We don’t know why we’re always surprised. We should be used to this by now. Each and every time we dig deeper into the world of artisanal Japanese ingredients, we are blown away at the care, skill and outright hard work that goes into crafting these special products. It happened again in July 2023 when we went to Rausu in far northeast Hokkaido to witness the konbu harvest.
Twice we had visited Aimono Konbu at their headquarters in Kurobe in Toyama Prefecture on the Sea of Japan side of Honshu. It was there that we got our first lessons in Rausu Konbu. We learned about the different grades, how the konbu is selected, aged, and processed. But when Aimono-san invited us to witness the konbu harvest in Hokkaido, we jumped at the chance to dive deeper and learn about the laborious and long process of getting konbu from the water to the wholesale auction.
Greg learning more about Rausu Konbu from Aimono-san in April 2023
Our short flight from Tokyo took about 2 hours and yielded fantastic views of the summer landscape of Hokkaido. Used to the urban density of Tokyo and Osaka, arriving in Hokkaido makes you think you have been transported to another country. In some ways parts of it look like the Midwest of the USA…sprawling farmland, barns, and even grain silos. Yes, it is still Japan…there are convenience stores (albeit a Hokkaido-only version…Seicomart), people drive on the left and you can get soft cream everywhere (soft-serve ice cream made with fresh milk from Hokkaido cows!). But it is different.
The wide open spaces of northeastern Hokkaido from Kaiyodai Observatory
It took about an hour and change to drive from the airport to Rausu. As we entered the town we stopped at a konbini for a quick snack. As we got out of the rental car, we were immediately hit with a deep scent of the ocean…the place literally smelled like konbu! After that revelation we were off to the fishermen’s union building. It was here that we met up with Aimono-san and were introduced to the leaders of the union including Yorozuya-san, its president. Pleasantries were exchanged, the weather discussed (all of Japan, even, surprisingly, Hokkaido was going through a long heat wave) and the general state of the konbu “crop” dissected (the wild konbu was doing OK but farmed was estimated to be down a bit). Also brought up was the average age of the konbu fishermen, which is over 60-years-old, and the fact that there are few young people wanting to take over. We’ve heard this story before about Japan…for sansho farmers, amongst others. It doesn’t bode well for the future of the industry.
A quick discussion about the use of the term "konbu fishermen". The "fish" part comes from the fact that while they all work on the konbu harvest from July to October, the rest of the year they are fishing for fish (the waters around Rausu are teeming with fish). And the "men" part comes from the fact that in these parts they are all male.
After a seafood feast on our first night, the next morning started very early, and for an interesting reason. I don’t know what it is about Japan’s time zone, but it seems a bit off. In the middle of summer, the sun rises at 4:30am in the morning in Tokyo…and in Rausu it is even earlier - 3:50am! Rausu is not so far north latitude-wise…indeed, it is no further north than Portland, Oregon. But for some reason the sun rises really early in the summer. Which is good news, in a way, for the konbu fishermen, because they start their days at 1:00am. So, they must only work in the dark for about 3 hours…
So at 4:30am (yes, the sun was well up) we were collected from our hotel and whisked off to start our day. We traveled up the coast past fishing hut after fishing hut. The road we were on eventually (after many miles) leads to a dead end, and, shortly after leaving Rausu town, there is no public water service, only electricity. So, these fishing huts are only occupied during the summer. In the winter they are left vacant.
We pulled up at a house and walked down to the beach. Under a tent-like structure made of tarps there were a half dozen people, all working on a batch of just-harvested farmed konbu that had been brought in that morning.
The fisherman himself was performing the second step of the process (the harvesting being the first) and sending each long leaf of konbu through a mechanical cleaner. The konbu then came out the other side and into long tubs of sea water. There, both sides of each leaf of konbu was scrubbed by hand by another person on the team. Greg, Takehiro and I each took a turn scrubbing a few leaves of konbu, realizing how much work went into just this one single step of the process.
Fisherman holding a long piece of Rausu konbu (left), the team washing each leaf by hand (middle), and Takehiro take a turn scrubbing the konbu (right)
The scrubbed konbu was then collected and brought to a drying house. These drying houses are approximately the size and shape of a stand-alone one car garage you might see in American suburbs. Each piece of konbu has a clip attached to it and is then hung from the rafters. Fans are then turned on to dry out the konbu for 14-15 hours overnight. Quick note: this step actually isn’t the next step if the konbu is wild. Wild konbu first gets dried on the rocky beach for about 10 hours before going on to the drying house.
Hanging konbu in a drying house (left), and wild konbu drying on the rocky beach (right)
The transformation of the konbu during this initial drying is amazing. The konbu decreases in size by about 50%, becomes leathery and has kind of ‘crispy’ edges. Aimono-san instructed us that if you tried to make dashi at this stage, it would not be good. There are still ‘other flavors’ in the konbu. More drying is needed to get rid of those flavors.
The next step happens in the evening when the dried konbu is laid out on the humid beach. This adds a bit of moisture back to konbu and readies it for the next step.
Back in the car (it is about 5:30am at this point) and on to another konbu fisherman’s hut. There we find the fishermen and two assistants rolling the konbu using a mechanical roller. You thread the end of the konbu through a slit on the rolling pin, and then, using a foot pedal to run the roller, carefully start to roll the konbu, making sure it is always flat and never wrinkled. You end up with a roll of konbu that is then left to rest overnight.
Chris taking a turn rolling konbu
Again into the car and a quick drive brings us to the third fisherman’s hut. Here we are greeted by three women taking rolled bundles of konbu, unrolling them, gently stretching & flattening them out and lining them up in rows. The konbu is then laid out between large boards. Weights are put on the boards to press the konbu flat. They stay this way for just less than a day before they are again dried on the beach for a few hours. Then back under weighted boards and allowed to continue to age. All these processes…rolling, flattening under stone weights, and aging…are vitally important. They help break down the fibers of the konbu, which releases the umami and allows the konbu to make delicious dashi.
Unrolling and stacking the konbu
On our way back to town we stop along the road one last time. The view really is gorgeous. Across the water you can see a large, long island. This island, called Kunashir, is actually part of Russia. It was a Japanese island until the end of WWII. Right near shore, perhaps the first few hundred feet, you can see here and there the tops of konbu plants sometimes breaking the surface. Further out you can see lines of buoys. In total you can see the source of the Rausu konbu…both wild (closer in) and farmed (along the buoys).
The Russian island of Kunashir is only about 15 miles from Rausu
The farmed konbu is floating out around the buoys. Under the buoys are ropes set up with long lines. In August the farmers inoculate the ropes with konbu seeds and then they wait. It takes 2 years for the konbu to grow and mature. During the winter the sea in this area is full of drift ice, so in November the farmers drop the ropes down so the floating ice does not damage them. In the spring the ropes are hoisted back up so the konbu can float again on the buoys.
It is now a bit later in the morning and we can see a fisherman in his long boat harvesting wild konbu close to the shore. (A quick aside – all konbu, whether wild or farmed, grows in the ocean). It turns out that the union has very specific rules about the times during the day when wild konbu may be harvested. And they have a system for letting the fishermen know when they may harvest wild konbu. On many of the beaches there is a flagpole. When there is a red flag flying, wild konbu may not be harvested. But a white flag indicates that it is OK to harvest the wild konbu.
Hoisting wild konbu into the boat
Looking more closely, we can see that the bow of the boat has a large pile of the konbu the fisherman has harvested this morning. We also see the cone-shaped “konbu binoculars” he is using to look under water. The way it works is that he leans over the side of the boat and peers through these ”konbu binoculars”, using his teeth to chomp onto a plastic bar attached to the binoculars. This method has two consequences…one good and one not so good. It allows him to have his hands free (good!) and it also grinds his front teeth (not so good!). We learn that most konbu fishermen have worn down front teeth. With his free hands the fisherman manipulates a long T-shaped wooden tool with a two-pronged wooden fork at the end. There is no blade…he just places the fork around the root of the leaf of konbu and twirls it like you would spaghetti around a fork. (It actually takes a lot of strength…perhaps twirl was the wrong word to use there) This breaks the konbu free and it is then hoisted up and onto the growing pile on the bow of the boat.
Our final stop on our konbu tour is the fishermen’s warehouse. Think of a Costco warehouse store with its giant racks. Well in this Costco they only warehouse and sell one product…konbu. There were about 10 rows each four levels high and five bays wide and nothing but boxes of konbu on the shelves.
Konbu or Costco?
It was there that we also received our final hands-on lesson…cutting the konbu. That pretty konbu you see when you open the package didn’t look like that coming out of the water. Konbu doesn’t naturally have neat, straight edges. Each leaf of konbu is trimmed with giant scissors by hand and there’s a bit of art to this step. The idea is to get a shape like a canoe oar. As my attempts showed, it takes some practice (I wasn’t good at it and I was slow, which is a bad combination – nobody was offering me a konbu cutting job that day). After cutting, the konbu is bundled, folded, and placed in boxes that are tied up with colorful ribbons.
Greg practicing his cutting skills
Opening a box of konbu with ribbons showing the grade
These ribbons indicate the grade of the konbu in each box. There are over 40 grades of Rausu konbu. These grades are not based just on quality but also location of where the konbu was harvested. Each grade is indicated by color of the ribbons used to tie up the boxes of konbu. Greg and I started calling the grading system the periodic chart of the Rausu konbu elements. Perhaps you can see why. The union is responsible for the grading system. At the beginning of each July, they check/survey different places along the coast, take samples and determine the grades given to that specific area. After boxing, the konbu is left to age. It takes at least one year of aging for the konbu to be ready. Aimono-san says 1-2 years of aging is best. So up to 4 years in total from the time the lines are inoculated!
Chart showing all grades of Rausu konbu
In all there are 22 laborious steps (23 for wild konbu with that extra step of drying on the beach!) from water to wholesale auction for a leaf of Rausu konbu. The fishermen and their teams labor from the very early morning until late afternoon day in and day out for several months a year to make sure we have the best konbu to make a superior dashi. We were so fortunate to be able to witness these artisans and have come away with an even deeper appreciation of their labors. We thank Aimono-san and the Rausu fishermen’s union for giving us the opportunity to learn about their important and hard work.
The 23 laborious steps for harvesting Rausu konbu