[blog]* Day 19 - a rather lonely and forlorn day in Kushiro, a city with a better past. Also: katte-don and robata-yaki. (Warning - discusses whale meat.)
In the morning, I discovered a ladybug in my room.
Anyway, moving on.
Having spent the night in Abashiri, I took the train down south to Kushiro, on the south-eastern coast of Hokkaido. The JR Senmo line, thankfully, runs directly between the two cities, and I arrived a mere three and a half hours later.
The Senmo line first runs east along the coast for about 30km before turning at the base of Mt. Shari, and so offers some splendid views of the northern Hokkaido coast.
As Abashiri was based around the mouth of Abashiri River, so Kushiro has been built around Kushiro River, with roots tracing back to the 17th century; until the last few decades it has thrived as a successful port and fishing city.
Before delving a little further into that, though... first, lunch.
Kushiro's local fresh produce market. At first glance, a rather nondescript affair...
However! A few aisles in, a number of seafood stalls clustered around a central seating area. Instead of whole fish, though, these stalls were instead selling small portions of pre-cut sashimi (and other things - pickles, etc.) in ~¥300 (£2.30 / $3.50) portions.
The one and only in Japan, this is the selling place of Kushiro's katte-don.
Hmm, perhaps a little explanation is required. You first buy a plain bowl of sushi rice, above...
Buy little portions of seafood from the surrounding vendors...
They'll load up your selection onto your bowl for you...
And wow, was it gorgeous. I know everyone's favourite line these days is "Tsukiji, Tsukiji" - and that's great, but you do have to remember that a significant portion of domestic seafood does in fact come from Hokkaido - squid, sanma (pike) and sea urchin amongst others, thanks to the colder climate up north.
All these, of course, have to travel by train down to Tokyo before it's sorted, sold, and somehow dished (taking, maybe, 24 hours at least?) onto your "market fresh" plate.
On the other hand, if you know what to eat, you can cut your fish transit time from all that to under, say, three hours from when it arrives in fresh by boat in the local port, gets sliced up, and served.
It really makes a difference. The sanma, for example, gives a crisp, firm texture while retaining a heavenly, melt-in-your-mouth butteriness, with just a tiny hint of sharp flavour to it. Sanma isn't actually even served, usually, as sashimi (although it's very common grilled, for breakfast) because it has to be very, very fresh for it to work - as you have it here.
Incidentally, while the katte-don mechanism (I suppose there's no other word for it) involves an overall collaboration between the various stall vendors, that doesn't mean they're not all distinctly... shark-like. Be careful you don't lose an arm while they're vying for your business.
I only mentioned it in passing above, but the red sashimi above is, of course, kujira or whale sashimi. Ethics of whalemeat aside, what does it actually taste like?
Hmm. If anything, it tastes bloody, a little like raw steak. That isn't, of course, really so surprising - whales are mammals, after all, and resemble cows more than fish. It's obviously been frozen, which detracts as expected from both texture and taste, and honestly isn't anything special from a foodie point of view. On the other hand, since you're here, you may as well try it if you're that-way-inclined.
Just make sure not to bring any of your WWF friends...
The rest of the market is typical of most markets in Japan: i.e. gorgeous or slightly shocking, depending on your point of view. I've always loved seeing seafood like this: numerous varieties, raw, chaotically arranged at each stall - not behind some glass case, mind - all looking delicious and so fresh it might almost be alive.
Well, at least it's not like in Hong Kong, where they halve carp lengthwise so you can still see their teeny fish-hearts beating. That's just a little too much, even for me. Ick.
There were some Important People going around the market that day, for whatever reason, film crew and all:
Hoya, on the left (sea pineapple - more later)
In what would become the beginning of a little habit, I also tried some of the soft-serve ice cream they had, in a little corner of the market. As with most of the Hokkaido region Kushiro is also heavily involved in farming and agriculture, and this ice cream was advertised as coming direct from one of the farming co-operatives in the area:
Wasn't it beautiful? The cone is one of those sorry, pre-made ones, but that aside, it was delightful: rich and creamy, milky, silky smooth, fresh-tasting, and not too sweet.
My only complaint is that, if anything, it's a little soft - proof of it being a home-made affair rather than of the commercially-bought variety, though, so I guess that can be forgiven. But really, quite possibly some of the best ice cream I've ever had.
Anyway, now fed and happy, I proceeded towards the river, which largely runs down the centre of the city.
I knew beforehand that Kushiro is relatively big compared to, say, Wakkanai or Abashiri - as befitting of its population of just under 200,000 - but what I didn't realise, until I was here, was how desolate, almost, the city had become.
As I mentioned in passing a little earlier, Kushiro was historically a prosperous, successful city, being situated favourably both for its burgeoning fishing industry and for its port, which handled goods both coming in from and supplying cities in the region.
In recent decades, though, Kushiro has seen a simultaneous decline in both, and since the 1980's its population has fallen by roughly one-sixth. In areas there were barely any cars on the streets at all - which might be due in part, of course, to it being a public holiday. But that hardly accounts for the rust and shuttered store fronts, blanketing the city like a plague.
Not complicated at all
The EGG building
Earlier, at the station, I had collared one of the old grandpa-types manning one of the local hotel booking services. They're not actually supposed to give out tourist advice, but he had nothing else to do and seemed happy enough to have someone to talk to.
When I asked him what there was to see in Kushiro, though, he looked almost embarrassed. Eventually - very reluctantly - "There's always the MOO and EGG buildings, near the riverside."
MOO and EGG, hmm.
The EGG building is, surprisingly enough, a little greenhouse.
And... that's all there is to say about it, really. There's a few trees and flowers of the fairly standard variety, and it's split into two levels, with a few benches and birdsong projecting, curiously enough, from speakers mounted around the enclosure. As a public space it's an interesting... experiment, but it's tiny - it's hard to tell from the photos, but you can cut from one side to the other in about five seconds, and it really is, somehow, a little underwhelming.
It's a theme I'd run into again and again throughout the day - it's like someone had a really good idea, but just couldn't find the money or bureaucratic willpower to carry it through properly. It's a little sad, actually.
The EGG building leads out onto a long riverwalk. There were a few visitors (a rare tour from China, I was told) milling about, and some older folk fishing patiently on the side, but little else of note.
Also some bronze statues. I don't really see them elsewhere in Japan, so much, but they seem to be a bit of a regional obsession, here in Hokkaido. This one's a little creepy, though.
This crow was picking at an unfortunate fish:
Apparently it didn't like my company. Hmph.
This ship had apparently been abandoned on the riverside - left to rust, with weeds were growing on top of it.
Crossing the bridge
There's not much on this side of the river, either, which (with some exceptions) is mostly residential.
In perhaps a slightly twisted way, I actually rather enjoyed the quiet sense of nothingness in Kushiro. And its sobering decline (?) aside - there were some parts which really were quite beautiful.
At this point I turned back towards the river, continuing along the other side.
The EGG building (again)
I also had the good fortune to run into this little spectacle:
Don't fight, boys...
A fish buffet (!) courtesy of this gentleman:
A fisherman, he feeds his unsold stock every evening to the birds. I thought that was so incredibly sweet.
Also, a starfish:
Has anyone ever wondered why we don't eat starfish, by the way? They look edible enough to me...
(I threw the starfish back in the water after I found it, by the way. It didn't float back up, so I guess that meant it was OK.)
I also saw this:
It looks like a sheet of ice formed in the stratosphere, which due to the angle of the sun refracted the light like a rainbow... or something like that? I couldn't find the phenomenon described anywhere, though. Drop a line in the comments if you know what it's called.
I also saw this little commotion:
Apparently, they were going to be filming a scene for a drama and someone was going to jump off the bridge. A little horde of students had gathered around to watch...
Even pops was watching
In any case, not my concern. I had, by now, circled back to the MOO building, and so I finally decided to (gathered enough courage to) enter and investigate.
From the outside...
And the inside.
It's... in line with the rest of Kushiro, perhaps... a little underwhelming, somehow. It's clearly meant to be a visitors' centre of sorts, with various souvenir shops and stalls selling local specialities all in one place. But half the building was empty, and even of the stalls that were there, half were closed.
The second floor has an "information centre" (not staffed - just display cases and such, featuring local handiworks like the wood carvings above) and above that, a small food court. But also, tucked away in a stairwell between the two, this little gem:
Before anyone goes on about animal cruelty, I'd like to point out how much better this probably is, compared to the algae-filled, overcrowded, nets-dipping-in-every-half-hour environment of your local supermarket tank.
Well, it's not like it's Japan only. Apparently the American version was inspired by an early episode of Hell's Kitchen featuring a lobster claw machine. Ooh, I want one...
I had actually assumed it to be a relatively new undertaking and was willing to believe that it would pick up in a few years, but it turns out that the place was built in 1989. In a way... I don't know. It seems to make it that much worse, knowing that in all likelihood - if it's been like this, after 20 years - it'll probably only continue, in this half-occupied, half-hearted state, until circumstances wear it to a close.
In any case, when I came back out, the sun had just gone down. It really did, actually, make for a splendid view...
EGG building (again)
But more to the point, dinner.
Looks really warm...
I was here to try the "Kushiro speciality" of robata-yaki. "Robata" literally means hearth, or fireside, and in robata-yaki fresh, unseasoned seafood is laid over a charcoal fire, and grilled.
The simplicity is - in a strange manner, perhaps - the draw of robata-yaki: the minimalist method of "preparation" is supposed to be able to bring out the true, uninhibited flavour of fresh, grilled seafood.
Historically a fishing city, robata-yaki is said to derive from the local custom of having fishermen selling plain, grilled seafood at stalls at its matsuri, or Japanese festivals.
A number of robata-yaki restaurants - both where the chef cooks for you, or where the grill is set into the table in front of you DIY-style - operate in Kushiro. I also saw a small parade of stalls outside the MOO building serving robata-yaki but, at the time (which probably tells you how this is going to end) I wanted the opportunity to try grilling for myself.
Incidentally, this is the only point of my trip where I felt pressured enough to order a drink. Somehow I ended up with their house sake...
Pre-heating the charcoal
Charcoal - sourced locally, I'm told - is preheated in their steel fireplace, then transferred over to deep, steel pits set in the tables. A metal grill holds the food a few inches or so above the fire.
As for the food itself:
On the server's recommendation I had ordered one of their sets, which came with a bowl of (unexpectedly extravagant) ikura-don, miso soup, and a variety of seafood, meat and vegetables for grilling. The focus of the set was the hokke, which was halved and grilled:
I had to look hokke up - it refers to the Okhotsk Atka mackerel, which is a local speciality. It's a fish with a very high oil content - not suitable for sashimi, but making it ideal for grilling.
It's a white- (yellow-ish?) fleshed fish, a little harsh in texture and with an intense, fishy, almost oily taste. It's certainly interesting, but I don't think it'd be to everyone's liking.
So long, it doesn't fit in the photo
I was still reminiscing over the sanma from earlier - which, of course, I knew was both local and in season - and decided to order that extra. Grilled sanma is a staple Japanese home-cooking dish, of course, similar in taste to grilled trout.
I have to say I was disappointed. I'm quite taken with the idea of robata-yaki, itself - taking the ingredients back to their basics, drawing out their essences - in a way, it's quite distinctly Japanese. But with a preparation like this, the freshness of the ingredients has to be everything - and while it was passable, it wasn't mind-blowingly good - as it had been in Wakkanai, or even earlier in the day at the local market.
The fault partly lies with me: I think to do it justice, robata-yaki - like sushi - really has to be tried someplace properly upscale. If I'd had the time, I would have loved to come back to Kushiro to try robata-yaki again, properly.
In the event, I'd had enough of Kushiro for now, and decided to call it quits for today.
Results: Day 19
The List: #26 - katte-don / #27 - robata-yaki
I really don't know what to think about Kushiro. It's broken, in so many ways - has all but given up on tourism - there's nothing special to see, or do. But still, in spite of all that... I was really, really fond of my time there, in a strange sort of way.
Perhaps it was the fact that there was nothing to do - the pace of life is so different to the rest of Japan, where everyone's always rushing somewhere, doing something; in Kushiro, it's hardly possible to rush, because there's no place to rush to.
Well, still, I can't very well recommend a place on the virtue of brokenness alone. On the other hand the katte-don is gorgeous beyond description, and I think robata-yaki could (possibly?) be promising depending on source. And somehow, in an odd way, I'd really like to see this city rise up again.
So... if you have the time, and need a little bit of change, and you're feeling adventurous... drop by. I can promise you that there'll probably be no other foreign tourists here, at least.
Have you been to Kushiro? What do you think? What's your opinion on whaling, and whale meat? If you could pick the ingredients for your dream katte-don, what would you choose? Send in an e-mail, comment below, or follow me on Twitter / twitter.com/foodjapan