Fall is a season for fish lovers in Hokkaido, with special tastes and unique experiences that will refresh your senses: from sweet shrimps, to the rich oiliness of salmon roe, to the delicate hints of ocean released from the shell of a horsehair crab.
This season is a special time for the bounty of the sea, celebrated by locals and visitors alike. Fish can be bought both locally and at fish markets at all prices ranges, depending on the quality. Fall food festivals also provide an excellent opportunity to sample the season's fares, and once you’ve identified your favorites, you can head to a nearby restaurant to order a full-course meal.
Even reasonably priced chain restaurants in big cities like Sapporo and Asahikawa will have fall fish specials, and chefs at Hokkaido's hotels almost always include seasonal highlights on their menus.
Why the fall season?
But why the fall season in particular? After all, Hokkaido is famous for seafood all year around. What is it about this season that makes the harvests of the sea even more remarkable? The answer is two-fold: the movement of the seas and the life cycles of the fish.
Off the eastern coast of Hokkaido, as air temperatures fall, the difference between the warm, southerly Kuroshio current and the cold, northerly Oyashio current becomes more divergent. Tiny phytoplankton growing in the sea concentrate where the currents collide. The fish - fattening up for spawning and migration - feast on the plankton and grow in muscle tone and fat.
By now, we're all pretty ready for a feast! Below is our guide to help you identify and consume the best of this season's bounty. For your convenience, we’ve also included the Japanese names.
Tabe ni ikimashou!! Let’s go eat!
Hokkaido’s signature fish. In autumn, salmon feed in the oceans before heading to their birth rivers to spawn, so their meat and eggs are especially prized in this season. We recommend trying sujiko salmon roe, which are darker red and sweeter than the usual orange eggs of the more common ikura roe. Often served on rice, topped with grated radish (daikon) for the optimum experience.
Fatty fall salmon is delicious served raw as sashimi or sushi, or lightly grilled with a dash of soy sauce or lemon. On colder nights, try the famed Ishikari Hotpot (nabe): a bubbling pot of fish bones, vegetables and tofu in a miso-based broth.
Pacific Saury or Mackerel Pike (sanma)
This favorite autumn fish even has the kanji for the season in its name: there are three Kanji characters meaning “autumn (aki)”, “sword (katana)” and “fish (sakana)”. This long, silver fish is usually eaten grilled, but in Hokkaido it's often served raw as well.
Okhotsk Atka Mackerel (hokke)
Meanwhile, glance across any pub (izakiya) in Hokkaido during autumn and you’ll see locals feasting on an oval-shaped fish which is sliced open & flat, then grilled and served with grated radish and soy sauce. It's a rich, fatty fish full of Omega 3 fatty acids which are great for the heart.
The city of Tomakomai - an hour south of Sapporo - is Japan's largest producer of sweet, juicy Sakhalin surf clams (hokki), which appear on sushi menus in the fall. Also keep an eye out for huge whelks (tsubu) from the kelp-filled seas off the Hidaka coast. Then, of course, there are the huge, plump, juicy Scallops (hotate) from the rich Sea of Okhotsk, which should never be missed.
Shrimp lovers are in for a seasonal treat with the Alaskan Pink Shrimp (amai ebi), which are larger and juicier than usual, and the plumper Botan Shrimp (botan ebi) which are full of eggs and can be eaten whole, or added to miso soup for extra flavor.
Many people's outright favorite, crab is often the main highlight of any Hokkaido banquet, and also sent as seasonal gifts to relatives and business connections from Hokkaido across Japan.
Horsehair crab (keigani), from Uchiura Bay (between Noboribetsu and Onuma) or the Nemuro coast, are sweet and rich having fed primarily on a seaweed diet. Meanwhile the giant red king crabs (tarabagani) from the Sea of Okhotsk have a firmer and meatier texture. Aficionados should also hunt out the bright red Hanasaki crab (hanasakigani), harvested near Nemuro. Smaller yet sweeter than king crabs, Hanasaki crabs turn bright red when boiled. The females are heavy with roe in this season.
Autumn in Hokkaido is a chance to seek out one of Japan's rarest dishes: crab sashimi. Carefully prepared by skilled chefs who know precisely how to cut the flesh to bring out its full flavors and textures, Hokkaido is possibly the best place in the world to experience this delicacy.
Channel Rockfish (tsurikinki)
Pink skinned channel rockfish is a delicate tasting white-flesh fish caught off Abashiri under a very limited catch license system.
Sailfin Poacher (hakkaku)
This rare scaly fish from the Sea of Japan has sweet, white flesh - perfect as sashimi.
Finally, there is smelt, a small fish that is usually dried and then served grilled or fried. From mid-October thru November, however, off the Pacific coast, these fish swim into river mouths for spawning. Mukawa town is a great place to enjoy the larger, oily males served as sushi, or the females full of roe.
Hungry? We hope so! As you can see, autumn is a special time for seafood in Hokkaido - when the fish reach their peak flavors. Can you manage to sample every item in this blog?!
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