One of Japan's prominent fishing ports and a frequent stop for foreign luxury cruise liners, the city of Sakaiminato on the Sea of Japan coast bolsters the local economy in a remote western region of the country.

Also thriving as a trading base after Japan opened up the country in the mid-19th century thanks to its relative proximity to the Korean Peninsula, the Tottori Prefecture city with a population of 33,000 is dubbed a "fishing town" for being a good natural port endowed by rich fishing banks in adjacent waters.

This has historically provided the solid foundation for the prosperity of the offshore fishing operation based in Sakaiminato, where efforts are now being made to keep aloft its coastal fishing -- the other main style of commercial fishing that has helped feed the city.

Photo taken on Sept. 16, 2023, shows the Nakano Port Fishing Village Market in full swing in Sakaiminato, Tottori Prefecture, western Japan. (Kyodo)

Fisheries industry data for 2022 placed Sakaiminato in fourth in terms of the volume of fish landings behind Choshi in Chiba Prefecture, Kushiro in Hokkaido and Yaizu in Shizuoka Prefecture. Sakaiminato topped the list of ports on the Sea of Japan coast.

The vast majority of the volume at Sakaiminato came from offshore fishing, particularly with a method using purse seines, the large walls of netting designed to target dense schools of single-species fish.

Mackerels, horse mackerels and sardines are among the mainstays at the port in addition to seasonal specialties like bluefin tunas in the summer and snow crabs and red snow crabs in the winter.

In contrast to such offshore fishing, which is carried out within 200 nautical miles from Japan's coast, coastal fishing is operated in areas near the coastline by using small boats and trawlers owned mostly by individual operators.

Industry documents show coastal fishing once accounted for as much as 80 percent for all types used in Japan's fisheries industry, which also include distant-water or deep-sea fishing and aquafarming.

But it has long been on the wane due to the general decline in Japan's fisheries and because it is prone to being affected directly by marine pollution, land reclamation and red tide, among others.

Students from Sakaiminato Comprehensive Technical High School sell crab soup on Sept. 16, 2023, at the Nakano Port Fishing Village Market in Sakaiminato, Tottori Prefecture, western Japan. (Kyodo)

In Sakaiminato, in part of efforts to buck the negative trend, a decade-old seafood market is attracting customers from far and wide with its discount deals by providing them with fresh seafood for their kitchen tables as it slowly breathes life back into the local port's coastal fishing.

The city's Nakano market opens a few times a year and is run by fishermen and local volunteers eager to revitalize the port's coastal fishing operations, which in recent years have been hard-hit by a decline in seafood consumption.

On one such market day held on Sept. 16, more than 100 people showed up to buy a wide assortment of seafood, including grunts, white squid, golden threadfin bream and John Dory at discount prices.

Customers could be seen leaving the port in high spirits as they carried bags full of the day's choice catches.

 
Tadashi Sasaki (3rd from L), head of the Nakano Port Fishing Village Market's organizing committee, recommends fish to a family on Sept. 16, 2023, in Sakaiminato, Tottori Prefecture, western Japan.(Kyodo)

"Now is the best season for this fish," said Tadashi Sasaki, 57, while pointing at sea bream laid out on a bed of ice.

Sasaki owns a small trawler and heads the group of the market's organizers who bring fresh catches to the port early the same day to sell at prices as low as 30 to 50 percent of the normal price.

The market, which attracts visitors from within and outside the prefecture alike whenever it opens, began in 2013 when local restauranteur Masakazu Hamano, 48, approached local fishermen and other community members after he became concerned about the port's declining trawler numbers.

Masakazu Hamano (front) talks with fellow staff on Sept. 16, 2023, at the Nakano Port Fishing Village Market in Sakaiminato, Tottori Prefecture, western Japan. (Editorial use only)(Kyodo)

Having witnessed the number of fishing boats at the port whittle away over the years, Hamano felt he "had to do something" for those who have been facing an increasingly tough business climate amid rising fuel and living costs alongside stagnant fish prices. Seafood catches themselves have declined in coastal fishing.

According to the central government's Fisheries Agency, there were roughly 70,000 coastal fishermen in Japan in 2021, down more than 40 percent from over 120,000 in 2010. A recent study by the Tottori prefectural government found that the number in Sakaiminato fell to 51 in 2022 from around 90 a decade earlier.

In the past, the market used to open almost monthly, but these days it is open for business around four times per year. Due to the importance of offering the freshest catches of the day, the market's opening can sometimes be delayed or suddenly called off if the sea gets choppy.

Photo taken on Sept. 16, 2023, shows crowds of visitors gathering at the Nakano Port Fishing Village Market in Sakaiminato, Tottori Prefecture, western Japan.(Kyodo)

But people often queue for hours before the selling starts on open days. Most people find out about them via social media, the city office's newsletter or other means, with the next event scheduled for May 2024.

Alongside the fishermen, mongers and seafood processors in the organizing committee are local high schoolers who hold demonstrations of "ikejime," a traditional Japanese slaughter technique that maintains the fresh flavor of fish meat.

The method involves killing fish instantaneously by inserting a spike into their hindbrain and thoroughly draining them of blood, preventing muscle twitches that build up lactic acid and ammonia, which can make them taste sour and less flavorful.

The committee said that some of the students, who are also in charge of selling crab soup at the market, are employed by local fishery companies after they graduate.

After the mid-September market day, Sasaki was ready to begin preparing for the next one. "I could see that many consumers were there to support us. We want people in Tottori to leave what they serve in their kitchens up to us," he said with a smile after a long day's work.

"We will continue taking on the challenge of turning the port back into the bustling place it once was," Hamano added.


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