I’ve leaped out of a plane and thrown myself into a canyon with only a rope attached to my legs. I’ve camped among wild dingoes and repelled into an underground cave. Eat a poisonous fish? Hell yeah, I’ll give it a shot.
Trying fugu, or pufferfish, in Japan was one of the very few things I promised myself I would not leave without doing (the others were to eat Kobe beef and experience an onsen or hot spring). So, I headed to Shimonoseki, which is pretty much at the tail end of Honshu. And Shimonoseki is a far cry from Tokyo, that’s for sure.
Why would I go there? Well, back when I was in Nagano, I asked the hostel owner where I could get the best fugu. She said Shimonoseki, and just like that I worked it into my travel plans. It turns out that Shimonoseki is known as the “Fugu Capital” so I suppose she didn’t steer me wrong.
When I arrived, I immediately dropped my bags off at my hotel. Yes, this time I booked into a real hotel because I couldn’t find any hostels. I also couldn’t find any English-language websites and had to ask for help from one of the hostel owners. He rang and booked the room for me – a single with ensuite bathroom. Nice! As this is Japan, it also came with pajamas, slippers, toiletries and the works. I love, love, loved it! Best of all, the price included breakfast the next morning.
Anyway, I asked the reception desk where I could try fugu. They suggested a place just around the corner. However, for the life of me, I couldn’t find the restaurant. So, I just kept walking to explore the area and eventually arrived at Karato Ichiba Fish Market.
This place is incredible – and this is coming from someone who isn’t a big fan of seafood. There were so many vendors selling all types of seafood – raw and cooked – that you are spoiled for choice. When you first enter, you’re hit with the distinct smell of fish, which usually turns me off completely. But, for the sake of trying fugu, I soldiered on.
You could find anything your heart desired at Karato Ichiba Fish Market. They had great slabs of fresh sashimi (raw fish), odd-looking shelled creatures, sushi topped with fish eggs, eels and, most importantly, fugu. I was looking for a small tray of fugu sashimi because I wasn’t too keen on paying a lot and not being able to finish it. Let’s put it this way – I’ve tried sashimi numerous times and have yet to find one I enjoy.
When I finally found a tray with just a few pieces of fugu, I was wandering around and an old woman (who is apparently a very good hawker as well) suckered me into trying a sample of the deep-fried fugu (fugu karaage). I popped the piece into my mouth and just about died from the utter fried goodness of it all. So I picked myself up a fried fishy and looked for a seat.
Above the market, there’s a few restaurants where you can eat at proper sit-down tables with the atmosphere that comes with it. But, when you buy your food from the market, you get your seafood on styrofoam trays. You’re able to select your own food and put it on your tray, and in the end, you’re charged per piece. It’s quite fair considering you get to select the things you want and don’t have to pay for unnecessary items.
Around the second floor, there are also chairs and benches upon which you can relax with your tasty treats, and I found myself a quiet corner to discover the delicacy of fugu. First, I tried the sashimi version alone and found it more chewy than other raw fish I’ve tasted. It could be because the slices of fish were extremely thin instead of the nice, thick cuts of regular sashimi. I think this may be a negative point for some, but for me, I enjoyed the thin layers a lot better. The taste of the pufferfish was actually very mild. I couldn’t smell the usual fishy scent, and the texture of the meat was interesting.
Next, I tried it with the packet of sauce that was provided. It turned out to be a type of shoyu or soy sauce. A bit sweet, it added a new twist to the fish’s flavor. I enjoyed the flavor of the shoyu so I ate the rest with of the fugu with the sauce on it.
After I finished the raw fish, I dug right into the fried fish. The entire fish looked like it was deep fried as it still had its bones, tail and fins. But, because the toxins are found in the fish’s internal organs, I know the chef must have already removed them. The meat of the fish was very tender and a bit salty due to the seasoning on the outside of the fish. I loved the fugu prepared this way and would recommend that people try it.
After a bit of a look around, which included an open-air reenactment of a battle that I couldn’t understand, I decided to head back to the hotel. When would I get a chance to spend some alone time in such a nice accommodation? I could take a relaxing shower and watch Japanese tv! On the return trip, I stumbled upon Sea Mall, which was once the largest mall in western Japan. I traipsed through it and had some Chinese for dinner and a wonderful crêpe for dessert.
With my belly content, I was finally able to head home and enjoy my single-room splurge to its fullest extent. Shimonoseki and fugu turned out to be a good add-on to my trip. It’s someplace I never even knew about before coming to Japan but was wonderful in the end.