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This story begins 20 years ago.
While researching my first book, “The Japanese Kitchen,” I met Tsuyoshi Iio, the fourth-generation president of Iio Jozo, a family-owned, small rice vinegar production company founded in 1893 in Kyoto Prefecture, Japan.
Iio Jozo is the most honest and respected rice vinegar producer in Japan. It’s not just the company’s exceptional tasting rice vinegar, but most important, its vinegar is safe to consume. Here’s what I mean.
Best rice vinegar
Tsuyoshi’s father, Terunosuke Iio, was a visionary president of the company. During the 1950s, Japan became caught up in rapid postwar economic development. The use of strong agricultural chemicals — to increase and speed up the production — became the norm. But soon tadpoles, wild insects and animals disappeared from rice paddies. Farmers suffered from mysterious diseases.
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At that time, Terunosuke Iio read the Japanese translation of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and decided he wanted to use only organic rice in his vinegar production. But it took him two years to persuade enough farmers to agree to raise rice organically. All the farmers were aware of the toxic influence of chemicals, but most could not be persuaded to return to the labor intensive, chemical-free farming practices.
Today Iio Jozo Company is run by an energetic fifth-generation president, Akihiro Iio. It has been producing 3- to 5-year-aged Akasu for years. Recently the company began aging it up to 15 years, upon receiving a request from a sushi chef in Nagoya Prefecture.
A complete, miraculous transition — this was my experience at Sushi Kimura, a tiny seven counter-seat sushi bar restaurant in Futako Tamagawa, just one hour from central Tokyo by train.
At this restaurant, Chef Koji Kimura has developed a special kind of nigiri sushi.
He uses fish that has been cured and aged — some up to 90 days. This aged fish does not spoil nor become stinky; it acquires much umami and a quite tender texture.
Chef Kimura discovered it almost by accident.
After opening his small restaurant, he waited for customers night after night, for weeks. The fresh fish he had purchased and prepared did not keep for long. “There were lots of waste,” he said.
Instead of giving up, Kimura was determined to find out how long he could age and improve the fish. Bleeding, salting, de-salting, shaving the surface, observing — every day for months his hard work brought him to a startling accomplishment. He successfully produced delicious, safe-to-eat fish through aging up to 90 days.
In order to create the perfect match for such fish, Kimura cooks his rice to a rather firm texture and flavors it with Akasu (“red color-tinged rice vinegar”).
The use of Akasu in the preparation of sushi rice produces a distinctive, strong yeasty fragrance and taste, and a faint reddish brown color. Akasu was made from sake lees, the solids left over from fermenting rice to make sake; it was the vinegar used at the time of the invention of nigiri sushi in the city of Edo.
And, thus the marriage of two unique businesses — Kimura Sushi’s aged fish and Iio Jozo’s Akasu. Together they produce a new dining experience, one with deep historical roots.
A harmony of flavors
For my meal at Kimura Sushi, I began with 10-day aged shiro-amadai (white horsehead) on top of a small squeeze of sushi rice. It was tender and sweet with a surprising touch of firmness.
Fourteen-day aged kinme (alfonsino) was melting tender with umami that was further elevated by the Akasu. To my surprise, kinme loses two-thirds of its original weight during the aging process.
Aji (horse mackerel) from Wakayama Prefecture was fresh, crunchy and delicious. Tai snapper was lightly cured in kelp.
But the climax was unthinkable before my visit: 60-day aged makajiki (striped marlin).
I closed my eyes to concentrate all of my senses on the fish. Caramel, coffee, cream, sweet … a miraculous harmony of flavors swept through my mouth. Aging matters — probably it’s much better for the fish than for me.
Main photo: Chef Koji Kimura enjoys conversation over the sushi counter with his regulars, but his demeanor becomes much more serious when he is crafting and presenting sushi to his customers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo
An official slogan for improving the nutrition of the Japanese population was issued by the Japanese government in 1985: “Consume Thirty Different Food Items Each Day.”
The food items were divided into six categories, and we were advised to choose evenly from each category. Each ingredient, it was said — meat, poultry and fish, soybeans, grains, vegetables and fruits, milk products, and sea vegetables — contains its own nutritional properties, so following this slogan will help to create balanced meals.
Even before this public announcement, there was a growing awareness that the Japanese diet since the turn of the 20th century had succumbed to influence from the West. It was thought that we must return to our own traditional diet to achieve optimum nutrition.
Just for fun, from time to time I still count how many different food items I have consumed in a single day.
A realistic goal?
This practice was instilled in me by my mother. Recently I made the count for all three meals, and found I’d consumed 21 separate foods on that day; far short of the government’s recommendation. This caused me to think. How and why did this government recommendation come about? Is it still a realistic guiding principle?
Here is what I found.
Until 1868, Japan lagged far behind Western countries in technology, science and engineering because of the closure of the country to foreign trade for 260 years. Even the small physical stature of the Japanese population was blamed on a poor, very limited Japanese diet that was based on small quantities of rice, fish, soybean products, with some vegetables and seaweeds.
The Meiji Emperor encouraged the population to begin consuming beef, a food item previously banned for ordinary citizens. Newly imported Western ingredients included meat, meat products, milk and butter, and new preparation techniques led to the creation of new “Japanese” dishes that were called “yo-shoku” (Japanized Western dishes).
Yo-shoku dishes with their rich flavors and large servings instantly became national favorites: beef steak, pork cutlet, curry and rice, “omu-rice” (stir-fried morsels of chicken and rice, seasoned with tomato ketchup and wrapped in an omelet), to name a few.
Dietary changes brought risks
During the heyday of Japanese boom-times in 1970-1990, even more varieties of Western foods became available and popular (provided by the major Western fast-food companies). And Japanese began consuming increasing quantities of rare cheeses, foie gras and expensive wines.
These dietary changes came with hefty penalties: Diabetes became more widespread. Heart disease became the number No. 2 killer in Japan. And — this was formerly unthinkable — morbid obesity is now present in the country.
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Meals dominated by fat, meat, meat products, egg, sugar and milk products push up calorie consumption but not the number of daily food items. The broad categories of foods of the traditional complete Japanese diet such as seafood, seaweed, vegetables and more fruits are lacking. So the 1985 rule was an attempt to bring variety back to the everyday diet.
Want to try eating 30 different foods in a day? Choose at least two items from each of the six food categories. Since consuming vegetables and fruits is good for our health, add two additional items from categories 3 and 4. If you do this, you will easily approach 20 separate food items — a good start for reaching the goal of 30 items that the Japanese government recommended.
By following this practice, you can change the way you plan and prepare meals to the benefit of your health.
Six categories of food items
The six categories of food items and what they provide:
1. Meat, fish, poultry, egg, tofu products (protein).
2. Small fish that can be eaten whole with bones, milk and milk products (calcium).
3. Green and yellow vegetables (carotene, plus other vitamins and minerals).
4. Other vegetables and fruits (vitamin C, plus other vitamins and minerals).
5. Grains, potato, bread/cakes/cookies (carbohydrates).
6. Cooking oil, nut and seed oils, nuts and seeds (fat).
Rules to follow
As you begin your “Thirty Different Food Items Each Day” project, please observe the following rules. Do not count the same ingredient twice. Do not count ingredients used for garnishes in soups, salads and the like; they have minimal nutritional and caloric value. You can, however, count ketchup, mayonnaise and sauces, which have substantial caloric content.
When you reach 21 food items in a day, please send me photos and a description of the meals. I will share them with my audience.
Before then, please enjoy this stir-fried rice recipe, which gives you a 7 score for the dish.
Seven Score Vegetable Stir-Fried Rice
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 4 minutes
Total time: 49 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped carrot
1/4 cup chopped fennel bulb or celery
3 1/2 ounces kale; leaves, cut into thin slices crosswise; stems, cut into thin slices slanted
4 cups cooked and cooled brown rice (preferably made a day in advance)
1/2 cup pine nuts
2 tablespoons butter
1 to 2 teaspoons shoyu
Freshly ground black pepper corn
Heat a wok or deep skillet over medium heat and add 1 1/2 tablespoons of the oil. When the oil is hot, add the onion along with pinch of salt and cook, stirring, 1 minute.
Add the carrot, fennel bulb and kale stem along with pinch of sea salt and cook, stirring, 2 minutes. Add the kale leaves, and cook, stirring, 30 seconds. Move the vegetables to one end of the wok (or transfer to a temporary bowl). Add the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons oil in the empty space of the wok.
When the oil is hot, add the rice and cook, over medium heat, stirring, until the rice is fully heated up, or about 2 minutes. Then combine and toss the rice with the cooked vegetables. Add the pine nuts and give several large stirs. Add the butter, soy sauce and freshly ground black pepper and toss the mixture thoroughly. Divide the rice among 4 plates and serve hot.
Main photo: This Japanese meal has miso sauce, daikon radish, salmon, omelet, purple radish, cauliflower, broccoli, carrot, burdock, chestnut, grapes and dried baby fish. Since some are rather small amounts, I give it a score of 10, including the accompanying bowl of rice and miso soup. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo
The new year of 2016 is fast approaching. I am now trying to complete the tasks planned for this year but left unfinished, both business and personal. By doing so, I can welcome a new year as a fresh start.
This is what we do in Japan at the end of each year. But something has bothered me for long time, and I have let the years pass without fixing it in my kitchen. It is the croissant. In Japan, croissants are deeply rooted in our culinary culture and have been a part of my life, long before coming to America. So, this October I attended a class at the International Culinary Center in New York City on making authentic croissants. I can now start the new year with the proper croissant that I have dreamed of.
Falling in love with croissants
It was 30-some years ago when I first visited Paris and instantly fell in love with croissants. Flaky, crumbling, buttery croissants at small cafés in the city became my breakfast. I can still picture myself in the mornings, standing at a long counter bar in these cafés, staring at bottles of liquor and wine on the shelves behind the counter, and then biting into shattering layers of a crispy croissant. With small sips of strong coffee, I always reached for a second croissant in the always-full basket on the counter.
The richness of the butter stayed long in my stomach, but never enough to spoil my lunch. The real croissants back then were rather small (about 6 inches long), narrow, extremely brittle on the outside and airy inside. But today, this gem seems to have disappeared from the streets of Paris.
A bit of Paris in Tokyo
Now, let me take you to a very special place in Japan. There is a little patisserie called Aux Bon Vieux Temps near Oyamadai station southeast of central Tokyo. I lived near this station for about three years with my husband, Buzz. On one of our weekend walks, we happened to pass by a small, very French-looking pastry store. We entered and found that it was full of the highest quality authentic French breads, pastries and chocolates. The store became our Sunday breakfast pilgrimage destination — especially for very crisp, buttery, authentic croissants and a cup of very good coffee. Because of Aux Bon Vieux Temps, I no longer had to dream about the old croissants of Paris.
No shortcuts allowed
Chef Katsuhiko Kawata, the owner and pastry chef of Aux Bon Vieux Temps, has been making authentic croissants for years in Tokyo, while the super-sized, bread-like croissants have invaded France and America. Chef Kawata apprenticed and learned the art of baking croissants in his 20s in Paris. He is 70 years old today and still working in his kitchen. His approach to producing quality, artisan croissants and pastries is the same as that of classical music player. During every available minute, he practices his art and polishes his skills. Laziness and shortcuts are out.
On our most recent trip back to Paris, I was saddened by my encounters with ugly, fatty, dense and bread-like croissants at local cafés — the Americanization of the croissant in every aspect of quality had come to France. The use of industrial dough and shortcut baking processes may be among the reasons for this demise. However, last year in March, a very welcoming article appeared in the Wall Street Journal, “Welcome Back to Authentic Croissants in Paris,” by Alexander Lobrano. That article inspired me. I should stop complaining about fake, fat croissants in the city and learn how much labor, time and care is necessary to bake a good croissant by myself.
The croissant class taught by chef Mark Gerlach at the International Culinary Center was only a scant five hours in duration. The correct way to make croissants requires at least a full 48 hours, the chef said. In order for the students to engage in all processes of the preparation, we used dough that had been kneaded and rested in advance.
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Real croissants: It’s in the dough
Here, from the class, are seven tips on how to make real croissants:
- Use quality ingredients.
- Dehydrate flour properly.
- Use butter with 83% fat.
- Proof the dough at a temperature of 68 F and humidity of 65-70%.
- Apply proper lamination technique (folding butter into dough multiple times to create very thin alternating layers of butter and dough).
- Roll out the dough into correct thickness and into the proper size and shape.
- And finally, bake it just to the state where crumbling and fluffiness meet.
Now I am committed to baking fabulous croissants in my kitchen to celebrate the start of an exciting new year. I shall start the project two days before I enjoy the end of this year properly with a bowl of traditional soba noodles on New Year’s Eve. Maybe you will, too.
Instructions on creating the croissant can be found in many places, but here is how to make the dough.
Yield: About 1700g (18-21 croissants)
Prep and resting time: 3 1/2 hours
This recipe uses international measurements, because they are more precise — and precision is very important in this recipe. (Equivalents are 1 ounce = 28 grams and 1 pound = 453 grams.)
750 grams bread flour
15 grams salt
100 grams sugar
30 grams softened butter
38 grams fresh yeast
150 grams milk
285 grams water
345 grams butter
1. Mix the flour, salt, sugar, softened butter, yeast, milk and water in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix them on low speed just to combine. Increase the speed to medium and mix for 5 minutes or until a smooth sticky dough comes together.
2. Oil the inside of a large bowl and transfer the dough to the bowl. Cover the bowl with a plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for 1 hour.
3. Remove the dough from the bowl and flatten it. Using a rolling pin, roll it out into a 12-inch square. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate until it is between 50 and 60 degrees F.
4. Place a block of butter between sheets of parchment paper and, using a rolling pin, shape it into a 6-inch by 12-inch shape.
5. Place the butter in the center of the dough. Pull the parchment paper away from the butter. Wrap the dough around the butter, making sure that the dough completely covers the butter but does not overlap at the seam. Lightly pound the dough with a rolling pin to make the butter more extendable.
6. Roll the dough into about a 30-inch by 8-inch rectangle. Perform a double turn.
7. Rotate the dough and roll it again into 30-inch by 8-inch rectangle. Perform 1 single turn. Roll the dough into a 12-inch by 8-inch rectangle.
8. Wrap the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate it for 1 hour or overnight.
Main photo: The proper proofing of the croissant dough leads to a perfect result: fluffy and airy on the inside with brittle, crisp, butter-infused layers on the outside. Delicious! Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo
Thanksgiving is a wonderful occasion for getting together with family and friends to share food and make up for all of the lost time that we have been apart. The spirit of the first Thanksgiving in 1621 was the sharing of precious harvest and honoring the relationship between the Plymouth Colonists and native population — family and friends. That spirit of sharing is intact today, and though some of the ingredients at Thanksgiving feasts have changed, some have remained.
Giving thanks for abundance
In Japan, we have a similar annual event at around the same time, called Kinro-kansha-no-hi, which means “a day to offer great thanks to all the hard-working people (who have contributed to bring food to our table).” This holiday falls on Nov. 23 and originates in the ancient worldwide autumn ritual of thanking the gods who enabled an abundant harvest while also protecting the people throughout the year. Japanese people are obsessed with excellent food, but there is no universally served meal analogous to the American “turkey with all the ‘fixins.’ ” This is why:
November is the month in Japan during which nature brings many varied delicacies from the sea, the rivers, the fields and the mountains. And depending on where people live in Japan (recall that Japan is a long and narrow country extending from far north to far south surrounded by a long coast line), the delicacies of the season differ in each region.
My mother prepared Kinro-kansha-no-hi dishes using the quality seasonal ingredients available to her, and these were also my father’s favorites. Seafood included snow crab, amberjack, kinki (a small red fish a little like the scorpionfish in bouillabaisse) and fluke.
Along with the seafood, turnip, daikon, enoki mushrooms, chrysanthemum leaves and sweet potato never failed to appear at our table. Appetizer dishes such as eggplant and miso sauce also were served.
I always remember the sweet potatoes that were simmered in a lightly flavored Japanese dashi stock. My mother never changed the way she made her sweet potatoes, but every year we found them tasting better than before. It seemed like playing the piano; it gets better as you practice.
After moving to New York from Japan, I began to join my brother-in-law’s Thanksgiving dinner. Peter is a great cook. He roasts a large turkey to juicy and tender perfection, makes all the traditional side dishes and some wonderful pies to end the meal. Early on I suggested to Peter that I could contribute a real Japanese dish or two to add to his very organized Thanksgiving meal. But he has never shown an interest in my offer, so I stopped asking. It was for me to learn how to enjoy this very American event. And I do enjoy it!
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As you know, Japanese love to embrace American culture. Recently the traditional American Thanksgiving dinner began gradually invading my homeland. One popular Japanese website posts more than 80 American Thanksgiving recipes, including how to roast a turkey, how to make cranberry relish and how to bake pecan and pumpkin pies. The size of the turkey mentioned in such recipes is about 13 to 15 pounds. An oven in a Japanese home is one-third to one-half the size of an American oven, so this is the largest bird that can be accommodated. This also was the size of turkeys available in America in 1930s. Today, breeding techniques have increased the size of these birds up to 30 pounds.
Maybe because I never learned to prepare traditional American Thanksgiving dishes, around this time of the year I entertain family and friends as my mother did by preparing dishes from the local seasonal harvest.
The bounty of the autumn harvest and offering thanks to nature and the people who contributed to bringing the meal to our table is truly a celebration to be shared with our loved ones.
(From The Japanese Kitchen by Hiroko Shimbo)
When you prepare this dish for a guest who can not tolerate gluten, eliminate the shoyu and use all gluten free tamari. Make sure that it is 100% soybean tamari without wheat. Tamari makes the prepared marinating broth a bit darker in color.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 3 minutes
Refrigeration time: 2 to 3 hours
Yield: 8 servings
3 tablespoons canola oil
3 ounces salsify or gobo (burdock), julienned in 2 1/2-inch lengths
2 ounces carrot, julienned in 2 1/2-inch lengths
2 ounces parsnip, julienned in 2 1/2-inch lengths
Some kale (optional)
2 tablespoons mirin
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon shoyu (soy sauce)
1 teaspoon tamari
2 tablespoons white sesame seeds, toasted
1/3 teaspoon shichimi togarashi
- Heat a large skillet and add the canola oil. When the oil is heated, add the salsify or burdock, and cook, stirring, until it is well coated with oil. Add the carrot and parsnip and cook for 2 minutes, stirring.
- Add 3 tablespoons water, the kale (if using), mirin and sugar, and cook until almost all the liquid is absorbed, stirring. Add the soy sauce and tamari and cook for 30 seconds. Add the white sesame seeds and shichimi togarashi.
- Transfer the vegetables in a bowl and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate for later serving. The prepared kinpira tastes best 2 to 3 hours after preparation, or after overnight refrigeration.
Main photo: The Japanese holiday called Kinro-kansha-no-hi is a celebration of Thanksgiving for an abundant harvest and all the hard-working people who help bring food to the table. Delicacies featuring fish and vegetables are served at Kinro-kansha-no-hi. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo.
If you want to be savvy when you travel to Japan, know that there’s an unwritten code that applies to everyday routines. For example, wearing the wrong slippers outside your hotel will draw shocking stares. Here are six tips to help you save face while traveling around the country.
Bars: City vs. country
Don’t plan on having a before-dinner cocktail hour when you are staying at Japanese inns in the countryside, whether traditional or modern. Bars, if they exist, probably won’t be open until 8 p.m. or later — after the dinner hour. The inns don’t take notice of the usual Western predinner cocktail, and I’m not sure why. In major cities, however, hotel bars always open before dinner.
Also, Japanese country inns usually serve a fixed multicourse dinner featuring local ingredients. Often the first group of dishes — the appetizer — is served with an aperitif, such as plum wine. This is a “welcome” drink on the house. After the meal, you may find a bar open. It will be crowded with other guests. What they are doing is called a ‘nijikai,‘ a “second-round” party after dinner. Those who want more after-dinner fun gather in these usually dark and sometimes smoky bars for drinks, chats and, sometimes, alcohol-infused singing.
Wear your yukata, or kimono-style gown
A Japanese inn offers men and women a yukata, or a kimono-style gown. You’ll find it in your room. Today some Japanese inns may offer guests a colorful and sometimes nontraditional choice: a top and loose pants. Guests at the inn are encouraged to shed their street clothes and don a yukata. You can go everywhere in the hotel wearing one, including to the dining room and even outside for a stroll. The yukata is very comfortable. But after wearing one for dinner five consecutive nights at several inns, I tired of it.
At my sixth dinner, I wore my travel dinner “uniform”: a casual dress. It was fine, and I did not feel out of place. When you put on a yukata, there is one rule that you must never ignore: After putting your arms through the sleeves, always place the right-hand side of the fabric over your body with the left side of the yukata on top. Doing the opposite — right over left — is reserved for wrapping the dead before cremation.
Women tie the yukata’s obi belt that secures it over the waist line and men place the obi a bit lower, over the hip bone. Don’t worry if the obi seems too long; arrange it so the knot is in front for women, and at the back for men. And one word of caution: Don’t try to run anywhere when you’re wearing a yukata! You’ll expose your legs (and maybe more?) and you might trip, too.
Different slippers, different functions
At Japanese inns, you may be asked to take off your shoes when you enter. The inn may store your shoes at the front door. Instead, you’ll be given a pair of slippers, and they become your “in-house” shoes. At some inns, they’ll ask you to remove shoes only when you enter your own room. In that case, take off your shoes and leave them in the entry foyer of the room. Then use the in-room slippers you’ll find there.
However, if the room floor is covered in straw tatami mats, no slippers are worn; only bare feet or socks are acceptable. Most of the time, I ignore the in-room slippers and walk in my bare feet regardless of the floor covering, since it’s always impeccably clean.
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Don’t fold those train tickets!
Hold onto your tickets after boarding without bending or mutilating them, no matter what happens or how long your journey takes. It’s the system bequeathed by the British, who built the first railways in Japan.
You need your ticket when you enter the platform and the train and you’ll need it again when leaving the platform or station. At Japan Railway stations, you can buy a card, called Suica, and load money onto it to buy tickets, similar to a MetroCard in New York City. Put it in your wallet as the Japanese do. At the station, just touch your wallet at the ticket gate and, after it reads the built-in chip, the automatic gate will open.
When you leave, do the same thing. The fare is debited from the card, and the amount of cash remaining on your card will flash briefly at the exit gate. Cards can be reloaded with more funds, and they also may be used on non-Japan Railway trains and subways. You can even use the card for purchases at station kiosks and convenience stores. It is a marvelously efficient and easy-to-use system.
Get out your hankies
When you land in Japan, one of the first things you should do is buy a couple of inexpensive handkerchiefs. You can find simple handkerchiefs at convenience stores and more expensive ones at department stores, including international designer brands. When you eat at casual restaurants, they may serve a wet cloth, oshibori, but no paper or cloth napkins. The oshibori is too wet to put on your lap. The handkerchief is perfect for such duty.
For reasons that are not at all clear, soba and udon noodle shops do not supply napkins of any kind, so your handkerchief will be quite handy after slurping a bowl of the delicious noodles. A handkerchief is also very convenient for wiping away sweat if you’re out and about during the steamy, sweltering Japanese summer. One thing a handkerchief is never used for in Japan: to blow your nose.
Stay to the left side, mostly
For the most part, Japan adopted British norms of pedestrian and vehicle traffic flow. Therefore, we drive on the left and even walk on the left. When it comes to escalators, it is not so straightforward. In Tokyo, we stand on the left side and let the hurrying people pass us on the right. In Osaka, this becomes the opposite; stand on the right. A nationwide survey found that 57% of the population follows the Tokyo way, 13% the Osaka way, 9.2% depend on the local situation, and 12.3% simply do not let other people pass. So observe and do as the locals do in each part of Japan you are visiting.
Main photo: An aerial view of the Tokyo Dome at night. Credit: Copyright Lukas/Wikimedia Commons
It began at 3 a.m., a bursting, loud, rumbling noise that broke the rural silence and my sleep. It came and went continuously. I couldn’t take it anymore and got up to investigate.
I was staying at a Japanese resort hotel next to Lake Saroma on the northeastern coast of the island of Hokkaido. Little did I know that the jarring racket in this usually quiet town would lead me to discover one of the most memorable meals of my trip and one of the area’s most lucrative food industries: scallop farming.
Scallop farming starts with a perfect lake
Lake Saroma, the third largest lake in Japan, is adjacent to the Sea of Okhotsk, separated from the sea by a narrow sand spit. It was once a freshwater lake. Every year in April and May, snow melt from the mountains gushed into the 13 rivers that empty into the lake and flooded the area. Aside from destroying homes and villages, it also ruined the livelihood of the fishermen. To prevent future floods, locals dug out a bit of the sand strip to create a channel.
The narrow passage not only let the freshwater out to ease flooding, it also allowed seawater to come in, especially during high tide, leaving much of the lake brackish.
The passage frequently closed because of moving sand during winter storms, and locals worked to reopen the channel every year. People soon discovered other advantages to keeping the passage open.
New fish come to the lake and scallops, too
Fishermen could now easily catch salmon, herring and ocean trout that swam into the lake. Scallops and oysters that thrive in brackish water also found a home. In the 1950s, Japan studied the idea of introducing scallop farming at the lake, and it has been very successful. Today the lake has two permanent, man-made concrete passages to the sea.
When I checked into the hotel the day before, I found a pair of binoculars in the room and admired the calm, silent lake and the sea beyond. The next morning I rubbed my drowsy eyes and tried to reconcile two very different experiences: the prior day’s calm with the early morning noise. Soon I saw the source of the racket: boats moving at high speed on the lake. I noticed that the boats raced out, stopped for a while and then raced back to shore. They looked as if they were competing. I quickly dressed and went to the reception desk to find out what was happening. “They are scallop farmers at Sakaeura Fishery,” I was told. Without having breakfast, I dashed to the fishing port about a mile from the hotel to get a firsthand look at the operation.
Fishermen work day and night bringing in scallops
Fishing boats were still coming in and leaving the port every few minutes. I approached a senior fisherman, Kuniyoshi Ooi, who seemed to be overseeing the operation. He told me that 90 fishermen in this port are licensed to farm scallops. Each fisherman has his own boat, and each employs an average of 10 part-time workers — students from a nearby university — at this busy time of the year. Students are attracted by the good pay, $25 dollars an hour for work from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m., Ooi said. The workers, dressed in bright colored uniforms, work as if part of a conveyor belt operation inside a long shed, extending several hundred feet along the quay.
Baby scallops are retrieved from the sacks
Scallop farming in Lake Saroma is a sustainable, environmentally friendly business. The first year of scallop culture begins in May when the fishermen drop a rope with a knitted sack to collect natural scallop larvae in the lake. Scallop larvae in nature affix themselves to the grass in water. In farming, it’s different. The larvae attach to the ropes lowered by the fishermen.
In August, fishermen remove the ropes with larvae from the water, transfer them to a larger, roughly knitted square sack and drop it into the water again. By the following May, the scallops in the sack have grown to about 2 inches. The boats retrieve the sacks, 200 at a time, with 1-year old scallops, called chigai.
Mostly students work on the scallop harvest
It was the roar of the boats engaged in this process that woke me from my deep sleep. The part-time workers removed the scallops from each sack, cleaned and sorted them, and transferred them into large, blue plastic bins. After unloading the sacks for processing at the dock, the boat again sped back onto the lake to fetch more.
No words were exchanged among the workers; each silently and rapidly did his job — on the boat, on the pier and in the shed. Neither did anyone show any interest in the visitor watching them and snapping iPhone photos so early in the morning. I learned that the year-old scallops are then transported through the channels to the sea and remain there to mature for 3 years before being harvested and sent to market.
Scallops go back to the sea for three more years
According to Ooi, the scallop harvest from the lake is about 44,000 tons each year. Fresh, frozen and dried scallops from this port not only satisfy the market in Japan but are exported to China, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and the United States. The 90 fisherman are part of a cooperative that provides for all of their needs, including food and housing allowances, funds for boat upkeep and crews, and generous retirement benefits. Ooi said last year’s profit from the scallop harvest, after all expenses, was more than $250,000 for each member of the co-operative. Not a bad catch; these fishermen are not poor.
The sustainable side of scallop farming
In addition to their sustainable scallop farming operation, the Tokoro Fishery Association, of which the Sakaerura Fishery is a part, helps maintain the health of the local environment. In the past, cutting trees for opening the nearby land upstream from the lake for commercial development created problems at the fishery. Eroded sand and soil entered the lake and suffocated the fish. And the chemical contamination from the developed land degraded the water quality, which also affected the fishery.
The sustainable side of scallop farming
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The next day on my way north to Wakkanai, the northernmost city of Hokkaido, I stopped at a roadside restaurant to sample the “scallop ramen.” As I devoured the delicious dish, vivid memories of my early morning visit to the fishing port flashed back to my mind. No scallops ever tasted better than the ones in my ramen.
Main photo: The memorable scallop ramen at the roadside restaurant found on the way north from Lake Saroma to Wakkanai. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo