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Treasures of Toyama Part 1: Fantastic fish and blessings from the bay

Treasures of Toyama Part 1: Fantastic fish and blessings from the bay

Blessed with the beautiful blue waters of the Sea of Japan and the soaring mountains of the Tateyama Mountain Range, Toyama Prefecture (富山県 Toyama-ken) in the Hokuriku Region is a treasure trove filled with incredibly sumptuous seafood, enchanting nature, and unique traditions. With the extension of the Hokuriku Shinkansen in 2015, travelling time to Toyama from Tokyo was cut to just over 2 hours, making it a convenient trip from the capital.

 

You may have heard of Toyama for its most famous attraction, the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route (立山黒部アルペンルート), but other than this majestic mountain route, Toyama Prefecture has a plethora of other glittering gems waiting to be discovered, especially around Toyama Bay.

 

Did you know that Toyama has the most delicious yellowtail in Japan (as well as the highest consumption of yellowtail in Japan)? Or that Toyama Bay has the highest frequency of mirages appearing in Japan? In this first part of a two-part special on Toyama, let’s explore some of the treasures and treats that the waters of Toyama Bay have in store for us!

 

A year of bounties from the bay

Located along the coast of the Sea of Japan, and blessed with deep waters and a narrow continental shelf, Toyama Bay (富山湾 Toyama-wan) is the perfect place for fish to inhabit, and is an abundant source of delicious seafood. The bay’s deepest part is over 1,000m below sea level, and provides a fertile environment for a rich variety of marine species to thrive.

 

The four representative fish of Toyama. (Image credit: とやま観光推進機構 and JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

At Toyama Bay, the warm Tsushima Current meets with the cold deep-sea water, creating an environment with a lot of plankton, which is the major food source for most fish. Nutrient-rich water from the 3,000m high Tateyama Mountains also flows into the bay, which creates circulation and further contributes to the fertile environment. Toyama Bay truly has a unique location and unrivalled conditions that are perfect for nurturing delicious seafood.

 

Toyama Bay has fresh and delicious seafood. (Image credit: とやま観光推進機構)

 

Due to the narrow continental shelf, the fishing grounds of Toyama Bay are very close to the ports and cities, so the fish are still extremely fresh when they reach consumers. This has earned Toyama Bay the nickname of being a “natural fish tank” (天然の生け簀 ten’nen no ikesu), because the variety and freshness of the fish you can eat at Toyama is like taking a fish from a tank! Toyama's fish is so fresh that the locals have a special word in their dialect to describe it: kitokito (きときと), which means “fresh like it has just been caught”.

 

Let’s check out four of Toyama’s representative seafood delicacies, which have their own “titles” and specific season of the year to be best enjoyed:

 

Spring: firefly squid, the Mystery of Toyama Bay

Hotaru ika, the Mystery of Toyama Bay. (Image credit: とやま観光推進機構)

 

Known as the “Mystery of Toyama Bay” (富山湾の神秘 Toyama-wan no shinpi), you can’t mention Toyama without thinking of hotaru ika (ホタルイカ firefly squid), which happens to be a personal favourite of mine. These small squids are so named because of the bioluminescent light they emit, which make them look like fireflies lighting up the sea with a mysterious blue glow.

 

If you visit Namerikawa City (滑川市 Namerikawa-shi) between March and May, when hotaru ika rise to the surface to spawn, you can even go on early morning boat tours to get a closer look at hotaru ika glowing in the open sea.

 

Hotaru ika okizuke is said the be the most delicious way to enjoy this delicacy. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

But rather than looking at hotaru ika, you must try eating them! A well-loved spring delicacy, hotaru ika can be enjoyed in a variety of ways, but many Japanese people will tell you that okizuke (沖漬け) is the most highly recommended.

 

Oki” means “open sea”, and “zuke” means “pickled”, and its name comes from the unique way that the dish is prepared—right after being caught in the sea, the hotaru ika are marinated on the fishing vessel, in a mixture of sake (酒 rice wine) and shoyu (醤油 soy sauce), a process that gives them an unbelievably fresh flavour. Hotaru ika okizuke goes great with alcoholic beverages, and is a staple at many izakaya (居酒屋 Japanese pubs). Yum yum!

 

Summer: white shrimp, the Jewels of Toyama Bay

Shiroebi, the Jewels of Toyama Bay. (Image credit: とやま観光推進機構)

 

When summer comes around, the delish dish to enjoy in Toyama is shiroebi (白エビ white shrimp). These tiny shrimps have beautiful and translucent light-pink flesh, earning them the nickname of “Jewels of Toyama Bay” (富山湾の宝石 Toyama-wan no hо̄seki). Shiroebi are rare shrimp can only be caught in large amounts at Toyama Bay and nowhere else in the world, making them a highly sought-after delicacy.

 

Unlike other shrimps, shiroebi do not turn red when heated. Their extremely sweet flesh makes delicious sashimi, but they can also be enjoyed dried in senbei, or battered and deep-fried as kakiage. Another popular way to enjoy these sweet shrimps is the shiroebi burger, which consists of a patty made of fried shiroebi.

 

Autumn: red snow crab, the Rising Sun of Toyama Bay

Beni-zuwaigani, the Rising Sun of Toyama Bay. (Image credit: とやま観光推進機構)

 

Autumn is a season often associated with the colour red, and other than the leaves turning red, you can also enjoy red snow crab, beni-zuwaigani (紅ズワイガニ). Dubbed the “Rising Sun of Toyama Bay” (富山湾の朝陽 Toyama-wan no asahi), beni-zuwaigani gets its name from the beautiful red colour it turns when cooked, which is said to resemble the rising sun over Toyama Bay. But other than for its stunning red colour, this crab is prized for its succulent and sweet meat.

 

Enjoy sweet and delicious crab dishes in Toyama. (Image credit: とやま観光推進機構)

 

Usually inhabiting the deep-sea at depths of 800m and below, beni-zuwaigani take 8–10 years to grow, giving them an exceptional flavour and sweetness. You might have the image that crabs are a winter delicacy, but beni-zuwaigani come into season a few months earlier than other crabs like Echizen crabs (越前ガニ Echizen-gani) and snow crabs (ズワイガニ zuwaigani). Although they can be caught between September and May, they are known to be an autumn specialty, and are currently being promoted as the representative autumn seafood of Toyama. 

 

Crabs caught in Toyama Bay are exceptionally fresh due to the short distance between the deep fishing grounds and ports, so you can enjoy a variety of fresh and delicious crab cuisine when you visit Toyama.

  

Winter: winter yellowtail, the King of Toyama Bay

Winter yellowtail, the King of Toyama Bay. (Image credit: とやま観光推進機構)

 

Finally, in winter, from late November until February, you can enjoy the “King of Toyama Bay” (富山湾の王者 Toyama-wan no о̄ja), kanburi (寒ブリ winter yellowtail), which is undeniably the most iconic of all of Toyama Bay’s fantastic fish. While regular yellowtail can be enjoyed all year round, there is something special about winter yellowtail that makes it extra delicious: the flavour-packed, melt-in-your-mouth fat.

 

How winter yellowtail end up in Toyama Bay. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

To understand why winter yellowtail is so special, let’s take a look at its lifespan and spawning habits. Yellowtail are born in Kyushu in the south of Japan during spring. As they grow, they ride the Tsushima Current towards Hokkaido during summer and autumn to search for food.

 

During winter, yellowtail swim from Hokkaido back to Kyushu, in order to spawn. To make this long journey, they build up a thick layer of fat to store energy, but on the way to Kyushu some yellowtail get trapped by the Noto Peninsula, and end up in Toyama Bay, where they are caught.

 

Winter yellowtail has a higher fat content and melt-in-your-mouth texture. (Image credit: とやま観光推進機構)

 

The winter yellowtail that end up in Toyama have a high fat content, which makes their meat very tender with a melt-in-your-mouth texture, and extra depth of flavour. I personally enjoy eating kanburi as sashimi in order to really savour the flavour and enjoy the texture, but another popular way to eat it is as burishabu (ブリしゃぶ), where you dip thin slices of the fish into hot water and cook it lightly. Just so you know, the yellowtail that make it past the Noto Peninsula lose their fat by the time they reach Kyushu and spawn, so for delicious yellowtail, you definitely want that flavourful fat!

 

In particular, the city of Himi (氷見市 Himi-shi) produces some of the best winter yellowtail, which need to meet selective weight and fat content criteria in order to be certified with the Himi kanburi (氷見寒ブリ) brand. 

 

Toyama’s three prefectural fish: hotaru ika, shiroebi, and kanburi. (Image credit: とやま観光推進機構)

 

Together with hotaru ika and shiroebi, kanburi is one of Toyama’s three prefectural fishes. Not all prefectures in Japan have a prefectural fish, and if they do, they usually have just one. However, Toyama has not one, not two, but three prefectural fish, which goes to show how important the fishing industry is, and how abundant the waters of Toyama Bay are.

 

Feast on the season’s best catches

Other than the four fish I’ve just mentioned, there are hundreds of other delicious fish that can be caught from the waters of Toyama Bay. It is said that of the 800 marine species that live in the Sea of Japan, a whopping 500 of them can be found at Toyama Bay, and around 200 of them are caught for food!

 

An autumn/winter set of Toyama Bay Sushi. (Image credit: 天然の生け簀 富山湾鮨)

 

If you want to indulge a little, try out a delicious and decadent platter of Toyama Bay Sushi (富山湾鮨 Toyama-wan sushi), a premium set of 10 sushi that features the best local catches of the season, with flavours and freshness that you can only experience in Toyama. Another characteristic of Toyama Bay Sushi is that it uses tasty Toyama-produced rice, which grows well due to the pure meltwater from Toyama’s soaring 3,000m high mountains. The sets can be enjoyed all-year-round, cost between ¥2,500–3,850, and can be found at these shops around Toyama Prefecture.

 

A "catch of the day" sushi platter at a local restaurant in August. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Did you know? Toyama has one of the highest number of sushi shops per capita in Japan, so it's not hard to find fresh sushi, especially given the proximity to the fishing grounds. If you don't want to splurge on a Toyama Bay Sushi Set, many restaurants serve up affodrable sushi platters featuring their recommended catches of the day, which is a good way to taste the delicacies of the season. One thing is for sure—you cannot visit Toyama and not try its delicious seafood!

 

Masuzushi

Though not technically from the sea, another unique fish dish to try in Toyama, and popular as an ekiben (駅弁 lunch box to eat on the train), is masuzushi (ます寿し)—salt-cured trout on vinegared rice, wrapped in bamboo leaves.

 

Masuzushi is a popular souvenir from Toyama. (Image credit: とやま観光推進機構)

 

It usually comes in a round, cake-like box made of bamboo. Doesn’t it look fun to eat? Masuzushi is also famous as a souvenir from Toyama, and can be bought at train stations, supermarkets, and masuzushi specialty stores around the city.

 

Masuzushi was originally made with sakuramasu (サクラマス cherry salmon, a type of sea trout) caught from the Jinzu River (神通川 Jinzū-gawa), but population dwindled, making them difficult to catch. Nowadays, cultivated sakuramasu is used, though efforts to increase the wild population are underway.

 

Masuzushi can last a longer time compared to regular sushi. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

To make masuzushi, salt-cured slices of the sakuramasu are placed atop a bed of vinegared rice, and tightly wrapped in bamboo leaves to minimise oxidation. The vinegar and bamboo leaves preserve the rice and fish, enabling the dish to be kept for a longer period of time. This made masuzushi very popular during the Edo Period (1603–1898), when travellers had to make long treks from Toyama to Tokyo. Although the Hokuriku Shinkansen enables us to travel between Toyama and Tokyo in hours instead of days, we can still enjoy some delicious masuzushi like the people of the past did!

 

Kurozukuri

Left to right: Kurozukuri served at a restaurant, and kurozukuri bought from a supermarket. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

If you are slightly more adventurous, why not have a taste of kurozukuri (黒作り), a somewhat more unusual local delicacy? Surume ika (スルメイカ Japanese flying squid) caught from Toyama Bay is cut into thin slices, mixed with squid ink and squid innards, and fermented. The squid ink reduces the "fishy" odour, so there is less of a smell compared to regular shiokara. Kurozukuri is great as a side dish for alcoholic beverages, and also geoes well as a topping for rice.

 

When I first tried kurozukuri, I was instantly hooked, and look forward to eating it every time I visit Toyama! You can buy packets or bottles of kurozukuri from local supermarkets in Toyama, and bring them back home to enjoy. Since they are a type of preserved food, they can last for a while. 

  

Mysterious mirages

A mirage of a boat on Toyama Bay. (Image credit: 魚津市)

 

Other than fish, another special thing you can observe at Toyama Bay, particularly around the eastern city of Uozu (魚津), is a mysterious phenomenon known as mirages (蜃気楼 shinkirо̄). A mirage is an optical phenomenon that occurs when layers of air have different densities, refracting light in the atmosphere to create upside-down or elongated images of distant scenery.

 

Appearance of mirages have a high frequency at Toyama Bay. (Image credit: 魚津市)

 

Mirages require specific temperature and wind conditions to be seen, but the frequency of mirages at Uozu is considerably high, drawing many visitors who come to try their luck at observing this unusual phenomenon. The waters of Toyama Bay are famous for producing mirages, especially during spring from late March to early June, between 11:00–16:00 when the daytime temperatures increase.

 

Amaharashi Coast

View of the Tateyama Mountain Range from Amaharashi Coast. (Image credit: とやま観光推進機構)

 

Saving the best for last, an iconic scenery of Toyama Bay is the captivating view from the Amaharashi Coast (雨晴海岸 Amaharashi-kaigan), where you can see the 3,000m-high Tateyama Mountains looking back at you from across the deep blue waters of Toyama Bay. This view is especially enchanting on clear days during winter and spring, when the snow-capped peaks of the soaring mountains stand out against the azure sky and sapphire sea.

 

View of Toyama Bay and the snow-capped Tateyama Mountain Range from JR Amaharashi Station. (Image credit: まちゃー/PIXTA)

 

This sight is not just limited to the beach though, even from JR Amaharashi Station (雨晴駅) on the JR Himi Line, you can gaze at the soaring mountains right from the station platform. JR Amaharashi Station is located very close to the sea, and on some sections of the Himi Line leading up to the station, the train tracks run so close to the shore it’s almost like you’re travelling over the water! Needless to say, the view from the train is ama-harashi-zing.

 

Tip: Sit on the right side on the train when travelling from Takaoka Station towards Amaharashi Station for the best views!

 

Getting there

Toyama Prefecture is filled with tons of treasures and treats just waiting for you. Be sure to check them out the next time you visit! Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, where we introduce more of Toyama’s treasures from the mountains and the cities.

 

JR Toyama Station (富山駅) is approximately a 2-hour ride on the Hokuriku Shinkansen from JR Tо̄kyо̄ Station (東京駅), making it a very quick and convenient getaway.

 

Hokuriku Arch Pass

The Hokuriku Arch Pass is a convenient way to get around the Hokuriku Region. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you are visiting Toyama and the Hokuriku Region, check out the Hokuriku Arch Pass, an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on Hokuriku Shinkansen, as well as JR East and JR West lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 7 consecutive days.

 

At only ¥24,500 when purchased overseas, it costs less than a round trip between Tokyo and Toyama (~¥26,000), and is cheaper than the 7-day Nationwide Japan Rail Pass. In addition, pass holders can get discounts for various other transport passes and admission fees, which you can check here.

 

Header image credit: とやま観光推進機構 and まちゃー/PIXTA

 

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