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A gleaming delicacy from the depths of Toyama Bay

May 11, 2017

Firefly squid (hotaru ika)

It’s 3:30 am on a chilly April night, and I am huddled on a tourist boat chugging out into the dark waters of Toyama Bay, in central Japan. As the coast fades from view behind us, we soon spot the lights of fishing vessels up ahead. Some 1.5 km from shore, we have reached our destination.

Like us, these fishermen have come from the port of Namerikawa, just along the coast from Toyama City. During the months of March through May, they are out here every night at their fixed nets. They are after one catch only: hotaru ika, or “firefly squid”.

A mysterious catch

Photo: Robbie Swinnerton

These small, reddish-brown cephalopods spend the day in the depths of the bay, as much as half a kilometer below the surface. But each night they rise up in great shoals. Thanks to their soft texture and mild flavor, they are a seasonal delicacy shipped to restaurants throughout Japan and even to destinations around the world.

They are a valuable and generally plentiful catch. But the reason why I and the other observers on my boat are out there in the middle of the night is not just to observe the fishermen in action. We are there in the hope of glimpsing the mysterious blue light emitted by the tiny squid from their tentacles, heads, and mantles - from which they have earned their name.

The fishermen work in two teams, slowly drawing in the net stretched between their boats, ignoring the agitated flocks of seagulls swooping down. Then, when their catch is fully concentrated, they switch off their lights for a few minutes for our benefit. The mystical neon-like glow is clearly visible as they start hauling their catch into the waiting crates.

Then the lights snap back on. Time is of the essence: the fishermen have to get the squid to the port, where they will be auctioned and trucked to market before daybreak. But before they sail off, they deliver a present for us - firefly squid that have been simply grilled on a metal mesh over the embers of a brazier. Lightly sprinkled with soy sauce, they are a smoky, salty-savory treat, and a welcome source of warmth for our chilled fingers.

Some 20 minutes later we are back on land, in the foyer of Namerikawa’s Hotaruika Museum, from where the nighttime boat trips are organized. More squid are being cooked for us here. This time they are just quickly dipped in hot water, a cooking style known as sakurani (“cherry blossom simmered”) because they turn such a delicate pink color.

Served with a dab of karashi sumiso (white miso mixed with rice vinegar and mustard powder) the squid are eaten whole-heads, tentacles, innards and all - each a single bite. Compared to the fishermen’s grilled version, the flavor is light, the flesh delicate and smooth. I have eaten firefly squid in many different ways, often at high-end restaurants. But none have tasted better than this.

A close-up look at firefly squid

Photo: Robbie Swinnerton

Much of the year, firefly squid live in the Sea of Japan. But from the early spring they enter Toyama Bay to spawn. They gather in great numbers along the shore, emitting their cosmic-pale-blue bioluminescence as they lay their eggs.

While the exact purpose of this light is still not fully understood, it is thought to be for communication (especially in mating), for luring small fish to feed on, and also for protection. As the squid rise to the surface to feed, their silhouettes become visible against the light of the water surface to predators swimming underneath. The electric blue luminosity serves to camouflage or to disorient the would-be attackers.

Because the weather is changeable and the arrival of the squid unpredictable, it is not easy to see this phenomenon. But generally, the optimal conditions include a sandy beach, a dark night with no moonlight, and calm seas.

A unique ecology and abundant sea life

Above: Shiroebi sashimi
Photo: Robbie Swinnerton

The reason why firefly squid are found in such concentrations in Toyama Bay is due to its unique topography. Protected from the open sea by the Noto Peninsula to the west, the seabed drops steeply to a depth of at least 1,000 meters, creating one of the deepest bays in all of Japan.

In addition, the Tateyama range of the Northern Alps rises to an elevation of around 3,000 meters just a short distance inland. The snowmelt from the mountains drains directly into the bay, mingling with the seawater to provide a pristine environment for the abundant marine life.

Besides the firefly squid, there are many other kinds of marine life in the bay. Another seasonal specialty is shiroebi (“white shrimp”). Translucent when alive, turning a pale white when eaten, these shrimp have a superb, delicate sweetness that is best enjoyed raw as sashimi, with only minimal seasoning needed.

Easy access

In earlier times, Toyama was one of the more remote parts of Japan, cut off from the main urban centers by the snowbound Northern Alps. Even 20 years ago, it would take half a day to reach the area from Tokyo.

This changed significantly when the Hokuriku Shinkansen line reached Toyama City in 2015. Now it takes just over two hours from Tokyo. From there, it is a 15-minute ride on the Ainokaze Toyama Railway to reach Namerikawa.

The Tourist Information Center and Hotaruika Museum are a 10-minute walk from the railway station. The boat trips for viewing the firefly squid leave at 3 am during the season, even in rainy conditions. However, they are cancelled if the waves are too high. Reservations are required in advance.

Text: Robbie Swinnerton

Hotaruika Museum
410 Nakagawara, Namerikawa-shi, Toyama-ken 936-0021, Japan

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