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“Boat-to-Chopsticks” Izakaya Cuisine 

If “farm-to-fork” is the new motto in global restaurant cuisine, then the equivalent in fish-based Japanese cuisine might be “boat-to-chopsticks.” The goals of farm-to-table are of course, fresh and tasty ingredients, but also cultivating local suppliers, and environmental sustainability. The goals of “boat-to-chopsticks” should be the same, fish freshly caught, by local fishermen, working in sustainable fisheries. The representatives of this local-food movement in Japan are often fine dining restaurants, like Narisawa (No. 18 on the “World’s 50 Best” restaurant list). When we interviewed Chef Narisawa in July he told us he even eschewed the storied Tsukiji fish market, buying his fish directly from local fishermen, part of his locavore “satoyama philosophy.”

It is difficult though for small restaurants to live up to the standards of expensive fine dining establishments, especially regarding the sourcing of ingredients. But one restaurateur in Nishiogi, owner-chef Kawauchi Masahiko, may even top Narisawa’s exacting standards for local fish. Not only does he buy locally, he also treats weekend customers to fish he has caught himself on his weekly fishing expeditions around Tokyo, making him truly a “boat-to-chopsticks” chef.


Kawauchi’s small lively izakaya is called Betanagi. Definitely not a fine dining restaurant, it is rather a neighborhood spot favored by local regulars. But it is known as a place where the owner loves fish and you get to eat fish directly caught from the nearest seas.


In his late forties, Kawauchi has the sturdy and stout build of a boxer.  He is originally from Niigata. He moved to Tokyo when he was 17 and began his cooking career in a Chinese restaurant in Chiba. During the interview, he was preparing for the evening meal, deftly wrapping gyoza by hand, displaying his earlier training in Chinese cuisine.


He then moved into Japanese cuisine. A friend introduced him over drinks to the owner of a Japanese restaurant, and since he was twenty, he has been cooking Japanese food. “That was a big restaurant company, so they operated various types of shops—places serving raw fish, kappo cuisine restaurants, and izakaya. Every few months I would move from one to another.”


He opened his own restaurant eight years ago. “I wanted to open a place in my early forties, while I still had enough energy,” he said. “I always had this idea, so I had been looking for a place.”


The place he found down Shinmei Street a half kilometer from Nishiogi Station was not one that immediately attracted Nishiogi gourmets. “It was really hard at first. For the first half year, I didn’t make any money. So, I brought back fish from the restaurant for us to eat, because we had fish left over. It was hard, really hard.” He has to support a family—his wife and two kids—and it was a tough start, he said, but eventually a group of regulars formed through word-of-mouth. Now Kawauchi is able to employ one fulltime cook and three part-time employees. Several of them are actually former customers who live in the area.


Kawauchi himself lives in Western Tokyo City and commutes to the restaurant by car. “It’s about ten kilometers every morning,” he said. “That way when work is over [on my day off], I can go directly to fish, and sleep at the harbor. Then dog-tired, I come back here, sleep a bit, work a bit, clean the fish, then I go home. I have more work on my day off than on my work days. I do it all without really properly sleeping.”

Kawauchi is not just a hobby fisherman. Rather this is part of his work routine. “Depending on the day, you may or may not have a catch, but I go fishing every week. I go fishing every Thursday, so on Friday, Saturday and Sunday there are always freshly caught fish to serve. That mackerel (aji) rice bowl you just ate, I caught that off Yokosuka.”


“The place I go fishing depends on the fish. For mackerel, the best place is Tokyo bay. This mackerel is really tasty! The mackerel off Kanaya [Chiba Prefecture] or the Hashirumizu [Kanagawa Prefecture] mackerel, you can say they are the best stuff in the Kanto area.”


Of course, his catch only makes for a small portion of his supply. The rest is ordered from the Tsukiji Market or the Kawasaki Market or purchased from fishermen he knows.


“I look for the best I can find depending on the season, I ask for fish in the 10-kilogram range—sometimes from Niigata, Sado. The meidai (red sea bream) from Sado are good. I catch meidai, also hirame (halibut). That one is really tasty; also, the soi (black rockfish).”


Kawauchi gets really excited when talking about fish. We asked him how he learned so much. “I have always been interested in fish,” he said. “I have learned about them from my own experience, like at what time of the year the fish are delicious, or when they are fatter. For example, many people will say that the sea bream are best in April. But, then what about March and May? In fact, the seasons vary by a month depending on where you are on land, and the same is true on the sea. If you know when the sea bream in Kyushu are good, you will have to think when they will be good in Chiba. The only way you can know for sure is to go out and see. You go out there and fish for yourself and see when is the ideal time. You might say this one is not ready, or this one is really good. That’s how you do it.”


Listening to him, it seems his fishing knowledge is, in fact, based on experience. He gave us a quick run through his year’s fishing calendar. “Right now, the tastiest fish is in Hatsujima in Shizuoka Prefecture,” he said. “There you have isaki (chicken grunt). Then there is the kochi (flat head) from Tokyo Bay. The best thing in August is this kochi. For other things we catch …, we often go for the tachiou (cutlass fish or hairtail). That you catch in shallow waters. It is a pretty sizable fish. Another one is kuromutsu (Japanese bluefish). You can catch it off the coast of Susaki, from where you can see Shirosaki. Tachiou is 3000 yen on the market. Now you can’t get it. You can find it on the market but it is too expensive. There are many in Setouchi and Osaka bays. It's delicious in autumn. In the autumn, kawahagi (filefish or leather fish) also is good. In the fall and winter, it is kawahagi. After that it is ishidai (barred knifejaw), or meidai (red sea bream). Meidai is good all the way into the spring. And then hirame (halibut) also starts being good. In the spring, it’s aji (mackerel). It’s still very good now. The places I go now [June] for aji are really the best, and it’s good year-round. So if you are stuck, then go for aji. This is from Hashirumizu, Kanagawa, near Yokosuka.”

Customers often accompany him on fishing trips. “If I hear that a customer wants to join in, I invite them to come along. So quite a few people come. I only go alone about once a month. Otherwise someone is coming along. We get on a boat with a lot of other people, strangers I mean. But we’ve actually made friends with a number of them. People will say, ‘Hi, Betanagi-san!’ The boats can usually carry about 25 people depending on what you are fishing for. For aji, the boat will go out about 7:30. This week, tomorrow, or the morning after, we are going out for kinmeidai (splendid alfonsino). For kinmeidai, we will meet up about 3:30 and go out at 4 a.m. We will go all the way out to Ajiro, Ito in Shizuoka. That takes two hours. So, I have to tell the customers, “could you please go home?’ Because if you don’t all leave by 1 a.m. Because if you don’t leave at 1 am, I won’t be able to make it on time to Shizuoka.”

“It takes a lot of power, right?! Sometimes I have to take a bow to myself in respect,” he said with a laugh. “But I do have to have a strong inner core, to be able to stand steady on that rocking boat. My legs and back are also strong. I think my waist is quite thick though!”


The types of fish he catches changes depending on a number of factors, not all of which are related to fishing science. “It might be a customer request or maybe someone will say, ‘I didn’t get to eat that this week….’ So, I will go for aji again this week to make them happy. And sometimes I just fish for my own pleasure.”


So sometimes, he just fishes for fun. “I want to make sure everyone is having a good time fishing. So sometimes I may even forget about the restaurant for a moment and go for a tuna or something like that. But this kind of kihada maguro (yellowfin tuna), I don’t really want to sell it here. That’s because this is the kind of tuna without much fat in it. Usually we eat hon maguro (Pacific bluefin tuna) here. So sometimes I will write on the menu ‘freshly fished yellowfin tuna.’ But when people eat it, they will say, ‘eh, that’s not the same.’ I mean it is good for use in processed foods, and it is really huge. But, we are not a factory, and it is usually used for canned tuna, it is a material for that. Fat is added, and it is boiled. It’s that sort of fish.”


This month Kawauchi is actually going to take the Japanese fisheries test, which is known by its nickname “Toto Test.” This is a test of fishery and fishing knowledge sponsored by the transnational corporate food group Maruha Nichiro.


Beyond his fishing hobby, the business of Betanagi is also doing pretty well, Kawauchi said. “Thanks to my customers, I am doing okay,” Kawauchi said. “It is not a life of luxury, but I can raise my children.” The restaurant can seat about 25 customers, and he has not thought of expanding it. As an izakaya, he has a varied food and beverage menu, but the base of his business is the customers’ drinking. They drink a mix of beer, sake and shochu. He showed off a row of bottles that regular customers have purchased for “keep” at the store. Only shochu can be kept on the shelf, because sake requires refrigeration. Sake is sold by the glass. People often start with a beer and switch to shochu. Shochu is popular because it is reasonable, he explained. “You can drink shochu every day. And because it can be mixed with many things you can match your taste. You can mix it with Wulong tea or mix it with hot water. It’s up to you.” However, Kawauchi, who drives to the restaurant, doesn’t drink at work.


Finally, Kawauchi showed us some of the fishing rods he uses, then some of the teeth of fish he had caught. He explained these to us. “This is a meidai (red sea bream) tooth,” he said. “It is really hard! Medai have really amazing teeth. This was a ishidai (sea bream). It was six kilograms. It crunches down on shell fish, like the sazae (horned turban). Because it eats the shellfish, shrimp and small live fish, it has such a tough jaw. It crushes. This is a grinding tooth. It can crush your fingers.”


If you start asking Kawauchi about fish, the conversation might go on forever.


Kawauchi’s customers are mostly local residents of Nishi-Ogikubo. They are attracted by the word-of-mouth reputation of the restaurant, but many become interested in the world of fishing. Some even join him on the weekly fishing expeditions. Chef Kawauchi doesn’t have Michelin stars, but his “boat-to-chopsticks cuisine” is more than just a marketing gimmick, and the fresh fish and numerous other dishes are worth a detour to Nishiogi (James Farrer Sept. 1, 2018).

(English text by James Farrer; interview by James Farrer and Fumiko Kimura; Japanese transcription and editing by Fumiko Kimura; translation by James Farrer; copyright James Farrer 2018, all rights reserved )

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