If you haven’t already twigged from the numerous Eating Tokyo Instagram posts on the subject, we love uni. That’s sea urchin or kina if you are from New Zealand.
There are dozens if not hundreds of species around the world and it is eaten across the Mediterranean, Alaska, Iceland, the Caribbean, South America, Russia and Asia.
Japan is the largest consumer and imports sea urchin from Russia and Korea which have the same species as well as the USA and China.
Now, not all sea urchin is created equal and the absolute pinnacle is supposedly from the freezing cold waters of Hokkaido which can fetch crazy prices in season.
So, when we have a few days spare in Tokyo we jump on a plane which takes us to the fishing town Hakodate.
Our mission: to eat our body weight in uni.
Other than eating uni we really have no plan and little idea of what to expect when we land. It was 18 degrees in Tokyo when left, springtime. An hour later it is 10 degrees and we realise we are under-dressed and ill-prepared.
The bus ride to our hotel reveals a town with big wide roads, little traffic and a bleak, rough coastline with huge crashing waves.
The houses we pass, designed to protect their inhabitants from the elements, are functional with small windows and concrete gardens. We can only imagine what it must be like here in winter.
It’s early afternoon and we venture out dressed in as many layers as will fit under our jackets. First stop is the fish market. We spy mountains of spiky uni and crab legs as thick as your arm. We stop at a stall with a few tables and rickety stools out back and order a rice bowl each. One with crab, uni and squid, the other with crab, uni and raw sakura prawns. Delicious.
Continuing on through the market we do find one thing surprising. There is no actual fresh fish. Anywhere. What’s that about?
There must be fresh fish somewhere as that night we stumble upon a fantastic seafood izakaya with an epic selection of sashimi and fish we have never before seen. It is all to die for.
When in Rome… the saying goes. With that in mind we note what else Hokkaido is known for, food-wise, besides seafood – potatoes, butter, corn, ice cream, ramen; and decide to check them out too.
We score twice with Hokkaido potatoes dripping with local butter. Yes, they are good. Very, very good. Corn is not yet in season and the frozen specimen we try cannot be saved even with lashings of that fine Hokkaido butter.
Next day is brilliant blue though still chilly in the shade. We head straight back down to the market hoping to avoid the queue at Uni Murakami, the most famous uni restaurant in town. We are there on opening and snag a table. They serve only local, preservative-free uni from their own fishing company. Just 80 grams of the best uni you will ever eat will set you back $65. It is totally worth it.
Between meals we do take in some of the local sights. The centre of town is very walkable and when you get tired the trams are cheap and fun.
We visit the Kanemori Red Brick Warehouses. These commercial warehouses were built after the port opened to international trade in 1859. Today they have been refurbished and are a main tourist shopping area.
Nearby Motomachi is home to many historical buildings from the same era. Locals are very proud of these early western-style consulates, churches, banks and homes of the trading elite. Several are currently being restored. Pretty tree-lined streets with many private and public gardens contrast notably with the stark town centre.
Lunch is at a sushi bar where we order a few uni gunkan with a side dish of Hokkaido potatoes. You don’t usually see potatoes in a sushi bar but it is obviously the done thing as everyone around us is having the same.
The other must-do is a visit to Goryokaku, a western-style fort completed almost 150 years ago. We enjoy a panoramic view of the star-shaped estate and surrounding moat from the observation platform of the 107-meter Goryokaku Tower. The moat is surrounded by 1,500 cherry trees, making the Goryokaku one of Hokkaido’s top cherry blossom viewing spots.
It was here that we tick off another of our must-eats, ice cream. The local haskap berry sorbet is mouth-puckeringly tart and cuts through the cream cheese ice cream which is thick and rich.
We eat hot, steaming bowls of ramen for dinner in a tiny joint opposite the station. The noodles are fine, the pork unctuous and the broth is almost clear with an oddly yellow tinge. It is exceptionally good but with a flavour we can’t quite pinpoint. It has to be one of the best bowls we have had.
Hakodate is on the cruise boat trail. They arrive in waves in the morning and leave early evening. Despite the invading hordes we find the locals aren’t jaded by tourism and are perhaps more open and warm than other parts of the country.
Once the cruise boats have left there are few tourists in town but we feel extremely welcome.
We attempted to return to the seafood izakaya but they were full. The owner recognised us from the previous day and had one of the waiters walk us around to their sister restaurant. We were lead to the front of the queue and given their last table.
We failed in our attempt to eat our body weight in uni. It would have cost somewhere in the region of $NZ130,000 to do so.
And while we may have dubbed Hakodate the Bluff of Japan, like Bluff it may have terrible weather but it also has the best seafood.