KURE, KOCHI PREF. – “No katsuo, no life.” The words emblazoned on Takahiro Tanaka’s T-shirt are more than just a catchy slogan; they are the literal truth. Without katsuo (skipjack tuna), life would be very different for him and the rest of the fishing folks in the port town of Kure, Kochi Prefecture.
Tanaka runs a bustling little fish shop, Tanaka Sengyoten (Kure 6382, Nakatosacho, Takaoka-gun, Kochi; tanakatuo.ocnk.net), in the scenic Kure Taisho Town Market. Of the score or so businesses that line this narrow, covered pedestrian arcade, more than half deal in wet or processed fish, or run simple, down-home shokudō (diners) specializing in seafood.
For as long as anyone can remember, people here on the southern coast of Shikoku have lived off the bounty of the ocean. The king of their catch is, and always has been, katsuo. In the peak years of the 1970s, the port of Kure landed more of the fish than anywhere else in the prefecture.
The katsuo arrive in large shoals each spring, following the route of the Kuroshio current that flows offshore here, migrating from the tropical waters off the Philippines up to the colder spawning grounds near Hokkaido, or even further north. Then, once summer has changed to autumn, the fish return, plump and fat, as they make their way back down south.
While nets are used by the larger oceangoing vessels, the Kochi fishermen have their own way of catching the katsuo, using a simple rod and line. Known as ippon-zuri (single-rod-and-line), this method causes the katsuo much less stress, resulting in fish with far superior flavor and texture.
These days there are fewer boats and smaller catches. But katsuo still define the local identity in Kure, both for the townsfolk and for the visitors — predominantly domestic Japanese — who come to sample the fish at their freshest, especially during the annual Katsuo Festival held in late May.
Although the Taisho Town Market dates back over a century, it has been nicely spruced up in the past decade. With its wooden roof, traditional fishermen’s banners and decorated entrances, it offers an appealing destination for tourists, who now make up the bulk of Tanaka’s customers.
They gather and watch as he deftly slices each fish, breaking them down into their constituent cuts. Some of the lesser-known parts are rarely found far from the Kochi coast, as they spoil easily and are best only when the fish are freshly landed: chichiko (katsuo heart), considered a delicacy, especially when nibbled with sake; and haranbo, the fatty portion of the belly, equivalent to the chūtoro of tuna, so prized at sushi counters.
At Tanaka’s shop, individual portions of prepared seafood are laid out on the display shelves — slices of sashimi or tataki (seared katsuo fillets), as well as squid, octopus, sea bream and whatever else is in season — ready for you to take home.
Alternatively, ask for your selection to be brought into the shokudō across the alley, Ryoshigoya, to eat-in as part of a teishoku (set meal) together with a heaping bowl of rice, homemade pickles and piping hot miso soup.
Atmospheric as the market may be, it’s far from the only place in Kure where you can feast on the local seafood. Kuroshio Kobo (Kure 8009-11, Nakatosacho, Takaoka-gun, Kochi; bit.ly/kuroshiokobo), on top of a nearby bluff overlooking Kure’s port, not only boasts an ocean view but from April to October it also offers hands-on instruction, as long as you reserve ahead of time.
Under the tutelage of the in-house certified “Katsuo Meister,” you can try your hand at preparing tataki in the traditional Kochi fishermen’s style, known as wara-yaki (“straw-seared”). The first step is to clean the fish and cut them lengthwise into four fillets, which are sprinkled generously with salt.
One at a time, these are balanced on the tines of a long garden fork over an open-air fireplace. Then the straw is lit. It is bone dry and the flames flare up fierce and high. But they die down equally fast, leaving the exterior of the fillet seared all over, but with the meat inside still rare and gleaming red.
The fillets are simply left outside until they are cool to the touch. Then they are carved into thick slices and arrayed on a platter, together with mounds of slivered garlic and chopped negi (Welsh onion).
When tataki is served as part of a meal, it is usually accompanied by a dipping sauce of ponzu, soy sauce with the juice of sudachi or yuzu citrus added. But here, because the fish has already been salted, no further dip is needed. This style, known as shio (salt) tataki, has become popular in Kochi in recent years as a drinking snack.
At this point there is really only one thing left to do: Break out the beer or, better yet, local sake from Kure’s Nishioka Brewery, and raise a toast to the Kochi fishermen, who bring the fish to land and whose ancestors inspired the finest way of preparing them.
From Kochi Station, take the Dosa Line and alight at Tosa-Kure Station from which the Kure Taisho Town Market (Kure 6372-1, Nakatosacho, Takaoka-gun, Kochi; bit.ly/kuretaishomarket) is a five-minute walk. Kuroshio Kobo is a 25-minute walk from the station.