The famous tourist attraction up here is the strip of pine-clad sandy beach, Amanohashidate, (the Bridge to the Heavens). It has been inspiring beachgoers and those of a poetic bent for centuries, and the classic way to view it is upside-down, bent over, peering through your own legs. Quite why, no-one seems to know
The skies are a perfect cobalt blue as I jump into the Alfa and speed up the Kyoto Jukando expressway towards the Japan Sea coast, and the region of Northern Kyoto Prefecture known as Tango.
This fine late-June morning, however, I am in search of another famous Tango beauty, Fulvia Mutica. No, that’s not a type of Italian sports car. It’s the common-or-garden shellfish, the cockle.
For those like myself, raised in the North of the United Kingdom, cockles conjure up images of childhood holidays spent by windswept beaches, icy unforgiving seas, and weather-beaten beachfront wooden shacks, where more often than not the hand-painted signs reading ‘Cockles, Whelks and Mussels’ had been reduced to ‘ockles, Wheks and ussels’ by the mischievous salt-filled winds.
The cockles themselves were all too often briny, sand-filled, small pieces of grizzle, yet they were redolent of holiday treats, and a brief respite from the quotidian rigors of textbooks, chalk and permanently irate schoolteachers. Cockles weren’t exactly gourmet fare, but they were redolent of freedom. As I speed North up the highway, I realize I probably haven’t eaten a cockle since 1973.
“Welcome to Tango, John-san,” says the smiling, sun-bronzed gentleman, as I step from the car onto the dockside in the small town of Miyazu. Seagulls screech in the distance, and the overwhelming salty-fishy aroma of any fishing port worldwide fills the air. It isn’t Filey, or Morecambe, or Whitby, but already I feel at home.
My guide for the day is Mr. Yasushi Hondo, a true gentleman of the sea, full of laughter, wry humor and a font of knowledge on all things sea-related, not least the Tango torigai, the Tango Cockle.
“You picked a great day for it”, Honda-san says with a smile. “Up here in the winter, when we go out on the boats just after dawn, you are lucky if you can see your hand in front of you through the sleet and snow”.
On this beautiful June morning, Miyazu is a haven of tranquility, almost bucolic, but the winters here are indeed fierce, and many young Tango-ites head for the big cities, often never to return. Rural communities across Japan face a similar problem, but spirited groups of locals are trying to reverse that trend, and draw residents and visitors back to the countryside. The rural food culture is, naturally, a major selling point.
“I too have lived and worked all over Japan”, explains Hondo-san, “but I came back and have been raising cockles, mussels, and various shellfish here for the last seven years”. In his previous existence, Hondo-san worked for 23 years as a researcher for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, undoubtedly a stable and well-paid job compared with the vagaries of nature and a life dependent upon the weather, the tides and the whims of the sea.
“It’s certainly not the easiest way to make a living,” Honda-san concedes. “My grandparents, and my mother and father could make decent money selling asari clams to the small retailers up and down the Tango coastline, but in the modern day selling produce through local government controlled markets, with their ‘set pricing’ and rigid quotas and endless regulations makes it quite tough”.
It’s easy to see that Hondo-san is far happier on his boat and his cockle rafts than sitting through local government and fishermen’s union meetings, so without further ado we put on our sea boots and head for his boat, the Kaname Maru.
Miyazu bay is the perfect place to cultivate shellfish. It’s where the pure water flowing from the mountains of the Tango peninsula meets the plankton-filled currents of the Japan Sea. As the waters move down the bay, they pool in a spiral, right in front of the Miyazu harbor walls.
This is where the vital oxygen-giving mobo seaweed ‘fields’ were traditionally found. Until recently it was assumed that they had disappeared forever, due to environmental pollution from fertilizers and household waste. However a Kyoto University professor recently discovered the mobo is making a return. The discovery of the life-giving plants moved him nearly to tears.
“Any sea that produces shellfish in abundance is a fertile sea”, explains Hondo-san, and Miyazu bay is no exception. The large predatory ocean fish don’t enter its waters, so it’s a haven for aji horse-mackerel, kurodai black porgy, aobasami blue crabs, kaki oysters, madako octopus, koika squid and above all torigai cockles, both farmed and wild.
“Torigai are actually quite delicate,” Hondo-san explains. “If you press really hard on the shell, it’ll break. This makes them easy prey for crabs and the like, so its not only humans who are drawn to cockles. So is much of the ocean”.
Unlike in my dear and distant homeland, cockles are regarded as a delicacy here in Japan, particularly in the Kansai region to the West. They are hardly found in Tokyo, though the capital’s gourmets are more than happy to pay a premium to have the best specimens shipped up to the expensive restaurants of Ginza. Similarly minded customers in Hong Kong and Russia have shown interest in importing.
“That’s all well and good”, says Hondo-san, “but as fishermen we hope that everyone, not just the rich, can taste our finest products. Ironically, most of the people around here buy their fish at a supermarket, and have never tasted the finest seafood, even though it comes from here. I served locally-caught octopus to thirty-seven people here last week and they all agreed they’d never tasted it this good”.
Hondo-san's quality shellfish don't happen by accident. "It's important not to be too greedy," he explains. "Some cockle producers overstress their cockle beds, trying to extract as much value as possible from, very large seed stocks. Typically, they can only harvest 30 per cent. We let our beds lie fallow every now and then, not harvesting, and as a result we get 50 to 70% highest quality shellfish".
"Hey John, pull up one of the crates will you, he says". I'm standing on the cockle raft, a pontoon-like structure that Hondo-san and his wife built themselves, its hinoki cedar planks and struts held together with rope, no nails. The cockle crates are filled with anthracite charcoal, baby cockles - 20 yen a shot from the local cooperative - and laid to rest on ropes about 2 meters below the pontoon. Hondo-san seeds the cockle beds in July, harvesting the largest specimens in April and May of the following year.
Jellyfish and horse mackerel swirl around the cockle, charcoal-sand and water filled crate, as I pull on the rope to bring it to the surface. At first it's easy, but once the crate breaks water, however, and its buoyancy disappears, and I'm hauling on what feels like a ton of bricks. Hondo-san comes to the rescue, and together we haul the precious treasure onto the raft.
I pull around ten torigai from the crate, haul up another, and do the same. Tango Torigai are splendid things, much larger than most cockles, weighty with delicious promise, rightly famed as the best in Japan. The sun is beginning to sink behind the Tango mountains, and before we head back to shore Hondo-san casually casts a fishing rod over the side of the Kaname Maru. Within minutes he hauls in a horse mackerel, followed by another and another and another.
Hondo-san laughs. "One of the great things about living next to the ocean is that you never have to worry about shopping for dinner." If his countenance is anything to go by, a dies of Tango cockles and seafood is clearly a good thing. If only I didn't have to drive back to Kyoto.
When to eat
June to July. Cockles from the Inland Sea come into season earlier, in April and May.
Where to eat
Upscale kappo-style restaurants, especially in Kansai, feature torigai during the summer months.
You can cook Tango cockles, perhaps as sakamushi - steamed with sake - but their delicate flavor is best au naturel as sashimi.
Cockles are low in fat and high in protein, and chock full of the essential amino acid taurine. They aid recovery from exhaustion, provide nutrition, boost the immune system, prevention arteriosclerosis, relieve high blood pressure and anemia, lower blood sugar levels and improve liver function.