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Whipping Winds & Whale Meat Soup: Minamikayabe (Hakodate)


BGM: Wild Child by Enya

The New Year's holiday was approaching and my good friends Shiori and Masaru invited me to spend it with their respective families on both ends of the Japanese archipelago. We would be diving into a cornucopia of traditional foods, soaking in volcanic hot springs and seeing different sides of Japanese culture. How could I possibly pass up such a splendid opportunity?


I took the JR Hakodate Line out of Sapporo Station and with face glued to the frosty train window, watched gentle snow-covered rolling hills and rugged, rocky coastline scroll past as we coasted through "Do-nan," the southern part of Hokkaido (the part that looks like a curly-Q). Though the light of day was disappearing rapidly, I could make out a smoking Showa-Shinzan volcano and steam spewing from various hot springs resorts along the way. As a closet geologist, this really got the percolator of my curiosity a-boiling!

I got off the train at Mori Station (the end of the line) near a smoking and too-close-for-comfort Mt. Komagatake. Shiori and Masaru were already there waiting for me with huge grins and open arms, but we had to hurry, they said: the volcano could blow at any moment! We piled into their tiny car and drove down the coast to Minamikayabe, a small fishing village straddling Uchiura Bay and the open Pacific. Driving up the mountainside, we pulled up to a good-sized split-level home facing the ocean, cheerfully decorated with little pots of lovingly manicured bonsai trees. This was where Masaru's family lived. The view from the hilltop took my breath away. But so did the freezing wind -so cold that it was hard to take a straight picture:


A New Year's storm was threatening to bring the usual blustery gales and blizzard conditions to the island chain, but that would be no problem in this warm house of family love. Masaru and Shiori presented the family with their new pet, just rescued from Yodobashi Camera in Sapporo.


After settling in and many rounds of booming laughter, Masaru's mom announced that it was time for us to help with the New Year's preparations. Traditional osechi ryori (New Year's dishes) in Japan often reflect the personal tastes of the families who make it, many containing specialties unique to a particular region. There are standards of course, like sweet black beans, red and white kamaboko fish cake, boiled shrimp, etc. And those would be included in this year's menu, but with a few special Minamikayabe additions! We would be cooking enough food for the next three days, so nobody would have anything else to do except eat and relax. Having raised a big family with several grand-kids, Masaru's mom was an expert at doling out the work. Masaru was in charge of shaving the katsuobushi (dried bonito). Shiori would be heating the kaki-fry (oyster croquettes) and chopping carrots. The kids would pat mochi cakes with dad into shape and peel ginko nuts for chawanmushi (steamed custard). I would be shucking scallops the size of my hand! Cool!


Mom prepared a rather intriguing array of foods that night, with everything from shirako (cod sperm) to sea cucumber pickled in miso. But my heart skipped a beat when Shiori turned to me and with a twinkle in her eye, whispered "whale meat!"


Now this posed a little dilemma for me. Shiori knew well that I'd spent the past year studying Japan's controversial whaling industry for my thesis and was a little worried about how I'd react. As Masaru's mom carefully sliced the meat for sashimi (the rest would go into the special New Year's ozoni soup), Shiori discussed the matter with her a little. She then turned to me and said that I wasn't obligated to partake. This minke meat was a gift from a family acquaintance.

I knew well that after WWII, American military general Douglas MacArthur encouraged the Japanese people to keep taking whale as a much-needed source of meat, since food was scarce and starvation rampant (besides, the US needed the whale oil). Back in the States, we were never told how Japan had to suffer through starvation and struggle to claw its way out of severe post-war depression. To the average Japanese in their fifties and sixties, whale meat symbolizes austerity and sacrifice. Some think it is a delicious delicacy, yet for many others, it helps them remember all they've had to overcome. That was something I could easily respect. Besides, my country nearly wiped out whales altogether during the 1800's, single-handedly. So our hands aren't so clean on this issue at all.

I'll let you guess as to whether or not I tried some of the whale meat soup. (I love a good teaser, don't you?) :-)

Okay. Teaser time over. I have no shame. I tried it. And you know what? It was really good! The minke had a pork-like taste, very oily with a slight hint of fishiness and a gamey bite like deer meat. It was a little tough like overcooked beef, but not unpleasantly so. Together with pungent burdock root, sweet carrots and onions, it made a hearty, satisfying soup. I didn't have the guts to try the sashimi. That soup was more than enough guilt for one night. But I was thankful for this rare, cultural experience and for their kind generosity.

(Update from 2012: I've since become a vegetarian).

Posted by GenkiLee 05:39 Archived in Japan Tagged hokkaido minamikayabe hakodate oshogatsu whale_meat

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