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Food & Drink

The secret behind the city’s best sushi? One man and his van

From a Tokyo fish market to San Francisco’s top sushi restaurants in two days flat: Only Yoshimichi Takahashi can pull it off.

San Francisco’s top sushi chefs rely on this local wheeler-dealer to help deliver pristine seafood from Tokyo to diners’ tables. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Yoshimichi Takahashi’s twice-weekly seafood deliveries are like Christmas for Shinsuke Hayashi, the head sushi chef at Akikos. “I don’t get toys anymore,” Hayashi says, as he rips off the red tape and unwraps the packages with childlike abandon, removing the steaming ice packs and foil hiding the treasures beneath. “This is the closest thing I have.”

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Takahashi’s morning visits to Hayashi and many of San Francisco’s top sushi chefs are as anticipated as Santa’s. However, rather than a furry red suit and hat, Yoshi-san—as he’s known throughout the high-end sushi scene—typically dons a dark blue hoodie and a crooked smile. Rather than a sleigh, he often pulls up in his white delivery van. And his goods don’t hail from the North Pole, but from Tokyo’s legendary Toyosu fish market.

As the man behind the U.S. hub of the Japan-based fish company Sakasyu, Takahashi is at the red, beating heart of the San Francisco sushi trade. If you love the Spanish mackerel sashimi you’re eating at Ken, or the cherry trout nigiri you’re inhaling at Robin, you have Takahashi and his sprawling, 200-person, two-continent team to thank. 

As Hayashi works his way through the row of styrofoam cases delivered on a recent Thursday morning, he unboxes prehistoric-looking kinmedai, or golden-eye snapper, wrapped in fibrous green fish paper to protect its shimmering fluorescent scales. Two skipjack tunas have been filleted and vacuum-sealed to preserve their ruby color. And one of his personal favorites—shiro amadai, a rare white sweetfish—has been reserved well ahead of time. Perhaps the priciest parcel includes five different types of uni, or sea urchin, including an uncured variety floating in brine. There’s a special machine that deoxidizes the fluid to avoid spoilage, Hayashi explains, shaking his head in wonder.

A man in a blue hoodie stands beside an open van filled with labeled white containers stacked neatly; he is smiling and looking to the side.
Yoshimichi Takahashi delivers fresh fish from Japan to restaurants across the Bay Area. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard
Two men are talking to a fish vendor in an indoor market. The vendor is leaning over a tank, while the men observe. The area is well-lit and busy.
The Sakasyu team fulfills orders from restaurants, such as San Francisco’s Akikos, at the Toyosu Fish Market in Japan. | Source: Courtesy Sakasyu

Other than a hint of salt and seawater, the fish barely has any odor, a sign of extreme freshness. The flesh is supple and firm. The eyes are glassy and clear. The exposed gills are a deep burgundy. All of this is a miracle of modern transportation and logistics because less than 48 hours prior, this lineup of immaculate, never-frozen, top-tier seafood was purchased, packed and shipped directly from Tokyo.

A true sushi geek

Hayashi is far from Takahashi’s only happy fish recipient on this day. Sakasyu supplies hundreds of other top sushi restaurants across San Francisco and the U.S. with the most glorious sushi-grade seafood straight from the Toyosu Market. Takahashi started the company’s U.S. division back in 2017 and has built it from an ad-hoc operation into a juggernaut. In the intervening years, the U.S. branch has grown into a 60-person operation that clears around $20 million in annual revenue and delivers to sushi meccas and Michelin-starred kitchens around the country, including in Honolulu, Los Angeles and New York. 

It all started eight years ago when Takahashi, a former tuna butcher from Tokyo’s storied Tsukiji market, was asked by one of his old friends at Sausalito’s Sushi Ran to help out as a part-time chef. When asked about this time, he waffles, trying to be diplomatic. Suffice it to say that when he arrived for work, he was not impressed with the quality of the product. “Sushi fish has to be super fresh, otherwise, it’s not going to be great,” he says. “If it’s fishy and soft, what’s the point?” 

An airplane is flying over a warehouse area with "AGI Alliance Ground" signage. Below are parked cars, shipping containers, and a red semi-truck. The sky is clear.
Sakasyu flies fresh fish from Japan to hundreds of the top sushi restaurants in San Francisco and across the country. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard
A man is inside a refrigerated truck filled with stacked white boxes labeled "Sakasyu." He is organizing or inspecting the boxes.
Tatsuya Aoyama loads boxes of fresh fish into vans at the San Francisco International Airport on May 16. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard

At that time, most high-end sushi chefs worked with wholesale distributors who acted as middlemen between direct suppliers in Japan and stateside restaurants. But Takahashi posed an idea to his Sushi Ran boss: “What if we bought from my buddies in Japan?” He suggested he could directly link chefs in San Francisco with Sakasyu, a Japanese seafood brand that has a history stretching back to 1889 and its own shop at the Toyosu Market, which buys and sells thousands of pounds of pristine seafood daily.

The operation started as a simple personal project to help raise the quality of the seafood at one restaurant. But word got around to the Bay Area’s tight-knit sushi community of Takahashi’s efforts. It also didn’t hurt that he started hooking his friends up with free samples to sweeten the deal. 

Geoffrey Lee, the executive chef of Ju-Ni, an intimate omakase restaurant in NoPa, was one of Takahashi’s first customers. Although Lee still relies on other suppliers, he estimates that currently, around 90% of his seafood products come from Sakasyu. “I can see and feel and smell the difference in quality,” Lee says. 

Two men are walking on a sidewalk, one pulling a handcart loaded with white boxes. They are dressed in casual clothing, and the background features greenery and modern buildings.
Tatsuya Aoyama, left, and Juntaro Kawagishi, right, deliver fresh seafood that is flown in from Tokyo to restaurants in San Francisco. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard
A chef in a white uniform stands in a kitchen, unwrapping items from shiny foil and plastic bags, possibly unpacking supplies from large styrofoam boxes.
Chef Shinsuke Hayashi of Akikos unpacks boxes of seafood from Sakasyu. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard
Two hands are carefully packaging a greenish-yellow fish in bubble wrap on top of a piece of newspaper inside a blue-foil lined container.
Sakasyu carefully packages its fish to ensure nothing spoils on its cross-ocean journey from Japan. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Not to mention the careful packaging. For a shipment of ayu, a small Japanese river trout, for instance, the company uses plastic wrap and pebble ice to avoid damaging the delicate flesh. Holes in the package drain outside the parcel so the fish stays the correct temperature and doesn’t sit in still water even as the ice melts. Cooling elements are added in the summer and small adjustments keep seafood in the ideal 1°C to 4°C range even with minute changes in pressure that come from an aircraft landing and taking off. 

“It’s like a wine,” Takahashi says. “When our tape is around it, it means it’s packed by our professionals in Japan and won’t be opened until it arrives at the restaurant.”

From WhatsApp to table

Takahashi grew up in Ōmori two minutes away from Tokyo Bay. His parents owned a supermarket, and he was raised among fresh meat, seafood and produce. Some of his earliest memories include summer and weekend fishing trips to catch seabass, mullet, and saltwater eel, better known as anago. 

Deciding against what he considered a boring office job, he became a tuna butcher when he graduated from school—learning the seafood trade from his neighbors and coworkers in the market. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1985 at the age of 23, drawn by the allure of life on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

Several large fish, including greenish and bright red ones, are in a white container on ice. A person's hands hold a bright red fish.
Kinmedai, a golden-eye snapper, delivered by Sakasyu is one of several fish hand-picked by Akikos' chef Hayashi. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard
A chef wearing a white coat and black apron is filleting a fish in a professional kitchen. Several whole fish are in a white tub beside him, with utensils nearby.
Prepping for dinner service, Akikos' chef Shinsuke Hayahsi cleans nodoguro, a sea perch. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

He counts some of the city’s top sushi chefs as fishing buddies and lives on a houseboat in Sausalito with a minimalist cottage-core aesthetic. He also owns two other vessels that allow him to set sail in the morning before work. Takahashi likes fishing off his boat in the bay, but not everything out of the water makes for a good sushi meal. A recent catch turned into fish and chips, for example. (It’s halibut season, if you were wondering.)

But for all the old-school skills and analog tools that go into fishing, getting Japanese seafood on San Francisco tables is a supremely modern affair. If you envision a chef in pressed whites selecting the fish they want to be delivered from Tokyo via a computer or a landline conversation, you’d be wrong. 

Sakasyu’s makeshift system for importing fish from Tokyo occurs across myriad WhatsApp group chats that connect San Francisco chefs and restaurant owners to workers directly handling fish in Japan. The company’s Tokyo-based team sends videos and photos of the daily catch in the market. Chefs reply with the volume, size and type of seafood they are looking for, including highly prized seasonal items like hotaru ika or firefly squid, so-called because of the pinpricks of bioluminescence that dot their bodies with blue light in dark ocean waters. (To this end, Takahashi’s iPhone screen notes more than 36,000 unread messages in his apps, an anxiety-inducing total to any Inbox Zero aspirant.)

San Francisco’s top sushi chefs rely on Yoshi-san to help deliver pristine seafood from Tokyo to diners’ tables. | Source: Morgan Ellis & Justin Katigbak/The Standard: Courtesy AKIKOS

David Yoshimura, the chef-owner of Michelin-starred Nisei in Russian Hill, said his team takes care not to miss the proverbial Sakasyu boat, particularly for competitive products like fresh salmon roe and Hokkaido crab. “If you’re too late to the show and you’re unprepared, there’s a chance you won’t be able to get those ingredients,” Yoshimura said.

Akikos chef Hayashi said his nights are often interrupted by what he jokingly described as “sushi emergencies,” which include last-minute ordering hiccups or new products that he wants to make sure to raise his hand for. He sleeps with his fitness tracker on his wrist so he can be on-call in correspondence with Tokyo’s time zone. When asked about his most recent late-night message, he shudders: “I don’t really want to think about it.”

Things don’t always go smoothly when ordering fresh fish directly from Tokyo. Takahashi recounted a time when Ivanka Trump flew into Narita International Airport, closing nearly the entire airport for security precautions. That meant angry DMs from chefs peeved that their seafood did not arrive on schedule. But nobody dropped Sakasyu as a supplier. When it comes to the best, it’s hard to find a replacement. 

Omakase at Akikos in San Francisco
The result of Takahashi's efforts include masterpieces like Akikos signature Shokupan, made with milk bread, fatty tuna and caviar. | Source: Courtesy Joseph Weaver

What’s the future for Takahashi? Currently, he whispers conspiratorially, he’s in the midst of trying to open a seafood pizza restaurant on Rishiri Island, a small volcanic landmass off the coast of Hokkaido. He recently traveled around Japan on a tasting tour of different pizzas to ensure that his dough recipe is something unique. 

Does a tiny Japanese island need a pizza shop specializing in seafood toppings? Who knows. But, just like Sakasyu’s beginnings, damned if Yoshi-san isn’t going to try. 

Kevin Truong can be reached at