Fresh Catch: In Japan, nothing says summer like bonito

Fresh Catch: In Japan, nothing says summer like bonito

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Japan

Fallen cherry blossoms and greening mountains may be telltale signs that summer is nigh for most. For many in Japan, however, the real harbinger of summertime is the sight of the first freshly caught bonito fish at the market.

The 17th century poet Yamaguchi Sodo once wrote of the approaching season, “Green leaves in eyes, little cuckoo in mountain, the season’s first bonito.” In Japan, “hatsugatsuo,” or the first arrival of this silver, ray-finned ocean catch – and its firm red meat – ring in as well as herald the warmer months. Last year alone, Japan devoured 286,800 tons of bonito, according to its fisheries ministry.

In May, chances are you’ll see many locals asking for the fish at markets and restaurants. It‘s eaten as sushi, sashimi or “tataki” (lightly seared but still raw) with soy sauce, ginger, garlic, wasabi or green onion. It’s also dried, smoked and fermented as “katsuobushi,” especially on Okinawa where this is more common than raw bonito. It is the most consumed seafood in Japan after mackerel and scallops.

Bonito migrates north from around March, traveling along the Pacific coast of mainland Japan to reach the Sanriku region near Misawa in July. They reverse course in August and are in season a second time from then until October. But only the first catch of the initial migration from April to July is prized as hatsugatsuo.

The fish typically hits the market in May or June in mainland Japan and as early as April in Okinawa where the season runs continuous through October. Traditionally caught with pole and line, nets are used to supply lager commercial markets on the mainland. However, it is still caught exclusively with line and pole in Okinawa, according to Kyoko Hirata of Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“The most tasty and well-shaped bonito in Okinawa is caught in May,” says Hayato Gushiken of Motobu Fishermen’s Coop. He adds that the fishing season can run from March to November but, “summertime is nothing but bonito fishing season for us.”

In fact, in Motobu Town, one of Okinawa’s main bonito fishery ports, residents fly “katsuo-nobori,” or bonito banners, instead of the koi-nobori (carp banners) used throughout Japan to celebrate the Children’s Day holiday on May 5.

“When we Motobu people see those banners flying at the port we know bonito season has come,” says Gushiken.

Okinawa used to catch more bonito than any other prefecture in the nation. But wartime battles destroyed most fisheries. Fishing grounds were also claimed for military exercises during the occupation. Along with the postwar construction of U.S. military bases and the rise of the local military economy, these events devastated the Okinawan fishing industry, according to Fujio Ueda, professor emeritus at Okinawa University.

Okinawa’s appetite for bonito, however, remains.

While an average Japanese consumed 309 yen worth of dried bonito in 2017, an average Okinawan consumed 1,003 yen, according to Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.

“Dried bonito is simmered to make a strong thick stock which is indispensable for cooking many Okinawan dishes,” says Ueda. “That is why so much dried bonito is consumed in Okinawa.”

Okinawans also consume a lot of canned bonito and other fish (another local staple) – 2,034 yen worth per person compared to a national average of 921 yen, according the same ministry report.

In fact, all of Japan’s long-term love of bonito is contributing to a shrinking supply, according to Daisuke Nakamura of Kochi Fishermen’s Co-op.

“There are a lot of factors, such as overfishing in the southern ocean, seawater warming and shrinking populations of smaller fish that they feed on,” he says. “The amount of bonito caught in Kochi and fishery ports in mainland Japan have declined significantly in the last decade.”

In Okinawa alone, the annual catch of bonito fell from 55,486 (1974) to 5,256 tons in 1982, and more recently 539 tons in 2018, according to the data of Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. To make up the shortage, more than 30,000 tons of frozen bonito are now imported from Indonesia, the Philippines and other countries annually. Luckily, there’s also still plenty of fresh bonito to be had – especially this time of year.

Bonito spoils easily so it’s best enjoyed soon after it’s caught. Nakamura says the best way to tell if bonito is fresh is to look it dead in the eyes.

“If the eyes are white and cloudy the bonito is not the catch of the day,” he says. So don’t choose it. Try to get one with clean and transparent eyes.”

There are many ways to enjoy the bonito but Okinawa’s Hirata recommends giving Japan’s southern style a try.

“Okinawans usually enjoy raw bonito by dipping it in miso, shekwasha (flat lemon) or red pepper and with awamori (Okinawan liquor),” she says. “You can enrich the flavor in that way.”

However you choose to have your bonito, don’t miss out on an opportunity to try this local delicacy while it’s in season.

All dried up

“Katsuobushi,” or dried bonito, plays a major role in the Japan’s “dashi” (stock) culture. Along with kombu, or dried kelp, it is an indispensable ingredient in miso soup and broths for various types of noodles.

Dried bonito was originally sold in wood-like blocks. A wood planer-like shaver called a “katsuobushi kezuri” was used to shave off the dried flakes for use.

Traditional, katsuobushi is made through a complicated processes that includes simmering, smoking, sun drying and fermenting. The whole process takes more than a month. When perfected, the remaining chunk of dried bonito is less than 20 percent of its original weight.

Today, you can get dried bonito flakes in bags at any grocery store or supermarket. There are several different sizes. The small pink-brown shavings can be used as a flavoring and topping for dishes like savory “okonomiyaki” pancakes, tofu or even pizza and pasta. The large thicker shavings are used to make the various types of stock.

According to Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau’s Kyoko Hirata, there is a simple drink called “kachuuyu” in Okinawa.

“It is a very simple but popular home drink,” she says. “You can make it easily by putting some bonito flakes in a cup and pouring hot water into it.”

“We drink kachuuyu when we feel weak or tired just like an energy drink,” she says.

- Takahiro Takiguchi, Stripes Japan

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