Hours before most residents in Fukuoka in southwestern Japan sit down to breakfast, the Fukuoka Central Wholesale Market's fish auctions and wholesale brokers will sort and sell 275,600kg of sea specimen, from mackerel and pike conger to big fin reef squid, sea urchin and much more.
The early start fro the market, at a downtown wharf facing Hakata Bay, ensures that fish brought by boats, lorries and late-night flights from around the country can be served and sold hours later at sushi counters and supermarkets in Fukuoka and nearby cities. Diners would accept no less. "Traditionally in Fukuoka if the fish wasn't served raw it wasn't served raw it wan't considered fish," says Masahiro Nishiyori, director of the fish market in the Nagahama district. "The sashimi culture here is the reason everything has to be so fresh."
It also explains the market's frenetic pace. For 283 days a year, it's a race against the clock: as the fish begin trickling in around 21.00, they are sorted by type and size, divided into wooden crates and Styrofoam boxes, covered with ice and lined up on the concrete floor for the 03.00 start of the wholesale auctions. About two hours later the floor has cleared and the 43 brokers who have bid for their share of the day's catch are doing a brisk business with hundreds of buyers from supermarkets and chefs from traditional ryotei restaurants, sushi bars and izakaya gastropubs.
Fukuoka had Japan's first centralised fish market back in the late 19th century. Today the market - built by the city at its current site in 1955 and upgraded between the 1900s and 2000s - is spread across 120,000 sq m of docks, warehouses, freezers and refrigerators. In a year, Fukuoka's 82,000 tonnes of fresh, farmed, frozen, dried and processed seafood translates to Y48bn ($400m) of trade.
More than 300 types of sea creatures pass through the market but Fukuoka's speciality is what Japanese call aomono: amberjack, mackerel, sardines, Pacific saury and other fish with oily, blue-tinted skin. They account for half of the market's fresh fish (and even more during the year-end holidays); most is netted wihtin a few hundred kilometres of the southwestern island of Kyushu and brought directly by fishing boats or by lorries from 30 other ports across the prefecture.
The serinin (auctioneers) are the market's resident fish experts and Hidenori Tominaga, who wears the white cap of his post, ranks among the seasoned. During a career spanning three decades, he has learned to identify any fish at a glance. Knowing a sea bream from a sea bass is as important as being able to tell when the fish is at its plumpest. "The more fat a fish has, the higher the price," says Tominaga of Fukuoka Chuo Uoichiba, one of the market's two auction houses. He spends a moment inspecting the fatty section near a dorsal fin before he's calling out prices to 30 brokers surrounding him, whole an assistant with a clipboard jots down who is buying and for how much.
Lately, as fish consumption in Japan has declined, market brokers have looked overseas to make up for shrinking sales at home. Yasuo Ogiwara, who heads broker Matsumo, is now sending amberjack and bluetin tuna directly to customers in Hong Kong, while others are exporting to Jakarta, Dubai and Atlanta. "Location is our biggest advantage," says Ogiwara. "We can put fish on the early flights out of Fukuoka airport and it will reach other regional cities in time for dinner."
Fukuoka officials have been exploring ways to encourage Japanese consumers to eat more fish. Since 2008, the market has opened its doors to the public one Saturday a month, with cooking demonstrations and workshops on proper filleting techniques. "The brokers prepare boxes of fish that you would rarely see on supermarket shelves and usually more than 10,000 people turn up," says market director Nishiyori. After decades of conducting their business behind closed doors, the market's opening up appears to be paying off.