Rambling among crates of raw fish, dawdling around with 450 types of freshly caught produce. It may seem an odd way to relax, but for James Gallagher, 46, the organized chaos of the Tsukiji Fish Market used to be a welcome respite during his lunch breaks at the advertising firm Dentsu in Tokyo.
It later became a way of life.
Now most days Gallagher rises at 5 a.m. for the long drive from the mountains to the sea, pursuing the freshest catch of the day. Headed for the fish markets in Sapporo and along Hokkaido’s coast, Gallagher cast aside his business language for the more casual talk of local fishermen as the owner of Ezo Seafoods in the Niseko area.
“Sometimes it doesn’t make sense,” Gallagher admits about his career change. “I went from global advertising to local seafood. But if I look back, there’s a whole series of dots connecting the two.”
One of those dots started with his early years, growing up in Brisbane on Queensland’s oysters and scallops, an hour away from the sea and Australia’s famed Gold Coast. Gallagher’s family owned a small hotel in the suburbs and he dreamed of working on the coast in the hospitality business.
“I was 23, starting out in the family business, and at that time in 1989, there was a lot of Japanese investment in the Gold Coast. I decided it would be a good thing to learn the language, so I took a working holiday visa and came to Japan.”
There were other, more personal, reasons for Gallagher to visit Japan. An early enthusiasm for Yukio Mishima’s books had engendered a fascination for “the complexities of Japanese society,” and the historical timing — the death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989 was putting an end to the Showa Era and Japan seemed at a crossroads — appealed to Gallagher’s love of history as well. He had left the University of Queensland in the middle of his studies in history and economics to work in London and then Brisbane. But it seemed more important to continue life experiences in Japan.
Gallagher soon found himself alongside another coast, in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, teaching English. He felt landlocked, however, in learning the language. “I found my Japanese language was not progressing like I wanted it to, so I moved to Nagoya to study full time for a year at the university.”
A life-changing, part-time job while studying was found at Nagoya Television.
“My job involved coordinating an international event that invited politicians and economists to Japan to discuss the future of the post-Cold War environment.I was working with people like the Washington correspondent for TV Asahi — capable, truly international people. I thought because I was a foreigner in Japan that I had an international outlook, but it was not the case.”
Inspired to complete his own studies, Gallagher transferred his language credits from Nagoya University back to Queensland and graduated in a year with a double major in history and Japanese studies.
He also unknowingly made a connection to his own future in fish. While in Queensland, Nagoya Television asked Gallagher to track down two former Polish refugees to Japan now living in Australia, part of a group of 18 sailors who were granted asylum in 1981.
“Nagoya Television saw these sailors as people who had contributed to the end of the Cold War on a grassroots level,” he said. “I managed to track them both down. It was one of the most exciting things I had ever been involved in. One of them was a tuna fisherman in Port Lincoln, the center of Australia’s fishing industry. We’re still in touch today.”
Back in Japan by 1991, Gallagher did not return alone. His future wife, Keiko, the eldest daughter of organic rice and vegetable farmers in Chiba, had been studying English in Australia. They returned together, and Gallagher soon found a job at a small PR firm in Tokyo. After working with the company four years, he landed a job with advertising giant Dentsu.
“I lived very much the Japanese salaryman’s lifestyle. Working long hours, playing golf on the weekends, drinking and socializing often for business. I learned a lot, and it was initially satisfying. Dentsu was like a dream come true. I went from producing small newsletters for universities to joining a team that produced the commercials for Nescafe Gold Blend.”
But even with his lunchtime escapes to Tsukiji, the hectic pace of Tokyo took its toll after 11 years. “We used to go up on the weekends and help out at my in-law’s farm, and gradually I wanted something different. I wanted to be more connected to nature. I wanted to work for myself and to make decisions for myself. I was tired of watching good ideas shot down, which is a part of any salaryman’s life.”
When his contract came up for renewal from a Dentsu subsidiary where he had been transferred, Gallagher did not sign. Answering an ad instead for a bilingual couple to manage a lodge in Hokkaido for the ski season, Gallagher and his wife decided to spend the winter in a new place and consider their options with their 8-year-old son.
“I had heard about Niseko, that Australians were doing things up there, but we’re not ski people, never have been. I was outside all day shoveling snow in 2005. It was great to be outside, to be doing something physical in such a beautiful place with Mount Yotei at our backdoor.”
The young family decided to stay, lured by the real estate boom and the beautiful nature. Gallagher successfully worked in sales and marketing with a local firm for three years before the global financial crisis hit in 2008. “The music stopped, basically,” he recounts. “Earlier, I had invested in a building on Hirafu’s Momiji Street, and within three months, I lost my job and our tenant vacated.”
Returning to Chiba for a few weeks, they considered their options, finally settling on opening a seafood shop back in the Hirafu area.
The decision connected a life-long appreciation for the sea to his new mountain life: “One thing that had struck us that first year in Niseko was the absence of really good seafood. Being in Hokkaido, we were expecting superior seafood, but it was all pretty average. For our own pleasure, I had searched out sources for fresh oysters, and I started bringing them along to my clients as a hospitality gesture.”
Philosophically, running a restaurant also made use of his media past.
“The essential thing, striving for creativity, for the right idea, is the same. Running a restaurant is all about creativity, from what sort of restaurant to the interior or decor, from the logo or your image to the menu, which is the most creative aspect. Even selecting the produce is creative. When I go to the markets, I see things I have never seen before but that really stand out in freshness, and because I go to the markets so often, the whole concept is kept fresh. We’re not just calling in an order.”
Gallagher takes his work with serious fun. “Seafood is very dramatic. There is nothing like the drama of opening fresh oysters or grilling huge scallops. In our shop we have a big display case, and even though it takes up seats, it’s sort of the soul of the whole restaurant.” He depends on his wife, as the head chef, to transform the fresh fish into fantastic food. This summer, the family will head for Spain, taking a one-month sabbatical to develop new recipes and techniques.
A life in seafood also pushes Gallagher to grow personally. Since the Fukushima nuclear disaster started, he has continually researched the latest information to keep his customers current on the possible effects on Hokkaido’s seafood. Earlier, when a customer casually mentioned the rarity of blue fin tuna, Gallagher again looked at the issue from both sides, compelled to better understand sustainability as a supplier of seafood. He now tries to source other types of tuna as much as possible.
As he sums it up himself: “I finally learned something on my own terms. When you are faced with situations out of your control — losing your job or your potential loss of business — depending on how you treat it, they become your best opportunities. Leaving my job in Tokyo, I took the chance to follow my instinct. After the financial crisis, I lost my job, lost everything, but in retrospect it was the perfect timing to do something new. And last year, with the radiation scare, it looked like it would kill our nascent business, it seemed suddenly no one would eat seafood, but in doing what I could, I managed to turn things around and we soon gained a reputation as an authority on food issues. Loss can open up a lot of opportunities.”
For more about James Gallagher and his restaurant, see ezoseafoods.com/en/blog