Yamasue is a mentaiko company whose headquarters and factory are located in Itoshima City. Company president Kohji Baba enthusiastically states that “more can be done to enhance the value of Itoshima.” In addition to its main business of processing and selling seafood, Yamasue also delivers fresh fish and vegetables sourced directly from fishermen and farmers in Itoshima to restaurants nationwide. In this way, the company has started to focus more energy on promoting food products from Itoshima.
The year 2023 will mark 10 years since Yamasue moved its headquarters and factory to Itoshima. Tell us about this.
In 2013, when I took over the management of the company from my predecessor, we relocated our headquarters from Fukuoka City to Itoshima City. I am from Itoshima and I have nothing but love for the city where I was born and raised. Many people say they want to help others, and I myself have been on the receiving end of my fair share of help over the years. So, as a way to return the favor, I decided to create a local trading company in Itoshima that could enrich the lives of the people of Itoshima.
What kind of services do you provide as a local trading company?
We have been based in Itoshima for 10 years now and have met many wonderful producers in the agricultural and fishery sectors. I believe that the role of a local trading company is to connect these producers with restaurants and other culinary professionals all over Japan. Eventually, I would like to create a market where producers bring their seasonal vegetables and seafood to Yamasue, and then communicate the value of these products to buyers to ensure their distribution far and wide. In November 2021, we built a factory next to our headquarters to process and ship Itoshima food products to the rest of Japan. I see this is a training ground for full-scale market development. More than 50 farmers and fishermen already deliver us the fresh produce and seafood they harvest every morning, which allows us to provide ingredients from Itoshima to famous hotels and restaurants not only in Fukuoka Prefecture but throughout Japan.
Why are you trying to create your own market?
Fishermen are good at catching fish, and farmers can grow delicious vegetables, but not many of them are good at selling their products. The reality is that even the best ingredients get lost among a sea of other ingredients in the market and end up being sold at a lower price. At Yamasue, we want to change that trend. We want to enable producers to distribute their products at a fair price, rather than just letting buyers set the price.
Near the Yamasue headquarters is Ito Sai Sai, Japan’s largest farm-direct produce market, where producers can sell their wares directly to end users. Our idea of a market is a place where we can deliver Itoshima products to restaurants.
We have heard that you visit fishermen and farmers where they work and emphasize the importance of listening to them first hand.
I believe that in order to promote the food products of Itoshima, we need to be familiar with the places where producers actually work. I help with farm work and fishing to confirm the value of the foods we handle. Even when you fish in the same ocean, the fish don’t always taste the same. Professional fishermen search for fishing grounds where they can catch delicious fish, and they are particular about the way they kill the fish. The same is true for farmers. Even in the same area, vegetables taste completely different from field to field.
For example, Kazutoyo Fujino, a fisherman based out of Funakoshi Fishing Port, supplies us with very tasty seafood like wild sea bream and cuttlefish. However, the fishermen make a tremendous effort to ensure this deliciousness. I once accompanied a Fujino on a fishing trip. He left the port around midnight and did not return until 17:00 or 18:00. After that, Fujino gets up in the middle of the night to kill each fish with a quick spike to the brain, a technique that keeps the fish fresh and tasty. I was confident in my physical strength, but it was a tough trip. This made me realize how hard it is to be a fisherman.
I believe that our role as a local trading company in Itoshima is to communicate the effort put into ensuring the deliciousness of our products, which is something consumers are not always aware of.
You often appear in videos on YouTube and other social media sites to promote your products. Tell us about this.
My intention is to sell myself before I sell anything with the name “Itoshima” attached to it. When we deliver fish to our restaurant clients, we write on the voucher who caught the fish and the port where it was landed. For example, the voucher might say “Funakoshi Fishing Port / Senryu Maru / Sea bream 2.5 kg”. I always ask the restaurant owners to include this information in their menu.
They say there is an Itoshima boom now, but there are many producers who are working hard to support this boom behind the scenes. I want to make them more visible. That being said, I can’t do any of this on my own, so I would like to see many more producers come to the market at Yamasue, and I want to work with them to create a strong Itoshima brand that will last for 50 or 100 years into the future. Having grown up in Itoshima and having been involved in the food world for many years, I believe this is my mission. And I will see it through to the end!
Itoshima is in the midst of a so-called boom right now, and many restaurants have opened up. As a resident of Itoshima, it has always bothered me that some of the thriving restaurants with lines of tourists outside rarely use local ingredients. This also concerns Mr. Baba, so he is encouraging restaurants in Itoshima to use local ingredients. “If we could get a restaurant that has the ability to reach people to use even a small amount of local ingredients, it would benefit the people of Itoshima. This is why I will never give up,” says Baba. As someone who lives in Itoshima, I am happy that there is a business owner like Mr. Baba here.
Interview & Photos: Seiji Watanabe