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Preserving time-honored katsuobushi culture in Mie Pref.

Maruten's "Shiki Choho Hana Katsuobushi" (Four-season treasure dried skipjack tuna shavings), 160g, priced at 1,728 yen (not including postage). (Mainichi)

On the eastern tip of the Shima Peninsula stands the Daiozaki lighthouse. At the top of the cliff here is a hut that has stood for over 100 years. It is where Maruten, a company in the Mie Prefecture city of Shima, has over the generations smoked skipjack tuna to produce katsuobushi, a long-life product as hard as wood that is shaved to produce a savory flavoring.

    Even in mid-December, the Daiocho Nakiri district of Shima is buffeted by typhoon-like winds. Small and large waves overlap, and their spray is carried over the area like a mist. The power of nature here -- salt air, the sea spray and the beating sun -- gives rise to a type of katsuobushi named "Nakiribushi," after the area.

    The wooden door of the hut opens to a dark space with clay walls. There is a tank where skipjack tuna are kept on ice, a board to cut the fish into three fillets and other equipment that dates back to the Taisho era.

    "Even today, the methods of heating, molding and so on have been handed down from the Edo period," explains Yukiaki Tempaku, a fourth-generation producer of katsuobushi.

    Yukiaki Tempaku checks the condition of mold grown on the dried skipjack tuna. (Mainichi)

    First the raw skipjack tuna is placed on smoking trays. Five layers of trays are smoked for an hour to an hour and a half each day at temperatures ranging between 85 and 90 degrees Celsius. For top-grade "honbushi" katsuobushi this process is repeated for 10 to 15 days.

    "Now there are a lot of places that smoke the product with hot air in a large room all at once, but we have preserved an ancient method known as 'tebiyama,'" Tempaku says.

    It takes a skilled tradesman to determine the quality of the skipjack tuna, the climate and environmental conditions at the time and accordingly adjust the smoking period, the number of times the product is smoked, and the level of heating. Tempaku's father would get up at 3 a.m. every morning and with his wife start the fire to smoke the fish. Tempaku remembers his father telling him, "I want you to preserve this firing method."

    Since Tempaku's father died nearly 20 years ago, Tempaku has started the smoking fire with his 78-year-old mother Masumi. The carefully smoked skipjack tuna is next left to lie in a mold-cultivation room with clay walls for six months.

    Yukiaki Tempaku sits with his mother Masumi, who still helps start the fires to smoke katsuobushi. (Mainichi)

    During the early Showa era, there were about 200 katsuobushi huts in the Nakiri district, and the area produced the long-lasting food in abundance. But when pearl production started in Ago Bay, many changed their trade, and now just three huts remain.

    "Our ancestors were probably behind the times," Tempaku jokes. But he has always asked himself, "What is your role as someone who was born in this area and makes a living from katsuobushi?"

    There are already records on wooden tablets from the Nara period and so on that state Nakiri katsuobushi was presented to dynasties and Shinto shrines in the past. There is also a deep connection with Ise Grand Shrine, with katsuobushi presented as a food offering. Today, katsuobushi made by Tempaku is offered for the Kanname festival.

    "Katsuobushi is deeply engrained in the DNA of Japanese people," Tempaku says. "Of course it's used for soup stock, but we also have to pass it on as a culture of the region."

    Salt air and sea spray from the Pacific Ocean reach Tempaku's hut. (Mainichi)

    For three years, Tempaku has held tours of his smoking hut (reservations are required), hoping to convey to people ancient production methods and create a local tourist resource.

    Katsuobushi produced with careful observations of the heating process has a strong umami flavor and refined taste. Shaved strips of katsuobushi without any trace of redness from the blood of the fish produces a soup flavoring that is clear and refined. Placing the shaved flakes on rice produces a distinctive aroma and the umami can be sufficiently savored.

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