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Touchdown Japan: An encounter with food pros at Tokyo's famous Tsukiji market

A visitor snaps an image of red bream at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo's Chuo Ward. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Four years ago, "Tsukiji Cooking" was launched in the outer section of Tokyo's Tsukiji wholesale market, offering people tours of the world-famous market along with Japanese cooking classes. Two years ago that business really started to surge.

The cost of a tour to buy ingredients followed by a cooking class at Tsukiji Cooking is 15,000 yen, which seems expensive compared to just having a meal out, but thanks to the business's website and word of mouth, some 300 customers now sign up each month.

Among the participants during a recent visit were Hanna Valjakka and her husband, visiting from Finland. While they can eat Japanese food in Helsinki, Valjakka said they were keen to try genuine sushi in Japan and learn how to make the food, since they had come all the way there.

They were enthralled by all the fish differing from those in Northern Europe. Valjakka said she had often visited fish markets in Italy and other places. She noted that the Tsukiji fish market didn't smell, and had a clean image, so she could eat anything there with peace of mind. It just so happened during the couple's visit to Japan that the cherry trees were in full bloom. Valjakka said she and her husband considered themselves "lucky" as they hadn't expected to see the blossoms.

Recently at Tsukiji Cooking, there has been an increase in reservations for groups of around 30 people. As opposed to groups of sightseers, groups from global companies are now also fully booking tours. A major foreign information technology firm and pharmaceutical and securities companies are among those that have taken part. There have also been cases in which businesses -- including a major Japanese auto manufacturer -- have invited preferential clients and customers from around the world to take part.

Nobuhisa Kishi, representative director and CEO of Share Pro Co., the company that runs Tsukiji Cooking, comments, "In contrast with plain sightseeing, through culinary tours we have people understand and build intimacy with Japan. And food culture enables us to battle forward in this respect."

Two years ago, the company also founded a network titled "Foodies Go Local." Although the Tsukiji market sells food from around the country, it does not offer enough by itself to satisfy the interests of foodies who traverse the globe, and so they embark on trips to various food producing regions. Through the internet, they can obtain a lot of information and communication can now be managed even in regional areas if it is in English.

"Even so," Kishi says, "what foodies are really after are encounters with 'food pros.' They are filled with a desire to go to the restaurants that only local producers and locals who are in the know go to. And if that's the case, we can do something to help them. Doing so not only satisfies the travelers; it also ends up helping out the producers in various regions."

This autumn, the Tsukiji market is set to be relocated to the Toyosu area of Tokyo. Thinking about the market as a base for food information that can serve the world's foodies, rather than just providing produce, provides a hint in considering its future.

Pursing the interests of inbound tourists who seek high-end experiences, we come across latent tourist resources that Japanese people have not picked up on. It now appears that new resources are coming to life.

(Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, Opinion Group)

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