Ishigaki Sea Salt
Ishigaki Sea Salt
Japanese cuisine is famous for its attention to detail. The tiniest point can matter a lot. So it comes as somewhat of a surprise that such an intrinsic ingredient as salt was available only in one form as late 1997. The Japanese government exercised a strict monopoly on salt and allowed no private business to offer any variations. But finally, in 1997 the domestic salt market was liberalized.
Since 1997, Okinawa has developed into the center of independent sea salt production. In Naha, the prefectural capital, you can find a store named Masuya (Salt Store) that offers 120 different kinds of salt from all over the world. This store is operated by Paradise Plan, the company producing the famous Yukishio (Snow Salt) on the island of Miyakojima. They make a very mild tasting salt in delicious flakes.
You can find another salt specialty store on Ishigaki, the hilly main island of the Yaeyama Archipelago on the Southwestern fringe of Okinawa. This shop, also named Masuya and also operated by the Miyakojima folks is right off the main market street in downtown Ishigaki City known as Ayapani Mall. It offers 56 sorts of salt and all of them are from Okinawa. Most prominent here is of course the local Ishigaki salt.
Ishigaki Island is famous for its deep blue sea and for the corals below it. Diving and snorkeling possibilities abound but if you want to stay dry, you can sail on the so-called "glass boats" in the village of Kabira. The boats have a floor partially made of glass and will take you to the most spectacular coral reefs. It's quite a colorful underwater world down there. It is this sea the Ishigaki Salt comes from.
Ishigaki Salt has a much stronger taste than Miyakojima salt and it comes in three basic variations. The most common is a fine powder, applicable to everyday use and simply called Ishigaki no shio (Ishigaki Salt). Since that powder salt is so fine, it easily sucks up humidity and thus can quickly turn into a lumpy mess. Therefore, the basic Ishigaki Salt is promoted mainly as a cooking salt. The second variety is Ishigaki Salt in a roasted version, known as Yakishio and perfect as table salt. Finally, there is a coarse grain variety that is suitable for steaks or other heavy meat dishes the best, named Tenpiboshi (Sun-Dried Salt).
The factory making Ishigaki Salt is located in rural Nagura Bay in the southwest of the island. It's a small operation with an on-site store. You can buy not only their salt right there but also a large number of locally-made cookies and sweets made using their product. Yes, sweets. Try the salty brown sugar candy. Great stuff. From the store, you can peek through a large glass window directly at the staff, dressed in protective gear, working on the daily salt output.
Salt Production (left) & Salt Shop (right), Ishigaki, Okinawa
If you want to learn a bit more about the salt made here, however, the young founder and owner of the works, Togo Tokuhide, is happy to explain. He will first lead you on a narrow path right towards the sea. Two grey plastic pipes cross the beach and disappear into the water. They are connected to pumps far out in the middle of the bay. One of them brings in the daily amount of salt water, the other one is for backup for the days when a typhoon is announced for example. A typhoon will muddy the water for days on end and so an emergency supply of clean water is pumped into the silos at the factory. To the right, you can see Omoto-dake, at 526m the highest mountain in Okinawa. From there, the Nagura river flows down into the sea, assuring a constant cleaning of the water in the bay.
Togo, an Ishigaki native, used to be a diver then went to technical college to study about the sea. He had worked earlier on a few private experiments on filtering out sea salt. Once the government salt monopoly was lifted, he got together with a bunch of friends and with the help of a sea water specialist, they found this location and started their operation.
Their salt is 100% natural and this means that the mineral content of their product is somewhat unstable. The sea and its salt not only change according to the season but also the cycle of the moon. The moon influences the tide and it's the tides that bring the sea water into the bay.
As his Ishigaki Salt is so tasty, Togo has been approached by a lot of industrial food makers who wanted to use his salt in crackers or other mainstream salty retail products. He had to decline all those offers. Those major companies have to spell out by law every single milligram of any mineral included in their products. But Ishigaki Salt is closer to nature than industrial standards. Togo would never balance out his salt to national standards by adding artificial minerals just to keep the food controllers happy. He makes and sells the original product and that's it.
The Ishigaki Salt Factory can be reached by phone at 0980-83-8711 or via their website www.ishigakinoshio.com. You cannot buy the salt via the website, though.
To buy Ishigaki salt or salt water online, please visit GoodsFromJapan to purchase 500g packages of genuine Ishigaki sea salt.
Ishigaki Island Access
Visiting Ishigaki Island: Both JAL and ANA operate daily flights to Ishigaki via Naha (Okinawa's main airport) from all major Japanese airports.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.