By Sayuri Nitani / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterTOBA, Mie — Ise ebi spiny lobsters, with their distinctive colors and curved-shaped backs, have long been cherished at festive events as symbols of longevity, among other auspicious imagery.
A visit to Toshijima island in Toba, Mie Prefecture, in mid-September was timed with the start of the lobster fishing season. Lobster fishing is prohibited during the summer as it is the breeding season for the crustaceans.
Ise lobsters are said to inhabit the rocky reef in shallow waters on the Pacific side of Japan, from the Kanto to the Kyushu regions. Mie Prefecture boasted the nation’s top catches in 2016 at 247 tons. While the prefecture’s fishing season officially opens Oct. 1, it starts on Sept. 16 for its remote islands, mostly because the temperature tends to drop earlier in the surrounding waters compared to the rest of the prefecture.
Toshijima is located at the mouth of Ise Bay, about 2.5 kilometers northeast of Toba Port.
“This is a bountiful fishing ground because the river flowing from the Honshu side is mixed with the Kuroshio current of the Pacific,” said Kohei Nakamura, 70, a senior official at the Toshi branch of the Toba-Isobe fisheries cooperative.
According to Nakamura, lobsters are active at night while staying under rocks during the day. Fishing nets are set in the daytime. When lobsters begin moving at night, they get caught in the nets.
Fishing boats leave in the early morning, about 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. depending on the tide, the day after the nets are set to land the lobsters.
As losing even one leg or antenna of the crustacean can affect its price, fishermen carefully take each lobster out of the nets.
“It’s entirely manual labor, so it takes time and much effort,” said fisherman Toyohiro Kawahara, 60. “We have long awaited the lifting of the fishing ban and I hope we will catch a lot of fresh Ise lobsters this season.”
The Toshi branch classifies Ise lobsters weighing more than 500 grams as large, while those of 500 grams or less are rated as regular size. Regular-sized lobsters usually measure about 20 to 30 centimeters in length. Sometimes those weighing more than 1 kilogram are caught.
Ise lobsters have a rugged dark-red shell with long mustache-like antennae and solidly built legs. All these features make the species appear dignified, a good reason why these spiny lobsters are used as an iconic decoration for the New Year’s celebratory meals.
Aiming to promote local consumption of products produced in the region, the Toshi branch has opened its spiny lobster bidding process not only to dealers, but also to operators of restaurants and ryokan inns on the island.
“If you have an Ise lobster on this island, it will be good value and delicious,” Nakamura said.
Heeding his advice, I visited the Marumitsu-zushi restaurant and requested owner Yoshikazu Hashimoto, 42, to cook a large-sized lobster whole. It weighed 800 grams and cost ¥7,350 ($65) that day.
“More than anything else, you should start with sashimi,” Hashimoto said as he quickly served plump lobster in its shell.
The translucent meat tasted amazing, sweet and pleasantly chewy — something that exceeded my expectations.
Hashimoto also prepared the spiny lobsters in an uncommon style — as gunkan-zushi, or battleship sushi, which when served with uni sea urchin roe usually is in a cylinder of nori seaweed. Here, the sweet lobster meat is complemented by vinegared sushi rice.
The remaining parts of the lobster were cooked in a miso soup in which the shell turned a vivid orange. The meat from legs were plump and the oodles of creamy innards had a rich flavor.
“I do my best to buy good Ise lobsters for my customers, who come all the way to our island to enjoy them every year,” Hashimoto said.
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