Picture credit: Keiko Iwabuchi/Getty
Artillery Row

Shrimp for breakfast in Sapporo

A culinary adventure with Japan’s finest seafood

“I have visited this region many times,” our guide confided, “and I have never seen it like this before.” Fairies had painted the scene overnight, silvering it with frost and ice. Snow clung to the leaves and branches, blanketing the benches and tables of the dockside dining where we lunched in Miyagi. After our stroll to the bay, we flocked to a flowering tree that attested to the suddenness of the snowfall. Its red blooms peeped from under veils of crystal flakes, surprised like damsels after a ball. 

Last summer, I said farewell to teaching English in Japan’s southernmost island chain, little expecting to return within six months. The ministry of exports had invited a team of alumni from my program for a two-part tour across the northern stretch of the country: Hokkaido and Tohoku, famed for no less dazzling a combination than seafood, dairy, drinks and beef.

Picture credit: Kittie Helmick

The tour had treated us to fine dining at an eight-course crab feast in Sapporo, sushi and wine pairings at the Otaru Brewery, with a wagyu beef extravaganza to follow at Steakhouse Hama in Koriyama, but still the Matsushima oyster restaurant charmed us. Housed in a tin-walled garage within a stone’s throw of the water, its modest facilities boasted all-you-can-eat grilled oysters. Our server whipped the steel lid off our tabletop grill to unveil a mountain of craggy shells. Poseidon might have personally hewn them from the rocks, so fantastically alien had the waves shaped their shells.

Arming myself from the tools provided with cotton gloves and a sturdy-handled pick, I dug into my first choice — only for a miniature prize to pop open in my hand. Some of the full-sized shellfish came bearing gifts: tiny oysters, melded to their cousins’ shells, a bonus for the happy hunter. They tasted of the sea and the wild, a creaminess flavored with something like the savour of game meat. 

Japan boasts the restorative powers of its mineral baths or onsen. Waters rich with mountain runoff also nurture the local seafood: scallops and oysters cultivated in mountainside bays mature in two-thirds of the usual time, shaving an entire year off the growth cycle. Later that afternoon we witnessed the harvesting of a super-abundant haul, busying the shuckers to the brink of closing time. Their nimble fingers pried the culinary pearls from the clasp of their carapaces, slipping the treasures into buckets to float like lily pads.

Everywhere we visited, our hosts dwelt on the uniqueness of their work, its deep roots in histories of excellences, their visions for innovation. I was impressed with the craftsman’s pride that the industry takes in its products, no less the bonsai gardener or the karate sensei than the sushi chef.

Our tour did not neglect Japan’s signature cuisine. Like an ice cream sundae, piled with all your favorite toppings, the sashimi don (or raw fish rice bowl) obviates the need to choose. Perhaps you love that trans-Pacific classic, the tender salmon, but you wouldn’t refuse a bite of the subtly tangy tuna — not in the heart of a seafood capital.

Fear not, this bonanza of goodness overflows like a cornucopia: delectable prime cuts of the choicest fish, nestled on a bed of vinegared rice. It enchants your taste buds while also filling your stomach.

I treated myself to this banquet in a bowl on countless lunch breaks during my teaching stint, but hardly expected to revisit its delights just a hop and a skip from the Sapporo Central Wholesale Market, where brokers and producers purchase their goods direct from the suppliers, before the sun rises on Hokkaido’s capital city of Sapporo. 

Picture credit: Kittie Helmick

Although in structure the market most resembles a vast warehouse, in practice it operates like a well-oiled machine. Turret trucks zip along the aisles, their drivers mounted upright, expertly twiddling steering rings like ship captains to deliver neatly stacked boxes from one zone to another. Massive, freshly caught tuna auctions on a do-or-die system of sudden death bidding: all buyers flash their numbers simultaneously on palm-sized whiteboards; the best price wins.

When my tour group arrived at a cool 7 am, we narrowly caught the action: the pair of king fish on sale that day met their matches in under two minutes. 

Behind the scenes, an army of inspectors sample the goods daily for laboratory testing; certifying each shipment by the stringent standards that set Japanese dining apart. The quality of food care showed in the selections for the sashimi bowls awaiting us after the market tour. Besides the fan favorites, every serving boasted the delicacies I have only encountered in Japan: sashimi shrimp, for instance. Not boiled, not fried, but fresh from the water, these jumbo prawns enrapture with their silky tenderness. A spoonful of sea urchin graced the dish with its sweet golden luxury. Like pats of velvet butter, raw scallops pillow demurely alongside. 

I celebrated by cleaning the dish of every scrap — and never a better breakfast at an earlier hour have I devoured.

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