Joban-Mono: The Most Delicious Fish In Japan Powering Fukushima’s Revival

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Located in southeastern Fukushima Prefecture, the coastal city of Iwaki, which is in process of recovering and and showing resilience following the Great East Japan Earthquake, is often celebrated for its high quality fresh fish known as joban-mono. The area's waters provide a plethora of species of fish known for a delicious flavor that stands above others in Japan. Seeking out some of the best tasting fish in Japan and hoping to get a feel for the local fishing community, Grape Japan's editorial staff traveled to Iwaki as part of the “Fukushima Joban-mono Project,” which was established by Sankei Shimbun with the purpose of promoting Joban-mono seafood.

Our first stop was Iwaki Kaisei High School, which shined a light on the young age at which the area's rich fishing community and appreciation of local flavors is cultivated. Although the school was originally damaged in the Great East Japan Earthquake, students and faculty today show resilience at the restored campus by striving in studies, after school club activities, and community participation in fishery and maritime activities. At the time of our visit, students had gathered to carefully prepare freshly caught fish and practice cooking up creative recipes to be used in a local contest.

The students prepared a menu of chan chan yaki, a Hokkaido recipe of steam-fried horse mackerel with vegetables and miso paste, along with Mapo Saba--a fishy twist on Mapo Tofu served with locally caught mackerel canned by the school itself. Students stressed the importance of making precise and clean cuts when preparing the fish.

After working together to cook up the fish, students served both dishes with the school's freshly baked bread for a creative dish that showed off why in Iwaki, a fish enjoyed commonly throughout Japan is a delicacy due to its fresh and rich flavor.

The next morning, a trip to Hisanohama Port's fish market made how not just Iwaki, but Fukushima as a whole, is anchored by the region's abundance of fish and the community effort to support the industry all the more clear. The port reopened in September, eight and a half years after the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Fishing boats, the first of which departs as early as 4:00 AM in the morning, travel to where Kuroshio and Oyashio currents meet off the coast of Fukushima Prefecture, a spot where a variety of some of the most delicious fish in Japan known as joban-mono can be found, thanks to especially nutrient-rich plankton. On a daily basis, fishing workers and their families take in hauls of these highly valued fish to Hisanohama port's fish market.

The daily work includes not just catching the fish, but categorizing them by species and size, while making sure they stay fresh as possible before making their way to local markets, schools, and restaurants. The ballots you see alongside the fish denote bids to buy particular catches.

A fisherman explained that of the wide variety of fish on display, it's Iwaki's flounder that may be the most sought after and praised delicacy, served everywhere from local mom and pop shops to high end sashimi restaurants. Despite the delicious reputation, however, the industry faces some image challenges due to Iwaki's proximity to Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which was damaged during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

"It's not a problem at all, the fish we catch are completely fine," he says. Two other fishing workers, mothers, echo his sentiments, saying "We want people in Japan and abroad to know that the fish are safe, we confidently feed our children with them, and have for generations. There's delicious fish for every season in Japan in Iwaki, and so many ways to try them."

That confidence most certainly comes from an extensive safety inspection and screening process of seafood conducted daily at all the ports of Iwaki city. Here staff diligently and painstakingly examine fish to make sure they are safe to consume. "It's not a job just anyone can do," the inspection team's leader tells us, explaining the strict standard that Fukushima screening centers--which can be viewed by the public--hold themselves to.

"Per 1kg of fish, Japanese law states that any amount below 100 Becquerel of radioactive Caesium is deemed safe for shipping and consumption. However, in Fukushima, we discard any fish above 50 Becquerel per 1kg, and double-screen amounts approaching that."

It's work weighed heavy with pressure and responsibility, but with an entire nation counting on them, the staff carries out their inspection with no tolerance for mistakes, so that fish can be delivered safely to those depending on it.

Nearby fish market Sankei is one such place. Locals pour in, eager to find what fresh batch of fish is available for the day. The shop's proprietor tells us the secret of why the taste of fish from the region is regarded on another level. "Some say it's the water temperature, but it's the food the fish eat--the plankton and smaller fish, it's better quality, and gives a delicious fatty flavor."

To try for ourselves, we finished our visit with a stop by Iwaki Lalamew, a seaside plaza where visitors can shop for regional souvenirs and enjoy fresh seasonal cuisine. On the second floor sits Yamaroku Kanko, a restaurant serving up delicious Iwaki favorites with a view that provides seaside sunsets and passing boats.

This included meihikari (greeneye) karaage, an exquisite sashimi set, and a grilled serving of channel rockfish. With so many types of excellent fish to try, you can't really go wrong with any dish, but Yamaroku Kanko allows you to sample a generous amount of delicious Iwaki specialties with a beautiful view to boot.

Eight and a half years removed from disaster, Iwaki, and Fukushima prefecture as a whole, has shown resilience in rebuilding, and its community back bone and pride and joy--joban-mono--is a huge part of that. When visiting Japan be sure to seek out joban-mono, as the best fish in the country shouldn't be overlooked any longer.

Supported by Fukushima Joban-mono Project

By - grape Japan editorial staff.

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