…have I never written about shijimi clams?

………how could it be that in over 3.5 years of writing this blog, I have never written about shijimi clams!?

shijimiiii

It might be because they are such a ubiquitous part of life in the San’in region–especially the Lake Shinji area–that I take them as given as good rice. Sure, I’ve mentioned them here and there a lot, but I’ve already given Nita rice its own introduction, so it’s about time I do the same for shijimi clams.

…hmm. Where to start?

Best to start where they do: Lake Shinji.

shijimi2

The early morning sight of shijimi clam fishers on Lake Shinji is a familiar and iconic sight from around the central part of Matsue. The lake is home to Japan’s biggest source of yamato shijimi, and there are so many of them acting as a natural filtration system for the brackish water that they can clean the entire lake in three days’ time. Or was it three hours? I forgot, as it was part of a quiz that a proud shijimi fisher gave me one time when he very enthusiastically shared a lot of clammy trivia with us. To illustrate how fast they work, he said, they have a tank of them near the boarding point for the Hakucho boat tour of Lake Shinji, and before departing they pour a bunch of cloudy, dirty water in, and by the time the passengers get back, they get to see that the water has already turned clear thanks to the hardworking clams.

The hardworking, tasty clams.

shijimi3

Miso soup is a standard part of the Japanese diet, pairing well with almost any kind of Japanese food, and there are limitless in the ways you could prepare it. Here in the Lake Shinji area, that means shijimi soup. There’s no question about it, really. If you go to a fancy restaurant in Matsue or Izumo or Unnan or Yasugi, you’re getting shijimi soup near the end of your multi-course meal of local delicacies. If you go to a more home-style place with a lunch set or dinner set, you’re getting shijimi soup as part of it. If you’re staying over at a friend’s place and they bother cooking Japanese style, you’re getting shijimi soup with dinner and breakfast the next morning. More likely than not, these will all be filled with lots and lots and lots and lots of these little creatures.

Are there other ways to eat shijimi clams, besides in soup? Sure, but I think the only other ways I’ve eaten them were when they were cooked into rice (delicious), and when I prepared them with pasta after I won a huge bag of them and didn’t feel like making soup with them. And yes, it can take some time to get each of them out of the shells with either a pair of chopsticks and some talent or with your tongue and teeth. After so much practice now, though, I don’t usually consider it a struggle. After all, I’ve probably eaten hundreds of these things by now.

Whenever anyone introduces this local specialty product to you, they usually mention–perhaps more than once–how good they are for your liver. Hence, they give people a good excuse to break out the sake with their meals.

They’re hiding in there… and there are lots of them.

If you have a passion for these tiny mollusks you can find out more at Shijimikan, the Shijimi clam center nestled among the ryokan of Matsue Shinjiko Onsen, lining the northeast bank of the lake. I don’t know what you’d find there, though. I haven’t been. Maybe shijimi-flavored ice cream? Actually, now that I think of it, I think I have heard of that.

Even though I don’t exactly have a passion for them, I still find the sight of their tiny black shells familiar and endearing. They wash up along the statue-laden shores surround Shimane Art Museum and lonely island Yomegashima, and I’ve even found some in the parking lot of my apartment, possibly dropped there by the large birds of prey surrounding the city life. It’s considered good luck to leave the shells in front of the second hare statue around the museum (no, I have no idea why), and there are a number of accessories made with them as local souvenirs. They have a bit of an En-musubi meaning to them too, because like a perfectly matched couple, the two halves of each shell will only match with each other.


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Whether it’s slipper table tennis, tug-of-war out on the ocean, or bingo at a big work party, I find I don’t usually share the excitement everyone else has for the big prizes being shelled out.

See, that’s a pun. We get stuff like big boxes or Matsue Iwagaki oysters, shijimi clams from Lake Shinji, or sazae (turban shells) as prizes as well.



Sometimes you get expensive local fruit for prizes, too. I’m usually a little happier about that than I am about sea creatures I have no idea what to do with.

Japan has a thing for oysters (牡蠣 kaki), and in the past handful of years many locales have begun harvesting them to attract gourmet travelers. Places like the ever popular Miyajima have long been known for their magaki, a winter delicacy, whereas iwagaki–rock oysters–are a Sea of Japan thing that are especially good during the spring and summer months. Oysters bars have become very popular in fashionable areas of Tokyo. The Matsue iwagaki sold in Tokyo tend to go for a ¥1200, whereas at 17 restaurants in town that sell official Matsue Iwagaki you can find them for as cheap as ¥800 for a single oysters. That’s still a lot of money for what many people all over the world cringe at the thought of putting in their mouths.

As a little personal history, I have been an extremely picky eater for as far back as I can remember. I am especially finicky about textures and how things feel when I chew them, and as a little kid, there was a time I had a mouthful of meat but refused to chew it because I so hated the rubbery bits of gristle. I am still haunted by the seemingly reliable chicken sandwiches in elementary school lunches that suddenly had a rubbery bit to failingly sink my teeth into. I often choose to forgo meat altogether because I’m so picky about lean cuts with good texture. This is part of why I love tofu–it’s dependably smooth.

However, as an adult, I’m quite proud that I’ve taught myself to tolerate–and even enjoy–many foods I used to refuse to touch. I can trace a lot of this back to my first trip to Japan when I was 18, when I tried foods again that I had refused to eat in years, or tried entirely new things, and found that they weren’t all that scary to have in my mouth after all. In fact, many of them were surprisingly pleasant.

Now, almost eight years later, my tastes and eating preferences have been mostly transformed. I still, however, loathe the rubbery sensation of gristle.

So… oysters? In particular, very large iwagaki? No, thank you, I was sure.

However, in the spirit of trying not to be so picky and having had many pleasant surprises over the years, I gave them a shot while visiting the Oki Islands because they were highly recommended. I figured that, if they were anything like sazae (turban shells, another Sea of Japan specialty), then I’d probably best be able to tolerate them covered in curry. Hence, I went with the deep-fried kaki covered in Japanese style curry sauce.

This is an abomination, as any oyster lover would tell you. Not knowing any better, I found them tolerable but not tasty. They were just chewy things in my curry. I decided I was not a fan of oysters.

It turns out, some other Sea of Japan spots with an iwagaki brand outright forbid the deep-frying of their oysters for the sake of preserving the integrity of the brand. Speaking of branding, I was invited to sample some Matsue Iwagaki from the cliffs of Shimane-cho so as to spread the word about this delicacy. I wasn’t particularly thrilled, but hoped maybe I could request some butter fried ones that I saw listed among the ways they are prepared, as I though that might make them more tolerable.

This invitation included a visit to the place where they are harvested. They began harvesting them on ropes with seeder oysters from the Oki islands about 17 years ago. The oysters take about 3 to 5 years to mature, and by then they are covered in plenty of other goods from the sea (many of which are also harvestable, such as the seaweed).




Although you can order them deep-fried or butter fried, grilling them over an open fire until they are half-cooked is a tantalizing option, but steaming them until they are half-cooked seems to be the most popular method. That is, if you’re even cooking them–by and large, every oyster fan I’ve met insists on them being served raw, as that is how you can taste them best.

I don’t care about the taste–what’s going to keep them from being rubbery!? When I mentioned to one of the people who proudly set me up for this taste test, he smilingly–but firmly–corrected me that they are tender, not rubbery. In Japanese, they are ぷりぷり (puripuri). While we were at the port, he also told us about a gigantic buri that was caught there. (I don’t think he knew my name as he was telling this story with me standing right next to him, but all my friends were giving me funny smiles. Yes, I share a name with a tasty fish. Yes, I know, I’m smooth and delicious. Not rubbery.)

They served us two freshly caught, steamed iwagaki each. I added a smidge of ponzu to one and a smidge of lemon to the other, as acidic things are supposed to bring out the thick, creamy flavor of this so-called milk of the sea.


It was… chewy… but… more tender than I expected.

In fact, now that I could actually taste it instead of deep-frying it and drowning it in curry, I could actually see why people like these things. Even the juice in the shell was salty but tasty. I didn’t even mind going for the second helping.

So… oddly enough, I guess I can honestly say they were good… and I might even have enjoyed them, now that I think about it. Now I find it a shame that I didn’t try them raw with no sauce, as apparently that would have been the ultimate oyster experience.

But hey, I do live in Matsue and can take my freshest choice of them anytime they’re in season, April through June. This is easier to do than I thought it would be, but I guess this is the part where I’m supposed to tell you to come out and try them with me. Otherwise, you oyster lovers can just be jealous of these big things at my fingertips.

This is a well-known story in the Oki Islands. It’s a story about Yurahime Shrine on Nishinoshima, but it is said to have originated on Chibu. They are both small islands to the west, and Nishinoshima is one of my favorite hiking spots in Japan. Despite all the semi-wild horses that roam Nishinoshima, the island’s mascot is a squid.

One day, Yurahime, who was said to be a daughter of Susano-o*, floated out to sea in a wash bucket for potatoes. What she was doing in the bucket, I do not know.

Along the way, she amused herself by lightly dipping her hand in the water. A squid thought it would be funny to mess with her and yanked on her hand. Some say that it bit her.

As punishment for that one squid that picked on her, giant groups of squid has to gather in the harbor right in front of Yurahime Shrine every year.

(*Some people say that this is another name for Suseri-bime, but I don’t see much to back this up, and that’s just asking for more confusion. At least I’m pretty sure she’s not a potato.)

I don’t know, if I were Yurahime and was trouble by the squid teasing me, I probably would not want bunches of them showing up at my door step.

This is a real occurence, though. So many squid would show up in this harbor that, from the Meiji period through about 1945, there used to be about thirty fisherman’s’ shops set up annually right around the harbor to wait for them, and they come in huge group into such shallow water that they can just put on a pair of rubber boots and then scoop up bucketfuls with their hands.

However, the squid eventually figured this out and stopped flooding the harbor. Or at least, they don’t do it as often any more. Every few years it still occurs, it seems.

However, even if this phenomenon is not quite what it used to be, squid fishing is still a big, big thing on the Oki Islands (and other places along the Sea of Japan coast of the San’in region).

Especially around Oki, fishing for them at night is very common, and they use boats with lots and lots of giant light bulbs. They’re really massive, cool looking things that are also used for decoration around some spots on the islands, and their light is so bright that the seasoned squid fishers have tanned skin from working all night right under them. The squid think that this bright light is daylight and come to the surface, only to caught. Who is the joke on now, squids?

They look somewhat squid-like, too.

They look somewhat squid-like, too.

I didn’t used to like squid, but I’ve come to appreciate it while living here, the translucent raw squid that is often served as part of a sashimi course at fancy dinners. For those looking to try it for the first time, dried squid is nice. One of my earlier interpreting jobs was explaining how to gut the things and prep them for drying, but I didn’t do it myself.

My most distinctive San’in squid memory was last December, on a winter night spent at the Takobana cottages in Shimane-cho, overlooking the Sea of Japan from high cliffs. While making hot pot and playing games with my coworkers and waking up to the sound of the waves was nice, we all shared a strange experience looking out at the sea that night and seeing the bright white lights on the horizon. In the sky, however, they were straight, vertical lines of white light, not reaching down to the horizon and not reflecting off of any visible clouds. If we were not away that it was squid abduction going on, we all would have been convinced that it was alien abductions going on.

Although the most common English translation is “snow crab,” the Japanese term is much more complicated. I also feel “snow crab season” fails to capture the craze in that happens every winter, especially here in the San’in region with entire train trip deals are themed around pigging out on these crabs.


Although Matsue has its own crab craze going on as part of the Dan-Dan Shoku Festa and other parts of Shimane are just as capable of catching and celebrating the winter crab catch, Tottori is really where the crab branding takes place. Snow crabs–typically called Zuwai-gani go by many different names throughout the country, but whatever you call them, Tottori is a top producer. Here in the San’in region, the big name that gets thrown around a lot is Matsuba-gani, supposed named because its long legs resemble pine needles or because fishermen used to burn pine when cooking them. They are harvested in the Sea of Japan, and not to be confused with Benizuwai-gani (red snow crab), which are harvested at a deeper depth in an earlier season and have softer, sweeter meat–but they are also a San’in favorite.

Matsuba-gani does not represent the entire species, either. These are only the males, where are the smaller females with denser meat are called oya-gani are popular in miso soup, a homemade Tottori favorite. Males that have already moulted are called Wakamatsuba-gani and tend to have meat that is more soft and moist.

There are various ways to prepare and eat Matsuba Crab when they are in season around November-March. Boiled, cooked with rice, grilled, you name it, but what I hear most adoring talk of is eating very, very fresh crab raw, when the meat is slick. There is a special process to eating it this way which can be instructed at crab festival events, but I do no such experience to speak of–I don’t have enough crab madness myself to reserve a space at these crab extravaganzas.

I have, however, had a few chances to eat crab meat miso soup, but I cannot recall what kind of crab they were. I’ll just wrap this up by saying that everyone knows Tottori is amazing for crab, but these little guys from Izumo go down like big, sticky potato chips.

After visiting the horses and fishes around Nishinoshima, I headed to the big island of Okinoshima. Among my adventures there was a sea kayaking trip. It wasn’t quite as sunny as when I went scuba diving and there were more waves, but the four of us–a couple fellow JETs, our guide, and myself–got to explore several caves and observe the creatures living in them. That was in addition to all the explanations of unique geological formations the island is known for, but rather than reexplaining them all here myself the official homepage of the Oki Islands Geopark should provide a more useful and enlighting explanation beyond “cool looking rocks! Lava did this!”

Yoroi-iwa, “Armor Rock”

So! On to the kayak tour!

This is at the northern tip of Okinoshima–people don’t live on this little island, but birds nest here, and in seems there used to be customs of swimming to this point for some kind of ritual or festival. Or just to show off your swimming skills, maybe.

Speaking of birds, this guy was part of a nest inside a cave, but he’s still a little clumsy at flying! We watched him fall in the water after a not so graceful flight attempt across the cave, then he swam in front of us for a while before hopping around the rock walls again. His hopping wasn’t very graceful, either. Ah, and the mom and dad birds weren’t so pleased with our visit when they came back later.

This sea slug (or sea hare) wasn’t very thrilled to see us, either. See that purple ink? It’s a last line of defense. Had it have been in the water, you’ve have lost sight of it in a cloud.

Now if we were lobsters, this stuff would gotten all over our scent receptors and made it difficult for us to smell the tasty sea slug. Cool, huh?

We also saw a number of other fish, jellies, barnicles, crabs, and even caught some good glimpses of sazae–turban shells, a local specialty both on the shores of the Oki Islands and the shores of the mainland.

Click for source. Not one of my favorites, but I tolerate them in some dishes like sazae curry or sazae rice.

See look, no sight of sazae! Just harmless little bite-sized pieces.

I much prefer the other local specialty that we saw plenty of, though I’ve only tried kame-no-te (“turtle hands”) once in soup form.

Click for source. Not actually related to turtles, these things grow in groups like barnicles.

Alas, I did not have any more kame-no-te on this trip, but in addition to squid (a major part of local industry) and an assortment of very fresh sashimi, I also tried oysters for the first time in recollection. Although they do serve them raw, right after we got the suggestion for the daily special from our sea kayaking guide, I opted for fried oysters (kaki, not to be confused with persimmons) in curry. Apparently curry style is the best way to serve something one is unfamiliar with, but I’ll stick with normal curry in everyday life, thanks.

That’s a lot of oyster. I prefer shijimi clams, though…

Next time, let’s just stick to some light sight-seeing.

Today I went out to Mihonoseki, the peninsula that makes up the northeast tip of Matsue, most known for the highly important Miho Shrine, and for its lighthouse.

Can you find the red 'you are here' marker?
The primary point of my activity today

To the south you can see Nakaumi…
Hey look, it's Daisen!

…and to the north you can see the Sea of Japan.
Not to mention the Oki Islands, though they aren't in this picture.

It’s a fairly rural area, with a very laid back way of seafood-rich life.
There were still more in the water, too
Wish you were here, Dad!
Literally, the bridge to the floating island
You want to drive around in this ancient shrine? Sure, why not! I'll help you up there!
I'm still not a big fan of azuki (red bean) manjuu, but I found out today that I do enjoy kuri (chestnut) manjuu!

While waiting for the festivities to start, I peaked into the tourism center to see what was for sale there (besides dried squid and dried seaweed and all kinds of dried fish).
It looks wide from this angle, but the upper floors are actually very narrow
The dried squid beckons you!

That was when the old ladies seated in the back who spoke in a thick Izumo dialect addressed me: “Welcome. Come sit down for a cup of tea.”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you don’t refuse when old ladies offer to have you sit down, especially if you have the time to kill. They served me dried squid first and showed me how to tear off the pieces a little bit at a time. It was not my first time having dried squid (I certainly got my fill a month ago while interpreting for a squid-drying workshop!), but one of the other things I’ve learned is to just shut up and pretend it’s my first time hearing something when people want to teach me something, no matter how much I may think I know about it.

After that they gave me some of the kuri-manjuu I had seen on sale in stalls outside leading to the shrine (that I was nearly tempted into buying myself!), and some sencha prepared in a Chinese style tea set–warmed up ahead of time, gong-fu-cha style.

The conversation was light and the location was highly informal, but according to my book-knowledge but yet unpracticed tea philosophy, it was essentially a tea ceremony. I was invited to eat a couple morsels before taking part in the tea my host had chosen and served her favored cups, and we appreciated each other’s company in the fleeting moments it took to consume them.

Though the squid sort of changes the mood... or sets it?

It was light conversation. What country are you from? Have you always lived in Mihonoseki? Is this your first time here? How old are you? Were you a teacher at Mihonoseki elementary school? Has this festival always been like this? Do you have a boyfriend? Hmm, even old ladies can sound like high school girls sometimes. High school girls with thick dialects.

In the spirit of being a guest, I asked questions about the tea cups, and then they decided they should prepare Japanese style matcha in a proper wide cup. Guess who got her afternoon dose of caffeine?

Over the course of our little tea party, they called out to acquaintances walking into the shop, or acquaintances walking into the shop called out to them. They were invited to tea with us, and each time someone new showed up to talk about the make up the girls put on him for the festivities or about the year end party they’re planning, the old ladies introduced me, my job, my country, my age, and that I’m going to find a boyfriend (you can guess whose idea that was).

Soon after the festivities started and the party ended. Even outside where everyone was crowding around with giant cameras that put my point-and-shoot to shame, acquaintances who had briefly passed through the tourist center made sure to point out the best spots to me.

And just what had I gone there to see in the first place?

This was ceremonious, really.

I’ll explain this December 3rd festival properly another time. There is a lot more of the Kojiki to retell first!