MINAMICHITA, Aichi Pref. – In a small, open space a few streets from the harbor, rows of octopus flutter in the breeze.
Skillfully pulled taut across bamboo stakes to dry under the winter sun, they are crisp and almost white: an indication that the dehydration process that brings out their umami flavor is almost complete. Soon they will be packaged so that the tourists who hung them can easily take them home — for these octopuses are not a fisherman’s catch but part of a popular tourist activity.
Visitors flock to this small island of Aichi Prefecture’s Chita Penninsula to catch, dry and eat the renowned local octopus, which is ranked among the freshest and tastiest in the country. Such is its reputation that Himakajima has affectionately been named “Octopus Island” (Tako-no-shima) by tourists searching for gourmet delicacies and traditional experiences. And, as tako (octopus) is a rough homophone for takō (much happiness), the island also draws people keen to celebrate and welcome good luck in a unique way.
Due to the abundance and high quality of the fugu brought in by the island’s fishermen, and the skill of its chefs in preparing this most poisonous of fish, Himakajima has also been granted a third name: “Fugu Island.”
With a population of some 2,000 people and an economy that relies on fishing and tourism, residents have embraced these monikers with open arms. Giant, colorful octopus statues on the island’s Sunrise and Sunset beaches greet new arrivals with smiles and waving tentacles. The same octopus character can also be found emblazoned on manhole covers and accommodation furnishings such as door handles. Even the red police box, a popular selfie spot for tourists, resembles the sea creature, with the areas around the windows painted black to resemble eyes and a round window for a mouth.
Jinpachi Suzuki, president of the Himakajima Tourism Association, says that presenting the island as a special place for octopus was a conscious effort by the community, whose largest source of income after fishing is tourism. “Octopus is a lucky food with special meaning for Japanese people, so it’s a great theme for us,” he said, adding that the giant octopus statues were created to “leave an important legacy for the island.”
There’s a small business that makes and sells octopus- and fugu-themed manjū, a Japanese bun filled with sweet red bean paste. The production facilities are in full view, and as I stand in line to buy these original creations, staff members mix the batter with a flourish, then gently pour it into the contours of a machine. After a few minutes in the heat, the manjū are removed and packaged individually or together in boxes.
At the register a young tourist, apparently of two minds about whether to choose octopus or fugu for her family at home, excitedly asks a friend for advice. Outside, couples and friends gather around, savoring the fresh, hot sweets while enjoying an unobstructed view of the sea.
“It’s great that I could see how they make these iconic Japanese sweets,” explains one woman from the U.K. “And I’m pleased that my tourism spending is going straight back into the local community.”
Souvenir and gift spending is important for the island, which sees a swell of visitors during the high seasons of summer (for beach and water sports) and winter (for fugu), but lower numbers in the months between.
Those quiet periods may be set to get busier, however, with the current surge in inbound travel to Japan. In recent years, Himakajima has seen a rise not only in domestic visitors — from Aichi, Gifu, Nagano, Shizuoka and Yamanashi prefectures as well as the Kansai region — but also those from abroad, particularly Taiwan and China, according to Suzuki.
With Japan’s inbound tourism for the 2016 calendar year having reached a record 24 million people according to the Japan National Tourism Organization, and with increasing numbers making their way to the country’s regions, Himakajima, too, is preparing to welcome more international visitors. Work is underway to make the island more appealing, and new accommodations are opening.
“I’m trying to learn some English phrases and prepare general information about our facilities and services in other languages,” said one owner of a traditional inn.
Easy access from Nagoya, which has air and shinkansen connections, is helping to market the island as an ideal day trip or weekend destination. After a 50-minute train ride from the city, visitors can reach the island by high-speed ferry in as few as 10 minutes, depending on departure point.
Yet despite being close to the prefectural capital, Himakajima feels like a different world, which is part of its charm. Stepping off the ferry, the pace of life is visibly slower and the community more tightly knit. Locals chat in narrow, winding streets among colorful wooden houses, and fishermen call out to each other from small boats moored at piers, their octopus pot traps lined up neatly along the walkways.
According to Suzuki, everyone is close and the island’s many events, including a festival on Feb. 12 where free fugu and miso soup is served to visitors, bring people together. A shared concern is maintaining the island’s attractiveness for both residents and visitors. Even elementary school students have played a part: Tiles decorated by sixth-graders cover a long wall on the coast. Beside heart-warming pictures, the slogans include “always getting along”; “together all the way” and “forever smiling.”
With only 5.5 kilometers of coastline, Himakajima is an excellent place to explore on foot or by bicycle, which should stoke a healthy appetite for the famous cuisine. Though it is often an ingredient in other dishes, octopus is also served whole — with scissors to cut off the desired part — throughout the year. Pink and plump, the sight may be undesirable to some — particularly after seeing the cute character around the island — but the meat is tender and undeniably fresh.
Learning how to skewer and dry an octopus in the traditional way, with help from a fisherman, can also be experienced year-round, while octopus catching happens between June and September.
Meanwhile, fugu is best enjoyed in the coldest months, from December to February. Presented as bite-sized sashimi on a large plate, fugu is arranged by local chefs into ornate flower shapes, a feast for the eye as well as the palate.
As I retire to bed, it seems as though the island starts to come alive. Looking out over the harbor, lights go on as fishermen ready their boats and gear for an early morning catch. The sea is calm and the sky clear, with the stars and lights on the distant mainland twinkling. Downstairs, staff await news of what seafood they will be serving the following day.
Small island living is not without its difficulties, but the community seems to thrive on its connection with nature. For Himakajima, “Island of Much Happiness” is a fitting name indeed.
Getting there: From Nagoya, in Aichi Prefecture, ride the Meitetsu train to Koya Station, then take a Meitetsu bus to Morozaki. From Morozaki’s port, a return high-speed ferry ticket to Himakajima costs ¥1,340 and the ride takes about 10 minutes. For more detailed information on access, visit www.aichi-now.jp/en/spots/detail/36/#content_5.