The town of Kushiro is perhaps most famous for its massive wetland that lies just north of the city. Kushiro Shitsugen Wetland is the largest wetland in Japan, designated as a National Natural Monument in 1967. It was once part of the sea but after the waters receded, peat started piling up on residue lake: forming the current wetland’s structure that is rich in biodiversity. Brian and I started our exploration early in the morning by hopping onto a bus that took us past Kushiro’s suburbs and right out of town.
The first thing to note is that Kushiro Shitsugen Wetland is massive. Its scale demands multiple viewing points, and best appreciated with a good pair of binoculars. After a half hour ride out, we arrived at the observatory.
It was a good trek out to the viewing point. In the slightly chilly morning of a waning winter, the air was fresh and delightfully different from what you get in the city. I loved that there were not many tourists, making the visit exceptionally peaceful and private.
Kushiro Shitsugen Wetlands – 269 sq km wide.
The wetlands is also popular with photographers who come specifically to capture memories of Japanese cranes that were thought to be extinct back in the early 20th century. Still, the wetlands are but a shadow of its past as there has been a decrease in wetland over the years. Nevertheless, when one is out here, it is hard to not simply sit on a bench, gaze into the open while embracing the chilly air and reflect.
Apart from the famous Katte-don, Kushiro is also well known as the birth place of robatayaki. 15th May marked the start of Spring and the robatayaki season. We were really fortunate as having arrived on the 14th of May, both Brian and I expected to tuck in to some grilled seafood over a charcoal fire during the first day. Thankfully, we noticed the little sign on the tentage outside the MOO which indicated that we were only a day too early.
While the city is almost still during the day, the covered robatayaki tent was brimming with customers after the sun went past the horizon. It was sheer delight for us urban boys to once again note some life in what we expected to be a forgotten city.
Each store carried an assortment of seafood, meats, prepared Japanese snacks and alcohol to accompany the entire grilling experience. After exchanging our yen for some coupons and getting a seat and charcoal grill, we started walking around.
I have to admit that the robatayaki experience is one heartwarming experience that I will not forget. In the midst of the chilly, slowly declining winter, having piping hot food that is naturally sweet from all the sea ingredients and vegetables leaves a lasting memory that deserves a place in my heart.
If you have the opportunity, do order the king crab with cabbage and sea urchin. As the dish slowly cooks over the fire, the crab juices sweetly makes its way down, simmering the chopped cabbage to a tender bite. The sea urchin adds a deeper, hearty flavour that simply leaves you wanting more. Expensive at about 2000 JPY, but well worth it.
Grilled fish, Pork belly with leeks, bacon and cheese roll, squid.
When the squid was almost done, the staff graciously came over to help us cut it up and with a little sauce over an aluminium foil, this became a quick dish of sauteed squid.
Sanma! One of my favourite fishes to enjoy.
Now this was the highlight of our meal – Scallops with Butter and Corn. While butter and corn is already a divine combination, the base ingredient of one humongous scallop that simmered in all the flavours was the sole attraction. Little more seasoning was necessary, and all that was left was to enjoy the marbled tenderness of scallop coupled with the buttery, crisp fragrance of corn. Excellent.
Robatayaki Grilled Oysters – The plumpest you’ll ever see for 350 yen.
From our morning trip to Shitsugen National Park and then rounding off the day with Robatayaki, this was certainly a wonderful experience through and through. The robatayaki experience is certainly worth spending a little bit more for (we each paid about 4000 yen per person) as the entire dinner was certainly much more than simply the food itself. From the boisterous groups that ‘ganbai-ed’ every other moment, to the aromatic whiffs of charred seafood and if you’re lucky, the sun setting beautifully over the horizon, this was one experience that marked a slice of Japanese culture. Beautiful, and memorable.