Japan from the inside out

Whale and shark: New Year’s treats in parts of Japan

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 7, 2008

TURKEY OR HAM is usually the main course of choice for Christmas dinner in the United States. O-sechi ryori, the meal served on New Year’s Day in Japan, consists primarily of seafood and vegetable dishes. There is some variation in the types of food served in different regions, however, and some of those variations may raise a few eyebrows, if not whet a few appetites.


For example, people in southern Hokkaido, the northernmost of the four main Japanese islands, think whale meat, often prepared as kujirajiru (whale soup) is an indispensable part of their New Year’s feast. The accompanying photo shows frozen whale on display in a Hakodate market

This particular shop offers frozen steak and what is called bacon from minke whales. The steak sells for 1,000 yen ($US 9.17) for 100 grams and comes from whale caught in the South Seas, while the bacon, which is more expensive at 3,500 yen ($US 32.10) for 100 grams, is made from locally caught whale. One shop clerk admitted it was expensive, but said that it sold well because “people want to eat something tasty for their New Year’s dinner”.

Another seafood shop in the city offers whale bacon that it makes itself, which is not the usual practice. They sell it for a more affordable price of 1,200 yen for 100 grams. The shop owner said they use only salt in the production and eschew preservatives and artificial coloring. They also have minke whale steaks at 600 yen for 100 grams, and bacon made from the dwarf minke for 2,000 yen for the same weight.
All the stores report that the sliced varieties of whale, both frozen steak and bacon, have been selling very well in recent years.

Meanwhile, further south in the northern part of Hiroshima, a New Year’s day dinner is not complete without shark meat, which locally is called wani (a word that means crocodile everywhere else in Japan). Fishery cooperatives in Nagasaki and Wakayama ship the shark to merchants in the Hiroshima cities of Miyoshi and Shobara, where it is cut to order for retail customers.

Shark has little fat and a thick skin, which means it can keep for a long time. Years ago, when there was no mechanical refrigeration in the home, it was the only fish eaten as sashimi in some mountainous areas.
One maritime product company in Miyoshi orders shark about one to two meters in length. They handle about six tons worth of the fish at yearend, which is roughly 1/6th of its annual turnover. The highest quality shark sells for about 3,000 to 4,000 yen per kilogram retail.

Americans often complain about eating turkey sandwiches for three or four days after Christmas. I wonder if Hiroshima housewives hear the same complaints about shark meat!

It’s unlikely that anyone in Hokkaido complains about several consecutive days of whale, however. As I’ve noted before, some whale tastes better than steak. (I don’t understand the point of making bacon out of it, though.)

To read about another way of chowing down on shark meat, try this previous post. You might find yourself wondering why the folks in Hiroshima find it so appetizing.

2 Responses to “Whale and shark: New Year’s treats in parts of Japan”

  1. Aki said

    Last week I watched a TV show that showed that whale meat is indispensible for the New Year’s feast also in Nagasaki.

    In my birthplace in Northern Kanto, a special variety of taro (Colocasia esculenta) called yatsugashira is used for the New Year’s dishes. That variety is sold in local markets only in late December when people start preparing dishes for New Year’s feast. Although I am not sure, I think the variety of taro is used for the New Year’s dishes also in other areas of eastern Japan. That variety is bigger than usual taro and it has many lateral tubers. Some folklorists say that eating a variety of taro as a special food for the New Year’s Days would be a remnant of the dietary custom of the Jomon period when rice cultivation had not been introduced in the area. In the Kansai area where I am now living, I have never seen that variety of taro sold in markets.

    It is interesting even for Japanese to know what is eaten during the New Year’s Days in various areas of Japan, since only locals who have been living there for generations know what is the special cuisine for the New Year’s Days in the area.

  2. mac said

    A couple of days ago a local documentary (I cant remember the name I was sat in an onsen at the time), mentioned that only 5% of Japan’s fish for human consumption were from local sources.

    This suggests that some modifications might be required to what a “Japanese” or a “traditional Japanese” diet actually is. Perhaps that the current diet involved 95% too much fish hoovered up from food stocks the world over.

    Its neither “Japanese” nor “traditional” and that goes for Antarctic whale too.

    I speak to old folk and travel around a bit, the reality was different. Up in the hills it is still possible to find food, dishes, soups that have fish free stock simply because … traditionally … they did not have fish to eat.

    I might get back to you on this with recollections from some of the old folk.

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