Shiohigari / 潮干狩り


Okah-san grew up by the seaside, so from an early age she would go foraging for shellfish and crustacea, an activity that is known as shiohigari (潮干狩り / literally ‘tide hang-out-to-dry hunt’). While the in-laws live a few miles inland these days, okah-san still tries to go shiohigari-ing at least once or twice every summer, and last week she took Mrs M and I along to show us how it’s done.

With their combination of rock formations, pebbles, sand and not too many concrete breakwaters to disrupt the natural order of things, the beaches between Ajigaura and Ooarai are an ideal spot for shiohigari, and okah-san said that today’s tide would be unusually low (I once heard from someone living in a coastal village in Hokkaido that when the tide is pulled way out before a tsunami hits, brave and / or foolish locals will use the opportunity to grab whatever seafood is left exposed, although given recent events, I can’t imagine this story is really true). When we arrived there were only four or five people on the beach, and the attendant at the public loos near the car park said that during Golden Week the place is normally packed, but that things were different this year because everyone was worried about radiation travelling down the coast from Fukushima. Okah-san isn’t too fussed about radiation one way or the other (when spinach from Ibaraki was banned from sale at the end of March, that was exactly what she served us for our welcome meal), and quite frankly, the longer I stay here and the more I read, the less concerned I have become, so we went ahead and clambered down to the beach with our shiohigari gear. This consisted of wellies, plastic bags, buckets, rubber gloves, cotton gloves, udé-nuki (腕抜き / tubes of material with elastic at each end that are worn on the forearms to stop your cuffs from getting grubby) and a selection of tools, including something called a kumadé (熊手 / bear’s hand – if you look at a picture of a kumadé, you’ll see how appropriate the name is) and kama (鎌), small sickles that have recently become a trendy gardening accessory in the UK. The kumadé is used for raking away pebbles and sand, and the kama for prising shellfish off rocks – particularly limpets, which Mrs M and I were keen to try again, having eaten them in Madeira a couple of years ago.

The key to bagging a limpet, we soon realised, is speed: as soon as you touch one, the limpet will squirt little jets of water from the sides of its conical shell and sucker itself to the rock even more firmly than before, so you have to slide the kama beneath it quickly or you’ll be hacking away at the shell for the next five minutes. Also clinging to the rocks were bunches of blue-black mussels, and beneath the loose stones at our feet were crabs no bigger than a commemorative Royal Wedding coin, which at the first sign of daylight would scuttle off in that ever-so-slightly sinister sideways way that they have. While okah-san had never bothered with these before, I figured they might be good deep fried (soft shell crab are often used as a filling for sushi) and braved their little pincers to capture a few. There were starfish in the rock pools, too – bright orange on one side and a glowing ultramarine on the other – along with large, slug-like umi-ushi (海牛 / sea cow) and uni (sea urchin), which are a delicacy, but which like the mussels were not yet big enough to eat.


We reconvened after an hour or so to compare catches, and okah-san pointed out that several of the spiral shells in my plastic bag contained hermit crabs – good for lining up on a rock and watching as they come alive and run for cover, but not much else. Over a packed lunch of nigiri (握り / rice balls), we watched as a woman walked away with a large bag full of brown seaweed, one family put their more interesting finds in a mini-fish tank for taking photos, and the mother from another family arrived wearing a huge golf visor-style hat, surgical mask, calf-length blue plastic mac and red wellies, as if we really were inside the Fukushima exclusion zone.

While okah-san would happily have stayed there all day, we compromised on another half hour or so, during which she decided to look for asari – small clams that are often served as an ingredient in miso soup. Following her lead, I worked my way inland from a rock pool, setting aside any larger stones and digging into the sand to a depth of ten or fifteen centimetres, and by the time we finished I had caught about ten: not bad for a beginner, and probably worth a couple of hundred yen on the open market.

Okah-san rinsed the worst of the sand from what we had caught, and we filled a couple of bottles with fresh seawater, as the trick with shellfish (including shop-bought mussels, seafood fans) is to leave them in salt water overnight before you cook them, thus ensuring that the rest of the sand gets filtered out and you are not crunching away on grains of it as you eat. As expected, the asari were the most edible, but the limpets in garlic butter weren’t bad at all, and deep-fried crabs make a decent bar snack, even if they can be a bit prickly when you crunch into one.


0 thoughts on “Shiohigari / 潮干狩り”

  1. In a weird coincidence, I spent most of Friday on a beach in rock pools prising mussels off rocks and then Friday night we cooked them up with cream and garlic. Sadly I didn’t consider leaving them to filter overnight, and my mariniere was a bit spoil by the amount of fine sand in it 😀

  2. I can’t tell you how self-righteous that makes me feel – still, you can comfort yourself with the fact that while your mussels may have contained more sand than our clams, they almost certainly contained less radioactive material.

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