Climate and currents combined against self-indulgence


This picture features two of the delicacies that are symbols of Shizuoka city’s gastronomy: Sakura Ebi (cherry blossom shrimps) and Shirasu (whitebait).

I had a hard time finding truly fresh ones during my recent short stay in Shizuoka City. As a matter of fact, for both species, autumn 2017 catches have been very low, creating an issue for professionals and consumers alike.

Unusual phenomena have been affecting the area, starting with dreadful weather in October.

The field is Suruga Bay, on the Pacific coast of Honshu, the area located North of the imaginary line joining the tip of the Izu Peninsula and Omaezaki Point, a cape that marks the most Southern point on the coastline of Shizuoka Prefecture.


I read that the reason why there is such a concentration of Sakura Ebi in Suruga Bay is still a bit of a mystery. While the specie can be found in other places in Japan (and overseas), Shizuoka is the only Prefecture where it is exploited, because of the exceptional size of the shrimp’s population. This very small shrimp (no more than 4-5 cm) lives for about a year only, in dense aggregations floating between layers of deep waters, rather than crawling on the bottom of the sea. Its name comes from its pink color comparable to cherry blossom. Its exploitation only started about 130 years ago, after the net of a fishing boat sank deep into the bay after a handling error by the boat master, but subsequently lifted an exceptional catch, revealing an unsuspected natural resource.

Suruga Bay is a unique underwater structure on the map of Japan, the deepest and the steepest. Mount Fuji actually rises in close to a straight line from its bottom (-2,500 meters) to the volcano’s summit (at almost 3,800 meters of altitude). Major rivers flowing from Mount Fuji and Southern Alps (Oi, Abe, Okitsu, Fuji…) contribute huge volumes of pure, fresh water, and their submarine beds shape a maze of underwater valleys in the bay. More than the geology of the place (the point where two tectonic plates are colliding, and not far from the border with the Pacific one), it may actually be a very specific population of plankton living in that environment that explains why the shrimp population is thriving. Shrimps are changing depth in tandem with underwater light during the day, and clearly the dreadful October weather may have affected their behavior…and the fishermen’s activity. While it was ruining our week-ends, it prevented them form taking the sea and typhoons 21 and 22 are responsible for damages to their equipment.

IMG_6389(home made Kaki-age)

As a result, the autumn catch (fishing is only allowed a few months per year) started significantly below the usual levels. Kaki-age, a tempura of Sakura Ebi and herbs is my no less than my favorite dish in Japanese cuisine, it was time I gave a bit of background about its main ingredient.

Shirasu (whitebait) is a collective term for young, immature fish (anchovies, herrings, sardines…) traveling in large schools. Kuroshio is an ocean current flowing toward the Northeast near the Eastern shores of Kyushu, Shikoku and Honshu islands of Japan. It plays a very important role for the Japanese marine life (and therefore the fishing fleet), as it transports a variety of marine species migrating between climate zones. It happens that for the first time in 12 years, a great meander formed in Kuroshio. Water started to flow toward the East, covering a distance of more than 300 kilometers, away from the tip of the Kii Peninsula (the large peninsula South East of Osaka, known as Wakayama, Nara and Mie Prefectures), “avoiding” the coasts of Mie, Aichi and Shizuoka Prefectures. An eddy has formed near the shoreline in that region, with water flowing counterclockwise near Suruga Bay (toward the Southwest). The cause for such meander remains unknown, but historical records reveal that past great meanders resulted in record-low fish-catches, affecting Shirasu in particular.

The third delicacy on the top photo is Ikura (salmon eggs). At this time of the year wild one often comes from Hokkaido. There as well, catches have been very low. October weather has played a role, however some specialists already point at the rise in sea water temperatures, which trigger changes in behavioral patterns.

No shortage of sake (yet) thankfully. Shizuoka sake was not particularly known until about 30 years ago. The Research center of the Prefecture developed a new type of sake yeast around that time, to produce aromatic ginjos that soon attracted attention at the annual national New Sake Competition. To be enjoyed with Sakura Ebi, Shirasu and Ikura in season.



Pourquoi il faut ralentir le pas …

Dans la série « Sakana »
Depuis Obama, fief des seigneurs du pays de Wakasa(*), jusqu’aux étals du marché de Demachi à Kyoto, il y a deux grands cols et un peu moins d’une centaine de kilomètres, dont une grande partie dans le pays de Oumi (*), à proximité des rives du lac Biwa.
La Wakasa-kaido (Route de Wakasa), une des nombreuses routes commerciales qui convergeaient vers Kyoto, est aussi nommée Saba-kaido, la  « Route du Maquereau », car celui-ci représentait une partie importante des fruits de la mer, acheminés jour après jour depuis les côtes de la Mer du Japon vers la capitale impériale.
2 à 3 jours, c’est le temps qu’il faut pour faire la route à pied (**), mais aussi la bonne durée de marinade dans des paniers pendant le transport pour le maquereau, ce poisson qui pourrit dès qu’on le sort de l’eau. Cette marinade est souvent un mélange de sel et de Nuka, le son de riz.
A l’arrivée, un délicieux « Saba Heishiko » (鯖へしこ)qui fait la joie des amateurs de saké.
Oui, la fantastique logistique moderne japonaise, qui a réduit le trajet à deux heures de camion frigorifique, a aussi sa face d’ombre, celle qui menace tant de savoir-faire traditionnels…

(*) aujourd’hui départments de Fukui et Shiga respectivement
(**) les plus coureurs les plus rapides mettaient une journée


Why it’s sometimes good to slow down…

From the “Sakana” series
Between Obama, stronghold of the lords of the Wakasa domain(*), and the Demachi market stalls in Kyoto, there are two main mountain passes and a little less than a hundred kilometers, mostly in Oumi (*), the shores of Lake Biwa.
The Wakasa-kaido (Wakasa Road), one of the many trade routes that converged on Kyoto, is also known as Saba-kaido, the “Road of the Mackerel”. The grey fish was an important part of the seafood transported, day after day, from the shores of the Sea of ​​Japan to the imperial capital.
Walking the trail takes 2 to 3 days (**), the perfect length of marinating time for mackerel, which starts decaying as soon as its leaves water. This marinade is often a mixture of salt and Nuka, i.e. rice bran.
On arrival, a delicious “Saba Heishiko” (鯖 へ し こ) is the joy of sake lovers.
Yes, the fantastic Japanese modern logistics, which have reduced the trip to two hours for refrigerated trucks, also has its dark face, the one that threatens so many traditional know-hows …
(*) today the Fukui and Shiga Prefectures respectively
(**) the fastest runners needed a day only

Une menace de mort vieille de 3 ans


Suite de la série “Sakana”.

On dit que le Fugu (poisson-globe) est parfois consommé par ceux qui veulent perdre leur vie. Des règles strictes exigent que les chefs qui touchent à ce poisson reçoivent une formation adéquate et réussissent leurs examens. Il est de plus aujourd’hui interdit de servir le foie du Fugu dans son restaurant. Le nombre d’accidents dans les endroits sous license est donc proche de zéro. La tétrodotoxine, une neurotoxine toxique puissante, est produite par certaines bactéries qui vivent dans des algues rouges consommés par le poisson, et l’infectent, tandis que lui même reste immunisé. Parmi les divers organes, le foie mais aussi les ovaires (Ransou) contiennent de grandes quantités de poison. Et nous voici hier, dégustant ce “régal” offert généreusement par le propriétaire du restaurant, et spécialement recommandé pour un accord avec le nihonshu: Fugu Ransou … Ce “Sakana” (grignotage qui se marie avec le saké) avait été mariné dans du sel pendant 3 ans, assez pour éliminer tous les risques d’empoisonnement (destruction du poison et des bactéries?). Le verdict: très salé, entraînant à boire plus de saké effectivement, il constitue un bon sujet de conversation, mais je ne parviens pas à réellement apprécier sa finesse par rapport à tant d’autres Sakana.

3-year old death threat


From the “Sakana” series

It is said that Fugu (pufferish) is sometimes consumed by those willing to take their own life. Because strict regulations require fugu chefs to receive proper training and pass exams, and the serving of Fugu’s liver is now prohibited in restaurants, the number of accidents at licensed places is close to none nowadays. A potent poisonous neurotoxin, Tetrodotoxin, is produced by certain bacteria that live in red algae consumed by the Fugu. They infect the fish immune to it. Amongst the various organs, the liver and ovaries (Ransou) are said to contain large amounts of poison. There we were yesterday, eating that special “treat” kindly offered by the restaurant’s owner, and specially recommended for a pairing with nihonshu : Fugu Ransou … The “sakana” (nibbling paired with sake) had been marinated in salt for 3 years though, enough to remove all the risks of poisoning (destruction of the poison and bacteries?). The verdict: very salty, it calls for more sake indeed, its nature becomes a good conversation topic as well, however I fail to appreciate its delicacy compared to so many other Sakana.

Diamant de Katano


Je garde un très bon souvenir de ma première visite chez Daimon Shuzo (maison de saké Daimon) en février 2013, avec d’autres étudiants en saké de John Gauntner.

Avant de recevoir un appel téléphonique de son père l’incitant à revenir au bercail afin d’acquérir les compétences nécessaires pour devenir l’héritier de 6ème génération de la Maison, Yasutaka Daimon avait passé 7 ans à l’étranger, dont du temps en France. Son anglais est excellent et son expérience lui permet de comprendre le point de vue de l’étranger lorsqu’il partage sa culture, la culture du saké.

La Maison a été fondée en 1826 dans la ville de Katano, entre Osaka et Nara. Son environnement constitue une oasis dans ce qui ressemble par ailleurs à une sorte de ville dortoir de la banlieue d’Osaka, malgré la présence de quelques rizières entre les maisons, sur le chemin depuis la gare locale. En fait, à l’approche de la Maison Daimon et à sa grande surprise, le visiteur se retrouve soudainement dans un petit village aux routes étroites et sinueuses. La vieille porte de la brasserie fait face à une colline pentue, couverte d’une végétation dense, promesse d’eau fraîche en abondance.

J’y étais de passage la semaine dernière. Quel changement à l’intérieur! Les vieux bâtiments étaient toujours bien là, cependant nombre de volumes ont été magnifiquement rénovés, révélant la qualité et la simple beauté de cette construction ancienne, et certains des espaces situés à l’intérieur de la structure principale ont été transformés en salles de réception pour les visiteurs. J’ai écrit il y a quelques semaines mon admiration pour la façon sont les producteurs de vin et de cava de la région de Penedes (dans les collines derrière Barcelone) reçoivent les touristes, laissé entendre que les producteurs de saké japonais devraient tirer des leçons de ces bonnes pratiques. Daimon san et ses partenaires ont pour cela conçu le bon environnement, et j’espère pouvoir y tenir un jour un ou plusieurs événements.

Daimon san est l’un des rares propriétaires de maisons de saké ayant ouvert son capital à des partenaires étrangers (le seul dont j’ai entendu parler au moins …), afin que l’entreprise puisse investir des capitaux frais et exploiter un réseau outremer. La production de saké est une activité très capitalistique.

Au-delà de l’équipement nécessaire à la production et du bâtiment lui-même, l’entreprise a modifié sa gamme de produits, visant à mettre sur le marché des produits clairement identifiables, notamment par des étrangers. En bouche aussi, l’acidité du saké est assez distinctive, avec des arômes riches.

Ce fut un plaisir de goûter à nouveau au saké de Daimon san après une longue pause. Je forme le plan d’y retourner encore quand le restaurant Mukunetei, situé au deuxième étage de l’un des bâtiments, ré-ouvre. La spécialité de nabe (sorte de pot-au-feu) avait réchauffé notre cœur il y a 4 ans avant que nous faisions face au vent d’hiver glacial sur notre chemin de retour vers Osaka.

Diamond of Katano

I keep fond memories of my first visit to Daimon Shuzo in February 2013 together with other sake students of John Gauntner.

Before receiving a phone call from his father advising him to return to Kansai so that he would have time to learn the skills required to become the 6th generation heir of the business, Yasutaka Daimon spent 7 years abroad, including some time in France. His English is excellent and his experience allows him to understand the foreigner’s viewpoint when sharing his culture, sake culture.

The brewery was founded in 1826 and is located in Katano City, between Osaka and Nara. The brewery’s environment is a bit of an oasis near what very much looks like a bedtown of Osaka, despite the presence of a few rice paddies between the buildings, on the way from the local train station. As a matter of fact, when approaching the brewery, and to his surprise, the visitor suddenly finds himself in a small village with narrow winding roads. The brewery’s old gate faces a high hill covered with dense vegetation, a promise of fresh water.

I was back there last week. What a change inside! The old buildings were still there, however a number of volumes have been beautifully renovated, showing the quality and the simple beauty of the old construction, and some of the spaces located inside the main structure were converted into reception rooms for guests. A few weeks ago I wrote about how impressed I was by the way wine & cava producers in the Penedes region (in the hills behind Barcelona) are receiving tourists, and hinted that Japanese sake producers should take lessons from good practices there. Daimon san and his partners have designed the right environment, and I hope I will be in a position to host one or several events there.

Daimon san is one of the very few kuramoto (brewery owners) that have opened their capital to overseas partners (the only one I have heard about at least…), so that the business could invest fresh capital and leverage a network overseas. Sake brewing is a capital intensive activity.

Beyond equipment for the brewing process, and the building itself, the company changed its product line up and design, aiming at selling clearly identifiable products, by foreigners in particular. On the palate as well, the sake’s acidity is quite distinctive, with rich flavours.

It was nice tasting Daimon san’s sake again after a long break, I have to be back when the Mukunetei restaurant, located on the second floor of one of the brewery’s buildings, re-opens. The nabe specialty warmed our heart up 4.5 years ago before we faced the cold winter wind on our way back to Osaka.