Articles in Travel
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
Summer may have ended, but I’m not stowing away my suitcase just yet. It’s time, once again, to hit the road and check out the nation’s fall food festivals. From celebrations dedicated to cranberries, garlic and pears to events honoring fried chicken and chowders, I’m looking forward to sampling scores of local specialties. Why not grab that overnight bag and head out to explore some of the best American food festivals, too?
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Main photo: Pumpkins and gourds on display at the Circleville Pumpkin Show in Circleville, Ohio. Credit: Copyright 2015 courtesy of Circleville Pumpkin Show
As the 72nd Venice Film Festival opens in September, a platoon of celebrities are gracing the city. Would you fancy a drink with stars such as Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci, Robert Pattinson, famous actresses such as Bérénice Bejo, Jennifer Jason Leigh or the legendary director Brian De Palma? How about a glass of Krug Grand Cuvée with Johnny Depp? That could happen after the premiere of “Black Mass,” the true story of the infamous murderer and mob boss Whitey Bulger.
Where? At the exclusive PG’s Restaurant, the culinary sanctuary belonging to the Design Hotel Palazzina G. It’s Philip Stark’s celebrity-filled — and nearly impossible to find — hotel in Venice.
To get there, reach San Samuele Piazza, then head out on an adventure to a small calle. Your destination is Ramo Grassi 3248, but you won’t find a name or a sign — just look for the bull. He’s fiercely looking at you from above an anonymous door. That’s the entrance.
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The aim of the festival is to raise awareness and promote the various aspects of international cinema as art, entertainment and industry. In the past edition of the festival, 7,300 journalists and critics were accredited. This year more than 100 new films are expected to be screened. There will also be retrospectives and tributes to major figures to pay tribute to and help further an understanding of the history of cinema.
But you don’t have to be a celebrity or critic to experience the creativity of PG’s 28-year-old chef Matteo Panfilio, who was born in the province of Alessandria, where he studied, was nurtured and inspired by his family’s great love for cooking. In 2006, upon completing his studies, he left for London, where he had the opportunity to work with starred chefs such as Alberico Penati, Tristan Mason and Tristan Welch. Back to Alessandria, he opened his own restaurant La Locanda dei Narcisi. Matteo arrived at the PG’s in October 2014.
His style is inspired and guided by great Italian, French and Japanese cuisines, with meticulously prepared dishes and low-temperature, slow cooking methods.
Fish and sweets
Fish reigns here. There is capesante (scallops with beetroot jelly, cream of licorice and coffee powder) baccalà (creamed salt cod, caramelized red onions and polenta chips) Champagne risotto (with sea urchins and prawns tartare) tuna fillet (with pistachio crust, goat cheese and a merlot reduction).
These are just some of the offerings on the young chef’s menu, and that doesn’t even include what Matteo is really passionate about: sweet delights like babà (wild berries, Champagne sabayon) or sorbetto all’albicocca (creamy saffron, anisette and white peach sorbet).
Two ways to learn
Panfilio loves to share his passion by offering two unforgettable cooking lessons: “Eat & Learn” and “Culinary Experience.”
During “Eat & Learn,” Matteo will reveal secrets and provide explanations, putting on a real show of creativity in which you will plunge into the art of Italian cooking by learning and preparing outstanding dishes.
The cooking demonstration and dinner last approximately 2 hours. It costs €100 (approximately $113) and includes a gift: a special book from the chef. (The classes must be paid in euros.)
To market with the chef
If you choose the “Culinary Experience,” you will venture with Matteo in a three-hour morning tour through the aromas of the Mercato di Rialto, the market that has always been the commercial heart of Venice. In its two buildings overlooking the Grand Canal, the Campo de la Pescaria (fish) and the Erberia (fruits and vegetables), you can find the best bargains in action seeing the skilled tradesmen.
Before returning, you will stop at one (or two…) traditional osteria (wine bars) for a typically Venetian ritual: a glass (or two … ) of wine and some traditional small appetizers called cecchetti. In the evening, you are expected at the beautiful 7-meter long kitchen counter for a 3-hour cooking lesson. There you will prepare, under Matteo’s guidance, a four-course tasting dinner using the ingredients bought at the market. The cost is €480 (approximately $546) for two people, €200 (approximately $227) for each additional person.
PG’s Restaurant is definitely a straordinaria life experience.
A culinary sanctuary
Main photo: The “Eat & Learn” experience with Chef Matteo Panfilio. Credit: Copyright 2014 Claudio Sabatino
New York City is a prime destination for gastro-tourism. It is home to some of the greatest chefs, restaurants and culinary schools in the country. The variety, the deliciousness, the sheer volume of good food here is incredible.
There are more than 24,000 restaurants in New York City, according to the Department of Health. While the quantity is impressive, the quality is as well. I’m not sure if it’s something in the water, or if cooks in New York City are just better, but you might be hard-pressed to find a bad meal in this town.
In the spirit of pursuing good food in unconventional ways, here are 16 street eats that capture the diversity and scope of NYC cart food. I invite you to transcend the halal cart and the hot dog, and join me for homemade tamales, fresh-cut durian, hibiscus doughnuts, and yes, a hot buttered lobster roll.
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Main photo: The Biryani cart offers flavor-packed kati rolls. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvak
In a recent stroke of luck, I was able to join my parents on a last-minute trip to Laos. Naturally, the first thing on my mind was: What will the food be like? Never having encountered Lao cuisine in the United States, I had no idea what to expect. So my palate was piqued when we arrived in Luang Prabang, the country’s former northern capital at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.
A foodie adventure
Once settled in we immediately sought out some local food and stumbled across a restaurant off the main road, named Bamboo Tree. Lured by the enticing scents of coconut and lemongrass and by a menu on which we recognized nothing — always a good indicator of foodie adventure — we sat down. The menu told of the restaurant’s Lao chef and owner Linda Moukdavanh Rattana, who was raised cooking in her family’s Lao restaurant and whose favorite dish was something called “Secret Soup,” which combined classic local ingredients. Ordering it was a no-brainer.
Coconut milk and chilies
The soup arrived with a handsome buttery orange color that foretold of coconut milk and chilies, with green hints of basil and kaffir lime leaves. One slurp later I was in gastronomic exotica, floating through a savory journey of creamy coconut offset by tangy lemongrass, spicy ginger, citric lime, aromatic basil and kicking chili heat, rounded out by a rich harvest of vegetables. Somewhat to my culinary embarrassment, I am not usually a fan of coconut- and chili-based food — Thai, mostly — since I tend to find it too cloyingly sweet, spicy or oily. But this soup opened my taste buds to the complex yet comforting flavors these ingredients can have when plucked fresh and combined in a meticulous way that allows each subtle flavor to come forth. If this was Lao food, I needed to learn more. When I heard Linda offered cooking classes, I signed up.
Three key ingredients
As our class visited the local market for ingredients and choose dishes to cook (obviously my vote was for Secret Soup), I took my culinary questions to the source. According to Linda, the three key flavors of Lao cooking are galangal, lemongrass and kaffir lime. Although these ingredients also appear in Thai and other Southeast Asian food, Linda affirmed they form the triumvirate base of Lao cuisine.
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Among these ingredients I became particularly fascinated by galangal, which I had never seen before, and coconut milk, which I usually find too overpowering. Linda informed us that while related to ginger, galangal is much harder in texture and has more earthy and citrus flavors — so the two should never be substituted. As for the fresh coconut milk, it is easily found in Laos and its freshness is crucial for creating a dish that isn’t too creamy or sweet. But where fresh milk is hard to come by (as in the United States), one can substitute pure canned milk that avoids sweeteners, emulsifiers and other additives. Either way, adding coconut milk at both the beginning and end of the cooking process is key to balancing the chilies’ heat without veering toward overly sweet.
As with many Lao dishes, Secret Soup embodies a larger theme of Lao cuisine: years of mutual culinary influence with neighboring countries. For example, Laos and northeastern Thailand (Isan) were once part of the same country, leading to a shared culinary heritage. The Secret Soup contains items typically associated with Thai food, such as coconut milk and chilies, while also emphasizing the complex umami flavors, aromatic fresh herbs and spicy edge apparent in both Lao and Thai dishes. Yet the soup also displays typical Lao spicy-sour-bitter notes — from the blend of galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime and chili — instead of classic Thai sweet-sour flavors. Other Lao dishes might delicately indicate that the Lao originally migrated from China, carrying Chinese techniques with them, and many foods in the Laotian capital Vientaine still carry the legacy of French Indochina.
Authentic Lao cuisine
These similarities, according to Linda, often make it difficult to identify “authentic Lao” cuisine. In fact, the close correlations between Thai and Lao food are the reason for the seeming lack of Lao restaurants in the United States. Many Lao restaurants are established under the guise of Thai, since the latter have achieved more mainstream popularity. But a number of Thai places can actually be identified as Lao through traditional Lao dishes such as sticky rice — the staple food of the Lao — papaya salad, fermented fish paste, or others, such as Secret Soup, based on the three key Lao ingredients. Ultimately, Secret Soup was not only my first taste of Laos — it also gradually expressed the country’s elaborate history of culinary exchange, appropriately lending the dish’s title new meaning. Just as I pass on the recipe from Linda here, you can carry on the tradition by translating the culinary complexities of Laos to your own dinner table.
Bamboo Tree Secret Soup
5 stalks lemongrass
10 slices galangal
1 handful each of shallots, onions and garlic, sliced
2 tablespoons sunflower or soybean oil
5 kaffir lime leaves
3/4 pound of chicken filet, sliced
2 cups coconut milk, separated
1 to 2 teaspoons chili paste, amount to taste
1 handful mushrooms, jelly, oyster, maitake or combination
1/4 handful potato, cubed
1/4 handful green beans or long beans
1/4 handful eggplants, cubed
3 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons soybean paste
1 teaspoon chili powder
Red chilies, to taste, crushed
2 cups water
5 basil leaves
3 tablespoons lime juice (kaffir or regular)
Extra coconut milk (optional)
1. Finely chop lemongrass, galangal, shallots, onion and garlic.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil over high heat in wok, then stir-fry lemongrass, galangal, shallots, onion, garlic and kaffir lime leaves until golden brown.
3. Add chicken, stirring over high heat. Stir in 1 cup coconut milk and the chili paste, cooking for a couple minutes.
4. Stir in the other ingredients, finishing with the rest of the coconut milk and the water. Cook for 10 minutes.
5. Just before serving, add the basil leaves and lime juice, and more coconut milk, if preferred.
- Galangal, kaffir lime and lemongrass can be ordered online or found in specialty Asian markets. Do not substitute for any of these ingredients as they are crucial to the soup’s flavor — but they’re also just for flavor, so don’t eat them!
- For the chicken, I would suggest sticking with white meat, which works very well.
- Add the rest of the coconut milk, and the water, gradually — you can use less than the recipe calls for, depending on how much of the coconut flavor you prefer. But also make sure to taste the final result after everything cooks, since you may end up wanting to add in that extra coconut milk before serving.
- If your wok isn’t large enough for all of the ingredients, transfer to a pot on high heat after the first cup of coconut milk and the chili paste are added.
Main photo: The buttery orange broth of Secret Soup hides a plethora of fresh vegetables alongside lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime and chicken. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rose Winer
Just as artists work with paints and canvas or clay, chefs create masterpieces with everything from carrots to crayfish. But whereas painters and sculptors have museums to display their creations, most chefs only have plates; their “displays” are limited to the short stretch during which a diner admires their meal before digging in. Endang Supriatna may have found the perfect solution, however. He’s taken his art to sea.
The hallmark of garde-manger
I met Supriatna as an invited guest on a week-long cruise to Alaska aboard the Carnival Legend. Working with some of the same items that are probably sitting in your kitchen, he turns ordinary edibles into eye-catchers; you could say he has all the ingredients for a dream job. “I am the only culinary artist on board, and I carve vegetables and fruits and create ice carvings from huge blocks of ice. Sometimes I create paintings for special occasions,” Supriatna said in an e-mail interview.
Working magic on melons
For the average home cook, cutting watermelon can be a messy chore. But Supriatna does not see the awkward fruit you and I see. He sees potential.
Supriatna carves two dozen or so watermelons on every week-long cruise. His carvings vary in shape and size, just like his juicy, circular canvases. From salty sea creatures to detailed portraits, the results often decorate the ship’s Lido Restaurant. It’s common to see cruisers struggling to balance a loaded plate in one hand and a camera in another as they attempt to snap photos of the sculpted spheres.
You can see Supriatna at work firsthand during a weekly demonstration at The Golden Fleece Steakhouse. Silently and swiftly, he creates melon magic in less than an hour. There is thought and precision with each graceful cut, but Supriatna has a knack for making his skill look effortless. What might be even more impressive, however, is his ability to create in a wide variety of mediums. Though I saw more watermelons than anything else, every now and then a new showpiece would pop up.
Red onions and radishes cut to create colorful blooms, then perfectly arranged in a prickly pineapple vase: Supriatna’s edible bouquet decorated the buffet area surrounding the chocolate fountain on our last day at sea. You might have mistaken the arrangement for real flowers, especially since it sat somewhat in the shadow of a glistening ice sculpture, which also happened to be Supriatna’s handiwork.
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As an adult, Supriatna has worked hard to develop his craft, but he says he had inspiration to create from an early age.
“My father is an architect, and (he) influenced and motivated me when it comes to carving and art,” Supriatna said. “Besides creating/designing houses, he often does artwork, such as sketches, paintings, drawings and wood carvings. … I’d always watch and try to learn from him.”
From the visual to the culinary arts
In fact, Supriatna pursued an art degree in college. After graduation, he worked in several hotels as an artist. It was there that food became part of the plan. “I became more interested in seeing how the chefs worked to create beautiful and delicious dishes. To me, that’s a form of art,” he said.
So off to culinary school he went. He graduated one of the top three in his class, and in 2000 he set sail with Carnival Cruise Lines as an ice carver, fulfilling his dream of seeing other parts of the world in the process.
“I’ve also gotten the opportunity to see real works of art from some of my favorite maestros, like Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Picasso and Dali,” Supriatna said.
Cooking at sea and at home
When he’s not wowing cruisers with his carvings, Supriatna also cooks. Responsible for cold-food production and presentation on board the ship, he has nearly a dozen chefs working under his supervision.
His work schedule is demanding. Supriatna typically spends six months at sea before getting two months at home in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia, with his wife and two sons.
“At home I give command of the kitchen to my wife, but once a week I’ll cook for them. I usually make my special mushroom and shrimp risotto, which they love,” Supriatna said. “And yes, sometimes I’ll still do carvings, but I try to limit it to special events only.”
Main photo: A sample of Supriatna’s work. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann
Classic meets contemporary at the 56th Biennale di Venezia. This year’s theme is “All the World’s Futures,” and one chef in Venice has taken that inspiration to create a spectacular menu.
The international art exhibition, which runs until Nov. 22, takes place in the Giardini and Arsenale venues and other locations throughout the historic city, making a marvelous encounter between history and avant-garde, where classic meets contemporary art.
In the spirit of this convergence, Chef Luca Veritti created an original menu for the magnificent Met Restaurant at the Metropole Hotel in Venice.
The spectacular menu, called “Tra’Contemporary Cuisine,” combines two philosophies — the traditional Italian and Veneto recipes and a futuristic style through which the same recipes are elaborated and proposed in a creative way.
While different from the current gastronomic trends, the reason for such an original choice lies in the intention of giving value to the regional products — often neglected on behalf of food from faraway countries — elaborated with exotic styles and cuisines.
Hors d’oeuvres the traditional way
A perfect example are the capesante gratinate, a typical hors d’oeuvres in the Veneto tradition, consisting of baked scallops covered with bread crumbs, aromatized with garlic, parsley, salt and pepper.
A delicate update
In the contemporary version “à la Oriente,” the capesante are breaded and cooked with coconut rapé and served with a delicate beetroot cream, hints of passion fruit and a wafer of bread flavored with parsley and garlic.
Home cooking from Carnia
Another traditional home-cooking dish from Carnia: Macaròns di còce is made with pumpkin gnocchi prepared by hand, using a spoon, which gives them their shape and weight, then served with melted butter, sage leaves and some grated smoked ricotta cheese from Friuli.
An innovative update
This traditional recipe is transformed into a cream of pumpkin and ricotta cheese with a hint of sage. The smoked trout with mountain herbs enriches the dish, which is finished with a morchia sauce — a typical sauce of Friuli prepared with melted butter and cornmeal.
Trendy and traditional
The high quality of the raw materials will be the centerpiece of the Tra’Contemporary Cuisine: The lamb comes from the Alpago; the vegetables from the Venetian island of Sant’Erasmo; and the fish from Rialto market in Venice. Speaking of fish, in Luca’s menu the classic Venetian baccalà gets a trendy look. The stockfish cooked at a low temperature is accompanied by a rosemary-flavored olive oil foam. A delicate Bronte pistachio sauce and air of Aperol Spritz add a further touch of refinement.
Chocolate gets an update
Couldn’t chocolate get a “futuristic” treatment? Veritti designed a “chocolate revisited,” in which a heart of passion fruit mousse enriches a sphere of plain chocolate sprinkled with white chocolate cream flavored with alchermes. Chocolate with savory caramel and Madagascar bourbon vanilla crumble complete the dish.
Veritti’s experiment could be a great culinary experience for a couple who can share dishes, while indulging in the past and adventuring into the future.
Main photo: Classic Venetian baccalà gets a trendy look from Chef Luca Verriti. Credit: Copyright 2014 Daniele Nalesso
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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