A hive of activity from six o’clock in the morning
It is 5:30 in the morning as we set off for the Yuriage port morning market, about a fifteen-minute ride from Natori station. From the car, we can see plenty of evidence of the tsunami’s destructive force. As we make our way towards the coast, the twinkling lights of the market come into view.
The market officially opens at six o’clock on Sundays and public holidays, when the sky is still gray. The lines of stalls stand out against the spectacular backdrop of sunrise breaking over the wide expanse of the port. Normally there are around 50 stalls on any given market morning. The booming voices of the vendors fill the air, urging us to try their wares or catch an unbeatable bargain. Here you can find shiny fish in season, boxes brimming with fresh fruit, mountains of tempting vegetables, even pre-prepared meals to take home, all wedged in together along the shoreline. Everything looks wonderful and fresh, and the prices are unbelievably low. Engaging in a spot of spirited haggling with the vendors is all part of the fun of going shopping at such an early hour.
One of the great things about the Yuriage port morning market is that you can do your shopping and get something for breakfast at the same time. For our breakfast today we will be having the intriguingly-named “kimagure-don” from Uroko Suisan, one of the more boisterous fish stores at the market. Kimagure means impulsive or capricious, and true to its name, kimagure-don features a different topping almost every day, chosen by the owner according to whim. Today it’s rice topped with generous serves of salmon roe (in season in autumn and winter), salmon sashimi slices and flaked salmon. Despite the delicious breakfast, the bustling market atmosphere soon makes us hungry again.
We decide to buy something to eat while touring the stalls, but there’s so much to choose from: sasa-kamaboko (fried fish paste) tubes filled with mincemeat, freshly grilled onigiri (rice balls) coated with miso sauce, deep-fried foods, dumplings filled with spicy kimchi… So we decide to sample a bit from each stall that we come across.
As lunchtime approaches, the market shows no sign of slowing; if anything it is more lively than ever. At the water’s edge are charcoal fires where you can cook up the seafood you’ve just purchased at the market. Some stalls will even sell you seafood already mounted on skewers for the barbeque. Transfixed by the delicious aroma of grilled shrimp and scallops wafting through the air, we make a snap decision to buy some Pacific saury from the nearest stall and take it to one of the charcoal fires. This fish is perfect for grilling thanks to the high fat content, and it tastes so much better with the spectacular ocean vista at the port of Yuriage.
Out the back of the Yuriage port morning market is a beautiful wood-paneled building called Maple Pavilion, home to a number of shops selling local produce as well as several excellent restaurants. Ryotei Hamaya, for instance, makes rice dishes topped with fresh seafood. Their signature dish is Yuriage Tomoe-don, featuring the famous Yuriage ark shells. Shanghai Mura, meanwhile, offers an extensive menu of Chinese-style rice soup dishes such as Autumn Jewelry Box, which features seasonal toppings such as salmon, salmon roe and soft roe. There is so much beautiful food on offer here that you feel like you need more than one stomach to accommodate it all.
Bringing the crowds back to Yuriage
The Yuriage port morning market was for many years an established local attraction that brought people from all over the region to snap up the local goods. This is why it was so important to get it going again quickly after the tsunami, says Hiroyuki Sakurai, Sakurai Suisan manager and director of the Yuriage Kou Asaichi Cooperative. Sakurai tells us how he met with all the others from the cooperative and convinced them to get the market up and running as soon as possible. Through their combined efforts it was back in operation after just three weeks, in a rented section of a supermarket parking lot. Given the disruption to supply lines in the aftermath of the disaster, it was a mammoth task just to get hold of enough produce to fill the market.
Sakurai describes the “long lines at the evacuation centers with people complaining about the lack of food. And everyone was saying there was hardly anything worth buying at the markets either. So I thought, let’s do a morning market, just as a once-off. But it was such a success that people kept asking me when we were going to do the next one. By then it was too late, there was no turning back,” he adds, laughing heartily.
December 2013 saw the triumphant return of the Yuriage port morning market to its original home by the waterfront. But by that stage, many of the regular customers had been forced to relocate, their homes damaged or destroyed by the tsunami. There was concern within the cooperative that the glory days of the market might be over for good. But Sakurai was convinced it was worth a try. After all, he argued, they had come this far already.
“We had to get people coming back to Yuriage,” recalls Sakurai. “We thought that was the least we could do, given all the kindness and support that was pouring in from all over Japan. We couldn’t possibly hope to repay all the donations and contributions towards the rebuilding effort, not in our lifetime. But what we could do was to keep our morning market alive, since it was a source of happiness to so many. And we also believed that the market would help to inject some life into Yuriage and encourage people to return here to live.” This bold initiative was not without its critics, of course.
“It was a fairly even split between those in favor of the idea and those against. I would sometimes get calls from people who were very angry that we were putting all this time and money into the morning market while their homes were still in ruins. But we had plenty of supporters too, including many businesses that were keen to be part of the new market. At the end of the day, you have to press forward regardless of the criticism. If you give in to negativity all the time, you’ll never achieve anything.”
Sakurai is a very stoic individual, with a steely gaze and a hard nose for business. He came up with all sorts of ideas to make the morning market a fun experience, such as giving customers the chance to run an auction, setting up charcoal barbeques, and putting on live music. On more than one occasion, he had to caution some members of the cooperative whose stores were deemed to be failing the standards of the market. Today, thanks to their vision and perseverance, the Yuriage port morning market is thriving again, with up to 20,000 visitors per day.
“I don’t think there are many morning markets where you see this level of competition between store owners,” says Sakurai. “They’re fiercely competitive on price, and they all know what the others have in their stores and they try their hardest to be different. Sometimes you even see them undercutting one another on the same products. And that’s what makes it such a great market. Every store has its own personality, the way they call out, the way they interact with their customers. At the Yuriage port morning market, the stores themselves are the main event. My ultimate aim is to make it into the Yuriage port morning market an attraction that brings in visitors from all over Japan, not just a place to do the shopping. We’re always looking for new shops to join us. Competition and rivalry is good for the market. I have to make one last charge or I’ll be finished,” he concludes, laughing uproariously.
The store owners all agree that it’s great to have the Yuriage port morning market back in business again. At the end of the day, they are what brings the market to life, and their stores overflowing with goods are what makes the market such a spectacle. Their enthusiasm is infectious. So, all you need to do is to remember to set the alarm, then wake up early and set off for a hearty meal and some great shopping. As the saying goes, the early bird gets the worm!