When Brian and I thought up this trip’s itinerary to Japan, we wanted to go a little off the regular cities to visit. Hence, with the benefit of a 2 week long Japan Rail Pass (unlimited Bullet Train and JR travels), we ventured towards Hokkaido’s far eastern shores – stumbling unto the misty port town of Kushiro. As the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) puts it, Kushiro is home to the country’s largest marshland and is a city that plays a leading role in eastern Hokkaido’s politics, economics and culture. With such an alluring descriptive and that it was also the most populous city in Eastern Hokkaido, both Brian and myself were expecting a city that was bustling with life and culture. But alas, apart from the excellent array of seafood and robtayaki, Kushiro really was a town that is a shadow of its former self.
Our arrival at Kushiro JR station was met with few travellers around. It was pretty much a desolate start and we were probably one of a handful of international visitors (literally) to the city.
Perhaps it was the tail end of winter, and that many people were out at work. But it became pretty obvious that with many shops shuttered along the way and with extremely smooth traffic, this was a city that went beyond what I imagined as Eastern Hokkaido’s culture and political bastion.
The light changes for no traffic. We were really wondering how we were going to spend three days in this city.
Nonetheless, despite the town’s strange peacefulness, we popped by the Washo Fish Market located just a 5 minutes walk from the Kushiro JR station for some lunch. This is probably one of the first stops any visitor should make. Apart from the wide variety of seafood that includes king crabs, hairy crabs and more, Kushiro is also informally the home of the Katte-don (customizable sashimi rice bowl).
Stores were opened with plenty of produce out for sale. Just that there were few customers. I reckoned Kushiro exports most of its harvest.
Hairy Crabs and King Crab legs for sale. A big bag of King Crab legs (about 8-12 pieces) goes for about 2000 JPY – a bargain if you ask me.
Hairy Crabs ready to eat!
The Sashimi store that I was going to visit (on the right).
Deeper in the centre of the market, there were two stores that sold an assortment of sashimi and seafood for you to top onto your rice bowl. Look at the prices! A platter of Uni costs 300 JPY, and a bowl of Ikura is 200 JPY.
To begin your serving of Katte don, head on to the neighbouring restaurant and purchase a bowl of rice. Each bowl comes in varying portions and prices of 100 JPY, 200 JPY and 300 JPY. If you figure that you would love a bigger bowl of rice with all that seafood goodness topped onto it, get the largest serving.
Brian’s Katte Don of Tamago, Salmon, Hotate, Ikura, Chutoro, and some other fresh fish. Comfort food and ingredients!
I figured that I would try some other unique items. For me, I ordered two different types of sea urchin, botan ebi, ikura, ootoro, King salmon, Hotate, and a portion of baby ikura. The total cost for this rice bowl? 2180 JPY. I was astounded by the variety, freshness and novelty.
Me and the store owner pose for a photo after a very satisfying meal.
After lunch, we did not really know what else to do. I figured that since we were at a proper fish market, it was perhaps time to tuck in to some live crabs.
While many stores were selling bags of King Crab legs, I wanted to sample the freshest ingredients and demanded that the crabs are alive just minutes before cooking. Previously at Nijo Market in Sapporo, a live King Crab went for approximately 10,000 to 15,000 JPY. Now and at the boondocks of Eastern Hokkaido, the smallest live King Crab that I could find (which was already pretty big) was sold to me for approximately 6,400 JPY. After the store owner chose the crab for me, she threw it into the steamer oven and allowed the crab to cook for a good 30 – 40 minutes.
Once ready, the crab was quickly cut into smaller portions.
While I did not relish the use of green paper (it seemed like a surgeon’s mat), the crab’s sweet scent and juiciness simply stood out.
Each portion was luscious and warm, with a tender meatiness that brimmed full of sea salty sweetness. I thoroughly enjoyed this. Also, while it is common to enjoy the crab legs, I found the King Crab’s body to be even tastier. The meat within was sweeter, and there was a degree of heartiness that encapsulated the warmth from the steam oven. Gorgeous.
The exploration carried on a little more after lunch and we headed to the Fishermen’s Wharf MOO. MOO stands for “Marine Our Oasis” and it also symbolically represents the Japanese pronunciation for fog. Distinctively, there are two buildings conencted to each other. One is a greenhouse that features a small variety of plants and trees that provide a little warmth from the colder winter winds. The other is the MOO building where there is shopping on the first floor. The upper floors are quieter with a mini museum/exhibition dedicated to showcasing the city’s history and sightseeing spots.
No surprises as stores were opened with hardly any shoppers around. I’m really suspecting that because we arrived the week after Golden Week, the place is in an extreme lull period.
A unique novelty – the Sub Marine Catcher. For 300 JPY, try your hand at catching a live hairy crab – worth about 4000-5000 JPY. Alas, I was short of 100 JPY to even try.
Outside the MOO, take a glimpse at the vastness of the Sea of Okhotsk.
As night was quickly settling in, Brian and I were looking for the famed Robtayaki for an early dinner. While one could easily pop in to one of the restaurants along Sake street, we were determined to find the outdoor seafood grilling experience. It was only after an hour’s walk circling the city and ending up back at the MOO that we discovered the Robtayaki season would only begin the very next day. We considered our good fortune that at least one of the city’s highlights could still be enjoyed during our stay.
Kushiro is definitely a city that is a distinct difference from the region’s capital. While the 4 hour train ride from Sapporo might not seem extremely long, the visit was a stark contrast from the more populous and city bustle that both of us were used to. Day 1 in Kushiro was an experience all in itself. But before we ventured out to discover the outskirts of the city, both Brian and I decided to retire early for the day at Kushiro’s Comfort Hotel. Somehow the allure of Robatayaki the next day and possibly immersing oneself in beautiful landscapes made this a distinct adventure all by itself.
Kushiro Shitsugen National Park