Brilliant colors, subtle flavor of noble scallops in Ehime

The Yomiuri Shimbun

A plate of hiogigai noble scallops is seen at the Minshuku Beach inn as the sun goes down over the Uwakai sea in Ainan, Ehime Prefecture.

By Hideyuki Tokida / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterAINAN, Ehime — If you look only at their shape, they’re just little scallop shells. But check out these vivid colors: red, yellow, orange. It’s amazing that the colors are natural. It’s like jewelry that comes from the sea.

These are hiogigai noble scallops, a specialty of Ainan, Ehime Prefecture, where there’s a minshuku inn that cultivates its own and cooks them for you. I paid a visit to this inn, called Minshuku Beach, and my first impression was a vivid one.

I immediately dug in, trying dishes like sashimi scallops and scallops fried in butter. Powerful flavor and a firm texture; they were like ordinary scallops yet also different. It’s said that “heaven grants but one gift,” but to use a bit of hyperbole, this seemed like a miraculous food that fuses two gifts — beauty and taste.

“The flavor is subtle. It definitely beats regular scallops,” said Takao Takioka, 88, who in addition to operating Minshuku Beach has been in shellfish cultivation for more than 30 years. He smiled as he exchanged a look with his son and planned successor, Koji, 52.

Cultivation of hiogigai began in earnest about 20 years ago. For many years, the cultivation of Akoya oysters, which are used for producing pearls, thrived in the area, but in 1996, large numbers of them abruptly died. With the area facing this crisis, the spotlight suddenly fell on hiogigai noble scallops.

Some people, like Takioka, were already cultivating hiogigai, but overall the scallops might have been described as supporting actors. However, they tasted good and looked good. In 2002, an association of producers was formed, and ultimately local eateries made hiogigai a signature ingredient.

Yet, there have been difficulties as well.

“Polishing the hiogigai before they’re shipped is hard work,” said Tsuneya Oishi, 56. “There are only a few establishments, including mine, that produce them exclusively.”

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Hiogigai noble scallop sashimi

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Koji Takioka harvests hiogigai noble scallops grown in cages in Ainan, Ehime Prefecture.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    A lampshade made with the shells

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Suma served as sashimi

Another factor has been the recovery of Akoya pearl oysters, from which higher income can be expected.

Nevertheless, noble scallops have become a symbol of Ainan. Popular classes to make lampshades by linking shells of a variety of colors are held regularly, and products such as keychains using the shells can be found in souvenir shops.

This is an age when a big fuss is made over Instagram images. Hiogigai noble scallops from the temperate Uwakai sea are waiting for their big break.

Tasty local fish

Ainan is also known for many other tasty local seafoods, such as bonito and farm-raised sea bream. Among such specialties, cultured suma has been raising its profile in recent years.

Suma, which belongs to the Scombridae family along with tuna, is described as “having toro [fatty tuna from the belly section] in its whole body.” For its limited catches, suma is also a premium rare fish.

In 2016, the prefectural government and Ehime University successfully developed a complete farming method for the fish. Suma is now farmed in Ainan, with those that meet certain conditions being shipped as a brand of fish called Iyo no Himetakami.

I tried suma sashimi at Naniwa, a restaurant in town. The fish tasted like pure fatty tuna, with the slices not including any tendons and having a melt-in-your-mouth texture.

The fish can also be enjoyed at some other places in town, but is not always available.

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