I was looking back at our photos from Japan last week, and found some photos one of our most memorable culinary experiences — learning how to make kaisen don at the Shiogama Fish Market.
Shiogama, in Northern Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture, is one of the most important fishing ports and one of the busiest fish-processing centers in the country. While Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market is famous for their bluefin tuna auction, Shiogama brings in more of these giant fish than any other port in Japan. The Shiogama Fish Market is open 7 days a week and is a lot more accessible for tourists than the Tsukiji market.
We arrived at the market a little after the morning rush on a weekday, so it wasn’t crowded. As a tall, goofy looking American, I couldn’t hide my excitement for all the food. Luckily the vendors were curious about me, too. Two local tourism officials, Mr. Ito and Ms. Suzuki, showed us around the market, along with our translator, Ms. Sato. Mr. Ito grew up in the Miyagi Prefecture and knew everything about the local communities. He also has one of the kindest faces I’ve ever seen, he was always smiling! His colleague, Ms. Suzuki, is an American who now works for the Miyagi prefectural government. She had grown up not far from us in San Francisco–she’s also an SF Giants baseball fan, so we bonded over that.
If you’re looking to learn what Japanese people eat on a normal day, sitting down for a bowl of kaisen don at breakfast or lunch should be at the top of your list. Kaisen don translates fairly literally to “seafood rice bowl,” and it is exactly what it sounds like–a DIY seafood rice bowl and you can make them from scratch at the local fish market. The Shiogama market had a little For 300 yen (~$3), the market staff will give you a bowl of white rice and some miso soup, and it’s your job to go around the market and choose fresh fish to pile on top. It’s a bit like a foodie scavenger hunt!
I started off with an oyster, since Miyagi Prefecture is famous for them. (We saw the oyster farms in Matsushima Bay later that day.) The vendor was kind enough to take a photo with me.
I love seafood, but I don’t eat much of it for sustainability reasons. For my rice bowl, I tried to stay as sustainable as possible by buying some salmon and yellowfin tuna. But when one vendor gave me some expensive bluefin tuna and another some octopus, purely because they wanted me to experience the best of the market, I could only graciously accept their gifts. These were just two of MANY times on that trip where strangers approached us and did something nice for us.
There were lots of things at the market that we just don’t see at home. One that stood out was the vendor selling freshly caught whale meat. While I disagree strongly with the practice of hunting whales, it wasn’t necessary for me to do anything more than smile and pass right by. As tourists, we can choose to support what we believe in. I simply didn’t buy anything. And that was that.
After I finished buying perhaps the freshest fish I’ll ever have in my life, we all sat down to build our kaisendon bowls. I think mine looked pretty good!
It’s been a year, so I can’t remember for the life of me what we talked about. But I remember sharing a lot of laughs and smiles with my new friends over a bowl of kaisendon. To me, that’s what traveling is all about.
How to Visit the Shiogama Fish Market
The Shiogama Fish Market is a 15 minute walk from Higashi Shiogama Station or a 40 minute walk from Hon-Shiogama Station along the JR Senseki Line–in that case, take a taxi. Pair your visit to the market with one of the Matsushima Bay sightseeing cruises, which start in Matsushima and ends in Shiogama.
How to Make Kaisen Don (Sashimi Rice Bowls)
- Pick up a selection of fresh sashimi from your local fish vendor or Japanese grocery store.
- Fill a bowl with Japanese sticky rice
- Pile your fresh fish on top, and enjoy!
Our visit to the Miyagi Prefecture was supported by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Opinions and photos are our own.