The Tottori Prefecture is located to the west of Honshu Island, the largest island of Japan. The region’s north end borders the Sea of Japan, where the water quality and depth provide optimal living conditions for crabs. Because of that, Tottori reigns supreme when it comes to the amount of crabs caught nationwide—three times more than that of Hokkaido. And no matter what variety you get, freshness is guaranteed.
Snow crab, or zuwaigani, is the most dominant crab variety in Japan, and how it's called varies according to location. In Tottori—and the San’In region it belongs to—male snow crab is known as matsuba, while the egg-bearing female crab is called oyagani. Beni-zuwaigani is another local favorite, nicknamed “the taste of autumn." But when it comes to the most sought after, Itsukiboshi, the rarest, most superior type of matsuba, is simply unrivaled.
Tasting Beni-zuwaiganiCharacterized by the tall shell and flat legs, Beni-zuwaigani is the most common variety of crab found in Tottori. The designated fishing period starts on September 1 and ends on June 30 the following year. This type of crab lives in the deep sea, and its meat doesn’t preserve well over time once ashore. Therefore, it is often used to produce processed foods. If you want to taste fresh Beni-zuwaigani, a trip to Sakaiminato is a must. The city in Tottori has a local speciality called Beni-zuwaigani crab rice, in which the crustacean’s sweetness and umami are accentuated after steamed en papillote with vinegary rice and other ingredients.
If Beni-zuwaigani announces the arrival of autumn, the Matsuba crab fully epitomizes winter’s intensity. Not only is it obtained when the Sea of Japan is at its fiercest, but its meat is bursting with natural sweetness. Most diners take their time savoring every bite, letting the flavors penetrate their mouth. The peak season of Matsuba lasts only from early November to early March, which further contributes to its value.
Suzuki describes with enthusiasm how the Tottori locals enjoy the much-prized crab. “The meat of Matsuba crab is plump and very sweet. Sashimi is the best way to preserve its original qualities. Another simple way of preparation is nabe (or, hotpot). The combination of crab and vegetables in hot broth keeps our bodies warm. For the smaller oyagani, it can be added in whole into miso broth, or paired with rice wine.”
The King of Matsuba, ItsukiboshiItsukiboshi is a brand developed in recent years marking the best of the best. A very select few matsuba crabs meet all five of the criteria below to be labeled Itsukiboshi:
1. The shell measures at least 13.5 centimeters in length.
2. The crab weighs at least 1.2 kilograms.
3. The legs are intact and spread out beautifully.
4. The crab shows a bright color with a glossy surface.
5. The meat is firm and plump.
Among all the crabs in Tottori, only about 1.5% satisfies such high standards. So rare is Itsukiboshi that there’s no stopping of its surge in value. Each crab cost JP¥700,000 in 2016; the newest record is JP¥1.3 million.
Even if you can afford the cost, it’s far from certain that you can secure an Itsukiboshi for your dining table, as Suzuki explains. “No restaurant can say for certain there’s Itsukiboshi on the menu. Whether or not the crab is caught is in question, let alone if a specific restaurant can buy it.”
Here are some of Suzuki's recommendations for a matsuba feast:
271 Suehiro Onsen Cho, Tottori City, Tottori Prefecture (5 minutes by foot from JR Tottori Station)
Opening Hours: 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m. (Closed days varies)
5-5-36, 1 Chrome, Karocho Kita, Tottori City, Tottori Prefecture (15 minutes by Taxi from JR Tottori station)
Opening Hours: 4:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
1-8-12 Karocho Kita, Tottori City, Tottori Prefecture
Opening Hours: 11:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.; 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m. (Sundays and public holidays: 11:00 a.m. - 9:00 p.m.)