Kimura Fisheries located in Hikone produces a wide range of traditional freshwater fish products using advanced methods. I met the Chairman of Kimura Fisheries, Kimura Taizō, who took me around the company’s facilities beside the Hirata River, not far from Hikone Castle.
Fronting the street is a large and attractive shop. In front of the doorway hangs an indigo-blue curtain with a huge ‘ayu’ (sweetfish) character in bright white. Kimura-san is a friendly, energetic man who puts visitors at ease right away.
“Come on, let’s go and have a look round the back first!”.
Behind the shop are several large concrete ponds, some covered with greenhouse-like structures, others open to the sky. Plastic tubing runs here and there pumping water, and in the ponds, metal paddles thrash the surface creating bubbles that aerate the water.
“Does the water come from the river next to the facility?”
“No, it’s groundwater. We pump it up from about 50 m underground.”
“Have you ever fallen into the tanks?”
“Oh yes, many times. You’re not a fully qualified worker until you’ve fallen in a few times.”
“I bet it’s cold.”
“Yes, it’s freezing. But it only comes up to your chest, so it’s OK.”
Kimura-san picks up a net and bucket and steps out onto one of the narrow walls separating two tanks. It looks very precarious. He dips the net in and pulls out a few dozen sleek-looking fish. Dark grey on top, their colour changes from gold in the middle to silver underneath. He gently picks up the fish one by one to show their bellies which are heavy with eggs.
“Did you have lunch at our restaurant?”
“Yes. We ordered the seasonal sweetfish filled with eggs. I’ve eaten a lot of sweetfish, but I’ve never had one stuffed with eggs from its head to its tail like that. It was very good.”
“That’s what these are. They’re very difficult to make. Fish start to make eggs depending on their size and the amount of light, which naturally is a matter of the season. We can control that to a certain extent using electric light. But getting it right isn’t easy. Leave it a little bit too long, and the fish lay their eggs and die.”
“It sounds like a risky business.”
“Yes, it is. We’re constantly working to improve our operation. You see this device here? It produces microbubbles that improve the water environment in the tanks. We’re looking at introducing IT and even AI to achieve more accurate control and reduce the risks.”
“All of this must use a lot of energy.”
“Yes, it does. But we’re keen on sustainability, so all of this powered by solar energy.”
Connected to a tangle of plastic tubing is a mysterious metal contraption. I ask Kimura-san what it’s for.
“This is a fish pump. When we move the fish between tanks, they pass through the hoses powered by this pump.”
“Doesn’t that damage the fish?”
“No, not at all. Handling them with a net and bucket would damage them more. We can move fish as big as trout with this system.”
“The fish must feel like that they’re at the fairground.”
Kimura Fisheries rears a variety of freshwater fish, including trout, eels, and the funa used for funazushi. Passing a stack of black buckets under a running tap, Kimura-san lifts the empty top one off to reveal a writhing mass of eels.
We go up a ramp into one of the covered tank areas. It’s warmer inside and there’s a distinct smell of fish, but it’s a fresh, clean smell. Clearly, it’s a hygienic operation.
“What are these black curtains for?”
“They’re to hide the fish from our gaze. Fish are rather shy.”
Kimura-san shows me the bags of feed used for each type of fish. The feed is specially formulated according to proprietary recipes, and the ratio of fish meal to vegetable matter is adjusted throughout the year. After checking out all the tanks and equipment for keeping the fish healthy, we move inside to the processing plant. We see machinery for selecting fish by size, for cooking, for flash freezing and for bagging them.
“These are the machines that we use to cook our sweetfish. We clip them onto these chains, and then they pass slowly by the heaters. We had the machines designed and made to our own specs.”
“Is that a commercial secret?”
“Yes! – No, not really.”
Then we get to my favourite part – the funazushi fermentation room. This is where Ōmi’s signature fish dish is made by fermenting freshwater fish with rice. Rows of plastic tubs stand on the concrete floor of a dimly lit storeroom. The air is filled with a sharp, pungent smell.
“What exactly is the smell of funazushi? Is it ammonia?”
“I don’t honestly know. But I suppose some of it’s ammonia. Some people simply can’t stand the smell. Others rather like it. What about you?”
“It smells good to me. You have a lot of nice stones there. Mind if I try picking one up?”
“No, go ahead.”
“Ah, it’s not as freaking heavy as I thought it would be.”
“If they were that freaking heavy, we wouldn’t be able to hoick them onto the tubs!
This method of making fermented food by pressing it under a heavy weight and squeezing the liquid out is a very interesting thing. It’s quite common in Japan. That’s how we make pickled vegetables, miso, and of course, funazushi. I wonder if they do that sort of thing in other countries.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think we do it in England. I saw some of these stones at the Itō Chūbei Museum.”
“Yes, they have a lot of them there. The household would have made their own funazushi.”
Finally, we adjourn to the board room for tea and a wrap up. Kimura-san talks about some of the challenges of the fisheries business.
“The custom of eating grilled fish at home is dying out. People living in apartments are worried about the smell of cooking fish, and young people are afraid of the fish’s eyes.”
“Yes. Strange, but true. That’s why mackerel pike are now sold headless in supermarkets.”
“Do you have any plans for the inbound market? I’m sure foreign visitors would be fascinated by this place.”
“I’ve heard that Asians aren’t keen on freshwater fish because rivers in Asia are often polluted. But here you can see with your own eyes how clean our water is, so I think that foreign visitors will be satisfied.”
“I’m sure they will be!”