A mong the highlights of any visit to Ibaraki Prefecture could well be Kita-Ibaraki in its far northeast — specifically the towns of Otsu-ko and Hirakata-ko, which offer perhaps the best opportunity in the nation to sample the great winter seafood delicacy of anko (anglerfish)
Otsu-ko can be reached in around 2 hours from Ueno Station in Tokyo by taking the Hitachi Express train to Mito (about a 60-minute trip), then changing to the JR Joban Line for another hour’s ride.
One saying from my junior high school Latin class has stuck with me through the intervening decades. It is: De gustibus non est disputandum — which roughly translates as, “There’s no accounting for taste.”
This seems especially true in Japan, which has its own lexicon of succinct sayings. In translation, one is: In the west, it’s fugu (pufferfish); in the east it’s anko.”
In this case, “west” means western Japan, where Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi Prefecture, at the westernmost point of Japan’s main island of Honshu, is the center for fugu. “East” means eastern Japan, where Ibaraki Prefecture is the leading producer of anko.
Although not at all biologically related, those two fish species have several things in common. Besides both being iconic winter specialties, they also have what most people would consider extremely negative characteristics.
Specifically, fugu can kill you, since their ovaries contain a deadly poison which, even if only the smallest amount is ingested by a human being, invariably proves excruciatingly painful and fatal within minutes. Indeed, fugu is the only fish the Emperor and the Imperial Family are prohibited from eating, and fugu chefs must study for several years in order to obtain a license.
Anko, on the other hand, has no such toxicity. In fact, the ovaries are an important ingredient in anko cooking — but its grotesque appearance and slimy mucous-membrane covering are enough to put off most potential consumers. Otherwise, the main distinguishing feature of the anglerfish is its “pole & line” — a cartilaginous extension from its forehead it uses to angle, like a brookside trout fisherman dangling a bait, for the smaller species on which it feeds.
While most non-Japanese would never consider dining on pufferfish or anglerfish, both have achieved a cultlike status in the country’s culture and cuisine. Consequently, both command exorbitant prices at specialty restaurants and inns around the country, particularly in areas such as Shimonoseki and Ibaraki where the biggest landings occur.
Kita-Ibaraki is adjacent to an area of the Pacific Ocean known as the Joban oki — an area where the cold, subarctic Oyashio (or Kurile) Current and the warm Kuroshio Current from the Philippines meet. As the nutrients carried by the Oyashio Current are warmed by the Kuroshio Current, an explosion of phytoplankton takes place which draws large populations of predatory zooplankton. They, in turn, attract concentrations of a wide variety of fish, extending right up to the top of the food chain.
The result is a prize fishing area where small local trawlers can typically fill their holds in a couple of days, returning to the northern Ibaraki ports of Otsu-ko and Hirakata-ko with many kinds of bottom-dwelling and midwater species, including shrimp and prawns, octopus, squid, flounder and sole — as well as anglerfish, which are actually a by-catch of the chiefly targeted winter species of flounder and mackerel.
In 2008, the Kita-Ibaraki anko catch of 112 tonnes was worth ¥8.5 million, or ¥760 per kg. Although the price paid to fishermen for those fish is good, the real value to the community is the added attraction of the anglerfish’s appeal as a rare and delicious seasonal gourmet delicacy.
Hirakata town, adjacent to Hirakata-ko Port, is well known for its hot springs as well as its anko fishery. Anglerfish landings at Hirakata-ko average nearly twice that of neighboring Otsu-ko, and all the onsen (hot-spring spas) feature special anko menus.
For example, the Yamani Gosaku guesthouse there charges ¥13,800 for a night’s stay at the inn, unlimited use of the hot-spring bath, a huge dinner featuring dobu jiru — a traditional fisherman’s dish made of anko meat, bone, skin, ovaries and liver, along with leeks, daikon radish and miso — and a traditional Japanese breakfast with other locally caught fish, salad, rice, tofu, egg, nori seaweed, miso soup and green tea. The dobu jiru alone would cost about the same in Tokyo.
In the past, fishermen cooked anko on board ship without using any of the vessel’s precious supply of fresh water, since 80 percent of the fish’s body weight is water.
Wherever you eat dobu jiru, though, the secret ingredient is the ankimo (anglerfish liver). When cooked, this produces an orange-colored fat that lends both flavor and substance to stews and hotpots and is known to chefs worldwide as “the foie gras of the sea.”
The meat, meanwhile, is white, firm, fatty and flavorful — and, according to one dobu jiru lover: “The stew warms the body, while at the same time teasing the tongue with a scintillating range of flavors.”
As to when it’s best to partake of this gastronomic treat, Joh Murayama, senior managing director of the Otsu Fishery Cooperative, maintains that December is the best month to eat anko, which are mostly caught from November to March. However, on questioning Yuji Shinohara, owner and chef at the Yamani Gosaku guesthouse, as he was buying fresh anko for the evening dinners at Hirakata-ko’s auction, the same question drew a definite response that February is by far the best month in which to eat them.
Whether you eat anko nabe (stew) or dobu jiru in December, February or, as this reporter did, in January, Ibaraki Prefecture is without doubt the best place to sample this famed winter fare.