It's Sea Urchin Season at Hokkaido's Shakotan Peninsula!
So what would make anyone want to not only drive two and a half hours on the highway, wait more than twenty minutes once you get to your destination, but also pay almost 4,000 yen for? A rice bowl topped with fresh sea urchin, of course. I’m talking about the ultimate seafood culinary delicacy: unidon!
When is Uni in Season?
Tourists from all over Japan and the world descend upon Hokkaido and Shakotan to sample the freshest uni in summer — the best time to enjoy this delicacy. Shakotan Peninsula, located west of Otaru and Sapporo, is dotted with normally sleepy little fishing towns most of the year. However, it comes alive in the summer.
In order to control the natural resources in the area and avoid overfishing, sea urchin is only harvested at certain times of the year. From June to August, once the ban for fishing sea urchin is lifted, the local fishermen are allowed to pick as much as they can.
According to enthusiasts, the best time to eat uni is in June, when the urchins have reached adulthood and are about to lay eggs. This is when the urchins are at their most nutrient-rich, which makes the flavor of uni (sometimes referred to as "sea urchin roe") more distinct. However, if you can’t make it in June to sample the uni, visiting in July and August is also fine.
Of course, you can eat sea urchin sushi at any time of the year in many of the sushi restaurants in Japan. However, if uni is out of season, most of what you eat will have been imported from Russia or Alaska. People who really love uni recommend eating it in Hokkaido, especially during this time. You can really taste the difference. Newly picked Shakotan uni is so fresh that you can still taste the sea. It is so creamy, it melts in your mouth. There’s no need for extra soy sauce.
Uni Restaurants in Shakotan
You can eat unidon at many of the restaurants in the area. However, locals recommend two of the original restaurants that came up with the concept of sea urchin roe over rice. The best places to eat are at Misaki and Nakamura-ya. Fortunately, they are right next to each other.
Both restaurants are usually very crowded during the weekend, so if you can, it’s best to go during the weekday. If you don’t want to wait, timing of the day also matters. Going early or after the lunch time rush is best if you want to enjoy a leisurely meal. Also, a good thing to note is that the restaurants don’t usually take credit cards. Make sure you carry cash with you.
If you’re traveling with people who don’t like sea urchin, there are other options such as fish or ikura, salmon roe, as well. Since Shakotan is a port-town, you’ll have lots of seafood to choose from and they will all be fresh from the early morning catch.
Every restaurant has different sets on offer. If you have the budget for it, I recommend the more expensive one for 3,500 yen, where you get the unidon with two extra “live” sea urchin. And they really mean alive! Even though the outer shells are cracked, the creatures are still moving—it makes a great video. You can see the spikes moving, causing your urchin to walk from one end of the plate to the other. However, just like crab, you’ll have to work to scoop out your food.
Cape Kamui and Other Places to Visit
You’ll need to stretch your legs after all that dining and driving. Fortunately, there are lots of places to visit in the Shakotan area. One of the most visited places is Cape Kamui, where you can see the steep cliffs and the oddly-shaped rocks that dot the area. “Shakotan Blue” refers to the cobalt color of the Sea of Japan as seen from Cape Kamui. Cape Ogon and the Shimamui Coast are also popular tourist destinations. Also, one of the best ways to explore the area is to take a tour on the glass-bottom boats. You’ll get a different view of the sea and the cliffs.
Make sure you’re wearing comfortable shoes because getting to the observation points of the capes requires a lot of trekking and hiking, even from the closest parking lots. Once you get done with all the walking, there is a small hot spring, Misaki no Yu, where you can spend a few hours relaxing in the outdoor bath that looks out into the sea.
Getting to the Shakotan Peninsula
Buses originating from Otaru and Sapporo do get you to the area, but it will take time. Also, if you’re taking the railways, the closest train stop is Yoichi. From there, you’ll need to take a bus or taxi to any of the capes. The best way to see all of the area if you’re short on time is to hop on a tour bus.
However, the best way to enjoy Shakotan is to drive there. Driving along the coast, you’ll see that much of the area depends on the sea for its survival. You also drive through some pristine forests broken by a few restaurants and farms that dot the interior.