Long Journey Home/Visiting Japanese Fish Market

by Yasu Kizaki

In the past, I’ve stayed behind and held the fort down in Denver, while my brother, Toshi, traveled to Japan to visit our sister restaurant and the fish market where we purchase the fish that flies fresh directly to Sushi Den Denver. Now it was my turn to journey to my homeland and observe the fast-paced world of the Japanese fishing industry for myself. My visit to Sushi Den in Fukuoka, Japan, and to one of the largest fish markets in Southern Japan, was a fascinating and truly awakening experience.

“Hey, Yasu, it’s time to go,” my youngest brother, Koichi, whispered in the darkness.

Through the haze of a dream…

Some part of me recognized I had safely arrived on Kyushu Island, one of the southernmost islands in Japan. The city of Fukuoka is on the Sea of Japan, with a population of just over 1.5 million people, and is the major city on Kyushu Island.

I was totally exhausted when I arrived at my youngest brother’s place at 11:00 PM on that December night. After 3 airplane rides and some 24 hours after leaving Denver, and with barely any sleep, Koichi mentioned, “It is late, you should go to sleep. I will wake you up at 2:00 AM to go the fish market.”

“Sure,” I responded without thinking much. I was simply too tired to ponder what he had suggested at that time. Koichi goes to the fish market at 2:30 AM every morning to purchase the best fish available for that day for both Sushi Den and Izakaya Den.

I looked at the clock with my eyes half closed. It was precisely 2:15 AM. It was as if my brain had completely stopped functioning. Still more than half asleep, I thought regretfully, ” Didn’t I go to sleep just a few minutes ago? Why did I agree to go to the fish market with him at this early hour of the day? I just need to sleep more.” I was so exhausted.

When we left his place just before 2:30 AM, it was pitch dark and freezing cold. The bone-biting, deep cold of a humid climate. Japan in winter is one of the coldest spots you can be. In fact, the day before had been the coldest day of the year in all of Japan. I could see snow flittering in the beams of the street lamps. My breath was already frozen. Fortunately my brother’s home, and the fish market are only 5 minutes away from each other, so convenient.

“There it is,” my brother pointed out. I could see many lights in a huge building looming in the darkness. As we got closer, I could also see many ships docked right beside the building, with men unloading the fish onto a platform where they auction approximately $1 million worth of freshly caught seafood every morning.

“Oh my! This building is huge, just so huge! I have never seen anything like it” I exclaimed. “It is the size of a football stadium,” Koichi said. Space is a premium commodity in Japan and the Japanese are experts at building above and below ground to provide the maximum amount of space. To see a structure this size, which dwarfs everything nearby, alive and glowing like a fortress in the middle of the night, was a sight to behold.

I was finally starting to wake up, anticipating the excitement of what would happen in my fish-buying visit. When I entered the building, the place was already bustling. The smell of the sea and fresh fish permeated the building. I felt as if I were on stage in a play. This drama plays out every single morning at 2:30 AM. It is pitch dark outside, however inside the bare light bulbs hanging from the high ceiling brightly illuminate everything “on stage.”

The market is packed with every variety of seafood. Many buyers are wheeling and dealing with a specific purpose in mind: to buy the best available fish at the best price. All the buyers are your competitors. At first, it looked very chaotic, however as time went by, I could see a perfect rhythm and harmony in what happens there. While the world is still deep in sleep, some 1000+ people are already busy in action.

My brother was busy negotiating prices with the wholesalers while I took photos. “This is the place to do the serious fish business” my brother whispered, as he advised me not to take photos too obviously since the fishmongers are not used to having a camera aimed at them and their fish.

Before I knew it it was just after 5:00 AM and 2 hours had flown by. Daybreak had begun. It was no longer pitch dark. My brother had finally finished purchasing and I was finally wide-awake. I was getting used to this atmosphere and I liked it a lot.

“Hey brother, Yasu, I will need to find 2 more mackerels for Sushi Den”, he said, then started walking up and down the aisles, disappearing into the crowds at once.
He was looking for 2 specific sizes of mackerel in the next half an hour as the market was started to wind down for the day.

It literally dawned on me as the day was dawning, “This is what makes Sushi Den so unique. No wonder Sushi Den’s fish is the freshest and finest. Japanese consumers are the most discriminating of seafood consumers, and the highest grades of fish are sold in Japan. We have direct access to this fish.”

Within an hour, this fish, fresh from the nightly fishing ships will be completely cleaned, vacuum-packed and will be on a plane to Denver. I thought, “I wonder how many people actually know how much effort is expended so that our Denver customers will have the freshest fish possible every day. It may be one or two slices of fish, but we have the efforts of many people behind the scenes to thank for it.”

I was indeed grateful to Koichi for his dedication and deep commitment to what he does. While the world is still deep in sleep, all he thinks about is finding the best fish available for our Sushi Den customers. And he does this every single morning.