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Essays by Prairie Stuart-Wolff

Consider the Fish Consider the Fish

Consider the Fish

A flapping snapper slides in a stream of fresh seawater across the auction stand towards open arms. The auctioneer raps a hand gaff and in an instant a deal is struck. In one smooth stroke the fish is ushered back into a holding tank. The Akashi Ura brand of fish originates at a fishing port run on a simple premise, auction live fish. Let its physique, color, and vitality determine its value. Let quality, not quantity drive profits and thereby foster a correlation between the ecosystems of nature and man where an incumbent devotion to quality reigns.

Ask why and sakana ga umai, the fish is fantastic, is the answer you’ll receive. Every effort made by individuals is a concession to the noble fish found in nearby waters. Just offshore, beyond the breakwater, an unparalleled environment supports an array of resplendent fish. The shallow sandy flats of the Harimanada Sea provide an ideal spawning ground for so many species of fish. Schools of them grow unusually plump and robust feasting upon a steady supply of plankton churned up as tidal currents sweep through the narrow straight between Akashi and Awajishima. There fishermen carefully trawl the shortest of distances and raise their nets frequently to draw their catch from the sea unblemished. The wear and tear on equipment and engines alike is a burden, but the condition of the fish comes first. The daily catch rides back to shore in tanks of ocean water below deck.

Back at the harbor, fishermen offload into crates submerged in a continuously circulating reservoir of fresh seawater. Imagine a gastronome’s infinity pool. Against the backdrop of the sea, the surface bubbles like a gentle Jacuzzi. This is the harbor at Akashi Ura, home of Japan’s most forward-thinking fishing industry.

When the auction has ended the fishermen prepare to return to sea while purveyors prepare to ship their acquisitions. With prime fish in close proximity to culinary centers like Kyoto, Kobe, and Osaka a smooth channel from sea to chef ensures that fish of unparalleled quality reach the finest kitchens in the land. A sanguine crescent moon shaped snapper rests in a crate, arched and glistening below the surface of the water. The fish yields to the touch, unexpectedly docile. The spiny dorsal fin tickles my palm as I run a cupped hand along its spine. It is indeed a rotund fish with a healthy girth, marumaru, pukupuku, plump and firm from head to tail.

Akashi Ura is a marvel to behold, a synergistic coalition of fishermen and fishing industry officials successfully employing an original strategy that first and foremost values the natural resource on which it depends. It’s an approach that offers a breath of fresh air in the modern age and provides a desperately needed model balancing commerce and ecology.

About the author

Prairie Stuart-Wolff is a writer, photographer, and avid home cook who upon moving to Japan in 2007, immediately recognized the great depth and beauty of Japanese culinary traditions. She produces Cultivated Days, an online journal that investigates and celebrates the ingredients, principles, and practices of Japanese food and culture in context.