Something Smells Fishy Here! From ramen to shochu and the hearty fare of its sidewalk stalls, Hakata is a gourmand’s delight, but a listing of the local menu is incomplete without fresh seafood. Fronting the Korean Strait and Hakata Bay, Fukuoka is a cornucopia of fresh finfish and shellfish year round, but the flavors of such treats as mackerel, deep sea bass, and blowfish are at their most succulent in winter. Fukuoka Now presents the local piscine panorama by covering the waterfront at the Fukuoka Fish Market–the seafood clearinghouse for the city and Western Japan.
The Fukuoka area has prospered as a coastal metropolis since the 12th century, when today’s Hakata Bay was known as Sode no Minato, and before, when envoys were sent to T’ang Dynasty China more than a millenium ago. The maritime location naturally shaped local dietary habits, and Fukuoka became a major seafood consumption region. Now, in addition to the Korean Strait, the Japan Sea, and the East China Sea, fresh seafood arrives from every Kyushu seaport to be served in eateries or the table at home.
The ready availability of different shellfish led to the creation of distinctive local dishes found nowhere else in Japan–Iwashi no Chirinabe, with real sardines, and Gomasaba, made with raw mackerel sprinkled with sesame and steeped in soy sauce.
How does the seafood used for sashimi or in piping hot nabemono arrive on your table? Your intrepid reporters braved the winter cold to learn the secrets of the trade.
Fukuoka Now Trolls the Market
The Fukuoka Central Wholesale Market in Nagahama is a bustling hive of commotion where upwards of 8,000 people converge on a given day. This gigantic market handles more seafood than any other in Japan. It is an amazing sight, but unfortunately one not open to visits by the general public. Despite this restriction, Fukuoka Now was able to sneak in reporters to witness the hectic activities. We stayed up all night to bring you the lowdown on the market denizens, handling the fish, and the secret auctioneer’s code.
That’s right the auctioning started at 3:00 a.m. That ain’t early that’s the middle of the night! The auctioneer’s hammer starts falling earlier here than any other market in Japan two hours before the start of auctions at the famous Tsukiji market in Tokyo. And the market is already filled at that hour with people and fish, with the horse mackerel and sardines unloaded from the docks, scales glistening in the moonlight.
The workers transferring the catch from boat to box for auction create the picture of efficiency. Fish are loaded on a conveyor belt to be skillfully sorted by a battalion of middle-aged female workers indifferent to the chilly winter wind. The fish are snuggly packed into boxes for auction. These boxes are scattered around the vast market in great mounds resembling islands for separate auctions conducted by type. There are four major types–blue fish (mackerel, sardines, horse mackerel), colored seafood (sea bream, yellowtail, squid)–further broken down into offshore and deep sea varieties–larger fish, such as tuna, and a special classification for shellfish and crabs.
As the fish are unloaded and sorted, the sequence of auctions is already underway. Here the auction for young tuna is about to begin. Long rows of fish are packed in boxes and separated by weight. This haul of fish will take a mere 10 minutes to auction off.
The auctioneer dons a white cap and climbs nimbly to the top of the boxes. Jabbing his finger in the air, he barks out the fucho, the market’s special method for expressing figures. Prices are settled in a code-like jargon rather than the conventional terms of thousands of yen per kilogram. Profit margins for buyer and seller are determined in an instant. Those caught napping can lose their shirts!
The auction is the market’s great spectacle. It takes at least three years of training with a wholesaler to become an auctioneer capable of running this show. Only after passing a test can the trainees wear the auctioneer’s white cap. The requirements for quickly determining the winning bid include visual acuity and a keen discernment. It’s a demanding profession, and most people bow out by the age of 40. Today, about 100 auctioneers employ their skills at the Nagahama market.
Brokers bid at auction on items offered by wholesale companies. The fish sold at auction in the market will be immediately sent to local wholesale shops on the premises. About half the seafood auctioned off in the market is sold to these wholesalers, with the rest being shipped to markets throughout Japan.
There are about 40 wholesale shops, each specializing in different seafood varieties. Some deal in dried fish rather than fresh fish. Starting at about 5:00 a.m., buyers begin arriving from supermarkets and fresh fish shops to purchase their day’s supply. The market closes for the day anywhere from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.
The energetic merchants are wide awake and driven by a full adrenaline rush at 5:00 a.m. Both the fish and the people working in the market glow with that look of Hakata health. While market auctions have remained unchanged for years, the market itself has incorporated high-tech equipment, such as a computer-controlled interior cooling system and electric shutters to prevent the fish from drying out. This shows the market spares no effort to maintain its position as Kyushu’s port of entry for seafood.