Food professionals join forces to teach people to enjoy food in the best possible way

Azabudai Hills Market will be home to more than 30 specialty stores for Japanese food. Driven by a desire to teach people about the true deliciousness and richness of food as well as new ways to enjoy Japanese cuisine, these shops hope to create a market that will excite buyer and seller alike. Some of the nation’s top food producers—a tuna wholesaler, a producer of Wagyu beef, and a rice specialist—speak passionately about this new venture.

PHOTO BY Ryo Yoshiya
illustration by Geoff McFetridge

YAMAGUCHI I worked as a wholesaler at the Tsukiji fish market for 40 years, but when I reached the age of 60 , I realized that what I most wanted to do was teach people about food. When I was young, I learned to recognize horse mackerel, sardines, mackerel, and all the rest by visiting our local fishmonger. But nowadays, everyone just buys pre-filleted fish lined up in the supermarket showcase. The result is that there’s a growing number of people who cannot identify fish on sight. There has also been an increase in commercial fish farming over the past decade.

I find these trends very troubling. Japan’s world-renowned culinary culture largely owes its existence to the marine resources that have flourished as a result of our topography and environment. Take one cuisine that is popular around the world: sushi. The delicious fish found off the coast of Japan and the food culture that grew up around it are what made sushi into what it is today. Now, those resources are being lost. I’d been feeling an urge to do something about this situation, so when Mori Building invited me to set up shop at Azabudai Hills, I thought that it would be a good opportunity to educate people about food.

Preserving Japanese food culture and the Japanese palate

Left|TOMOMI INADA President of Yazawa Meat Center|YUKITAKA YAMAGUCHI President of Yamayuki Group Right|SHINICHI KATAYAMA President of Sumidaya Shoten

YAMAGUCHI In recent years, Japanese fish has been exported overseas at an accelerating rate, and there’s a growing number of sushi restaurants in New York that charge over ¥100,000 a person. I myself have received offers for exorbitant amounts of money from restaurants overseas, but I’ve turned them all down because I believe that it is my mission as a wholesaler to keep providing good fish to shops in my home country.

The Japanese palate is also changing, and not in a way that I like. The cuisines of other countries often feature fatty fish, whereas Japanese cuisine highlights fish with more subtle flavors. There is a famous haiku that says, “Green leaves all around / the mountain cuckoo heralds / the first bonito.” In this way, we are taught to favor the simple, fragrant bonito of spring over the fatty bonito of autumn. However, the Japanese palate is shifting, and people are losing interest in these more delicate fish flavors. That’s why I want a platform from which I can promote traditional flavors, and I think Azabudai Hills can be that platform.

INADA I work with a different category of food, but I’m of the same opinion. The number of people raising the Japanese Black breed of cattle is falling as the population of Japan ages and farmers retire, but our business depends on these producers and their cattle. I’ve been trying to reach more people to share the wonders of Japanese Black Wagyu. So, when Mr. Yamaguchi invited me to join him at Azabudai Hills, I was thrilled, especially because I’ve always respected him.

The offer was also easy to accept because I share Mori Building’s commitment to taking on new challenges. At Yazawa Meat, we’ve always challenged ourselves in an effort to avoid stagnation. I see this opportunity as yet another new challenge.

Parlor Yazawa will be the culmination of my career. I am thinking of serving takeout meals that can be made to order if the customer wishes. While some customers will want pre-made tonkatsu so that they can get in and out quickly, others may want tonkatsu straight out of the fryer. By providing dine-in services as well, I think Parlor Yazawa will be able to respond to all of our customers’ needs.

A market where discoveries are made and shared with the world

The Rice Shop Sumidaya

KATAYAMA My family has been selling rice for four generations. I’m a newcomer to the industry, but I question the way rice is sold today. The Japanese Food Control Act has changed, there are new methods of distribution, and supply and demand have flipped so that there’s a surplus of rice. Despite all of that, rice sellers still market their products by only price and brand. The offer from Mori Building represents a chance to try something new, and the market will be a platform from which I can promote a new set of values.

My intent is to have customers learn something about the processes of growing and cooking rice. For example, I want to promote blended rice, which many people look down upon. They think that we are mixing good rice with bad to cut costs. But, in fact, when a skilled specialist produces a blend, it’s like adding one plus one and getting three.

I also want to host classes on cooking rice because even the best rice will not taste good if it’s cooked incorrectly. New varieties of rice are always coming into the market, each with its own ideal cooking method. However, there’s no information about what that method might be. That’s what I want to teach in my rice-cooking classes. I want to create an instruction manual for rice, explaining everything from how to choose rice to how to prepare it in the most appetizing way, and in so doing become the number-one rice shop in Japan.

When professionals band together

Azabudai Yamayuki Fish Market

YAMAGUCHI This project was originally conceived as a way to bring a variety of shops together to form one team. As Chef Keiji Nakazawa of Sushi Sho has said, this is the first-ever attempt to establish a food market where all of the proprietors act as teammates, which is what I love about it. If I’m going to be part of a team, I want to be with true professionals whom I can trust. Both Mr. Katayama and Mr. Inada have delivered authentic Japanese flavors to their customers in a number of innovative ways, so I’m sure our collaborations will yield something interesting. And with the combined power of about 30 specialty shops at Azabudai Hills Market, we will be able to develop and communicate things in ways that we can’t even conceive of yet. I am sure whatever we come up with will resonate with our customers.

KATAYAMA I agree. It’s a gratifying feeling to create food with people as devoted to authenticity as I am, so I’m pleased to provide the other shops in the market with rice from Sumidaya. It’s like a dream come true because food is at its tastiest when it is combined. Rice is good only when you eat it with something else, but you also need rice to bring out the best flavors of the other dishes.

When I make a meal of meat and rice, for example, I use a blend in which the rice can absorb excess fat from the meat and bring out the meat’s rich umami. Meanwhile, I can make fish more flavorful by incorporating some of the umami of rice into that of the fish. Meat is fatty, so the rice moderates its intense flavor. Fish, on the other hand, is lean, so the rice adds flavor. There will be a rice-cooking center at the market, which will make it easy for visitors to experiment with new combinations.

INADA Some of the restaurants in the Yazawa Meat group buy wholesale tuna from Mr. Yamaguchi to make tuna bowls. These bowls are typically made with vinegared sushi rice, but then Mr. Katayama made us a special rice blend. The first bite I took of this blend pushed the idea of sushi rice right out of my head. The fusion of tuna and plain rice was just astounding! I think we’ll hit on some more great ideas going forward—maybe a rice blend for Salisbury steak?

YAMAGUCHI I had always thought that tuna should be eaten with sushi rice. But since meeting Mr. Katayama, I’ve come to prefer plain rice.

KATAYAMA It makes me happy to hear that from both of you! That kind of praise coming from industry professionals is something customers will find very persuasive. I would like to hold collaborative workshops with the other shops so that everyone can hit upon innovative ideas and make use of them in their businesses.

INADA I’m also looking forward to these workshops. We will no doubt face many challenges once the market opens, but I’m sure that by discussing them and cooperating as a team, we will find great solutions. In fact, I think it’s exciting exactly because there are no easy answers. When the whole team comes together to search for an answer, we will produce something that’s never been done before. Incidentally, my ideal solution would be one that makes a customer come back a second time, and then a third, and end up becoming a regular at the market.

How diet affects one’s physical and mental health


YAMAGUCHI My blood vessels are those of a young man’s, apparently, and my doctor tells me that it is probably because of all the tuna and blueback that I eat. I want people to protect their health by eating more delicious non-farmed fish and eating well every day. To facilitate that, the market needs to be a fun place to shop.

I enjoy meeting customers face to face because I can talk with them and tell them, “This is today’s best fish; this is the best way to prepare it.” It’s a real thrill for someone to tell me that they tried my recommendation and that it tasted good.

I have a friend who didn’t like shellfish because of its fishy smell, so I explained to him that cooking shellfish eliminates the odor and brings out its natural sweetness. Now that I’ve shown my friends how food should be prepared, none of them have any foods they hate. Once you learn how to bring out the best qualities of a given ingredient, it can be enjoyed by anyone. I’m excited to share the wonders of Japanese food together with my colleagues at the market.

INADA I believe that eating tasty, authentic Japanese food is good for our physical and mental health. Good sake won’t give you a hangover; in the same way, good food will naturally make you healthy.

YAMAGUCHI This is slightly off topic, but the idea that good food and a good environment are what make a healthy body is true for fish as well. You can fish for tuna in Australia or New Zealand, but it tastes different there. The flavor of tuna depends on what it eats. Japan has a lot of shallow shoals and many places where fresh water mixes with ocean water. These areas support an abundance of plankton, which attract small, flavorful fish. When tuna eat those fish, they become tasty in turn. Not all countries are as lucky as Japan, environmentally and topographically. Incidentally, the fishy odor of farmed fish is caused by the dead fish that they are fed although the increased use of pellet feed has mitigated it quite a bit.

Japan’s climate and traditions contribute to its food culture

Japanese deli shun Azabudai

YAMAGUCHI Japanese fishermen use techniques that are suited to Japanese food. The quality of tuna isn’t as good in Japan in July and August, but it’s a good time for tuna in Boston. However, fishermen there use a different method—they will sometimes harpoon the fish in the belly, which isn’t ideal for Japanese cuisine. My dream is to go to the United States in three years to teach them about our fishing traditions. Tuna is very expensive in the European and American markets at the moment, so I don’t plan to import it quite yet, but eventually I’d like to bring American tuna to Japan under the Yamayuki name. I want to share the techniques and flavors that we’ve developed here in Japan with people overseas.

INADA The same can be said of Wagyu beef from Japanese Black cat t le. The f lavor o f the meat depends on how it is processed. Not everyone likes internal organs, so we process the meat to accommodate these sensitive palates. That’s why there is no odor—our processing method is different. At our Yazawa Meat shops overseas, I’ve heard some astonished reactions from people tasting Wagyu for the first time. They’re like, “What is this, tofu?” You only need a single bite to know how tender and sweet it is.

KATAYAMA When I’m abroad, I often hear people say that they’ve never tasted rice like mine. Japanese rice is distinctive because we have more seasonal variations than other rice-growing areas. The greater the temperature difference in summer, the more concentrated the flavor of the rice becomes and the richer its flavor. I’ve found that a moderate level of stress improves its flavor, which is why I think Japanese rice is the tastiest in the world. Incidentally, Japanese rice cookers are also the best in the world. For the past decade, rice cookers have been the most popular souvenir from Japan for people from rice-eating countries. When I go abroad to sell my rice, I bring a rice cooker with me and explain how to use it. I want to share this knowledge in our workshops, as well.

A desire to provide exciting experiences

KATAYAMA When I show my customers more options for how to choose and cook rice, they will discover new ways to enjoy rice. Children have particularly sensitive palates, so they can discern even the most subtle differences. Switching to our rice will definitely increase your rice consumption—your kids will happily eat a second bowl! However, once someone gets used to artificial flavorings, it is difficult to get that sensitive palate back. That is another reason why food education is so important.

YAMAGUCHI Yes. It is not that artificial flavoring is inherently bad, but we have to make sure that people are aware of its effects. Everyone wants to eat that kind of thing sometimes; that’s fine. But people should know how the ingredients taste on their own. The same goes for fish. It is not that farm-raised fish is bad, but people should know how a non-farmed fish tastes. I think that we professionals are the only ones who can expose people to food that tastes authentic.

KATAYAMA Until now, there hasn’t been a platform for conveying that kind of information.

YAMAGUCHI I think it’s probably because we as a society are looking for consistency. The easiest way to make food consistent is to use additives. It’s the same thing with farm-raised fish. There can be big variations in fish caught in the wild, but farmed fish raised in the same tank will be uniform in size and shape. They are easy to package and easy to sell. People want consistency, not individuality.

KATAYAMA I don’t want the food at Azabudai Hills Market to be industrialized.

INADA Me neither. The thing that concerns me is price. After all, good things are expensive. I’ve had customers complain that their children refuse to eat anyone else’s meat!

KATAYAMA If you eat meat from Yazawa Meat or tuna from Yamayuki with some flavorful rice, miso soup, and a small side, you won’t need a big portion to feel satisfied. Today, many people’s meals consist of 30% rice, but traditionally, Japanese food was 70% rice. Reverse it, and it could drive down the proportion of household income that is spent on food. This is all pretty self-serving, isn’t it?

INADA I have to say, this discussion has made me even more excited! So many collaborations are possible with just meat, fish, and rice, so I’m really looking forward to seeing what will happen when about 30 shops come together. It will be great to recommend things to customers even outside of my own specialty—to recommend a side that goes well with a certain type of wine, for example, or a type of rice that’s good for making sushi.

YAMAGUCHI The market will be an exciting place for buyers and sellers alike!


Yukitaka Yamaguchi
President of Yamayuki Group / Yamaguchi was born in Tokyo in 1963. His father was the top manager at a trader that dealt between fishermen at Tsukiji Fish Market and buyers. Yamaguchi began assisting at his father’s shop, Yamayuki, when he was in his second year of university and immediately fell in love with tuna. He developed a reputation for having a keen eye and an ability to stock only the best fish. “The secret to success is to keep doing what you love,” he says. He still loves tuna and claims to eat over 50 tuna nigiri every day.


Shinichi Katayama
President of Sumidaya Shoten / Katayama was born in Tokyo in 1966, the great-grandson of the founder of Sumidaya, a rice shop established in 1905. After graduating from university, he worked in a travel agency before taking over the Sumidaya business. In 2012, Katayama’s exceptional eye for rice was recognized with the rank of Five Star Rice Meister—awarded by the Japan Rice Retailers Association and the closest thing to a PhD for rice. He creates custom rice blends based on five criteria— aroma, flavor, stickiness, mouthfeel, and appearance.


Tomomi Inada
President of Yazawa Meat / Inada was born in Oita, Japan, in 1980. He always had a passion for cooking and was already preparing meals when he was in high school. Inada developed experience in a variety of food-related fields with the aim of becoming a globally renowned figure in the world of food. His meeting with the manager of the Yakiniku Jumbo Shinozaki Store turned out to be serendipitous—he developed a love for Japanese Black Wagyu and opened a butcher shop to promote the meat. His dream is to promote Japanese culinary cultures and the philosophy behind Japanese hospitality around the world.