Kushiro: Hokkaido’s kitchen of the sea

Kushiro in Hokkaido is one of Japan’s top three fishing ports. — Pictures by CK Lim
Kushiro in Hokkaido is one of Japan’s top three fishing ports. — Pictures by CK Lim

KUSHIRO (Hokkaido), June 3 — The northernmost island in Japan, Hokkaido is a realm of diverse and contrasting geographies and riches. One of its lesser-known treasures is the port city of Kushiro, famed for its unpredictable weather: clear skies one minute, a pea-soup fog the next.

While only the fourth largest city in Hokkaido, Kushiro is one of Japan’s top three fishing ports so seafood is the main draw here. In fact, Kushiro is nicknamed Hokkaido’s “kitchen of the sea” — how could we resist verifying this for ourselves?

In the heart of town, just across the road from the JR Kushiro Station, is the famous Washo Market (Kushiro Washo Ichiba). Considered one of Hokkaido’s Three Great Markets (along with Sapporo Nijo Ichiba and Hakodate Asaichi), Washo Market supposedly gets its name from the energetic calls of “Wasshoi, wasshoi!” — a festive Japanese chant — in the good old days.

The always busy Washo Market (Kushiro Washo Ichiba).
The always busy Washo Market (Kushiro Washo Ichiba).

It’s not so different in the present.

As we walk in, we are welcomed by the lively calls of market stall owners soliciting customers to sample a wide array of fresh seafood. We’re here for the local delicacy called katte don, where we “make” our own sashimi rice bowl. No two bowls are the same so there’s nothing quite like the experience of assembling your own special creation.

First we purchase our rice bowl, which comes in different sizes, from one of the shops offering sushi-meshi (vinegared rice). Next we check out the different seafood vendors and select the one we like best for the toppings. The sashimi hunt, wandering around the market, is part of the adventure!

The options of sashimi toppings seem endless: from the usual suspects such as tuna (maguro) and salmon (sake) to pops of colour and flavour such as ikura (salmon roe), karashi mentaiko (spicy salted pollock roe) and uni (sea urchin). Exquisite amaebi (sweet shrimp) or fatty aka ebi (red shrimp)?

Katte don, a “make your own” sashimi rice bowl (left). Besides fresh seafood, Washo Market also has a wide variety of dried seafood (right).
Katte don, a “make your own” sashimi rice bowl (left). Besides fresh seafood, Washo Market also has a wide variety of dried seafood (right).

Balance all those reds and oranges with snowy-white hues: some sweet and creamy scallop (hotate) perhaps, or some thin slivers of julienned squid (ika). One topping that is half-red and half-white is the meaty surf clam (hokkigai); other clams such as crunchy whelks (tsubugai) and the mild ark shell (akagai) with its distinctive flower petal shape run the gamut of pinks and yellows.

Not everything is served raw. The rather chewy octopus (tako) can be rubbery when uncooked so is typically boiled, turning the pale white tentacles a purplish-red. Tamagoyaki (Japanese rolled omelette) is naturally cooked, the not-too-thin slabs concealing layers of seasoned egg. Kids love this on top of their katte don.

Looking for just the right topping for your katte don can be an adventure.
Looking for just the right topping for your katte don can be an adventure.

It’s hard not to get carried away in constructing our own sashimi rice bowl. Especially with the helpful shop owner advising us on which seafood is in season and über-fresh. Just remember that the various ingredients range in price and the cost of your katte don can soon add up if you’re not careful!

Magical lights at Nusumai Bridge at night.
Magical lights at Nusumai Bridge at night.

Further downtown is the iconic Nusamai Bridge, celebrated in Japanese in literature and poetry, that spans Kushiro River’s lower reaches. Just as Washo Ichiba is one of Hokkaido’s trinity of markets, Nusamai Bridge is one of Hokkaido’s three most renowned bridges (the other two are Toyohira Bridge in Sapporo and Asahi Bridge in Asahikawa).

As we cross, we observe four elegant sculptures stationed along the balustrade. These statues represent the Four Seasons; each designed by a different sculptor from Eastern Hokkaido: Yasutake Funakoshi (“Spring”), Chuuryou Satou (“Summer”), Yoshitatsu Yanagihara (“Autumn”) and Shin Hongou (“Winter”). The bridge itself is designed by Kushiro native Hidenori Yonesaka, who added a local motif of the beach rose for the railing pattern.

The iconic Nusumai Bridge, with the MOO and EGG buildings in the background.
The iconic Nusumai Bridge, with the MOO and EGG buildings in the background.

Strolling along the length of Nusamai Bridge, we feel like we are wandering back to Kushiro’s past. Is it nostalgia if we’ve never experienced it before?

EGG (Ever Green Garden) is an indoor vertical park.
EGG (Ever Green Garden) is an indoor vertical park.
Shops and restaurants inside MOO (Marine-Our-Oasis).
Shops and restaurants inside MOO (Marine-Our-Oasis).

Not far away, along the harbourfront walk, is another Kushiro landmark, the Fisherman’s Wharf building MOO. It’s actually two structures in one: EGG (Ever Green Garden) and MOO (Marine-Our-Oasis). The former is a glass covered vertical park where residents and visitors can enjoy some greenery during Kushiro’s long winter.

The fragrance and colours of plants such as peony and camellia, camphor and bayberry, are a reminder spring and summer will return, brief as those seasons may be. The trees are evergreen and native to Kanto, rather than Hokkaido. We pass by folks on benches: the elderly admiring the flowers, young couples each other.

Grilling sanma (mackerel pike) at Uomasa, a sanma specialty restaurant.
Grilling sanma (mackerel pike) at Uomasa, a sanma specialty restaurant.

Next door, MOO is more of a shopping and dining space. On the ground floor, a seemingly endless sprawl of stalls and restaurants beckon us. There are a multitude of Hokkaido products from both farm and sea: amanatto (Japanese sweets made from adzuki beans); taiyaki and oyaki pancakes; various marine delicacies such as seaweed, salted fish and marinated fish roe.

Sanma or Pacific saury (also known as mackerel pike) is one of the most prized fish to be caught in Kushiro. We savour this fish for ourselves at Uomasa, a sanma specialty restaurant on the ground floor. Sanma sashimi, served with grated ginger; sanmanma, where the deboned fish is wrapped with steamed rice and shisho leaf then grilled over charcoal; even bouncy sanma fish balls in a delicate broth — what a spread!

Sanma sashimi (front) and charcoal-grilled sanmanma (back) (left). Bouncy sanma fish balls in a delicate broth (right).
Sanma sashimi (front) and charcoal-grilled sanmanma (back) (left). Bouncy sanma fish balls in a delicate broth (right).
A big fish inside the Eco-port Aquarium.
A big fish inside the Eco-port Aquarium.

There’s even a large, fish-filled water tank called the Eco-port Aquarium. But it’s not just about the fish: upstairs, we are greeted by a maneki-neko (fortune cat) the height of a human being. It’s guarding the entrance of Minatono-yatai, a Kushiro-style food street. With eight different shops offering different types of Japanese cuisine and both table and counter seating, we are quite spoiled for choice.

One Kushiro delicacy not to miss is Kushiro ramen. Its broth is shoyu (soy sauce) based and flavoured with plenty of umami-rich dried bonito shavings. The noodles tend to be homemade, very thin and exactly 50 centimetres in length. The toppings of menma (fermented bamboo shoots), shredded wakame (seaweed) and sliced green onions aren’t unfamiliar, but it’s the broth’s surprisingly light taste and the thinness of the noodles that tell us this is a real bowl of Kushiro ramen.

Minatono-yatai, a Kushiro-style food street.
Minatono-yatai, a Kushiro-style food street.
A maneki-neko (fortune cat) greets you (left). Kushiro ramen, with its very thin, homemade noodles (right).
A maneki-neko (fortune cat) greets you (left). Kushiro ramen, with its very thin, homemade noodles (right).

As we exit the Fisherman’s Wharf building, most of the fog surrounding the city has dissipated. Night has fallen and Nusumai Bridge is lit up. The reflection of lamplight on the surface of the river has an otherworldly sheen. There’s some magic at this hour, and in this city too, Hokkaido’s little kitchen of the sea.

Washo Ichiba Market
13 Chome-25 Kuroganecho, Kushiro, Hokkaido, Japan
Open Mon-Sat 8am-6pm; Sun closed

Nusamai Bridge
Located near the mouth of Kushiro River, about 15 minutes walk from JR Kushiro Station

Fisherman’s Wharf EGG & MOO
2-4, Nishikicho, Kushiro, Hokkaido, Japan
Open daily 10am-7pm, except Jul-Aug 9am-7pm

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