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Travel 3 minutes 14 October 2018

Tottori Is a Crab Lover’s Paradise

The prefecture in Japan is the least populous but produces the most crabs in the whole country.

Travel Japan Seafood

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.

There is an endless supply of Beni-zuwaigani crab in the city of Sakaiminato, Tottori from September to June.
There is an endless supply of Beni-zuwaigani crab in the city of Sakaiminato, Tottori from September to June.

Tasting Beni-zuwaigani

Characterized 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.
Matsuba crab sashimi tastes fresh like the ocean.
Matsuba crab sashimi tastes fresh like the ocean.
The Treasure of Winter

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 fish market auctions happening in the cities of Tottori and Sakaiminato might seem more relaxed than Tsukiji in Tokyo but pricey deals are a usual occurrence.
The fish market auctions happening in the cities of Tottori and Sakaiminato might seem more relaxed than Tsukiji in Tokyo but pricey deals are a usual occurrence.

The King of Matsuba, Itsukiboshi

Itsukiboshi 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.”

Hotpot with matsuba crab isn’t only delicious, it warms your entire body.
Hotpot with matsuba crab isn’t only delicious, it warms your entire body.

Here are some of Suzuki's recommendations for a matsuba feast:

Kani-yoshi

The restaurant offers three set menus with prices starting from JP¥25,000. “The chefs there are fantastic. The crabs they choose are surely the best in quality and the freshest,” adds Suzuki. 
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)

Yamadaya

A guesthouse with more than 200 years of history, Yamadaya is renowned for a complete holiday experience beginning with a hot spring in front of sweeping views of the sea. It is followed by an impeccable crab feast with crab sukiyaki being the star of the show. The broth, made with a secret recipe, takes the crustacean several levels up the umami scale alongside homemade ponzu. The dinner can be booked separately for those who prefer to not stay overnight.
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.  

Wakabayashi

This venture started off as a seafood dealer in the first year of the Meiji period in 1868 and takes the current shape as a restaurant when the Heisei Period began in 1989. Located next to the harbor of Tottori, guests can crack the crabs open while taking in idyllic views of a fishing village. “The prices there are very reasonable," says Suzuki. "An all-encompassing meal with crab costs only around 10,000 yen.” If dining in isn’t enough to satisfy your crustacean cravings, Wakabayashi’s retail shop also sells fresh or cooked matsuba and beni-zuwaigani crabs.
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.)

This article was written by Xiaoshan and translated by Vincent Leung. Click here to read the original version of this story.

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