The neon lights and thumping J-pop of Sapporo’s lively Susikino entertainment district seem like a world away as I reach the rocky beach at Bikuni harbour.
While the previous night’s immersion into the nightlife attractions of Hokkaido’s biggest city had been a rambunctious affair, things are decidedly quieter around two hours drive away here on the remote Shakotan Peninsula. Light rain patters on the Sea of Japan while the cries of gulls echo around a maritime amphitheatre framed by towering cliffs. While the water close to shore remains placid, the white-crested waves further out into open water give notice of a hefty swell. There will be no fishing today, I am informed.
The rain and the leaden skies might be a little on the gloomy side, but Shirakawa Koji is a picture of relaxed amiability. And the explanation for the fisherman’s sunny demeanour can be found in a small container by his feet where half-a-dozen sea urchins are lazily flexing their spiky tentacles in the saltwater.
Shakotan Peninsula is regarded as the source of Japan’s best uni – the edible reproductive organs of the sea urchin.
Of all the prized Hokkaido foodstuffs being exported internationally and around Japan, none are quite as on-trend as uni, which has become a sought-after ingredient of contemporary dining.
Koji has never left Japan. But as a fisherman with access to some of the best uni-harvesting grounds in the world, he is reaping the rewards of the rising global popularity of the diminutive delicacy.
“The price of uni has risen sixfold over the last 10 years," he tells me. “And uni from Shakotan sets the price in big fish markets like Tsujiki in Tokyo and Osaka Central Fish Market. Therefore it is an enviable position to be in."
Our first uni pitstop in Shakotan is Fuku Zushi, a modest-looking sushi bar run by chef Kiichi Sasaki and his wife.
As we sit at the wood-panelled counter, the friendly Sasaki serves a beautifully balanced sushi banquet, which includes two pieces of uni sushi.
One is topped with Murasaki uni, which is a mustard green colour and has a sweet, somewhat pine-tinged taste. The other uses bafun uni, which has an orange hue and a richer taste. There are six varieties of edible sea urchin in Japan but these are the only ones caught off Shakotan.
“The flavour of the uni can change within a matter of a few miles," says Sasaki. “Different landscapes – forests, grasslands, moors – provide different nutrients for the kelp."
With the weather taking a turn for the better post-repast, we are able to explore Shakotan’s non-culinary highlights. A stroll to rugged Cape Kamui at the tip of the peninsula reveals the vivid blue waters the area is famous for.
Although much smaller than Sapporo, the mid-sized town of Otaru is positively bustling compared to somnolent Shakotan.
One of Hokkaido’s main tourist towns, visitors come here to promenade along the canal, shop in converted old warehouses and to view the city and Ishikara Bay from the heights of 532m-high Mount Tengu. They also come to eat on Sushiya-dori (literally ‘sushi street’), which is lined with restaurants.
Later that day, I will have a flawless but expensive dinner at the upscale Masa Zushi, one of the town’s best-known sushi bars. Less formal and more enjoyable is lunch at Otaru Tatsumi Sushi. Here head chef Shinya Takami is a jovial presence in the long kitchen, poking fun at the idea of opening a sushi restaurant in Sapporo. “Why would I want to do that?" he says. “It is at least 20km from the sea."
Yet while most of the restaurants in Hokkaido like to keep things simple, the uni dishes at Uni Murakami in the town of Hakodate in the south of Hokkaido are notable for their flair.
Located a stone’s throw from the fish market, the restaurant serves up a range of appealing curveballs such as uni tempura and uni gratin in a chic contemporary setting.
A lively place with a tremendous selection of bars, Hakodate makes a fine place to sign off from an uni expedition.
HOKKAIDO’S BEST UNI SPOTS
1. For amazing value sushi on the Shakotan Peninsula, a great option is Fuku Zushi. Take a pew at the woodpanelled counter and watch your raw seafood fantasies come to life as owner Kiichi Sasaki works his alchemy. Highlights include delicate flounder, lightly seared otoro (fatty tuna), and, of course, smooth and creamy uni.
2. The upscale Masa Zushi is one of the best-known sushi bars in Otaru. The kitchen is presided over by Toshikazu Komatsu, a stern but undoubtedly learned presence. His veteran team of sushi masters are accomplished and subtle practitioners of preparing uni and other raw fish products. Try the iko somen, thin strips of squid on a bed of seaweed and sliced radish topped with a dollop of uni with roasted seaweed.
3. Friendly chef Shinya Takami is a welcoming presence at Otaru Tatsumi Sushi on Otaru’s famous Sushiya-dori. An uni-don with ikura (salmon eggs) is decadent, buttery perfection with the creamy uni contrasting with the crisper tones of mint, wasabi and cucumber.
4. While simplicity is a watchword at most of the restaurants in Hokkaido, the uni dishes at Sapporo’s Uni Murakami push the envelope. The natural richness of uni perhaps shouldn’t be the natural fit for a gratin. However, the creamy sea urchin flesh is complemented by the delicate cheese sauce.