinese, Korean and Taiwanese boats; that figure was only 3 percent in 1991. Also, sea urchin, abalone, tuna and crab is increasingly flown in from the U.S., Mexico and South Korea.

Lower consumer demand is also affecting catches. A 1999 survey by the Management and Coordination Ministry showed that individual consumption of fish dropped 14.5 percent during the ’90s, largely because it was considered difficult to prepare. By contrast, readymade food purchases jumped 65 percent.

Masanobu Furukawa, a broker at the market, pointed out that fish sales to restaurants remain strong — it’s householders who are buying less. “People love fish,” he says, “but can’t be bothered preparing it.”

Partly to stall this trend, Fukuoka’s fish market is being extensively refurbished. A new headquarters with educational displays and cooking facilities has already opened. It has PR offices to help promote awareness of seafood’s health benefits. A new wholesale area with viewing areas for visitors will open in April.

The Nagahama area in general has been getting a make-over. Trendier restaurants, spas and karaoke spots have joined the scruffy boxing studios and 24-hour noodle shops that sprang up after World War II to cater to dock-workers and fishermen.

Yatai-owners note that more young women, and fewer rough elements, visit the area now. “This area will become even more cosmopolitan in the next few years,” predicts Kizaki of Sushi Den.

So while Fukuoka’s fish market has admittedly become a little leaner, the efforts to clean up its image could ultimately net a fresh catch of success for the local fish industry.