Whale Meat In Shimonoseki: Moby Dick Whale Sashimi in Shimonoseki
There are adventurous people who like to sample all the special pleasures the countries they visit or temporarily live in have to offer - no matter what might be the politically correct opinion about those treats back home nor what the vegan aunt might think.
Reindeer meat in Finland, horse in France (or as sashimi in Kumamoto), dog in Korea - different nations, different delicacies. All of them are well worth trying - and so is whale. Now, if you are one of those intrepid gourmands, read on...
Shimonoseki is the home port of the Japanese whaling fleet. From here, the ships start every autumn to head down to Antarctic waters - where it will be summer once they arrive - to hunt down some of the world's largest creatures.
As you might expect, a good part of the hunt makes it back to Shimonoseki market and restaurant tables. In fact, there might be no better place in the country to enjoy kujira, as whale is called in Japanese. But before starting the culinary tour, let's take in some scenery.
Shimonoseki is located right at the south-western edge of Honshu island and it's a close jump over to Kyushu from there. An impressive bridge connects the islands and underneath, through the Kanmon Strait, about 700 ships pass every day.
It's quite nice to sit on the waterfront right outside the Karato Fish Market, chew on some "kudzila jerky" as the package labels whale jerky, have a Mojiko Retro Beer and watch the boats go by. The Mojiko Beer comes from a micro brewery in Mojiko (Moji Port) right on the other side of the strait and it's a real delight.
The Karato Fish Market is also the best point to start exploring Shimonoseki whale. While the fugu is the overriding theme there as Shimonoseki is the traditional capital of the potentially poisonous blow fish, whale has a strong presence, too.
Merchants offer whale steaks, whale bacon, whale tongue, indeed any part of the animal you might want to taste. Buy some of the steak meat - offered in sashimi quality - and try it later in your frying pan at home, it's dark red meat much tastier than most beef.
As with every fish market, the Karato is busiest with commercial dealers early in the morning. At 10am their time is over and suddenly a lot of wholesale fish merchants turn into sushi dealers. It's time to serve the public. You got to be there right at 10am and you will find an incredible array of sushi laid out in front of your eyes.
Whale bacon sushi is easily available and very delicious but don't miss out on the amazing variety involving other sea animals - the fresh toro (tuna belly) sushi is something to kill for.
In fact, the sushi is so plentiful and delicious that it may easily derail any plans on further whale meat exploration. So, take a walk along the shore to nearby Aruka Port and, if you are lucky, see the whaling fleet anchored right there, including the Nisshin Maru, Japan 's biggest and most sophisticated whaling ship.
Whale has been hunted in Japanese waters for thousands of years. In fact, the Kojiki, the oldest surviving historical book of Japan, written in the 7th century, claims that the Emperor Jimmu enjoyed whale. He was the mythical first emperor of Japan supposedly living about 600 years BCE.
What was once a rather small business - and a very dangerous one to work in - became a huge industry in the years following World War II. The American occupation forces promoted whale meat as an easy solution to the food shortages in the country and encouraged the building of a large whaling fleet. Soon, whale became a major stable of the Japanese diet - especially in the form of school lunches.
Today, many Japanese who went to school in the 1960's or 70's feel natsukashi (nostalgic) about those culinary memories and come to Shimonoseki to experience a taste of their childhood again.
One popular spot to stop by for a quick and cheap bite of whale is the Kuzi Raya restaurant only a couple of minutes by foot from the market. Here whale is served both Western and Japanese style. The Western variations include whale hamburger and whale hotdog while the Japanese selections offer a good variety of sashimi dishes.
But why not make it a bit of a longer walk and head over to that true paradise of whale cooking? At the Choshu Kujira Tei, you should arrive as hungry as possible - otherwise you will miss out on a lot of the best the world of whale cuisine has to offer. As always the lunch sets are priced the most attractively.
For a little less than 3000 yen for the Kujira Tei Gozen lunch set, you will be able to feast on tokusen akami sashimi (best choice red meat of the shimofuri variation - red meat marbled with fat very similar to high-grade Kobe beef), honkawa sashimi (whale skin sashimi - which is quite yummy though it may sound odd), smoked whale bacon, whale tongue and obaike (white meat of the tail fin), among a lot of other great dishes.
The master of the joint will happily answer all your questions about all the different kinds of whales and all their different body parts, none of which get wasted according to Japanese lore.
But if you really want to splurge, order the Kujira Zanmai at dinner time for a bit more than 5000 yen. A royal meal worthy to serve an emperor with a huge stomach and a definite interest in sampling all the most delicious meats Moby Dick used to carry through the sea.
Kuzi Raya: Tel: 0832 29 1122
Choshu Kujira Tei: Tel: 0832 23 0615
The easiest and quickest way to get to the center of Shimonoseki is to take the Shinkansen bullet train to Kokura (Kyushu) and then a local train to Shimonoseki Station. This train will pass through the Kanmon Tunnel, however. The much more interesting and scenic route is to take the Shinkansen to Kokura, from there a local train to Mojiko and then the ferry to Shimonoseki which will land you right at the Karato Fish Market. Great views at the Kanmon Bridge from the ferry.
Bakan is the ancient name of Shimonoseki and the festival is the biggest in town. Bakan Festival takes place in August all along the waterfront from the Karato Fish Market to Aruka Port.
Whale meat merchants will have a strong presence there and during the festival, as well as during most of August when the whaling ship Toshimaru can be visited.
Further information: Shimonoseki City Suisanka (Water Product Section)
Tel: 0832 31 1240
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
A version of this article first appeared in Kansai Time Out magazine.