TOTTORI — Ever felt like traveling just to gratify your tastebuds? To Italy for real pizza, for example, or to India for authentic curry. Well, if your craving is for crustaceans, then you can look rather closer to home. Delicious snow crabs are now in season, and there’s no better place to sample them than Tottori Prefecture, on the Sea of Japan coast in western Honshu.
Snow crabs get a different name according to where they are caught. In Niigata Prefecture they are called echizengani, while those landed in Tottori are known as matsubagani.
Tottori City is most famous for its immense sand dunes, which front the Sea of Japan, but this time of year, the kilometers of swept-up sand won’t be what first catch your eye. Instead you’ll be assailed from all directions by signs advertising matsubagani, on sale everywhere.
Karo Port in Tottori City is the best place to find the freshest of these small crustaceans, which are a type of spider crab with a white underside. Karo boasts the largest catch of matsubagani of any port in the prefecture. The season for matsubagani in Tottori and several other prefectures on the Sea of Japan coast began Nov. 6 and ends March 20. And the peak of that season? Right about now, says Kazuyoshi Murakami, the owner of Kaiyotei, a restaurant in the port.
“January to February is best, because the temperature of the sea water is around 5 to 6 degrees. That makes the crab meat firm,” says Murakami.
Typical matsubagani dishes are simple. The flesh is eaten raw as sashimi and lightly seasoned with soy sauce, or served plain after being either boiled or grilled. Just a mouthful of matsubagani is all it takes to realize they don’t really require seasoning of any sort: The meat is juicy and sweet. Some like to dip the boiled meat into some kanimiso (a sauce made from crab intestines); for others, matsubagani is a treat best washed down with a glass or more of sake.
If you’re in need of a winter warmer, opt for kanisuki, a kind of crab and vegetable hot pot. And when you’ve picked out all the meaty treats from the pot, add cooked rice to the remaining crab and vegetable stock, stir in some eggs, and you’ve a tasty finale — kanizosui (crab porridge).
If this leaves you feeling stuffed, walk it off with a brisk stroll round the fish market. There’s no escape from the ubiquitous matsubagani, though: At Karoichi Market, which opened November 2002, freshly boiled matsubagani await. These are displayed unusually, stomach-up. “It’s to stop the intestines from spilling out,” a friendly shop clerk said.
Fisheries professionals can spot a good crab by just looking at its stomach, explained Yukio Amihama, chairman of the board of the fishermen’s cooperation that runs Karoichi Market. “But it took me 20 years to tell,” said the veteran fishermen of 45 years. Amateurs are advised merely to pick the heavy ones, because they have more meat, Amihama said.
Also keep an eye out for tagged crabs. A matsubagani with a shell larger than 11 cm in diameter is awarded a special label made of local Inshu-washi paper, on which is written the name of the fishing boat that caught it.
In Tokyo stores a single matsubagani sells for around 10,000 yen. They cost less in Tottori City, but the most affordable snow crabs are to be found at Karoichi, where prices start from around 2,000 yen. This is because the market opens directly after the auction at the port, Amihama said.
Doubtless those low prices are to thank for the more than 500,000 visitors who have come to Karoichi in the 15 months since it opened. And a speed-delivery service available at the market enables shoppers to send their bargain buys to family and friends across the country.
If you still haven’t had your fill of crabs, take a peek at Tottori Karo Crab Aquarium located right next to the market. Known as Kanikkokan, this small aquarium, which opened last August, displays not only matsubagani and fish and marine life found locally, but also nearly 20 other species of crab from around the world. It’s also a good place to brush up on your crustacean trivia.
Some of the questions addressed here are far from trivial, though. Visitors learn, for example, the reason behind the limited fishing season for matsubagani, and why only crabs of a certain size may be caught: It’s an effort to preserve the crab population, threatened by overfishing. In the late 1960s, some 5,200 tons of crab were landed in Tottori alone; by 1991 that had dropped to just 300 tons. Careful management of crab stocks has seen that number ease back up to 1,120 tons in 2003. “Crabs are a natural resource,” said Kanikkokan’s manager, Noritatsu Miki. “That resource can dry up.”
Fueling the decline in matsubagani numbers was competition between Japanese and Korean fishermen, an issue that has largely been settled following a 1999 agreement that Korean boats will stay out of Japanese waters, Miki added.
This overdose of matsubagani may leave even the most ardent fan feeling a little crabby. Luckily, there’s plenty to do in and around Tottori that isn’t crustacean connected.
Sticking close to the coast, a 20-minute drive from the port brings you to Tottori’s most celebrated landmark, Hakuto Beach. This beach, which commands breathtaking views, derives its unusual name (meaning “white rabbit”) from the Japanese myth that tells how a wounded white hare was saved by Okuninushi no Mikoto, the god enshrined at Izumo Taisha in neighboring Shimane Prefecture.
The wily hare, so the story goes, fooled a shoal of sharks into letting him use them as stepping stones to the shore from a small island on which he was stranded. When the sharks discovered the hare’s trickery, they turned on him and stripped off his skin. Okuninushi rescued the hare and told him to bathe in stream water and dust himself with pollen to heal his skin — though not before roundly scolding him.
Hakuto Beach is said to be where Okuninushi rescued the hare, who is now enshrined at a shrine that fronts the beach. Today, the shrine draws visitors who pray for the healing of wounds and skin complaints.
Those with time might like to head further out of town. A short trip on the local Wakasa Railway takes visitors deep into the hills of the tranquil surrounding countryside. The train runs between Tottori and Wakasa stations every hour, the trip lasting about 50 minutes. The sleepy railway generally serves a mere 1,800 local commuters a day.
From the final station it’s a pleasant walk through cedar forests up to Wakasa Benten Shrine. The mossy path to the shrine winds alongside a stream, and apart from the first Sunday of September, when the locals hold a festival dedicated to Benzaiten, the goddess of literature and the sciences, the shrine is blessed with quietness.
If hunger pangs assail you now that you’ve walked off the morning’s indulgence in crab, why not try another local specialty — carp. As Wakasa is inland, the fish of choice locally was river-dwelling carp. Though the tradition has faded, you can still try carp at Restaurant Benten, in front of Wakasa Station. As freshwater fish, carp provide almost odorless meat which is light and delicious. At Restaurant Benten they are served in various ways: raw, fried, simmered, grilled and in koikoku carp miso soup. Sampling this rare dish is the perfect way to end a gourmet trip to Tottori.