October 6th, 2018; the storied 83-year old history of Tsukiji Fish Market came to a close, with a highly anticipated new beginning in Toyosu on the 11th. The world-class seafood wholesale volume will be passed on to a 21st century facility, as will the flagship and trademark Bluefin Tuna trade.
Speaking of tuna, there is one merchant that recently has become renowned as the darling of haute-seafood chefs across Japan, from Ginza’s highest sushi masters to those running the remote meccas of cuisine. But why do clients far and wide, from haute-seafood joints to more affordable restaurants, come to specialty tuna merchant Yamayuki for their fish? In this article, the Pocket Concierge Editorial interviews Yamayuki president Yukitaka Yamaguchi, and shares episodes from his past, thoughts, and learnings in becoming Japan’s most revered seafood supplier.
Yamayuki President Yukitaka Yamaguchi
Words from a Tuna-Selling Father; a College Sophomore-Turned-Aspiring Tuna Merchant
–Would you mind telling us a little about the history of Yamayuki?
Of course; to give some background, my father was originally a manager at the Tsukiji tuna merchant Inaryo, a veteran of 30 years. But knowing my own intentions to follow in his footsteps, he asked when I was a college sophomore; “if you’re willing to promise to take the reins after me, I’m thinking of opening our own shop”. Thus, 35 years ago in 1983, my father, 49 years at the time, went independent with Yamayuki.
However, it is slightly difficult to define exactly how or when starting a business is complete, especially when it comes to Tsukiji; in the inner market, starting up is impossible unless you can buy out a different merchant’s location. So initially, we rented floor space to exist much less operate; it wasn’t until we could buy out and merge another merchant that we could officially start trading on seafood.
Above: Yamayuki, at its Tsukiji inner market location as of September 2018; originally barely half the size of its neighbors, the current shop boasts almost 4 times the floor space of most other competitors
–Why did your collegiate self decide on devoting life to the tuna trade?
Honestly speaking, tuna-peddling was not my first career choice. But then again, I can’t really say I had any; my sophomore self was quite lost on what to do in life, and the truth is I was in college for that same reason. Perhaps because I was enrolled only to say I had some occupation, I spent the bulk of my time skipping class to work-part time. Amusingly, the company that I worked with, an air-freight operator, offered me a full-time position; but while the work was fulfilling, I didn’t feel it was the right thing for me.
Contrastingly, I did feel a strange attraction for the work my father did; of course, the fact that I had been watching him work for as long as I could remember was a factor, as was a curious pang towards this tough life waking to pitch-dark mornings every day. The most alluring though was his own experience and the fruits of his labor; my father was born the third child to a rural-Chiba family living on the Pacific coast. He entered the mercantile world at 18, as an apprentice at the tuna merchant Inaryo. From there, he toiled hard and true, eventually coming to manage the entire operation; to my young self, my father’s figure embodied success born out of pure effort. His bringing home a neat salary too made the merchant’s path a convincing one, as his example told me that I too could flourish and provide for a family given the right effort.
Hence, when my father came forth to me with aspirations of our own business assuming I would take over in his waning years, my indecision solved itself. Of course, I was still a student, and my father preferred that I graduate; his decree was that I join as a part-timer until graduation. But despite my not ever having been to Tsukiji, I instantly fell in love with the market and its lifestyle. Taken with the joys of learning a tuna merchant’s work, I soon was skipping class more and more often.
–What of working at Yamayuki did you find most fascinating?
Though it is still quite crowded and bustling, back when I first began learning, Tsukiji was even moreso, borderline chaotic even; countless merchants lined the alleys of the inner market, everyone was full of energy, and the whole atmosphere had a uniquely exciting vibe. I also knew next to nothing, so everything and anything was a new and fresh experience, full of sensational surprise; from learning the ropes, dismantling tuna, to picking at bones, each little new snippet of knowledge brought joy to me, as I felt I was getting increasingly proficient at the merchant’s job.
At Yamayuki’s initiation, we were nowhere as large as we are now; in just half the floor-space of competitors, we crammed ‘salmon-boxes’, wooden containers used to transport salmon that we would reuse to present our frozen tuna inventory. From laying our selection out to lining our clients’ order slips up, preparing the knives, cleaning the dismantler, and storing leftover tuna, there was much to do; although my father opposed my handling the knives, I pushed through, eager to learn, avid to absorb whatever I could.
Above: Yamayuki is lined with ‘chaya-fuda’ order slips indicating each of Mr. Yamaguchi’s esteemed clients; the slips are sent alongside the corresponding cut of tuna to every destination, verifying the seafood’s authority
It wasn’t only the workings of the shop I was engrossed by; anxious to learn to work the tuna auctions, I actively tagged along to the early morning excitement, memorizing tuna names and characteristics, mimicking my father’s movements, doing what he did, all in order to more quickly become able to see what he could see. My father was a renowned broker, an authority even in Tsukiji especially when it came to frozen tuna. Having such a figure as mentor was a definite luxury; the development of my own eye for fish is for sure a result of having one of the industry’s finest guiding my way. But also in play was my own competitive passion; knowing the industry wisdom that it took a decade at least to mature as a tuna merchant, I sought to grow full-fledged in half the time.
Perhaps a sidenote, but another interesting venture I undertook was working at a client’s restaurant; when I was 22-23, while working with Yamayuki, I also asked to work part-time at the Nishiazabu Aoi Sushi. Unconventional, but to me it made sense; I was curious to learn how the tuna we bought and sold was prepared and presented to customers as sushi. The core feeling is the same today as well, but even back then, I wanted people having the tuna I handled to enjoy it, pure and simple.
“I found incredible joy and fascination in learning the job, step by step”-Yukitaka Yamaguchi
The ‘Bold’ Sushi-Rice Boom, and Defining Yamayuki-Style ‘Good Tuna’
–What were some things you kept in mind to prepare for when you took over?
Expanding my client network; the first thing I could think of, even before I knew anything about the fish, was that I could have the best tuna in the world, but if I didn’t have anyone to sell it to, I’d be doomed. So right from the beginning, I was proactive in seeking out company, from referrals and asking for introductions to walking and talking, selling myself to whomever I could catch.
In a sense though, being the second generation was both a blessing and a curse. Everyone around me, my clients, friends, and competitors, would constantly tell me; “You’ll never be better than your father, he used to…” or “Back when, your father…” But my father to me was, while a respected mentor, also a rival to overcome; and perhaps ironically, the headwinds that his reputation produced in my way led me to focus on a vastly different sales stratagem. With my father and in the day, the bulk of tuna trading was of frozen Pacific and Southern Bluefin; raw tuna was a rarity only marketed when there was too much caught to be frozen, totaling maybe 20% of our turnover. In comparison, Yamayuki today is focused on trading raw tuna cuts, something I had considered a personal passion from my apprentice days; nowadays, over 70% of our inventory at any time is made up of pristine raw tuna.
–You have an unmatched passion regarding tuna; what about it enchanted you to such degree?
There are many reasons to be sure, but if I were to choose one, I would pick the time when I realized how deep the world of tuna really was, that ‘Good-Looking Tuna’ and ‘Good-Tasting Tuna’ were 2 different things altogether. One time back when, I sold this one tuna to a client; it was an early-spring catch from Wakayama’s Nachikatsuura port, and looked absolutely beautiful. The client too was overjoyed, but I wasn’t impressed; the taste of this supermodel beauty didn’t nearly stand up to its figure, it was like gilded gold. The same season, I sold a tuna caught via fixed-net fishing off of the northern Sado Island, and was surprised by an angry call at 10PM the same day; I rushed to my client in panic, as it was one of few high-end Ginza sushi restaurants that I sourced to at the time. When I got to the restaurant, the chef showed me the tuna I had brokered, bruised and blackened; fuming, he told me to take a bite, and I was doubly surprised. The unsightly exterior belied an incredibly rich flavor inside. While ‘fixed-net fishing can lead to blackening over time’ was one thing I learnt, the shocking lesson was not it; rather, realizing that looks and taste did not necessarily correlate was the life-changing message I took home that day. From then on, I’ve been totally captive to the magic of tuna; to this day, I constantly look to learn more, from what they feed on and how they grow, to where they are caught, when, and how.
–What is your professed difference between ‘Good-Looking’ and ‘Good-Tasting’ Tuna?
Keep in mind this is merely personal preference, but the first thing I look for in tuna is its aroma; from experience, tuna that I find ‘good-tasting’ has a unique and full-bodied aroma that wafts through the depths of one’s nose, especially after eating a lean ‘akami’ piece. This ‘tasteful, tasteless’ measure, alongside the balance of fat and tenderness of body, are my major barometers for finding ‘good-tasting’ fish. Although some may say otherwise, as far as I am aware, too much fat can take away from the aroma; hence, the total balance of the tuna is of foremost importance.
To add on, spring-caught tuna is the most aromatic; with spring tuna, each cut from lean to fatty has its own independent and robust flavor. Regarding tuna caught in other months, I believe those with cross-sections that show a full spectrum of reds, a gradual transition from lean to fatty rather than those with obvious borders, to be the best. In terms of weight, I tend to find the best tasting to be in the range of under 150 kilograms on the smaller side of the tuna scale, with those having been caught via fixed-net fishing having the most complete palette of flavor. But of course, the balance of fat too is important; although during seasons in which fish accumulate fat, namely winter, the aroma and thus totality of tuna tends to wither, I prefer to see this as a positive. Winter is the time of year to enjoy silky fatty tuna, and spring its dynamic and bursting aromas; after all, Japanese cuisine prides itself on the transient qualities of its ingredients and dishes, so why shan’t tuna be part of that?
Above: The ‘Belly’ section of a dismantled Bluefin Tuna (as opposed to ‘Back’), from top to bottom ‘Akami’ (Lean), ‘Chu-Toro’ (Mid-Fatty), and ‘O-Toro’ (Fatty); Mr. Yamaguchi’s preference next to the early-Spring catch are tuna that show, as above, a spectrum of gradually varying color alongside both tender quality and aroma-rich ‘Akami’ (the above cut has comparatively obvious bounds as to what Mr. Yamaguchi considers ‘pristine’)
Compared to my preferred ‘good-tasting’ tuna, tuna seen more commonly as ‘good’ tends to be the popular ‘good-looking’ tuna; such fish tend to be large and imposing, and its cuts shining bright defying time, lined with melt-in-your-mouth fat. I wouldn’t say such tuna are bad; once again, it is a matter of preference, and the fish a middleman chooses is utterly dependent on a client’s restaurant and style.
—Yamayuki today is more heavily involved with raw tuna than frozen; what made you reverse course from your father’s ways?
If anything, I would say that the main reason was time; eras change, players in the industry change, and the taste of consumers change. For example, in my father’s time, there were all sorts of distributors and transporters bringing fish to market by the dozens; we suppliers had ample frozen merchandise to choose from, and to sell to our clients. Today, with the foray of major trading companies into the frozen seafood trade, the market has changed; the distributors choose to sell directly to the trading companies, who are happy to buy bulk at a price higher than the competitive market, and withhold inventory until suitors come knocking. Without the abundance of constantly arriving merchandise, the frozen tuna market in Tsukiji has been forced to reduce in activity. On the contrary, with raw tuna, there is no time to keep inventory in wait for a paying suitor, no option but to sell, and sell completely; the ability to move inventory from right to left within the hour is critical, and hence brokers with a waiting list of clients have room to weave their craft. As new acolyte looking for a way around my father, I had looked to, and fell in love with, the raw tuna trade; convinced that its age was to come, I gradually brought raw fish into our focus.
But my ways were not without faults; hoping to always have good inventory ready for clients, I had a constant stream of expensive fish on my hands, without much of a guest list to pass them on to. It was not until I was 42-3 that Yamayuki’s raw fish really got a following; until then, business was a trickle, so much so that I would sometimes have to go cry and console myself along the Sumida river to keep myself going
–Unbelievable, in retrospect; what brought Yamayuki, Tsukiji’s #1 tuna merchant, to where it is today?
Maybe 7 years ago, around when my father retired and I took the reins of Yamayuki in earnest, there was a major groundshift in the way people enjoyed sushi. Before that, sushi restaurants treated sushi as part of a course; they would serve 5-6 pieces as the main of a menu including a variety of tapas-esque dishes, accompanied by drinks and a take-home gift. To accommodate, the ‘shari’, or vinegared sushi-rice that serves as the bedrock of all sushi pieces, tended to be flavored sweetly using Japanese sugars. However in the span of the last decade, sushi has blossomed into a different entity; nowadays, consumers enjoy a course of 10-20 pieces, speckled with other dishes as a palate-cleanser. As an overly sweet ‘shari’ was unfit for this purpose, chefs adjusted their rice to this new style; today, a ‘bold’ sushi-rice with stronger hints of vinegar and salt have become mainstream. To comply with the change in ‘shari’, it was only natural that the tuna which partnered best too would change; the formerly popular cuts, light in flavor, long-lasting in color, and frequently of the frozen type, gave way to select raw cuts. The ‘bold’ type of ‘shari’ had a robust flavor that only could be handsomely matched by a similarly strong tasting fare, hence it became necessary for us professionals to select only the finest cuts of rich flavor to procure for Tokyo’s sushi masters. To put it simply, I was fortunate, in a sense; the age that we live in happened to smile upon raw tuna, as opposed to its frozen siblings that were the trend in the decades before.
–We regularly hear from our own partner sushi chefs that you often visit their restaurants; despite your busyness, do you still make frequent client trips just in order to taste their sushi and so procure cuts that most befit their flavors?
Of course. The finest sushi is only complete with the perfect rice and seafood matching; I want to make sure that each chef receives the best possible tuna for his sushi, and visiting myself is my way of making sure. I do try to be honest when I give opinions, too; for example recently, when I’ve felt that on some occasions a chef’s rice was too ‘bold’, I haven’t been afraid of saying so. Stating my opinion whether positive or not is my way of adding to the art that is ‘sushi’, of providing a more complete and enjoyable experience to my final consumers.
One thing I noticed through visiting my clients often; the best sushi is made from freshly cooked rice, and hence the best sushi restaurants often cook anew several times per day, whether they use it all or not. Chef Harutaka of Harutaka I remember cooked thrice every day, even when he first opened up shop and had little to no one coming; Chef Arai of Sushi Arai too, I’d wager he cooks at least 4-5 times a day given his que. By cooking often, they ensure each guest receives the same, exquisite pieces executed to the best of their incredible abilities. Of course, when ‘shari’ was still sugar-heavy, chefs could get away with less labor; but with ‘bold’ rice being dependent on salt and vinegar, and with vinegar being the fast-evaporating liquid it is, in the current day it is critical to keep your ‘shari’ fresh and new. I’ve come to think this is quite an important trait, to the point that when I visit clients, we speak on the topic, with myself often advising new chefs to cook rice with regularity; it may be wasteful, but if you don’t have guests, there’ll be more waste to go around, after all.
Another thing I make sure of is to keep in mind a chef’s preferences; if I know a chef has a certain ‘like’ regarding his fish, I will make sure to only source items that fulfill his needs. I am adamant on this principle; I actually tell my clients “if ever there I source a less-than-satisfactory tuna, please, be forthcoming and tell me about it”. I am sure you as Pocket Concierge too are well aware, but customers book restaurants hoping for a fun and delicious experience; as a foodie myself, I would loathe to undermine such innocent expectations in irreparable manner. So I mean every word when I say “if a fish is not what you wanted, I will be more than happy to find an immediate replacement”. I believe this strictness, my willingness to stick to harsh principles at my own expense is part of the reason I was able to nurture the relationships I enjoy with my clients to the degree I do today.
Above Right: Chef Shota Oda of Sushi Tokami, a Yamayuki client that Mr. Yamaguchi also helps run; most chefs visit between 6:30-8:00AM most every day, even when they don’t need procurements, to exchange information
“The realization that ‘Good-Looking Tuna’ and ‘Good-Tasting Tuna’ were 2 different things, that enraptured me”-Yukitaka Yamaguchi
Revolution; 100 Loyal Employees, and ‘We Have a Dream’
–Would you mind sharing with us your core principles as a tuna merchant?
Trust yourself; if you think a tuna is good, buy it, and sell it. Of course ‘good-looking’ is nice, but as a seafood merchant, I am absolutely focused on providing solely the ‘good-tasting’. If a particular fish or cut happens to characteristically fade in color quickly, there are ways to keep it preserved in its best condition for long enough for the guests to enjoy; tell the client that, but don’t relinquish on the point of ‘taste’. I like to say “where there be aspiration, there be action”, but I do mean it; I aspire to sell the tuna I feel is most flavorful, and so I take steps so as to convince my clients that it is what they want as well, and that if there are takeaways, I can mitigate that for them too. I trust my eyes, and I trust the tuna that my eyes tell me is right, so as a tuna merchant, I do everything I can do to provide that the people that eat my tuna get exactly what they want in a deliciously enjoyable seafood experience. In my endless pursuit of evolution as a tuna merchant, I truly believe it is my adherence to principles that has allowed me to get to where I am today.
–Thank you; lastly, could you share a few words on what is to come going forward, especially with Tsukiji’s move to Toyosu being complete?
Thanks to the efforts of countless people, Yamayuki has evolved past just Yamayuki; the original specialty tuna merchant is still our core business, but we also operate more general seafood merchant Daitoyo, luxury seafood merchant Nozomi, tuna and swordfish merchant Yukimiya, seafood processing company Ota Shisha, wholesaler Yukiya, and Tsukiji outer market shop Kurogin domestically. Furthermore, we have an international wing doing business abroad as well as restaurants like Hibachi.No-Nami, and I personally consult in the running of Sushi Tokami and Ozaki Yukitaka.
Having said that, I am currently (as of September 2018) 56 years old; and I have told all of my employees that I intend to retire at 60. This is because I want to give everyone a chance, opportunities to dream of taking the helm and being captain of their own ship. Even now, all of our different operations are run independently; if they are financially sound and successful, I plan on split them from the whole and make them their own firm. Having gone through the experiences of setting up shop, of helping create a company anew alongside my father, I appreciate its joys, and the passion and drive that it invites in people. It is a rarity for one working a day-job in Tsukiji to become the president of a company, and I for consider it a worthy dream for my employees to work towards. Of course, I don’t make it easy; the seat is reserved for those who truly like fish and the seafood merchant life, and the restaurants to are open only to those who are serious about chasing their dreams.
Another thing that I constantly am aware of and that I will continue to keep in mind is the necessity of adaption and change. Quote me, as I say it frequently in meetings as well; when I speak, I never say “it used to be…”, or “in the past…” I am positive that the past only harbors regret and longing memories, and such things, while good for contemplation, are no use when one must charge forward. As we live in the ‘now’ for the ‘future’, change is constantly necessary, and I work thinking that I make ‘change’ with every decision; otherwise, by the time I need it, it is already too late. As Yamayuki, originally a mere 17 people strong, has grown to 100, fleetness of action has certainly become difficult; but businesses that stop in my view immediately start falling behind. So with every day, I seek to follow the path I believe in, and discover what lies ahead, always thinking of where we desire to be in the next 5, or 10, years. Aspiring, taking action, and charging relentlessly; that is what I have come here doing, and that is how we intend to continue.
With the move to Toyosu, the future for sure is unclear; I for one look forward to seeing the merits of what the move brings, how the new market will allow us to grow and provide better to more. I am not anxious, but serenely hopeful, and I anticipate with joy to the day I can present to my clients the advantages of our new home. And above all, I am more than confident that Yamayuki and all of its members can and will continue to pursue our dreams. Thank you.
【Topics】 Pocket Concierge-Featured Restaurants Serving Yamayuki-Brand Tuna
The uber-competitive haute-cuisine hub Ginza has been home to Harutaka for the past 12 years; owner-chef Harutaka Takahashi, a native of Hokkaido, visits Tsukiji every morning to procure the absolute best of the season’s catch. Combined with his rice, cooked slightly tough using a blend of 2 rice strains for optimal texture, a sublime sushi experience awaits any visitor.
Ginza 8-chome’s young legend; an apprentice of the revered masters of Kyubei and Sushi-Sho awaits, welcoming all to his warm wooden hall. His sushi, with a tailored blend of condiments per each differing piece, is a sensational delight to partake. Enjoy casual chats with this legend for the ages as you immerse yourself in the mariage of sushi and sake.
Yamayuki-brand Bluefin Tuna, Yokoi-Jouzo ‘Yohei’-brand Red rice vinegar, and large-grain Yamagata ‘Haenuki’-brand rice; owner-chef Shota Oda’s passion for sushi, for his trademark tuna, is on a different level. With specialties such as the Tuna ‘Tossaki’ hand-rolled piece, which wraps a deeply flavorful neck-section cut and rich-tasting sushi rice in umami-laden nori-seaweed, visitors are all but guaranteed to sink into the velvety embrace of Tokami’s menu. Enjoy, alongside sake as well as a prized collection of wines, from KRUG champagne to whites including Montrachet and Meursalt.
Brace for the impact of Ozaki Yukitaka‘s heavyweight punch-like menu; the kitchen, with scarce world-class ‘Ozaki-gyu’-brand beef and Yamayuki-sourced Bluefin, gives visitors the best of both worlds. From sea to mountain, Ozaki Yukitaka‘s menu is a red carpet through Japan’s natural bounties, culminating lavishly in a taster of different rice, and a truffle-smothered egg-on-rice bowl. Dive into endless culinary pleasures with ease at this mature hall, apt for uses ranging from dates to receptions; with sightings of celebrities too a common feature, do make an occasion of your visit, for an evening of exciting adult discoveries and refreshing culinary impressions.