Merchants and volunteers grilling saury in front of Meguro Station on Sept. 4 (Louis Templado)The line for free fish stretched several blocks (Louis Templado)
Six months after the Great East Japan Earthquake, some fortunate diners--several thousand Tokyo residentsgot to feast on sanma (saury), an autumn delicacy, thanks to the generosity of fishermen and officials of disaster-hit Miyako, Iwate Prefecture.
Before the earthquake and tsunami, Miyako was one of the Tohoku region's main fishing ports for offloading fishparticularly sanmawhen they're fattest and oiliest. Nearly 7,000 saury arrived for the Tokyo fish-fest, the Meguro Sanma Matsuri, which took place Sept. 4 in front of Meguro Station in Shinagawa Ward.
"This is our show of support for Miyako," says Masakazu Nakazaki, head of the Meguro merchant's union that organizes the yearly festival. Boxes set up near the fish netted over 2.11 million yen in donations from diners, while stall operators gave portions of their profits to the town.
The event started 16 years ago, when the merchants decided to stage the free outdoor cookout with money from their own pockets.
After three years, newspapers reported that the fish came out of Miyako. When the fishermen there got wind of where their catch was going, they called up the Meguro organizers.
"They said, 'You don't have to pay uswe'll give you the fish you want.' At first it was a lot smaller, with just a few hundred fish," says Nakazaki. "But over the years, the crowds have become bigger, and so have the shipments from Miyako."
In fact, the number of visitors swells to nearly 50,000 on some years, which means that not everybody can get their fill.
Huge lines form. And the Meguro merchants and volunteers, working in goggles because of the thick smoke, are able to grill only a thousand fish an hour.
"It becomes a battle for those willing to wait the longest," Nakazaki says.
Seeing the crowds, it's hard to imagine the national call for "self-restraint" that defined the weeks after the disaster. Nakazaki went up to Miyako to show that the Meguro merchants were ready to carry on.
The story of Meguro and sanma actually goes back further, to an Edo-Period (1603-1867) rakugo comic storytelling tale. In it, a passing noble samples the delicacy and mistakenly believes that Meguro is famous for its fish, although the ocean is nowhere nearby.
Other large-scale sanma grillings are on the calendar.
On Sept. 18, 5,000 fish will be served at Dendo Hiroba park, on the Meguro Ward side of Meguro Station, from 10 a.m. The catch comes from the Miyagi Prefecture port of Kesennuma.
Likewise, 3,333 saury are on the menu for a Sept. 23 event planned for Tokyo Tower, located in Minato Ward, from 10 a.m.
Although both ports were heavily damaged by the tsunami, industry there wants to show they're still in the game. And what's better for business than a free nibble of things to come?