The real deal in Kansai’s kitchen

by Kenzo Moriguchi

OSAKA — Osaka’s Kuromon Market has never ceased to fire the Japanese public imagination in its 180 years of existence. Back in the 1940s, it was described in Sakunosuke Oda’s novels, including his well-known “Meotozenzai.” And these days, Kuromon is on television, in a popular NHK morning serial “Honmamon” about a young girl who comes to Osaka to become a chef and works at the market.

The unique appeal of this fresh-food retail market is perfectly understandable in Osaka — the city that was dubbed “the kitchen of Japan” during the Edo Period (1603-1867), and where eating out remains a favorite pastime today. It follows that Kuromon — located in the heart of the city, walking distance from the bustling Nanba district in Chuo Ward and accessible from the posh Shinsaibashi area — is widely considered to be the kitchen of Osaka.

Ironically, however, a market that offers an ideal setting in fiction is fast losing business in real life.

The 170 shops, lined up along a 580-meter pedestrian zone and selling everything from fish and meat to fruits and vegetables, have fallen on hard times as the recession tightens its grip on the Japanese economy.

Kuromon still supplies fresh food to hundreds of restaurants in the area, as well as serving individual customers who come from as far as Kobe, according to Takeshi Uegaki, managing director of the market’s promotional association. During the yearend shopping rush, more than 150,000 people visited Kuromon daily, says Uegaki. Even on a normal weekday, he explains, the market sees about 18,000 customers on average.

But overall, the number of customers has been declining — people are opting for cheaper alternatives. Why go to Kuromon when the neighborhood supermarkets cost so much less?

This year, though, is starting out as somewhat of an anomaly, with Kuromon seeing more customers in the current fiscal year than in the previous one because of the opening of the Universal Studios Japan in Osaka’s Konohana Ward last March.

“A lot of foreign customers, mostly as part of their tour to USJ, are visiting Kuromon Market,” says Uegaki, adding that “Honmamon” is also giving the market good publicity in and around Osaka. It’s no matter that tourists, mostly foreigners, don’t buy much when they visit. That Kuromon figures quite prominently on the tourist route is good enough.

In this year’s first normal business week, after the shopping rush had ended, there were still substantial numbers of people shopping around at Kuromon on a regular weekday. Early mornings, it’s usually the restaurants doing their buying for the day. But as the day progresses, more housewives come in, haggling over prices with shopkeepers eager to get rid of their wares before the market closes.

Amid the lively chaos — but especially during these winter months — fugu is a perennial favorite, as is maguro tuna. Kuromon’s seafood sells briskly from as early as 6 a.m. to as late as 6 p.m. daily, except on Sundays. The market’s fish trade has thrived since around 1822, when fishmongers began selling their fish in Nipponbashi where Kuromon now stands. At that time it was called Enmyoji Market after the prominent Enmyoji Temple adjacent to the site. But both temple and market were burned down in a conflagration in 1912. The market sprang up again in no time, and got its present name from the blackened gate (kuromon) of the temple.

The market went on to flourish in the Taisho (1912-1926) and prewar Showa eras. Though Kuromon burned down a second time after U.S. bombing during World War II, shops were quick to resume business shortly after, and Osaka itself — especially the Nanba district — revived likewise.

Yet a market that has survived both war and fire finds itself threatened today by a flagging economy as well as changing public taste. Uegaki admits that the current preference for junk food is giving rise to restaurants, supermarkets and consumers who don’t set much store by quality fresh food.

Fighting to maintain business, in recent years the association has been quick to utilize the Internet, not only as an advertising medium, but also as an online store. The association’s Web site was started six years ago, and individual shops are also jumping on the Internet bandwagon, launching their own Web sites.

“A Web site was first intended to advertise the market, so that more customers would come. But we are now seeing it as a way to sell more goods through e-commerce. It will be our chance for a future,” Uegaki says.

Television, too, holds out hope for Kuromon. “Honmamon” means “real stuff,” and the association is taking advantage of the popular sit-com to promote the market as a place to find real food.

“Even those generations who fancy junk food will eventually come back to real food,” Uegaki says. “That is why we have to keep offering good food for future generations. For people who insist on quality, Kuromon is a must.”