by Kenji Hall

Editor’s note: More than a year after Japan’s Tohoku region was devastated by a tsunami, small local businesses are bouncing back, helped by low-interest loans and startup assistance provided through a $2 million grant from NVIDIA. This is one in a series of profiles of businesses benefiting from the program, dubbed Operation Kizuna, after the Japanese word for “bond of love and friendship.”

Jun Saachi
Jun Saachi steps into a refrigerated
mini-truck financed by NVIDIA.

Four in the afternoon on a clear, scorching mid-summer Monday, and Jun Saichi is behind the wheel of his 2.5-ton Mitsubishi trailer truck. Through the open windows, he can smell the sea, as the tiny fishing harbors of Minamisanriku, a town on Japan’s northeastern coast, whiz by. Occasionally, he catches glimpses of gray and green: weeds intruding on the broken concrete remains of homes destroyed by the tsunami more than a year earlier.

As Saichi turns off the coastal highway, his 11-year-old son Kota, who is sitting shotgun, pipes up. “Hamanasu-no-oka is usually the best,” says Kota, who is on summer break. “We get most of our customers there.”

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Jun Saichi owns Supermarket Saichi, a grocery store on wheels. For the better part of the afternoon, I have been making the rounds with the 39-year-old Saichi and his family, stopping at prefab homes built for victims of last year’s disaster.

As the low-slung, grey prefab buildings of Hamanasu-no-oka come into view, Kota cranks up the stereo and enka, or Japanese blues, blares from speakers mounted on the truck. Moments later, an elderly woman with curly hair and house slippers rushes out. She is trailed by a half dozen others who squeeze into the trailer. With plastic baskets in hand, they browse the refrigerated case along one wall for bonito sashimi, salted sea urchin and eggs; and the shelves along the opposite wall for dry goods like soba noodles and rice crackers.

Saichi, who is tall and tanned and sports Crocs and pale green short-sleeved work wear, chats up customers and helps them up and down the steps. Inside, his wife Satomi and Kota work the cash register. “I love to hear customers say that the sashimi was really fresh or that they’d been waiting all week for us to come by,” says Saichi.

One casualty of the tsunami: supermarkets
Since the March 2011 disaster, the area’s residents have been clearing debris, repaving roads and getting back to work. One notable casualty: local supermarkets. Given the grim prospects of attracting customers from among Minamisanriku’s sparsely populated fishing villages, the supermarket business is rife with risks.

But Saichi spotted an opportunity. He knew too well the hassle of driving hours to the big cities for food and essentials. He also dreaded cleanup work at wrecked frozen-fish warehouses, which paid the bills after the tsunami robbed him of his job managing a shop at the Kesennuma fish market. “The smell of rotting fish on him was horrible,” says his wife, Satomi. “We had no running water for months so he couldn’t bathe often.”

Saichi’s plan: Rustle up a trailer with a refrigerated case; pack it with fresh fish, fruits, some non-perishables; search for customers. Last October, with roughly $35,000 in funding from a local bank, he bought a rig outfitted with a refrigerated display glass case and gave it a spiffy paint job: blue stripes, a leaping marlin and his logo in Japanese, Suupaa Saichi, or “super Saichi.” “When I started, people told me that it would take at least three years before I would make a profit,” he says. “But it hasn’t been a year and I’m just starting to make enough to give myself a salary.”

Taking to the streets
It’s his payoff for months of sleep deprivation and 18-hour workdays. His day starts at sunrise with a trip to a wholesale fish market. I accompany Saichi to the reopened Kesennuma fish market, an hour north. He takes the new mini-truck, which he bought with the $25,000 grant he received from NVIDIA (distributed through PlaNet Finance Japan and Kesennuma Shinkin Bank). It’s a mobile refrigerator and it ensures that the fish he buys won’t spoil on the long drive home.

At the market, Saichi points out a three-story building 20 yards from the water’s edge. “I watched the tsunami approach from up there,” he says. “I couldn’t reach my family for three days.”

Saichi knows his fish from years in the industry. He can tell the flukes from flounders and stops to admire the squid, eel and Pacific saury catch. “My mission is to offer my customers the freshest fish,” he says.His longtime contacts with the market’s wholesale buyers help.

Slim pickings today, though. He buys a few boxes of bonito, squid and sea squirt, a local delicacy. It’s a fraction of what he usually gets, but that’s just as well. Saichi threw out his back a few days earlier while lifting a 40-pound fish, which sidelined him for a day and is forcing him to take it easy. “I couldn’t get up but my customers were soon calling me asking me when they could expect us to come next,” he says.

By midmorning he’s at home, skinning and slicing the bonito to sell as sashimi. His son, Kota, takes care of the packaging and price tags, while Satomi deals with a tofu delivery and restocks the truck’s refrigerators and fills its freezer with ice cream. At 1 pm sharp, they pile into the truck and head out. Every day it’s a different route with stops at temporary housing complexes and a few isolated homes; in a week, he’ll see 300 customers.

What do customers think? They appreciate the convenience. They like the sense of community he brings especially now that many live apart from longtime neighbors and family. At the end of the day’s run, Saichi sits on the floor in his living room, wincing at the pain in his back, but he is upbeat. “It’s hard work and some chain stores now have trucks,” he says. “But I love this, running my own business. After my customers move to permanent homes, they won’t need a mobile market. And that’s when I hope to open an actual supermarket.”