Monday, October 17, 2005

Fish - The Other White Meat

Japan is an island nation, and as such, the Japanese get a lot of their dietary needs from the sea. This means that they eat A LOT of fish. This dependence on fish is reflected in the Japanese language, as there can be up to four or five names for the same fish, and which name is used depends on how mature the fish is. Much in the same way, Americans refer to cows in different ways depending on their age or role. Bull, steer, heifer, veal, beef, calf, Bessie...(scratch that last one).

There is sashimi (slices of raw fish), sushi (raw fish on rice), hoshizakana (dried fish), nizakana (fish boiled in broth), fish cakes, fried fish, etc. There are fish for every occasion and season. "Tai" (red snapper) is served at weddings, anniversaries, and other celebrations, because the name works as a play on the word "medetai", which refers to happy occasions. "Sanma" (saury) is so connected with the fall that the Chinese character for "fall" appears in its name.

I will digress here for a minute, but it will all come back together. Although my superhero alter ego is Captain Non Sequitur, no worries this time!

Today is Monday, but I didn't have to go to work. Word came down from on high (see also: the boss) that today, Starfish High would have a day off, as we all worked so hard at the Open School yesterday. So Eisaku, one of the other teachers at SH, and I made some plans for today.

About half an hour east of Tomakomai (which is one hour east of Muroran) is a town called Mukawa. Mukawa is a pretty small town, but it is extremely famous for "shishamo". I tried to look this word up in the dictionary, and I got...

..."shishamo smelt" or "Spirinchus lanceolatus". Thanks for the help, you good-for-nothing razzin' frazzin'...oh, uh, anyway, all I could figure out about it is that it belongs to the same genus as salmon. Well, that and Japanese people eat it a lot. Definitely not my favorite of the fishy kind. When I lived in Izumo, we would sometimes have shishamo in our school lunch. A dried whole fish with the head still on and the mouth gaping open in some sort of weird fishy death scream, plus a stomach stuffed with fish eggs. Not the most appealing of meals.

Back to why Eisaku and I headed out to Mukawa. About a month ago, we had a school introduction conference in Shiraoi for junior high schools in the region. I attended with quite a few of the other teachers, including Eisaku. A teacher from the junior high school in Mukawa came to our meeting, and we struck up a conversation before the meeting got started. The conversation turned to shishamo, as conversations about Mukawa are wont to do. The Mukawa teacher told us that the one month season for shishamo starts in mid-October, and if you time your trip correctly, you can eat shishamo sushi. Eisaku and I, as firm believers in the sacred tenet of food lovers ("There are two types of people in the world: those who eat to live, and those who live to eat. I am the latter." - Jeff Dong), both became very excited at the mention of shishamo sushi.

Me: "Sushi? That sounds strangely appetizing."
Eisaku: "Intriguing. The opportunity for a valuable research project is upon us."
Me: "Professor, shall we look into this on some further date?"
Eisaku: "This will require some serious research come mid-October. Mr. Kidd, I will require your assistance in this educational endeavor."

As October rolled ever so slowly along, we started making plans to travel out to Mukawa for some shishamo goodness. It just happened to work out that we had a day off today, so last Friday, I said, "Why don't we head on out to Mukawa this Monday, eat some shishamo, catch a movie in Tomakomai, and call it a day?" Eisaku gave the idea his seal of approval, and we set a departure time of 9 A.M. Monday morning.

Up in the morning and out of bed, I looked out the window to see a beautiful blue sky waiting for me. A good sign, this was. So, when Eisaku arrived at 9 to pick me up, I hopped in his car and away we went. About an hour and a half later, we arrived in Mukawa (translation: cockatoo river). After a bit of searching, we found our destination: The Ono Store.

YES! We're here!

So we head on inside and order some shishamo cuisine. I ordered the sushi, Eisaku ordered the sushi/soup set, and then we decided to order a stick of shishamo and bake them up on the hot plate on our table. While we assumed that the sushi wouldn't be bad, we had our doubts about whether it would be any good or not. One bite, and all of our suspicions were blown away. Shishamo sushi is some of the best sushi I have ever eaten. And the wasabi packed a Rocky-Balboa-uppercut-KO punch that was something to be remembered. You know you have some good wasabi when it makes the back part of your head itch.

The dried shishamo was really good too, and it looked nothing like the shishamo that I used to eat in school lunches. There is a rather insidious reason for this: the fish I had always been told was shishamo is actually a smaller, cheaper, nastier, European substitute. The real Mukawa shishamo deal is tasty, and has a nice amount of fatty meat on it, so when you fry it up, it smells good and tastes even better. Watch that first bite, though. That oil is HOT!

After eating our shishamo lunch, I sent off some shishamo to some friends in Shimane, and Eisaku sent some off to his family. After that, I suggested we head back to Tomakomai, but as we had a lot of time before the movie (SIN CITY!) started, and as Eisaku had never been to the Hidaka region of Hokkaido before, we decided to head on further down the coast and see some sights before heading back.

We drove on for about another hour until we reached Mitsuishi (translation: three stones) Town. One of the other teachers at Starfish High had told me about an interesting place to visit there, so we headed off to check it out. Houraizan Park is the name of the place, and the reason the other teacher recommended it to me is because I am really interested in Shinto shrines, and this park was supposed to have the largest shimenawa (a rope often seen at shrines) in Japan. Hey, sounds like fun! [Never mind that every city, town, or village in Japan tries to lay claim to the largest, smallest, oldest, tallest, fattest, thinnest, etc. whatever in Japan or the world. I've seen the longest bench in the world, the longest train station name in Japan, the tallest spruce tree in Japan, the highest suspension bridge for pedestrian use in the world, and so many other things I can't even remember. Heck, the town I first lived in when I came over here to work tried to get listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest somen noodle bamboo delivery slide in the world. Never mind that no other country besides Japan would even try to make a somen noodle bamboo delivery slide. At least I made it on national TV with that. Fun times can be had by all over here.]

So we went to the park, but there was no sign of the rope. So I walked out into the river and struck a funny pose, because I thought, "Hey, if not now, when?" Cool thing happened, though. (Look out! I'm tying this story back with the shishamo and the seasonal fish story at the beginning of the post!) It's fall here, right? Salmon swim upstream to spawn in the fall. I think we must have seen about five or six salmon swimming in the stream and jumping out of the water every once in a while. I've seen salmon swimming upstream in fish ladders at dams, but this was the first time I'd ever seen them in a natural setting. Quite the impressive sight.

Apparently, the big ol' shimenawa only gets strung up for a couple of weeks in July, so tough luck for this year, but we found where they stash the rope while it's not strung up. Believe me when I say it is worthy of the title of "largest in Japan". I've been to hundreds of shrines all over the country and have seen more than my share of shimenawa. I can vouch for it. Big. HUGE, even.

Time came to head back to Tomakomai and see "Sin City". So we packed it up and got on the road. I saw "Sin City" in the States back in April, but it's worth the second view (and third, and fourth, and...). Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, and Bruce Willis OWN this movie. I'd go on, but the "six-months-late" review has never been very popular. Good movie.

One more thing had to be done before we headed back to Muroran. According to some recent information I had acquired, there is a Seattle's Best Coffee in Tomakomai. Common decency required that I go there. It would be rude not to. Why? Because, my good friend, my favorite kind of coffee/espresso/whatever is a raspberry mocha, and the other U.S. coffee chain that is over here, S*A*B*C*S, doesn't have raspberry flavoring.

Just look. I look so happy! And it's not just because I'm wearing my Army of Darkness t-shirt under that flannel.

More pics of today's trip tomorrow, courtesy of Eisaku's digital camera.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love shishamo.Nothing like a couple of them grilled with just sea salt and a cold draft beer.

Monday, July 26, 2010 10:09:00 AM  

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