Photo/IllutrationHaneda Ichiba operates from Haneda Airport in Tokyo’s Ota Ward. (Yuko Kawasaki)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

It's 3 a.m. and a fresh catch of fish has just been offloaded at a port in faraway Kyushu. Similar scenes are played out in the darkness of the new day across Japan.

Around 10:30 a.m., polystyrene foam boxes packed with fish in crushed ice start arriving at Tokyo's Haneda Airport, bound for a depot in the complex run by a company called Haneda Ichiba Co.

By 11:30 a.m., the company is delivering the fish to supermarkets, "izakaya" Japanese-style pubs and other customers.

At 5:30 p.m., diners across metropolitan Tokyo are savoring the taste of fish caught that morning.

FRESHER THE BETTER

Haneda Ichiba boasts that it can deliver fish caught within 24 hours to its customers.

The company used to receive only 10 or so orders a day, but it now deals with hundreds of hundreds of requests, bolstering the fortunes of local fishermen who supply the fish.

The company’s rapid growth was a result of its efforts to develop a nationwide chain of vendors to satisfy the appetites of Tokyoites.

Oct. 9 was like any other day at Haneda Ichiba’s fresh fish center, located in a cargo area at the north side of the airport in the capital's Ota Ward.

A trailer pulled up at 10:20 a.m. with fish air freighted from Fukuoka Prefecture. Containers from Yamaguchi, Kochi and Tokushima prefectures started arriving one after another, even from Shikoku and Hokkaido, the northernmost main island.

The unmistakable smell of fish wafted inside the chilly center, where the room temperature is kept at 15 degrees or below.

Ten or so staff members in caps, face masks and rubber boots unpacked boxes of “sawara” Japanese Spanish mackerel, “matodai” dory and other types of fish, meeting orders placed earlier by customers.

Between 20 and 30 percent of the fish that arrived at Haneda Ichiba's facility will be delivered to customers before the end of the day.

At 5:30 p.m., Yuzuki Sasaki, aged 4, was seated with her mother Kumiko, 40, in an izakaya called Taishu Sakaba Sushi Sumibi in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward. They were enjoying a plate of three kinds of fresh sashimi.

“I hugely enjoy the texture of the fish,” Kumiko said, adding that “the bonito here doesn't have a nasty fish smell.” She said she orders the dish whenever she eats at the izakaya.

WINDFALL FOR LOCAL FISHERMEN

While Haneda Ichiba may not be on the same scale as the former world-famous Tsukiji market in the capital's Chuo Ward, now relocated 2 kilometers away in Toyosu, Koto Ward, its chairman, Ryohei Nomoto, 52, figured there was sufficient demand for delivering fish caught the same morning.

This realization came about through his encounters with local fishermen. Around 2010, Nomoto began visiting ports around the country in the hope of cultivating new vendors for a seafood izakaya restaurant that he was associated with as a board member.

Boarding vessels that had seen better days, Nomoto listened to fishermen struggling financially and also worried about whether their children would take over their businesses one day.

Nomoto began to think he could establish a reasonably profitable business that would also benefit local fishermen.

He established Haneda Ichiba in 2014 to bypass third-party fish dealers so that fresh fish went direct to market, thereby speeding up the process and reducing costs. He opened the fish center at Haneda Airport the following year.

His facility handles about 2.5 tons of fresh fish a day, air freighted from 43 regions across the country for delivery to hundreds of restaurants, bars, supermarkets and other establishments.

Since the fish is delivered directly, and not through markets like the one at Toyosu, customers can receive their orders a day or two earlier than usual.

To keep everything fresh, Haneda Ichiba asks the fishermen to clean the fish so they are drained of blood and the nerves removed.

Typically, fish that have been frozen lose their "umami” savory taste when they thaw. For this reason, the company insists that the fish are packed in polystyrene foam boxes with crushed ice when transported to the center.

Shizuki Kotani, a fisherman in Nobeoka, in southern Kyushu's Miyazaki Prefecture, typically lands catches of “hirame,” or Japanese flounder, and “kanpachi,” or great amberjack. He sends around 30 to 40 percent of his haul to the fish center at Haneda, which pays 20 to 30 percent more than the local market.

Kotani, 41, said his dealings with Haneda Ichiba had bolstered his annual revenue from fishing operations by tens of millions of yen.

“Even perishable fish that used to be eaten as sashimi only locally are now being purchased," he said.

He added that the way Haneda Ichiba has changed fish distribution in Japan has been "a savior for me.”

EXPORTS ALSO KEY

The company also derives between 20 and 30 percent of its sales revenue from exports, which it has started since 2016. Haneda Ichiba air freights about 700 kilograms of fresh fish, mainly to Japanese restaurants in the United States, Singapore and elsewhere, three to four times a week.

“Even if they are caught in the same ocean area, fish exported from Japan, already prepared on the assumption it will be eaten as sashimi, is more fresh than anything caught from overseas,” Nomoto said, adding that he intends to start 24/7 operations eventually.

“A colorful and rich fish menu that boasts 15 pieces of sushi comprising different types of raw fish can be provided by local fishermen who haul in a wide variety of fish. I'm striving to protect such fishermen," he said.