"We only serve the best catch of the day." A young cheerful kimono clad hostess told me as soon as I entered an open air private dining room, after soaking in a steamy mineral bath. "The Matsuba Gani will be served as crab sashimi, crab hotpot, charcoal grilled crab, crab tempura and steamed whole crab," she continued. I raised an eyebrow. It seemed like a lot!
A couple of minutes or so later, our hostess arrived in the room with a plate of raw snow crab legs. The Tottori region is famous for the snow crab called “Matsuba Gani”. The raw crab legs sat on a mountain of crushed ice along with slices of fresh salmon and yellow tail. Dipping the crab sashimi in the soy sauce, it was soft, delicate yet bouncy. No wonder it is a pride of Tottori prefecture.
Then the steamed whole crab arrived on my table. I know it sounded typical. However, this guy was a huge snow crab with a tag guaranteeing the supreme quality. It was cooked to perfection. Even without any seasoning, it was sweet, juicy and incredibly rich. The soy sauce simply gave a wonderful contrast with the creamy crab miso; I was in heaven.
According to our hostess who was born and raised in the neighborhood, not all snow crabs are considered Matsuba Gani. Only male crabs with the width of carapace to be 11 cm. onward. Usually, it takes 10 years for each crab to reach an excess of one kilogram in weight.
The aroma of charcoal grilled crabs wafted through the delicate paper sliding doors as the same hostess got her way into the room. The low wooden table at the center was still full with plates of food. The young lady was obviously reluctant to leave the servings on the tatami mat. "The floor is spotlessly clean. Go right ahead," I assured her. She slowly left the lacquered wooden trays right on the floor, refilled my green tea, slipped out quietly.
The charcoal grilled crabs was briny, especially enticing and aromatic after grilled over fire. It was firm yet succulent with the natural sweetness. A good spoonful of crab miso was placed on the shell of this sea monster, then grilled and served with a fresh minty shiso leaves. I scooped it out, squeezed a lime wedge over, devoured it like an ice cream.
Instead of ten-tsuyu, a slightly sweet dipping sauce made of dashi stock, mirin and shoyu, the crab tempura came with some herbal salt to enjoy the crispness and the freshness of the batter.
Finally, it was time for the last dish, a crab hot pot. A generous amount of crab was cooked in a clear salt based broth along with some assortment of winter vegetable. I rested on a soft Japanese cushion, feeling the welcome effects of the food; hardly kept my eyes open. I felt blessed for not having to seek out the food pleasure beyond the comfort of the hotel.
The next day, I sampled a plate of hearty flavorful curry rice at Beniya, a low rise humble cafe located just five minute walk from Tottori station. The almost black curry over rice looked down to earth but I enjoyed it very much, each bite was sweet savory with the wonderful fragrance of spices. The thin golden fried chicken breast was fresh and crisp. To be brutally honest, I didn't have room for any sweets but couldn’t resist good shaved ice, especially one with a creative combination.
The combination of bitter sweet chocolate syrup and red bean paste over shaved ice was not visually appealing, but they amazingly went together. The dessert was really satisfying, especially on that sleep-deprived day.
Tottori ranks largest in term of curry roux consumption per household in the country and the city is home to many curry shops. There are other options available, but this 67 year old cafe is the most well-known, and easy to access.
Don't miss Tottori Sand Dunes, the largest sand dunes in Japan. Riding a camel on the beautiful, serene and magical sand dunes definitely worth a try. The place is open for tourists all year round, but it's better to avoid the winter when the wind blows fierce. Only a short drive from the sand dunes, try local fresh seafood at the restaurants near Karoichi Market, the biggest fish market in the city. A short walk from the market is Kanikkokan (website), a museum dedicating to crabs, a favorite for kids.
Getting There and Around
The easiest way to visit Tottori from Tokyo is by air. (All Nippon Airways runs 5 flights per day from Tokyo to Tottori. Check with the airline.) For tourists, buy a 3 day wooden bus ticket at Tottori station for unlimited rides on local buses. It’s very convenient as you can hop on and hop off any time you want.
Where to Stay
Sanrakuso, an onsen ryokan on the hill, offers the best Matsuba Gani and spacious comfortable rooms. (http://www.tripadvisor.com/)
If you plan to spend more than one night, visit Cosmos, a great little mom and pop hotel located a short walk from Saji Astro Park, a small yet fully equipped planetarium. The hotel offers an absolute tranquility at night with a beautiful starry sky. (http://p-cosmos.net/facilities)
Note: Fishing season of Matsuba Gani is from November to March.