The city's love of food is legendary, with culinary curiosities around every street corner. If you're an early riser, consider paying a visit to Osaka's bustling fish market, the place that makes it all possible.
Osaka's fish frenzy
There are few things more important to the people of Osaka than food. It's not for nothing that the city is traditionally known as tenka no daidokoro (the nation's kitchen).
Down every alley, along every street and in every shopping mall, you'll discover a myriad of places to eat, from cheap and cheerful roadside stalls selling takoyaki octopus dumplings to wallet-busting kaiseki restaurants serving up high-end cuisine. Indeed, the Kansai region, of which Osaka is a part, now has nearly 300 restaurants listed in the latest Michelin guide. In Tokyo they might shop till they drop, but in Osaka it's all about kuidaore (eat till you drop).
To add an extra layer to your understanding of the city's long-standing food culture, take a trip to the early morning market that marks the midway point for the vast majority of the fresh food that ends up on the plates of the Osaka people prior to pleasuring their taste buds.
When a friend suggested going along to explore the Osaka Central Wholesale Market, I was quick to say yes. I was a little slower to agree to the meeting time, however, which meant getting out of bed at 3am. “The main fish auction starts at 4.15am,” my friend explained. I hesitantly agreed, and am mighty glad I did.
I may have still been half asleep when I arrived at the market but the moment the auction bell started clanging loudly in my ear at 4.15am sharp, I was instantly bright-eyed (though perhaps not quite bushy-tailed).
The sound of the bell immediately transformed the atmosphere of the small auction area from one of calm relaxation into one of intense business.
A mass of bidders quickly huddled around a man who a few seconds before had jumped up hurriedly onto a crate but was now looking commandingly over the assembled crowd. He launched into what appeared to be one long, endless shout, with the occasional short, sharp scream thrown in for good measure. Hands darted up in the air while the man screamed some more. The auction had begun. And it was still dark outside.
The Osaka Central Wholesale Market first opened for business in 1931 in Osaka's Noda district and is one of three wholesale markets located throughout the city. Two of the markets, including the one at Noda, trade in fish, fruit and vegetables, while the other deals exclusively with meat products. The masses of food traded here every day ends up in restaurants and stores throughout central Japan's Kansai region, and far beyond, too.
According to UN data, Japan is the biggest national importer of fish in the world. Fish imports in 2009 were valued at around US$13 billion, with domestic production totaling in the region of 5 million tons. Japan's love affair with seafood goes way back – with most of the land covered in mountains, it was never easy to rear cattle for meat production, so being an island nation, the country fished the surrounding waters instead.
The role of the Central Wholesale Market is to bring to one place all the fish, fruit and vegetables from national and global producers, and to ensure it's sold on to intermediary wholesalers and retailers at a fair price via auctions held throughout the market each morning. There are so many auctions taking place on the premises that you should easily be able to catch more than a few as you explore the market.
Truth be told, the auctioneer's performance at the tuna sale, while entertaining, completely baffled me. Whatever he was bellowing went far beyond what my rudimentary Japanese language skills could handle. I turned to my Japanese friend for help. “What's he saying?” “I have no idea,” she replied. Of course, all of the bidders, many of whom have been working here their whole life, knew exactly what was going on.
After some auctions, two bidders would approach each other and begin playing janken – what the Japanese call rock-paper-scissors. Odd time for a game of that, I thought, until I realized they were using it to decide the winner of an auction that had run out of time and needed to be settled.
The auctioneers and bidders made fast work of trading the tuna the morning I was there, with the floor wiped clean in little more than 30 minutes. It's big business, with some fish selling for many thousands of dollars.
In the area where the main auction takes place you'll see spread around the floor both frozen and fresh tuna. The frozen ones are from waters far beyond Japan and if you can understand the Japanese katakana script (it's surprisingly easy to master), you'll be able to read the label on each of the fish and discover from which country it came.
You might want to keep in mind that some of the fish at the auction may include southern bluefin tuna, currently listed by the International Union of Conservation of Nature as an endangered species. Other types include Pacific bluefin, bigeye, and yellow fin. If you're at all uncomfortable with the subject of tuna fishing, you may wish to avoid the 4.15am auction and instead explore the market's main warehouse – an area no less exciting – where you'll find an enormous variety of seafood, fruit and vegetables.
Although I spent a good few hours walking through the main warehouse, it felt like there was no end to the place – it is, after all, about twice the size of Yankee Stadium. The enormous facility was crowded with workers pushing carts loaded with fresh produce, motorized trolleys racing by transporting recently bought goods, and hordes of workers going about their various daily duties, which included cutting the larger fish down to size.
As you make your way through the warehouse, which is curiously bereft of fishy odors, you'll likely stumble across more auctions, usually of smaller fish and other seafood. It's a photographer's paradise and one of the delights of the place is that it's not crowded with tourists, unlike its Tokyo counterpart, Tsukiji. On the day I visited, I saw only two other visitors the whole time I was there. Perhaps it's just too early for some people.
Even better, at the time of writing, there are no restricted areas at the Osaka Central Wholesale Market. In contrast, Tsukiji has so many tourists turning up and occasionally getting in the way that officials have been forced to make some areas off-limits to visitors.
So long as visitors to Osaka's market show the workers respect by giving them the space to carry out their duties, no restrictive rules will be necessary. Admire their skill and dedication, revel in the uniquely vibrant atmosphere and you'll gain a fascinating insight into the hard work that goes into ensuring Osaka retains its deserved reputation as the food capital of Japan.