Hinase, the Oyster Heaven In Winter! (Okayama)
The city of Hinase in Bizen, Okayama prefecture is the perfect place to visit for oyster lovers. Here, you not only get to eat oysters (and lots of other seafood) in all different ways, but you also get to take a look at how our edible oysters are produced. Though oyster restaurants and menus are found all over the world, it’s not as common to able to enjoy them right next to the waters where they are produced, and to take a look at the entire process.
From the quiet station of Hinase, I took a stroll down through narrow bayside streets, following the signs for Gomi no Ichi (五味の市). Don’t get this word gomi mixed up with garbage! It means “five flavors” or rather, all the different flavors you can enjoy from sweet to salty. This harbor has a large fish market, many food stalls, and even barbecuing pits with all the materials and ingredients ready for you to use.
Along the 15-20 minute leisure walk to get there, you get a good sense of what this city is like; it’s a quaint fishing town where the citizens are one with the sea. Sidewalks are decorated with tiles of sea creature paintings, fishing boats are anchored right next to homes, and the harbor is covered with empty oyster shells all neatly tied up together. Before even getting to the Gomi no Ichi, you’ll come across many family-owned restaurants advertising the greatest oyster dishes and seafood.
Things you should try in Hinase…oysters and what else?
I visited on a sunny November afternoon, a bit too early in the season to enjoy slurps of raw or barbequed oysters. Though it was a national holiday, the fish market was much emptier than how it would be on the weekends. Perhaps many of the fishermen decided to take the day off, too. But the market’s parking lot was filled with visitors’ cars from near and far, and the barbeque pits were festive with happy, hungry or full folks grilling fish, vegetables, and meat at their own will. If you’re not in the mood to grill up something of your own, look for signs advertising kakioko (カキオコ), oyster okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancake) famous to Setouchi. The chefs will cook one right up in front of you, fresh on a hot plate. But there is another dish I would recommend you try, if you’re (supposedly) a brave soul and foodie like me…
Inside the market, I headed straight for the stall with the unique dessert: fried oyster soft serve ice cream (kaki furai soft カキフライソフト). Okay, you have to hear me out before you judge how it tastes by how it sounds (or looks in the photo). First of all, the vanilla ice cream on this ¥300 dessert was probably one of the creamiest, freshest ice creams I’ve ever tasted. It uses Hokkaido dairy that tastes fresh and rich. The two fried oysters are placed one on each side of the cone and drizzled with sweet soy sauce. The sauce tastes like a creamier version of regular soy sauce without the saltiness overpowering the ice cream. I ate the fried oysters by hand while dipping its fried outside in the ice cream. This may not become my choice of dessert every day, but for a lover and the sweet-and-savory mixtures, this was one of the ultimate dishes to try that I won’t be able to find anywhere else in the world.
This was my pre-lunch snack, by the way. As I finished up looking around the market and devouring my ice cream, I headed back down the quiet roads to a seafood restaurant down the road called Iso (磯). Inside of the restaurant looked like a cozy and inviting mom and pop shop. Large families and cute couples filled the place with their laughter and rosey cheeks from alcohol and fresh seafood on the grill. Hinase is not only famous for their oysters, but also for eel. For a mere ¥1500 I got a huge lunch plate with sashimi, shrimp, vegetables, crab miso soup, rice, and a whole deep fried eel. The service was so quick but the food so fresh, I could imagine the chefs walking right across the street themselves to fish up the ingredients. If oysters don’t sound as appealing to you, try an eel dish either in the similar deep fried form, grilled form, or a donburi rice bowl with grilled eel and sweet eel sauce (yum!).
Check out the Oyster Farming from the Bizen Hinase Bridge!
After a full lunch, I switched gears back to my attention on the oyster farming that takes place in Hinase. A stroll back towards the train station brings you by the ferry terminal and a long and new suspension bridge across the Hinase Bay. This is the Bizen Hinase Oohashi indicated on road signs and Google Maps with an actual heart symbol: 備前♡日生大橋. This bridge, technically not open for access on foot, as there are no sidewalks, leads across the bay to Kakui Island. Below the bridge lies a unique and beautiful view of oysters farms, called ikada in Japanese. I braved my chances with my large backpack and camera in hand, to carefully walk across this bridge to take a look. At the midway point of this 765 meter long bridge, there is a little outlet where vehicles can stop to enjoy the same view careful pedestrians could.
On the walk back on the bridge, I noticed more oyster shell-like figurines under water. As I was looking at these, an elderly man with a face full of his smile greeted me from across the road, then walked over to chat with me. A local taking a careful stroll across the bridge himself, he told me about the process of producing the oysters we see out in the bay. These vertical oysters below at the entrance of the bridge are in the production stage before they are taken out further in sea to the actual farming grounds. It’ll be another few weeks, even a month or two, before the best season for oysters begin. As the locals and oyster lovers know, the best months for oysters are the coldest months of the year. Come winter, Hinase will be filled with foodies flocking for fresh oysters. Once february arrives, the city will be vibrant with the annual Oyster Festival.
Gomi no Ichi
801-4 Hinase cho, Hinase, Bizen-city, Okayama prefecture 〒701-3204