A Unique Japanese Seafood: Learn About Traditional Chirimen Fishery at Shibushi Bay

The Kuroshio Current originates in the northeast of the Philippines and flows north through the East China Sea to the open waters off Kagoshima Prefecture. This current carries many types of seafood with it, which creates rich fishing grounds along the coastlines the Kuroshio Current flows through. One type of seafood brought by the current is "chirimen" (known in other parts of Japan as shirasu, or whitebait in English), which are caught in Shibushi Bay in Kagoshima Prefecture. These small fish range in size from around 1-3 cm in length. Boiled chirimen are particularly popular for their delicious, subtly salty flavor. This writer visited Shibushi to experience the sights and flavors of chirimen fishing.


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Traditional Trawl Net Fishing in Shibushi Bay, Fed by the Kuroshio Current

Kama-age (boiled) chirimen is one of the signature flavors of the southern Kyushu area. This dish is made with steaming white rice topped with boiled chirimen that has been drizzled with a touch of ponzu (citrus sauce). The slightly salty flavor of the chirimen really whets the appetite! Kagoshima Prefecture ranks number two in Japan for the volume of chirimen caught, and the Shibushi Bay area itself makes up around half of Kagoshima's overall catch.

"Chirimen" is the general name for young fish like the round herring and Japanese varieties of anchovy and pilchard. The name "chirimen" is commonly used in the Shibushi area, which comes from the Japanese word for silk crepe fabric, named so for the crepe-like creases on the fry. The chirimen caught in Shibushi Bay are called "white-back" chirimen. These are considered high grade, and are characterized by their lack of bitterness, even if eaten raw.

Large-scale coastal reclamation is being carried out in the Shibushi Bay, and large boats like ferries and container ships are moored at the revetments. However, you can still see groups of local fishing boats fishing for chirimen today. 

"Up until 45 years ago, it was all dragnet fishing," says the president of Kajiku Fisheries, Yoshiaki Kajiki. He spoke nostalgically of catching fish like sea bream and mackerel by casting nets from the shore. Today, the four companies still engaged in chirimen fishing in Shibushi use a traditional batch fishing method, which involves pulling a trawl net in a U shape between two boats in the open water. The fishing grounds are located in Shibushi Bay, and the fishermen here search for fish using fish-finding devices installed on their boats.

Shibushi Bay.

Searching for chirimen using a fish-finding device.

Fishing continues from early morning until dark during the peak season.

Freshness Is Everything: Chirimen Are Immediately Boiled in Salt Water

Freshly caught chirimen are translucent and sparkle beautifully in the light. "Since chirimen are so small, freshness is everything. They can go bad quickly, so you have to process them straight away," said Kajiki. After being washed and sorted in the processing plant, they are boiled for around a minute in salted water. Fish that go through this process are called kama-age chirimen, or pot-boiled whitebait. They can then be dried in the sun to create chirimen jako (dried whitebait). Chirimen are known to be rich in protein and calcium. 

Kajiki and his colleagues will head to the processing plant after each catch to preserve the freshness of their chirimen. In the peak spring and autumn fishing periods, they will go between the fishing areas and the processing plants many times each day.

"The sun-drying process after boiling the fish is also important. They dry particularly quickly in the summer, so you need to regulate the drying time very carefully so that they don't lose all their moisture."

Chirimen fishing begins each year in March and peaks in April. The autumn fishing season begins in September and lasts until January. At the beginning of the season, they catch newborn sardines called "jami", which are around 1cm in length. 

"When they are all the same size and pure white, they are considered high grade," says Kajiki. Locals often eat jami dressed with ponzu on tofu, or mixed into fried rice.

Chirimen are chilled in cold water to preserve their freshness while on the boat.

Kama-age chirimen have a plump texture.

Enjoy the Different Ways Chirimen Can Be Prepared

There are many restaurants in Shibushi that serve dishes made with chirimen. Local restaurant Donya Waka serves Kajiku's kama-age chirimen. Here, you can sample their Three Flavor White-Back Chirimen Bowl, which in 2010 won the first ever S-1 Grand Prix (now known as the Show-1 Gourmet Grand Prix), a competition for popular dishes from Kagoshima Prefecture's shopping areas. The appeal of this dish is that you can enjoy chirimen prepared three ways. This luxurious dish is made up of a rice bowl generously topped with servings of fluffy kama-age chirimen, kinpira made with burdock, carrot, and chirimen that has been sautéed until glossy, and fritters made with chirimen and local vegetables. 

"The chirimen that fight their way along the Kuroshio Current are delicious," proprietor Hisako Taura said with a smile. The restaurant's special sauce mixes with the contrasting textures and styles of the chirimen to bring about a complex, delicious flavor.

Yoshiaki Kajiki 

Hisako Taura 

Three Flavor White-Back Chirimen Bowl

Another popular dish, the Natural Hamo Shibushi Bay Three-Flavor Bowl, includes kama-age chirimen topped with sea urchin and hamo (daggertooth pike conger). 

Donya Waka

Donya Waka is located in Shibushi's shopping street. Here you can sample a range of dishes made with local ingredients, including rice bowls topped with generous servings of white-back chirimen. This restaurant is popular with customers from both inside and outside the prefecture.

Translated and republished with permission from:Visit Kyushu


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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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