DASHI SHOP

ProducersPhotography & Movie:Nahoko Morimoto
Text:Eri Ishida
Translation : Hidetaka Furuya (Northern Projects) 

KATSUO-BUSHI― Bonito ―

KATSUO-BUSHI
KAGOSHIMA IBUSUKI YAMAGAWA

MARUSAKA SAKAI SHOTEN
HIROAKI SAKAI

Yamagawa in the Ibusuki city area is a town located in the southernmost part of the Satsuma peninsula, Kagoshima prefecture. The way Yamagawa port is situated means it is separated from the open sea, so it contains almost no waves. It is a very calm port. In the past, Yamagawa was strategically important when trading with foreign countries. From 1949 onwards, after pelagic fisheries became a popular way of fishing for bonito, the number of bonito fishing boats entering Yamagawa port increased enormously. This enabled the town to become a Mecca for people who love katsuo-bushi (dried bonito).

On this occasion, we visited Marusaka Sakai Shoten. Established in 1950, the katsuo-bushi maker is directed by third owner Hiroaki Sakai. It is one of the few producers of “honkare-bushi”, the highest quality grade of katsuo-bushi.

Most katsuo-bushi products available in the Japanese market are categorized as “ara-bushi”, which doesn’t come with any benign fungus. It takes about twenty days to make ara-bushi. However, honkare-bushi requires far more time. It takes about six months to make. First, benign fungus needs to be added to ara-bushi. The ara-bushi is then sundried. Once this process has been repeated a few times, the honkare-bushi is finally ready.

Up until about twenty years ago, there were once roughly fifty katsuo-bushi makers. However over the years, the number has decreased to twenty-five. This is because successors are in short supply, and also because Japanese diets have increasingly become westernized. Currently, there are only eight producers of honkare-bushi in the area.

Marusaka Sakai Shoten has won the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Award – the most prestigious award – twice in a row at Japan’s katsuo-bushi fair. This event takes place every four years. This achievement has heightened Yamagawa’s reputation for producing top quality katsuo-bushi.

A view of Yamagawa port from the opposite shore.

A view of Yamagawa port from the opposite shore.

Hiroaki Sakai working in his factory

Hiroaki Sakai working in his factory

"We want to make katsuo-bushi that tastes, looks, and feels 'gentle'.
This is only possible through careful handiwork."

−There are several prominent areas in Japan that produce quality katsuo-bushi.
What distinguishes Yamagawa from the rest?

The main difference between Yamagawa and other areas is that many fishing boats at the Yamagawa port choose to catch bonito fish inshore through pole-and-line fishing. Bodies of fish captured through net-fishing are often damaged. This isn't ideal when it comes to making top quality honkare-bushi that looks and tastes good. So, pole-and-line fishing is more suitable for the kind of katsuo-bushi we want to make. Generally speaking, if you want to make something really good, you need to first source really good ingredients.

Another point I want to make is that fish captured in the open sea and fish captured in coastal waters are very different in taste. If you capture fish in the ocean, you need to quick-freeze it using a very salty blank solution. Of course, this means that the fish itself will become salty. However, if you capture fish inshore, there is no need to do this. You can just keep the fish cold with ice and head back to your port. This means you can really enjoy the pure flavor of the fish.

However, the number of people who opt for pole-and-line fishing has really dropped due to a severe shortage of successors. Sourcing quality bonito fish via pole-and-line fishing has become more and more challenging. Luckily, Yamagawa port has more bonito fishing boats that opt for pole-and-line fishing than any of the other ports in Japan. We are therefore very fortunate to be able to make honkare-bushi using very high quality bonito fish.

When bonito fishing boats are unloaded, a siren sounds across the town. The fish auction market opens at 7:30 am.

When bonito fishing boats are unloaded, a siren sounds across the town. The fish auction market opens at 7:30 am.

−We've heard that more and more katsuo-bushi makers are moving away from honkare-bushi and are making "ara-bushi" instead. Ara-bushi is mainly used for packaged dried bonito flakes. This shift is happening because it's becoming difficult to source high-quality bonito fish. Also, Japanese natives aren't eating Japanese cuisine as often as they used to, and therefore, the consumption levels of dashi are decreasing. Making ara-bushi is also more profitable. However, you have focused on honkare-bushi. Why is that?

Our method of making honkare-bushi has been passed down through the generations, starting from my grandfather. However, the most important thing to me is making the best katsuo-bushi possible. I want our katsuo-bushi to be enjoyed by both chefs at high-end Japanese restaurants and mothers who cook for their families every day. When I hear people say that they love our katsuo-bushi, that just makes me want to improve it even more. That's the inspiration behind our business.

 

Katsuo-bushi makers slicing defrosted bonito fish in their factory.

Katsuo-bushi makers slicing defrosted bonito fish in their factory.

Crates of katsuo-bushi with benign fungus being sun-dried.

Crates of katsuo-bushi with benign fungus being sun-dried.

−We visited your factory and saw how you make your katsuo-bushi. We got the impression that your work is like a traditional handicraft. It's a lot less automatic than we thought it would be. What's the most important thing to keep in mind when producing honkare-bushi?

In terms of our production process, the way we make ara-bushi and honkare-bushi is more or less the same as that of the other producers. But what characterizes katsuo-bushi is the specific way each artisan goes through the steps of their production process. Our process is very delicate and it has a subtle impact on how the katsuo-bushi tastes. We examine the fish first and then decide how long we should simmer them for, how strongly we should smoke them, and how we should shave them. These adjustments are especially important when making honkare-bushi because we sell it as it is. We don't cut the honkare-bushi up into flakes, so it needs to taste good and look beautiful at the same time. In that sense, making honkare-bushi is indeed similar to making traditional handicrafts.

 

Work of raw cut. Judge about 3 tons (bonito more than 600 pieces) per day.

Work of raw cut. Judge about 3 tons (bonito more than 600 pieces) per day.

Boil the bonito was raw cut work of "Nijuku".

Boil the bonito was raw cut work of "Nijuku".

Work of smoked "Abuinui" also, do over and over again until the water of bonito fly.

Work of smoked "Abuinui" also, do over and over again until the water of bonito fly.

Important stroke of the clause withered, "mold with". By spraying the mold fungus in the section, and the mold with over 20 days or more, to the sun

Important stroke of the clause withered, "mold with". By spraying the mold fungus in the section, and the mold with over 20 days or more, to the sun

 

We have an eighty-one year old employee. His name is Isamu Matsuue. He's been making katsuo-bushi for the past thirty-five years. Mr. Matsuue no longer engages in physically demanding work like cutting raw bonito fish. Instead, he focuses on shaving katsuo-bushi to make it look beautiful. He uses chisels that he has made himself, and carefully shaves each katsuo-bushi. I believe we are the only producer that doesn't rely on machines for the shaving process.

This might sound quite trivial, but if an artisan shaves katsuo-bushi, it really feels "gentle" when you touch it. We want to make katsuo-bushi that tastes, looks, and feels "gentle". We strive to source the best ingredients possible, to go over our usual product process with care, and to make "gentle" katsuo-bushi. That's what Marusaka Sakai Shoten is all about.

Mr. Matsuue shaves katsuo-bushi smoothly with chisels he has made himself.

"Our work is only possible thanks to the blessings of nature.
We cannot imagine our future if we were to disregard our planet."

−We think your work environment is ideal because you have both physically strong young people in their twenties and highly experienced senior people in their eighties.

Skilled artisans have worked with so many pieces of katsuo-bushi that they can intuitively determine which ones are good and which ones are bad. You can learn a lot from these artisans. It would be ideal if we could inherit their techniques and pass them down to the next generation.

What are the challenges in continuing to produce katsuo-bushi? Do you have any specific goals?