In Japan, Fish and History Go Hand-in-fin

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The Nishiki Market, the “kitchen of Kyoto,” bustles with residents and tourists in Kyoto’s Nakagyo Ward.

Fish have long been big in Japan. Since ancient times, the Japanese have eaten more fish than almost any other people in the world. Rich seas with ample rain to feed the nation’s plentiful rivers made catching fish a more efficient way of harvesting protein than hunting game.

Another factor behind the preference for fish is the Buddhist admonishment against the wanton killing of living things. Unlike nearby China and Korea, which were influenced by the carnivorous diets of northern nomads, Japan ostensibly did not take up eating red meat until the Edo period (1603-1868). Even during that time, the Edo bakufu shogunate mandated that every Japanese person be a Buddhist and belong to a temple.

Buddhism was denounced after the Meiji Restoration because of its association with the Edo bakufu shogunate. There was an anti-Buddhist movement in which many temples were destroyed and once-praised Buddhist statues were abandoned.

Of course, the open consumption of red meat was not the purpose of this movement. In Japan, the preference for fish over meat was well established.

In the Edo period, the distribution of fish was a major concern, especially in urban areas.

Since the earliest days of Edo (now Tokyo) at the turn of the 17th century, fish from Edo Bay (now Tokyo Bay) and other nearby waters were sold at a fish market at the foot of the Nihombashi bridge. The market was a nutritional pillar of the capital.

In 1935, it relocated to Tokyo’s Tsukiji area where it eventually morphed into part of the modern Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market. In 2018 the mega-market shut down and a new one opened in Tokyo’s Toyosu district.

But Tokyo is far from the only Japanese city where fish and history go hand-in-fin. The Nishiki Market in Kyoto’s Nakagyo Ward, also known as “the kitchen of Kyoto,” goes farther back in time than the Tokyo markets. It has long existed in the same place and changes to its appearance have been minimal. In recent years it had drawn tourists from all over the world, but the coronavirus pandemic has changed that for now.

The Nishiki Market runs east to west near the center of Kyoto along Nishikikoji street, which is 390 meters long but just 3 to 5 meters wide. About 130 shops sell fish, vegetables, pickles and prepared foods.

The market area is said to date back to the Enryaku era (782-805). In those days, it sold poultry, which was exempt from the meat ban, and fish. Heiankyo (now Kyoto) was far from the sea but food transported to the Imperial court had to be stored there.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The Nishiki Market in Kyoto’s Nakagyo Ward is home to many shops selling not only fish but also fresh and pickled vegetables.

According to historical materials, a merchant who sold salted and dried fish at a suburban port on the Yodo river in southern Kyoto was asked in 1311 to manage Nishikikoji’s finances, as several fish shops had popped up in the area at that time. By the Edo period, Nishikikoji had developed into a full-fledged fish market.

Under the Edo bakufu shogunate, which had jurisdiction in Kyoto in the Edo period, fish-selling rights were granted exclusively to the Kami no Tana market on Sawaragichodori street in the Kamigyo district, the Rokujo no Tana market on Rokujodori street in the Shimogyo district, and the Nishiki no Tana market between the Kamigyo and Shimogyo districts on Nishikikoji street.

Among the three, Nishiki no Tana prospered in particular through its trade in fish that was bound for shrines and temples, and also for the Imperial court.

The Meiji Restoration brought an end to the exclusive selling rights and the Kami no Tana and Rokujo no Tana markets went into decline. But Nishiki no Tana managed to thrive.

The decisive factor was the supply of underground water beneath the Nishiki no Tana market. Thanks to the abundance of cold water that was pumped clean from a well, fish were able to be kept fresh on site. Currently, the well is strictly managed by the office of the Nishiki Market Association.

In 1927, however, times changed when many merchants in the Nishiki Market closed and relocated to the new and modernized Kyoto City Central Wholesale Market. Fruit and vegetable vendors eventually occupied the Nishiki Market’s empty stalls, and meat vendors also began to notably move in and set up shop. This injection allowed for the Nishiki Market to be rebranded as the kitchen of Kyoto — a market where a variety of foodstuffs fit for the modern age can be purchased to this day.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
As Kyoto is far from the sea, many freshwater fish are sold at the Nishiki Market in Kyoto’s Nakagyo Ward.