Feasting on Uni in Hokkaido
The kelp-rich seas of Hokkaido are known for producing the world's finest uni. DUNCAN FORGAN heads to remote reaches of the Japanese north to enjoy the sweet delicacy direct from the source. Photographed by AARON JOEL SANTOS.
Published on Jan 6, 2016
The haunting strains of a maritime lament drift through the damp air as we make our way onto the rocky beach at Bikuni Harbor to meet local fishermen. Our guide Kemanai is reciting a salty traditional work song, the words of which are inscribed on a giant stone monolith marking the entrance to the harbor. The calligraphy looks intricate but the stanzas are very simple—variations on "row the boat, and pull the net," according to our Japanese companions.
Bikuni Harbor on the Shakotan Peninsula.
It is a surreal start to the day, but Kemanai's soft and wistful tones make a fitting accompaniment to a gloomy summer's morning on the remote Shakotan Peninsula. As she concludes her performance, rain patters down on the Sea of Japan while the cries of gulls echo around an amphitheater created by giant looming cliffs.
We arrive at our destination but, while the water here in Bikuni remains placid, the white-crested waves further out offer hefty swells. There will be no fishing today.
If the enforced day-off is weighing on Koji Shirakawa, he is doing an admirable job of not letting on. The fisherman is the picture of relaxation as he fiddles with his knives, cleans his boat—named King of the Sea—and performs minor repairs on his equipment. In a small container by his feet, half a dozen sea urchins reflex their spiky tentacles in the saltwater, the blazing color of their meat reflecting Shirakawa-san's sunny demeanor.
Koji Shirakawa, an uni fisherman in Bikuni Harbor.
Kentucky touts its bourbon; inhabitants of Naples and Hanoi make lofty claims for their versions of pizza and pho. Shakotan Peninsula, however, is regarded as the mother lode of Japan's best uni—the edible reproductive organs of the sea urchin. The region's clear water with its profusion of tasty kombu (sea kelp), the central element of the sea urchin diet, is said to produce the sweetest uni in the country. In a seafood-obsessed nation with exacting standards of culinary excellence in even its most throwaway dishes, this fame is no trifling matter. Top-quality sea urchins from Hokkaido, home to two prized species of the oceanic gold, have been known to fetch prices as high as ¥40,000 (US$320) for 300 grams at auction in Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market.
"We are very lucky to be fishermen here in Shakotan," Shirakawa-san says. "Japanese people love uni, and the uni here has a very good reputation, not just in Hokkaido, but all over the country."
More than 1,000 kilometers north of Tokyo, the Shakotan Peninsula is a world removed. Two days earlier, we had stepped out of Shinagawa Station in the heart of the capital only to be enveloped in Tokyo's humid summer heat and perpetual wave of buttoned-up commuters. On the other hand, Hokkaido, though it makes up almost one quarter of Japan's landmass, bears the weight of just 5 percent of the population and heavy industry is practically non-existent.
As a result, its cold, clear seas and unspoiled interior burst with a bounty of delicious edibles from giant pink-hued crabs with claws thick with delicate flesh to intensely marbled beef raised from cattle fed on lush pasture grass and straw. "Hokkaido is oishii [delicious]," Kemanai tells us, coining an effective and accurate marketing slogan for her home prefecture in the process.
Lush terrain along the Shakotan Peninsula in southwestern Hokkaido.
Of all the prized Hokkaido foodstuffs exported, none are quite as of-the-moment as uni. My first encounter with it came five years ago in one of the better Japanese restaurants in Saigon. Urged by a friend to broaden my palate, I immediately fell for the sweet, buttery taste and gelatinous texture of uni. And thank goodness my taste buds were savvy enough to be on-trend, because since then uni has become one of the "It" ingredients of contemporary dining, making its presence felt on menus from San Francisco to Shanghai.
It starts here, with the few dozen fishermen who, if the weather cooperates, set out each day at 5 a.m. and for no more than three hours lean over the side of their boats looking through a large glass to search out uni in the just-few-meters-deep shallows. Prize spotted, they use a long rod with a three-pronged claw at the end to grab the little golf-ball-sized critters.
Shirakawa-san has never left Japan. But, as a fisherman with access to some of the best uni-harvesting grounds in the world, he is reaping the rewards of the rising global popularity of the diminutive delicacy. "The price of uni has risen six-fold over the last 10 years," he tells me, in the shelter of his processing shed, where paid helpers assist in the delicate procedure of removing the uni from the hard spiky shell of the sea urchins by spoon. "And uni from Shakotan sets the price in big fish markets like Tsukiji and Osaka's central wholesale fish market. Therefore it is an enviable position to be in."
This oceanic gold has been known to fetch up to ¥40,000 for 300 grams at Tsukiji market in Tokyo.
Despite his good fortune, Shirakawa sees clouds on the horizon. Rising sea temperatures have stunted the growth of kombu while deforestation has led to run-off, which has upset the delicate ecosystem.
"This year's harvest has been disappointing," he admits. However, the Shakotan fishermen, who have organized themselves into a cooperative about 45-strong, have been consulting with marine biologists for advice on promoting kombu growth. Solutions already considered include pouring nutrient-rich fermented tree bark and also fish residue back into the water to replenish kelp banks. "We are aware of the importance of sustainability and the environment, and that needs to be at the forefront of our strategy moving forward," he says, sounding more like he belongs in a Tokyo office tower than on the Shakotan shore.
Urchin straight from the sea.
Despite the relative paucity of this year's haul, there's no discernable shortage of uni in the restaurants we visit. Our first stop in Shakotan is Fukuzushi, a modest-looking sushi bar run by chef Kiichi Sasaki and his wife. As we sit at the wood-paneled counter, the friendly Sasaki serves up a beautifully balanced sushi banquet, the highlights of which include a generous hunk of delicate flounder and lightly seared otoro that demands virtually no mastication while disappearing in my mouth. The two pieces of uni sushi are also spectacular.
One is topped with murasaki uni, which has a mustard-green tint and a sweet, somewhat pine-tinged taste. The other uses bafun uni, which has an orange hue and a richer taste. There are six varieties of edible sea urchin in the waters of Japan but these are the only ones caught off Shakotan.
"The flavor of the uni can change within a matter of a few miles," Sasaki-san says. "Different landscapes—forests, grasslands, moors—provide different nutrients for the kelp."
With the weather taking a turn for the better post-repast, we are able to explore Shakotan's non-culinary highlights. A stroll to rugged Cape Kamui at the tip of the peninsula reveals the vivid blue waters that make the area famous. In fact, a scoop of soft-serve vanilla Hokkaido gelato with a dash of blue coloring is popular souvenir-photo fodder for visitors to the cape.
Further eccentricity can be found at the nearby port town of Yoichi. Famous as the home of a distillery used by Japanese whisky brand Nikka, the town is also the birthplace of astronaut Mamoru Mohri. The Yoichi Space Museum built in his honor is not overly useful for non-Japanese speakers, but the introductory 3-D video featuring a talking animated apple (another notable local food product) is winningly bonkers.
The Yoichi Space Museum.
There's not much in the way of high-end accommodation on Shakotan Peninsula, but Minshuku Ginrinkaku, a Japanese-style bed-and-breakfast run by a local fisherman and his family, is an atmospheric bolthole by the ocean. I end my day drinking cold sake and eating yet more delicious seafood with uni as the centerpiece in my tatami-mat room.
Although much smaller than Hokkaido's capital, Sapporo, the mid-sized town of Otaru is positively bustling compared to somnolent Shakotan. One of the prefecture's main tourist towns, visitors come here to promenade along the canal, shop in converted old warehouses and to view the city and Ishikari Bay from the heights of 532-meter-high Mount Tengu. They also come to eat on Sushiya-dori (literally "Sushi-shop Street"), which is lined with restaurants, with plastic sushi platters affixed with price tags giving passing punters a handy guide to the offerings inside.
Along the town's canal.
Later that day, we will have a flawless but expensive dinner at the upscale Masazushi, one of the town's bestknown sushi bars. But less formal and more enjoyable is lunch at Otaru Tatsumi. Here, head chef Shinya Takami is a jovial presence in the long kitchen, showing off his US$3,000 sushi knife and poking fun at the idea of opening a sushi restaurant in Sapporo. "Why would I want to do that?" he says. "It is at least 20 kilometers from the sea."
Although his demeanor is light-hearted, his food signals serious culinary intent. An uni-don with ikura (salmon eggs) is decadent, buttery perfection with the creamy uni contrasting with the crisper tones of mint, wasabi and cucumber. Even better—if that's even possible—is the uni chawanmushi (egg custard). I had previously thought of chawanmushi as, at best, a strange novelty afterthought. Takami's version, however, is perfectly chilled with subtle hints of dashi and soy. Bafun uni, a cherry tomato and fresh shrimp nudge the dish into the stratosphere.
At Otaru Tatsumi, plump ikura (salmon roe) cushions bafun uni and murasaki uni, the two types of urchin caught off the Shakotan Peninsula.
Just as heavenly are my digs at the palatial Otaru Ryotei Kuramure, a luxurious ryokan with nostalgic rooms decorated with Japanese and Chinese antiques. An onsen next to the babbling Asari River makes the perfect place to sweat out the food excesses of the day.
In the case of uni, it is hard to get too much of a good thing. After three days of unctuous decadence, however, I'm tempted to try something different for my final Hokkaido meal. No, don't worry, uni is still on the menu. But whereas most of the restaurants on the island like to keep things simple, the uni dishes at Uni Murakami, in Hakodate in the far south, are notable for their flair. Run by a family that owns one of Hokkaido's most respected uni processing companies, this is one of the restaurant's two branches (the other is in Sapporo).
Squid at the Hakodate fish market.
A stone's throw from the fish market, merging old traditions and new, the cool, contemporary Hakodate location pitches me curveball after delicious curveball. Think uni tempura and uni gratin.
A lively place with a tremendous selection of bars, especially in the Goryokaku area where venues such as Craft Beer Bar Jun offer a friendly welcome and some great locally brewed beers, Hakodate makes a fine place to sign off from an uni expedition. As the night continues, talk turns to karaoke, another of Japan's gifts to the world. It is a predictable development. I've already seen evidence that extended exposure to Hokkaido's fresh seafood has a tendency to move one to song.
Minshuku Ginrinkaku 9-7 Irikacho, Shakotan-cho, Shakotan-gun; +81 135 45 6323.
Otaru Ryotei Kuramure 2-685 Asarigawa-onsen, Otaru-shi; +81 134 51 5151.
RESTAURANTS + BARS
Craft Beer Bar Jun 33-7 Hon-cho, Hakodate-shi; +81 138 32 3370.
Fukuzushi 102 Aza Funama, Oaza Bikuni-cho, Shakotan-cho, Shakotan-gun; +81 135 44 2073.
Hakodate Beer Hall 14-12 Suehiro-cho, Hakodate-shi; +81 138 27 1010.
Otaru Masazushi 1-1-1 Hanazono, Otaru-shi; +81 134 23 0011.
Otaru Tatsumi 1-1-6 Hanazono, Otaru-shi; +81 134 25 5963.
Uni Murakami 1F, 22-1 Otemachi, Hakodate-shi; +81 138 26 8821.