FUKUOKA - The air in a kakigoya (oyster hut) is smoky, strong with the smell of seafood. Barbecue pits line the hut, and the thick plastic walls trap the heat. Large groups crowd the pits, grilling oysters and drinking. Somewhere, an oyster bursts open with a crack, earning a loud cheer from those nearby.
Kakigoya are a winter phenomenon of Fukuoka Prefecture, temporary restaurants that usually spring up at some point in November and last to the end of the oyster season in March. The vast majority of the huts are located on the long, sandy coastline of the Itoshima Peninsula, out to the west of the city of Fukuoka.
From May to September, Itoshima is a summer retreat for those living in Fukuoka and the beaches are home to all-night parties and music festivals. But with harsh winter winds, activity moves away from the beaches and into the more secluded bays and harbor towns that exist across the peninsula.
The kakigoya are spread across five towns — Fukuyoshi, Funakoshi, Kafuri, Karadomari and Kishi — and each town’s harbor is home to hardy vessels that look the very antithesis of pleasure boats, filled with salt-worn rope and piloted by fishermen gnarled by years on the sea.
Much of this fleet is used to manage the oyster catch. Floating bamboo rafts are used to farm the oysters, which grow on 10-15 meter-long wires that hang from the underside of the raft and are harvested each morning and brought fresh to the kakigoya.
While the huts vary in minor details — mainly the breadth of the menu — the basics are the same. Each is a long plastic-covered structure filled with barbecue pits. The huts are typically family-fisherman run affairs and they are positioned as near to the sea as possible: There is usually only a service-strip-wide gap between the huts and the water. Here, behind the huts or on the dock, a worker or two will sit scraping off (“polishing”) exogenous matter from the outside of the oysters, readying them to be eaten.
Upon entering the huts, diners are presented with a brightly colored plastic jacket that is to be worn over their clothes. Oysters are sold by the kilo and each year the huts negotiate a fixed price between them that is usually around the ¥1,000 mark. It is possible to choose whether you’d like these served as a fewer number of large oysters, or a larger number of smaller oysters. Besides the oysters, the huts sell a plethora of seafood, including squid, sazae (turban shell) and hotate (Japanese scallops).
On ordering, visitors are armed with an oyster shucker, a singular white glove and a pair of tongs, and are left in charge to grill their food. This is where the jacket comes into play. Kakigoya are frequently an explosive affair and it is not uncommon for the shellfish to burst over the hot grill, spitting jets of boiling seawater across the huts to the delight of all those not hit.
Oysters are cooked flat side up and, when ready, the tops should naturally open. If an oyster fails to open, a shucking knife can be used to delicately pry open the shell. It is possible to overcook the oysters, and once the seawater contained within the shell evaporates, the oysters quickly burn.
Each hut has different rules, but many allow you to bring your own drinks and side dishes that can be consumed along side the barbecued seafood. Not that it’s necessary to do so; early kakigoya were a more disorganized affair, but now most have extensive menus, with a wide variety of side dishes and drinks.
For the oysters, it is worth thinking about your choice of condiments. The oysters come with a small bottle of ponzu — the acidic, citrus-based soy sauce — though it is more than acceptable to bring your own bottle of something for flavor. Yuzukoshō, a Kyushu specialty made from chili peppers, salt and the peel of the Japanese citrus yuzu, goes particularly well with the oysters.
Kakigoya have become exponentially popular over the past few years and despite the huts almost tripling in size and number, during peak times at weekends and national holidays, you either need to book well in advance, or turn up early (pre-11 a.m.) on the day.
Despite the popularity of the oyster huts, it is difficult to ignore the element of cruelty that accompanies the process and it is advisable to avoid the shrimp, which come live on a spit and suffer a slow and ignoble death atop the barbecue.
However, if you can stomach this, kakigoya are a unique way to enjoy the sumptuous winter delicacy of oysters. For the best oysters the prefecture has on offer, head to the Ebisu hut in Karadomari, where you can try the award winning Karadomari Ebisu Oyster.
For detailed information on individual kakigoya opening times and locations visit www.fukuoka-now.com/en/itoshima-kakigoya-oyster-hut-guide