Surrounded by the sea on three sides, Aomori Prefecture in Japan is known for its exceptional seafood. With an abundance of meaty scallops cultivated in Mutsu Bay, as well as squid, sea urchin and flounder, the prefecture boasts some of the nation's biggest catches. Its reputation has attracted seafood lovers from afar: Every year, about 120 000 people enjoy a raw seafood rice bowl with custom toppings - called nokke-don - at a market just a five-minute walk from Aomori Station.
On a Saturday afternoon in April, about 25 visitors from Taiwan were among those exploring the Aomori Gyosai Centre market in the heart of the prefectural capital. The market is home to 28 vendors selling seafood, meat and prepared dishes such as grilled fish and deep-fried delicacies. Diners clutching bowls of rice and vouchers redeemable for 1 080 yen (R109) or 540 yen (R54) worth of toppings were inspecting the offerings at various stands to put together their own nokke-don.
Tony Lee, 44, who was on a four-day trip to Sendai and Aomori with his wife and daughter, was among those eagerly browsing the seafood toppings. The family members spent about 15 minutes browsing the market to complete their dishes. To order, they simply pointed to what they wanted. Most vendors at the market speak the Tsugaru dialect and tend not to know English. Even so, none of the family members had a problem making their nokke-don.
The selections included scallops from Mutsu Bay - whose prime season is around April through June - along with sea urchin, prawns, tuna and salmon. “At a restaurant, you have to go along with whatever the chef decides to use, but here, you can choose for yourself,” said Lee.
The scene at the Aomori Gyosai Centre market these days was unimaginable to many vendors including fish merchant Minoru Kasai, 58, only six years ago.
A year before Tohoku Shinkansen train service was extended to the city of Aomori in 2010, the market began offering nokke-don as a local specialty aimed at tourists. The idea came from the Aomori Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Established in 1969, the market once functioned as a “communal kitchen” for local residents and chefs. Kasai set up his shop there 22 years ago. “When I opened my shop here, the market was packed. Sometimes I had to ask customers to wait nearly two hours to have their fish cut,” he recalled. “But a few years later, the economy slowed down and the lifestyle of families changed. A lot of restaurants in the city have closed down, and small families don't buy whole fish anymore. So the number of customers has gone down.”
For Kasai and other vendors, the number of younger visitors to the market came as a surprise, since it is said that many young people in the nation today do not eat fish. “We realised that what really matters is how to make fish appealing to young people,” he explained.
Now the market attracts visitors from around the world. Every year, about 20 cruise ships arrive at the city piers. A single cruise ship can easily bring as many as a hundred foreign tourists to the market, according to Kasai.
Despite the success brought by nokke-don, Kasai is not ready to rest on his laurels. “If we're just content with nokke-don, we'll be just sellers of rice bowl dishes,” Kasai stressed. “We have to take this opportunity to make people aware of the high quality of the seafood we sell here.”
The market plans to offer classes on cutting fish and making sushi.
“We want visitors to the market to enjoy fresh seafood and experience the kindness of vendors,” Kasai said.
The Washington Post