Food & Drink | NATURE'S PANTRY

Finding extraordinary 'konbu' in a remote Hokkaido fishing village

by Nancy Singleton Hachisu

Special To The Japan Times

Reaching Rausu, a fishing village in Eastern Hokkaido, isn’t easy. Public transport is almost non-existant to this small community situated halfway up Shiretoko Peninsula, which juts out from the edge of Japan’s northernmost island. Though it’s remote and tiny, Rausu produces some of the nation’s best konbu (kelp), an essential ingredient in Japanese cuisine.

Leaving by car from Abashiri at dawn, we snake our way along the winding roads of Hokkaido’s Shiretoko National Park. After arriving, we meet Katsuhiko Amano at the Rausu Konbu Association office and follow his zippy white van as he drives up the coast to where local fishermen are gathering wild konbu seaweed.

I scramble down a bank to a rocky beach where several families are processing their harvest. I am immediately drawn to the wide smile stretching across the face of Kazuyo Shimakura. She runs the beach crew, which consists of friends and family, while her husband, Kazumi, gathers wild Rausu konbu from a boat offshore.

The harvesting season starts around July 20 each year and ends on Aug. 31. Rather than being restricted by quotas, the gatherers are limited by gathering times: At the beginning of the season the boats are allowed out to collect konbu for a couple of hours each day and only three days each week. But as the season progresses, the allowable gathering times are extended.

We arrive at the height of the season. Kazumi Shimakura motors out every morning at 6 a.m., drops off a load of konbu around 9 a.m., heads back out and returns with a second load at 11 a.m. — arriving just before his time limit is up.

By the time we arrive on the beach the glistening pile of konbu that Shimakura harvested is heaped on the shore next to a washing apparatus. Katsuyo and her fireman son Kazuaki — helping the family on his day off — feed the konbu through the washing machine’s rollers and out into Sachio Kawabata’s open arms. Crouched in a wading pool with circulating water gushing from the machine, Kawabata rinses sea water off the slippery kelp before tossing each piece onto the beach rocks. The six-person crew lays the washed kelp out to dry in the sun, dispatching the lot swiftly and efficiently.

The Shimakuras are perhaps the only family in Rausu whose konbu is dried outdoors in the sun, rather than in a kerosene-fueled drying room. They own a drying chamber nearby, but it is reserved for lower-grade strands of kelp or as a back up when the weather doesn’t cooperate.

After the first load of konbu has been laid out for a half-day of drying, the beach team takes a tea and smoke break, while Yoshimi Tanaka continues her task of rolling dried strands from the previous day. After softening the half-day dried konbu in the misty evening or early dawn air, the strands are rolled using a foot-operated spindle to flatten their natural ruffles. These rolls are then unfurled and arranged in 20- or 30-layer stacks between rush mats, with a thick, flat board placed on top weighted by hefty rocks. Konbu is left this way for at least five days, which is a crucial step in allowing the konbu to develop the highly desirable amino acids that add complexity to the best varieties. After aging, the konbu is laid out on the rocky beach to dry again in the sun, a process called hi-ire (putting in the sun), which is done by all Rausu’s kelp producers.

The seaweed is taken to a workroom attached to the family’s temporary living quarters, stacked in a zippered silver bag the size of a small room, which protects the konbu from the humid summer air until the end of August. In September, the tips, bottom ends and ruffled edges of the konbu are snipped off. It is dried one last time before grading and packaging and the whole year’s harvest is stored at the Rausu Konbu Association.

We spent most of our three days in Rausu with the Shimakura family and their team, and we left with an armload of konbu and a renewed appreciation for it. Truly magical stuff — a square of konbu popped into any Japanese or Western soup or sauce adds a subtle briny clarity. Since returning home, a fair amount of crystals formed on the Shimakura’s Rausu konbu. The crystals are a combination of salt and mannitol, and contribute to the umami-like properties of the seaweed. It’s best not to brush them off unless you are chewing seaweed pieces as a snack. Straight konbu (not the “flavored” variety sold as a beer snack) makes for a tasty, chewy treat if you soften it first. Rausu konbu eaten this way is slightly briny with a sweet aftertaste.

Wild konbu is harvested along the coastline of Hokkaido — notably at Rishiri, Hidaka and Hakodate, which all have their own compelling characteristics. Nonetheless, I have a penchant for the Rausu konbu produced by the Shimakura family after seeing their dedication to natural sun drying.

Konbu harvesters sell almost all of their product to a local Konbu Association, who in turn take it to the Hokkaido Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Association where it is sold at auction. Konbu is graded by its color (red, black, white), rawness and whether it is wild or farmed. However, it’s never differentiated according to drying techniques. Families who put the extra time and effort to sun-dry their konbu are not compensated extra. Their sole reward is the pride taken in producing some of Japan’s best edible seaweed.