Journey along the Joban Line Part 2: Fabulous fish and food to feast on
Have you tried monkfish hotpot, bonito, grilled sea urchin, wara-natto, or dried sweet potato before? These are just some of the delectable foods that the Joban area is known for. Often overlooked by foreign visitors, the Joban area has a warm climate conducive for growing fruit and vegetables, as well abundant ocean waters teeming with delicious seafood.
Mainly made up of the coastal areas of Ibaraki Prefecture (茨城県 Ibaraki-ken) and Fukushima Prefecture (福島県 Fukushima-ken), the name “Joban” (常磐 Jо̄ban) combines the first characters of the former provinces of Hitachi (常陸) and Iwaki (磐城), which are parts of modern-day Ibaraki, Fukushima, and Miyagi.
Discover the delicious food along the Joban Line. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構 and 茨城県観光物産協会)
In this second part of a 2-part series, we’ll check out fantastic seafood and other delicious thing to eat along the JR Joban Line (常磐線 Jо̄ban-sen)! In case you missed it, you can check out Part 1 for the amazing things to see and do along the Joban Line.
Facing the Pacific Ocean, the coastal areas of Fukushima (and Ibaraki) are blessed by being places where the the warm Kuroshio current (黒潮) mixes with the cold Oyashio current (親潮). Known as Shiome-no-umi (潮目の海 place where currents meet), the waters in these areas have plenty of plankton—the major food source for most fish—which creates good conditions for marine life to thrive. Highly prized for their quality, freshness, and tastiness, the seafood caught off the coast of Iwaki is known as Joban-mono (常磐もの Jо̄ban mono).
The mixing of the Oyashio Current and the Kuroshio Current creates a conducive environment for fish to thrive. (Image credit: JR East/Carissa Loh)
Though blessed with bountiful seafood, Fukushima’s fishing industry was badly affected by the 2011 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami (東日本大震災 Higashi-nihon daishinsai), when the radiation following the nuclear disaster tainted the waters and the land, leading many countries to impose a ban on the import of Fukushima-produced farm and fishery products. For Singapore, the ban on Fukushima products has since been lifted in January 2020, and you can find them in supermarkets now.
In order to win back consumer confidence, Fukushima’s fishery workers, together with Fukushima’s prefectural government, started initiatives like increased monitoring and daily radiation testing. The local radiation testing performed by Fukushima’s fisheries is even stricter than Japan’s national testing standards, and they do it to give customers extra assurance—no Joban-mono seafood makes it to the market unless it has passed the stringent testing processes.
Let’s check some delicious, must-try Joban-mono seafood and dishes you can enjoy them in!
Monkfish hot pot (あんこう鍋)
Monkfish hot pot is a must-try. (Image credit: 茨城県観光物産協会)
One dish that’s a must-try in the Joban area is monkfish hot pot (あんこう鍋 ankо̄ nabe). Monkfish (あんこう ankо̄) are deep-sea fish with a peculiar appearance: a large mouth, jagged teeth, and a flat body. Despite its frightening exterior, monkfish flesh has a mild and sweet flavour, with a dense texture that is similar to scallop or lobster meat.
Monkfish hotpot is a warm and hearty dish best enjoyed during winter between November and March, but it is said that monkfish tastes best when the fat content is highest, between December and February. Although you can enjoy monkfish hotpot in various cities around Ibaraki and Fukushima, they are especially well-loved in Ibaraki’s coastal areas (Oarai, Mito, Hitachinaka, Hitachi, and Kita-Ibaraki) and Fukushima’s Iwaki City (いわき市).
All parts of the monkfish are edible. (Image credit: 茨城県観光物産協会)
Monkfish have large and slippery bodies, which make them difficult to cut on a table or chopping board. Hence, they are hung by the jaw in a traditional method known as tsurushi-giri (吊るし切り) , which means “to cut while hanging”.
Something special about the monkfish is that almost all parts of it are eaten! When cutting up a monkfish, it is usually separated into seven parts—flesh, skin, liver, stomach, fins, gills, ovaries—known as the “seven tools of a monkfish” (あんこうの七つ道具 ankо̄ no nanatsu dо̄gu). All of these are edible.
Ankimo (centre) is sometimes referred to as “foie gras of the sea”. (Image credit: 茨城県観光物産協会)
One particularly coveted “tool” is the monkfish liver, called ankimo (あん肝) in Japanese. Due to its rich taste and smooth texture, ankimo is sometimes referred to as “foie gras of the sea”. Rich in minerals and vitamins, ankimo is said to reduce cholesterol levels in the blood, as well as increase immunity. When you visit the Joban area, don’t forget to try monkfish hotpot and ankimo!
Are you a fan of sea urchin (ウニ uni)? Another famous seafood of the Iwaki region is uni-kai-yaki (ウニ貝焼き), a local dish featuring a luxurious heap of grilled sea urchin.
Uni-kai-yaki: a mountain of golden uni grilled in a shell. (Image credit: いわき観光まちづくりビューロー)
Iwaki is known as the birthplace of uni-kai-yaki, which was started in the Meiji Era as a method to make the sea urchin flesh last longer. Decadent sea urchin is plentifully piled atop an empty surf clam shell, and grilled on small stones. The aroma is mouth-watering and incredibly enticing. Fresh uni-kai-yaki can be enjoyed between May and mid-August; during the rest of the year, they are made with frozen sea urchins.
Fried mehikari is a soul food of Iwaki. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)
A soul food of Iwaki, mehikari (メヒカリ) is a seasonal deep-sea fish known as “greeneyes” in English, and is so named because its eyes glow a green colour. Compared to mehikari from other parts of Japan, Iwaki’s mehikari have thin skin and high fat content, and are best enjoyed deep-fried. The best season to enjoy them is during winter, from January to February.
Mehikari. (Image credit: photoAC)
Mehikari has been well-loved in Fukushima for a very long time, but it was not very popular in other parts of Japan. However, thanks to extensive PR efforts by the city of Iwaki, mehikari is now known nationally! Fun fact: mehikari is Iwaki's city fish, and there is even a character mascot for it, Mepikari (メピカリ).
You’ve probably eaten bonito flakes (かつおぶし katsuobushi), which are used as toppings for dishes like takoyaki and okonomiyaki, but have you tried the actual flesh of the bonito (カツオ katsuo) fish?
Hatsu-gatsuo sashimi is best enjoyed with garlic and ginger. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)
Unlike most fish, bonito (also known as skipjack tuna) has two fishing seasons: one in early summer and one in autumn. This is because bonito is a migratory fish that loves warm water, heading north in search of food in spring, and heading back south in autumn when the northern waters turn cold. Bonito caught in early summer is known as hatsu-gatsuo (初ガツオ), which literally means “first bonito”, and the ones caught in autumn are known as modori-gatsuo (戻り鰹 returning bonito).
Compared to modori-gatsuo, which has more fat to keep the fish warm in cold months, hatsu-gatsuo has leaner meat and a light, refreshing flavour. Since Iwaki’s hatsu-gatsuo is very fresh, it is best enjoyed raw as sashimi, or as tataki (たたき) where the flesh is seared on the outside but remains raw on the inside. Unlike other fish, bonito is usually eaten with garlic and ginger, rather than with wasabi, as garlic and ginger really bring out the flavour of the bonito, and make it even tastier.
Katsuo tataki, cooked on the outside and raw on the inside. (Image credit: いわき観光まちづくりビューロー)
Did you know? There is even a haiku poem by Yamaguchi Sodo from the Edo Period (1603–1868), which describes the arrival of early summer through the senses of sight, sound, and taste:
目に青葉 山ほととぎす 初鰹
Me ni aoba, yama hototogisu, hatsu-gatsuo
It means “See the fresh green leaves, hear the hototogisu (ホトトギス lesser cuckoo) sing, taste the hatsu-gatsuo”. Hatsu-gatsuo has been well-loved since the Edo Period, and people look forward to the arrival of summer in order to eat hatsu-gatsuo.
Katsuo yakibitashi is a delicious local dish. (Image credit: 福島県漁業協同組合連合会)
Bonito is high in vitamins like B1, B2, B12, and D. In addition, it is low in calories and high in protein, making it a popular choice for those who are conscious about their health. If you prefer something cooked, you can try katsuo yakibitashi (カツオ焼きびたし), a local dish where the bonito is grilled in oil and then marinated in a flavourful soy sauce-based broth.
Sanma no popoyaki (サンマのポーポー焼き)
When it comes to autumn, sanma (サンマ Pacific saury) is a representative fish of the season. Although the classic way of eating sanma in Japan is by grilling it, in Iwaki the locals have developed a different way to eat it, in a dish created to suit the palettes of children and those who are sensitive to “fishy” flavours.
Sanma no popoyaki. (Image credit: いわき観光まちづくりビューロー)
Sanma no popoyaki (サンマのポーポー焼き sanma no pо̄pо̄yaki) is a like a grilled hamburger patty. It is said that the name “popo” is an onomatopoeia that comes from the sound that sanma fat makes when it falls on a charcoal fire.
After removing the skin, bones, and innards of the sanma fish, the remaining meat is finely minced, and mixed with spring onions, ginger, and miso. Extra ingredients may be added depending on the cook, and the mixture is shaped into patties and grilled in oil.
In Japan, sanma is usually enjoyed whole. (Image credit: photoAC)
In Japan, sanma fish is usually grilled and eaten whole, but it has many bones and a “fishy” flavour that some people, especially children, might find off-putting. However, sanma no popoyaki gets rid of this “fishiness”, and is well-loved by children of Iwaki.
Another local way to enjoy sanma in Iwaki is sanma no mirinboshi (サンマのみりん干し) (bottom left in the photo above). The fish is cut open and spread flat, soaked in a special sauce that varies with the shop, and then dried. Traditionally, mirin was used in the sauce, hence the name “mirinboshi”, but nowadays shops have come up with their own seasonings and flavours. The completed product has a sweet flavour and soft texture, and goes well with rice or sake.
Hamaguri clams (はまぐり)
Most of the previously mentioned seafood items are famous in Fukushima’s Iwaki region, but Ibaraki’s coastal areas also boast delicious seafood. In particular, large and meaty hamaguri (はまぐり) clams are a must-try. Stretching from Oarai to Hasaki along the eastern coast of Ibaraki, the Kashima shore (鹿島灘 Kashima-nada) has many sandy beaches where tasty hamaguri clams can be found.
Ibaraki is famous for its large hamaguri. (Image credit: 茨城県観光物産協会)
These meaty clams can be up to 10cm in size, and are rich in umami flavour. Although large clams are the specialty of Kashima, local fishermen recommend medium-sized hamaguri around 7–8cm, because their flesh is softer and easier to eat compared to the larger ones.
One of the simplest yet most delicious ways to enjoy hamaguri is by grilling them as yaki-hamaguri (焼きはまぐり grilled hamaguri clams). As you grill them, the flavour-packed clam juice oozes out of the clams, and naturally adds seasoning. Hamaguri is also delicious when eaten as hamaguri sakamushi (はまぐり酒蒸し hamaguri steamed in sake).
Speaking of Ibaraki, one dish that immediately comes to mind for most people, especially when talking about the Mito area, is natto (納豆 nattо̄), which is made by fermenting soy beans.
Natto is made by fermenting soybeans. (Image credit: 茨城県観光物産協会)
Love it or hate it, natto is a staple in Japanese people’s diets, and is a common breakfast item that can be found almost everywhere. Due to the great nutritional value that natto has, even babies are fed natto once they start to wean off milk, and natto is considered by many Japanese people to be a "super food".
Soybeans are very rich in proteins, and known as the "meat of the fields" (畑の肉 hatake-no-niku). Natto is made when boiled soybeans are fermented by a type of bacteria (Bacillus subtilis natto) which likes to live in rice straw. Fermentation not only preserves food and adds nutritional value, it also alters the way the food tastes and looks, giving rise to new flavours and textures.
Traditional wara-natto wrapped in rice straw can still be found in Mito. (Image credit: 茨城県観光物産協会)
Mito is famous for wara-natto (わら納豆wara-nattо̄), where natto is fermented naturally by straw. In the past, people used rice straw as a packaging to wrap food they would bring along for travelling. It is said that natto was discovered when some travellers wrapped some boiled soybeans to take on a journey, but when they removed the straw, they found that stringy bits had formed and a strong smell emanated—what was once boiled soybeans had turned into natto.
Nowadays, the natto bacteria can be grown in laboratories without the need for straw, and natto is mostly sold in plastic containers. However, in Mito, you can still find traditional-style wara-natto sold in rice straw packaging. I have yet to try Mito’s wara-natto, but natto aficionados tell me that the aroma of the rice straw adds a depth of the flavour to the natto, and the straw packing makes for a fun experience!
Natto statue outside JR Mito Station, and Mitochan, who wears a wara-natto hat. (Image credit: 水戸市観光課)
The city of Mito is so synonymous with natto, that there is even a commemorative statue (納豆記念碑 nattо̄ kinenhi) outside the south exit of JR Mito Station (水戸駅). Another interesting bit of information: Mito City's mascot, Mitochan, wears a wara-natto hat! Her hat also features Mito's famous plum blossoms (梅 ume), representative flowers of Mito that you can enjoy in the city's Kairakuen Garden (偕楽園) during spring.
Natto can be used as a topping for many food items. (Image credit: photoAC)
Natto is usually eaten on its own, or as a topping over rice. However, nowadays you can find it incorporated into other foods, such as natto sushi, or even as a pasta topping or a cutlet (カツ katsu) topping. These are good ways to introduce natto to beginners, who might find that the flavour of natto alone is too strong.
Dried sweet potatoes (干しいも)
If you’re craving something sweeter, try some delicious and healthy hoshiimo (干しいも dried sweet potato). Did you know? Ibaraki is the top producer of sweet potatoes in Japan! The Hitachinaka area in particular, is where you can find many sweet potato farms.
Hoshiimo is a healthy snack. (Image credit: 茨城県観光物産協会)
Ibaraki’s well-drained soils allow for the growth of high-quality sweet potatoes, and the dry climate creates good conditions for drying the sweet potatoes. Hoshiimo is a traditional snack made from sweet potatoes that are steamed, peeled, then dried naturally under the sun. With these great conditions, Ibaraki produces a whopping 90% of Japan’s hoshiimo.
Hoshiimo is made by drying sweet potatoes naturally. (Image credit: 茨城県観光物産協会)
The natural drying process shrinks the sweet potatoes, creates a unique texture, increases the nutritional value, and amplifies the flavour, giving hoshiimo a natural sweetness. As hoshiimo is rich in vitamins, dietary fibre, and potassium, it is gaining popularity as a healthy snack. Its chewy texture is similar to dried mango, and has a sweet, chestnut-like flavour.
You can mainly enjoy hoshiimo in two styles:
- maruboshi (丸干し)—sweet potatoes are uncut and remain whole before drying
- hiraboshi (平干し)—sweet potatoes are sliced into thin, wide strips before drying
Would you like to try maruboshi or hiraboshi first? (Image credit: 茨城県観光物産協会)
Both styles are delicious, but if you can only try one, I would recommend maruboshi. Since it is a whole sweet potato, maruboshi takes a longer time to dry (2–3 times longer than hiraboshi), and is thus produced in lower quantities, making it hard to find outside of Ibaraki. It has a higher water content than hiraboshi, with a softer and stickier texture. The sweet potato flavour is also more pronounced in maruboshi!
The Joban Line connects Tokyo with Sendai, passing through delightful places in Ibaraki Prefecture and Fukushima Prefecture’s Hamadori region, where tons of delicious and mouth-watering food await you. When travel to Japan is possible again, let’s hop aboard a train and go on a journey along the Joban Line!
JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)
The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)
If you are thinking of exploring the Joban Line, check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥20,000, it offers considerable savings. You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, here.
The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.
Header image credit: 東北観光推進機構 and 茨城県観光物産協会