Whale soup is a beloved new year’s dish for many in Hakodate, a port city on the southern tip of Hokkaido. One acquaintance even told me that “I don’t feel like I can welcome the new year without having some.”
As December arrives, salted whale used for making the soup can be found lining the shelves of supermarkets and fish markets throughout the city. Each household has its own recipe with different ingredients. Some families use salt, miso, or soy sauce. They add various vegetables, such as Japanese radish and carrots, as well as wild vegetables. Some families even eat whale soup as a stew.
The only restaurant in the city that serves whale soup year-round is “Kikuizumi,” which sits at the foot of Mt. Hakodate. The owner, Izumi Akatsuka, began offering the soup 14 years ago as a local cuisine. Now she says she gets orders from customers of all ages, from young individuals to the elderly.
Akatsuka is not actually from Hakodate. She first tasted the salted version of whale soup about 40 years ago, when it was served at the company where she worked at the time. At the time, the restaurant served the salted version, but now it offers a choice of soy sauce or miso flavors.
A Legacy Cuisine
Local nutritionist Makiko Muraki has come for a meal. She used to enjoy whale soup at home during the holiday season, but stopped making it several years ago. So, she is having her first taste in a long time. “The pieces of salted whale meat (on sale at shops) are too large, so I don’t make it at home any more,” she said.
As every family uses its own seasonings for whale soup, customers sometimes comment that the restaurant’s recipe “tastes different than at home,” said the owner, Akatsuka. “I’m sometimes not sure if this is the right ‘local’ flavor.”
Muraki hopes that whale soup remains as a “taste of Hokkaido and a taste of Hakodate.” She said she would be happy if the restaurant’s version was preserved for future generations, with its “soft and juicy Japanese radish and delicious broth.”
Akatsuka agrees, and hopes to safeguard the legacy of whale soup.
“I hope it spreads in popularity so that there comes a time when you can eat it whenever and wherever you’d like in Hakodate,” she said.
Whale Promotion Committee
When it comes to whale meat in Hakodate, in the summer locals think of Baird’s beaked whales. Around 10 each year were once caught from May to June in the waters off of the nearby town of Matsumae. From there, the meat was distributed throughout the city.
The Whale Promotion Committee, part of the Hakodate Fishery Association, is responsible for promoting the consumption of whale meat. But recently the nearby hunts have stopped and the supply of meat is limited. The committee also meets occasionally for other tasks, such as the annual cleaning of a memorial built in 1957 for whales killed in the trade in the town of Yayoi.
The current chairman of the committee, Hideki Tonami, is the president of Tonami Foods, a local manufacturer. “Promoting the consumption of whale meat among young people is a challenge. The price is also not cheap. It is a valuable and scarce resource,” he said.
Although the amounts are small, whale soup is served as a traditional food in school lunches once a year in Hakodate City. Whale is also served a few times a year as tatsuta-age (deep-fried whale). Schools in Hokuto, the city where the company’s headquarters are located, also serve tatsuta-age in school lunches.
Promoting Whale as an ‘Everyday Food’
Tonami says there’s still hope for whale meat, even as the number of individuals who have never tried it increases. “If it could become an everyday food, we might be able to increase consumption. Ramen and fried rice are examples of ‘B-class’ cuisine (popular gourmet dishes that are cheap and widely available). And I think whale could be promoted in the same way.”
Tonami Foods is known for products such as squid, octopus, and crab, as well as seafood delicacies. But the company also runs a stall called the “Hakodate Whale Shop” in the Hakodate morning market. The shop sells the company’s whale products, such as whale bacon and salted whale meat, along with various other seafood products.
“Our number one seller is blocks of minke whale bacon. During the holidays, of course, we sell a lot of salted whale used for whale soup. At the end of 2022 we sold out of several whale products. As you’d expect, we get orders from all over Hokkaido. But we also get them from outside the prefecture,” said Yumi Yamada, who manages the shop. She added that minke meat from Abashiri, a city in northern Hokkaido, and fatty sei whale meat are also popular.
University Research Finds Support for Preserving Whale Cuisine
“Whale meat is now available fresh, and that is a big deal. In the past, it was cheap but didn’t taste very good. However, things have changed since the postwar period. At the time there was a shortage of animal protein and people had to eat whale meat despite the taste,” said Takashi Matsuishi, a professor at Hokkaido University‘s Faculty of Fisheries Science, who serves as vice chairman of the Whale Promotion Committee.
In a survey conducted by Hakodate University, 89% of respondents said that Hakodate’s whale cuisine should be preserved. Commenting, Matsuishi said: “It is important not to lose our food culture. We should establish a system for distribution and consumption, and use it sustainably based on scientific evidence.”
Professor Matsuishi also serves as an advisor to the Hokkaido University Cetacean Research Group. Established in 1999, the group currently has 23 students as members. It also conducts activities such as site surveys each weekend on the Tsugaru Kaikyo Ferry that runs between Hokkaido and Japan’s main island of Honshu.
At the university’s Hokusui Festival held in October, the research group has been able to sell canned whale at discounted prices with the help of Tonami Foods. Nodoka Nagura, a fourth-year student from Hiroshima that leads the group, has never tried whale soup. However, she said, “I don’t like raw whale meat, but I do like whale bacon.” Nagura, who is studying the evolution of the harbor porpoise, said she hopes to “explore how the cetaceans that live around Japan spread out.”
Hokkaido’s Long Connection with Whale
In the early Showa Period (1926 – 1989), Hakodate had a thriving seafood industry and boasted the largest population in Hokkaido. The local port was first opened in 1859 to supply food and water to whaling ships, giving it a deep connection with whaling.
In erstwhile Edo, present-day Tokyo, residents would eat whale soup after the annual cleaning day on December 13, wishing for nourishment, longevity, and health. On the other hand, people in Japan’s western regions, such as Osaka, would eat whale during the New Year to ward off bad luck.
People from across Japan would gather in Hakodate and eat whale soup from the end of one year to the beginning of the next, hoping for a big catch in the local herring fishery. Whale bones have been discovered in local trash mounds dating from thousands of years ago, showing that Hakodate has long had a deep connection with whales.
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(Read the article in Japanese at Kujira Town.)
This article is published in cooperation with the Institute of Cetacean Research in Japan. Let us hear your thoughts in our comments section.
Author: Suisan Keizai Daily News