Namihanado Sea Salt
In a modernistic salt house on Shodoshima Island, Toshiki Kaba has skillfully adapted Japan’s traditional ryuka-shiki-enden salt-making method to produce a light, sweet-tasting Seto Inland Sea salt. The salt is contributing to the island’s revival as a regional food center as well as supporting a new life for himself and his family.
Toshiki Kaba and his wife Kazumi moved to Shodoshima Island from Tokyo in 2011, soon after the great Tokoku earthquake which occurred in March of that year. The move was motivated not only by a concern about future earthquakes and the potential for radioactive fall-out from the disabled nuclear power stations north of the city at Fukushima. The disaster also prompted the Kabas to re-evaluate the quality and purpose of their lives, as it did for many people across Japan, and they moved to the island to begin a new slow life.
Shodoshima is a dramatically beautiful island located in the eastern section of the Seto Island Sea. Although it is just one of over 700 islands scattered across the sea, it feels like it is a separate country. It is big, and is the second largest island in the sea. It is also relatively isolated because it is one of the few very large islands not connected to the mainland by a bridge. Instead, a ferry boat is needed to get there, and service can be disrupted by rough waters. There is also something very special about the seascape. A wide, low horizon makes the other islands and mainland mountains seen in the distance seem like much farther away places.
The Kabas moved into an abandoned farmhouse on a steep hillside on a peninsula at the southeastern corner of the island. It is a tranquil spot with spectacular views of Uchinomi Bay and the Seto Inland Sea beyond. The farm cascades down from the house via a series of ancient ishizumi stone terraces that, typical for the region, are planted with many different types of cooking and eating citrus, including amanatsu, haruka, kabosu, lemon, and mikan. The Kabas reclaimed several ishizumi that were once used to grow rice to now grow many of the foods they eat or use to make other foods. They also make their own salt from the clean, mineral-rich sea water available at their remote corner of the island. To provide a source of income to underpin their new life, Toshiki decided to expand their salt production, designing and building his salt house and taking up what must be arguably one of the oldest professions on earth, that of salt maker.
The Salt Maker
Salt has been made on Shodoshima for thousands of years. In ancient times it was made to support the local population when Japan's society was centered in the Seto Inland Sea region. Later, local salt production grew to fuel other food industries it had helped spawn which took advantage of the island's rich crops of soy beans, wheat, and rice and abundant fresh water. The most important of these food industries is soy sauce, and since the early 1600s Shodoshima has been one of two leading soy sauce making centers in Japan (the other is Chiba prefecture north of Tokyo). Salt-making, however, disappeared from the island during the last century when the salt industry was nationalized and production was consolidated at a few locations in the region. One of these is the city of Ako located directly across the straits from Shodoshima on the mainland of Honshu Island.
The start of Toshiki's salt-making business seven years ago coincided with other local activities that are making the island a culinary destination in addition to an important food-making center. Across the island, food artisans are reviving traditional food-making techniques such as the use of cedar barrels in which to ferment foods, producing world-class ingredients like olive oil, and opening innovative new restaurants that are updating and redefining Setonaikai cuisine—Japan's native light and natural, ingredient-based cooking. ("Setonaikai" is the Japanese name for the Seto Inland Sea.)
In similar fashion, Toshiki’s salt-making is a smart updating of the ryuka-shiki-enden way of making salt. The ryuka-shiki-enden, or "sloping salt-terrace," method was the last traditional way of making salt in Japan before all salt-making was converted at the end of the 20th century to the ion-exchange membrane electrodialysis method, a highly mechanized way of making salt that relies on large amounts of electrical power to extract salt from seawater. Ryuka-shiki-enden salt-making entailed cycling seawater down vertical racks of bamboo branches, called shijoka, and across salt pans below the racks to concentrate the water’s salinity. Concentrating seawater’s salinity is key to making salt because it significantly reduces the amount of time and energy that is needed to boil seawater and crystalize salt from it. Prior to its introduction, bands of laborers on salt farms in the region daily raked seawater across clay salt pans to evaporate the water from the salt.
Ryuka-shiki-enden salt-making is well suited to the small-batch, artisan salt-maker because of its labor efficiency. It allows Toshiki to do everything himself yet leaves room in the process for him to demonstrate his skill and ingenuity. He has made several innovations to the method to make it work better and also give his salt a unique taste and texture. Toshiki completely enclosed the shijoka rack in a translucent material. This refracts the sun’s light and intensifies its evaporating effect. It also enables salt-making year round. In addition, Toshiki made the shijoka rack out of fine mesh synthetic nets instead of branches of bamboo and the pan below is corrugated metal instead of clay. The nets increase the surface area of the water while the metal pan acts like a heater, both quickening the time to concentrate the seawater. These modifications also significantly influence the taste of the salt. The bamboo branches and clay pans of the old-style shijoka left trace materials in the salt, which tended to give the salt sharp, bitter flavors. Toshiki’s salt, instead, has a purer sweet-minerally flavor characteristic of Seto Inland Sea water.
Once the seawater is concentrated, Toshiki moves it in barrels to a second salt house at the bottom of his farm. Here, in time-honored fashion, he boils the concentrated seawater to crystalize the salt. He does this slowly and gently to create an even-sized, fluffy crystal that enhances the salt’s light, sweet flavor.
A big improvement over traditional ryuka-shiki-enden salt-making that Toshiki has made is his use of solar energy instead of electricity to power the equipment that pumps the water from the sea and cycles it over the shijoka. He also uses recycled wood to boil the water and crystalize the salt. Although the batches of salt he produces are small, Toshiki is able to make salt twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three-hundred and sixty-five days a year because of his innovations. This produces more than enough salt to sell and ensure a good life for himself and Kazumi as well as meet the needs of his fellow food craftsmen.
Sweet and Salty
Namihanado sea salt is a light yet flavorful salt that has the sweet-minerally taste of the Seto Inland Sea. Hand-made sea salts tend to be either very fine or large mixed coarse grains. Namihanado sea salt is an even medium-sized grain that is dry and uniquely fluffy. Its texture enhances its sweetness by diminishing its initial salty hit and also by extending the salt’s sweet flavor in the mouth.
Namihanado sea salt’s delicate flavor and texture make it a finishing salt (unlike the traditional kinds of enden salts, which were largely used for cooking because of their sharp, bitter flavors). It can be used on all kinds of foods: soups and salads, tofu, cheese, vegetables, seafood and other meats, and also desserts. It spreads well and evenly, provides a hint of crunch, and has a delightful combination of porcelain white and grayish colors mixed with tiny flashes of sparkly jewel-like light. The salt is a perfect match to the mild, slightly sweet cuisine of the region. It is also good for any other type of ingredient-based cooking, like Italian and other Mediterranean cuisines, because it tends to season rather than flavor a dish at the table. Namihanado sea salt's airy texture makes it an excellent base to use when making herb and other kind of blended salts.
Story & Photos: Tom Schiller
Namihanado Goen 浪花堂 御塩
124 Taura, Shodoshima-cho, Shodo-gun, Shodoshima, Kagawa Prefecture 761-4424
Tel: +81 (0879) 82 3665
The salt house where the boiling and crystalizing of the salt takes place is at the bottom of the road leading to the Kaba's farmhouse. If you stop by here you may find Toshiki at work and willing to explain the process and even sell you some salt. The modernistic salt house where the seawater is concentrated is located further down the coast near the open sea and is not open to the public.
How to Get There
There are several ports on Honshu Island and also one on Shikoku Island that provide ferry boat service to Shodoshima. Where you start from and where you get off on the island depends on your travel itinerary. Having said that, the most convenient way to get to Shodoshima is by boat from the port of Takamatsu on Shikoku Island even if it means traveling an extra distance to get to Takamatsu to do this. The train and bus terminals at Takamatsu are next to the ferry boat terminal (which is not the case for several of the starting points on Honshu Island). In addition, Takamatsu offers both standard one-hour ferry boat rides and a much faster 30-minute option to Shodoshima. Ferries from Takamatsu will take you to a number of ports there. The one that goes to the town of Kusakabe is very near to the area of the island where Namihanado Goen is located.
There is also a ferry boat service to Shodoshima from neighboring Teshima Island, which is part of Benesse Art Site Naoshima—the collective name for the museums and arts activities that take place year-round on the islands of Naoshima, Inujima, and Teshima. The ride is only 30 minutes.
Where to Buy
Namihanado sea salt is available at most speciality food shops located on the island, including at Shodoshima's several michi no eki, or farmers' markets, and at the gift shops of the better hotels.
Shodoshima has a lot to offer in addition to good food. There are hiking trails and bicycle paths, sparkling beaches, beautiful seasonal landscapes (the island is especially famous for its fall foliage), and the opportunity to see food artisans at work. Many of the island's soy sauce makers allow visitors and often provide tours and tastings.
The island is part of the Setouchi Triennale, which is a contemporary arts festival that was set up in 2010 and is being held every three years on several islands around Shodoshima. The most recent festival held in 2016 featured over 150 artworks and installations by artists from both Japan and overseas. The Triennale lasts for eight months from March to early November.
Shodoshima is a good place to stay if you are visiting the annual arts activities sponsored by Benesse Art Site Naoshima on the neighboring islands of Teshima, Inujima, and Naoshima because Shodoshima has a much wider range of places to stay and eat. Many of the local restaurants serve Namihanado sea salt. Some of the best ones are:
Opened in 2010, Komame Shokudo is a restaurant housed in an old rice mill located among the famous Senmaida terraced rice fields in the center of the island. Serving home-style Japanese food, the restaurant features the island's fresh and specialty food products, including rice, vegetables, seafood, salt, soy sauce, and somen noodles. A set tray lunch comes with two large balls of rice grown in the nearby fields and an array of seasonings with which to enjoy them.
Morikuni Shuzo Sake Brewery
For many years sake was no longer made on Shodoshima despite the island's abundance of high quality rice and fresh water. The Ikeda family fixed that when they started the Morikuni Shuzo Sake Brewery in 1970. Since then they have expanded by opening a restaurant and bakery, both of which serve foods made with local, seasonal ingredients and the by-products of sake making, such as sake-kazu, the strong, sweet tasting lees remaining after sake is filtered before bottling.
Nobuto Shibuya, the owner and chef of Ristorante Furyu, came to Shodoshima several years ago after having worked at leading restaurants in Tokyo for many years. By applying his exceptional culinary talents to the island's famous food ingredients, he has created one of the best places to eat on the island as well as in the entire region. Although Chef Shibuya bills Ristorante Furyu as an Italian restaurant, it features modern Setonaikai cuisine—Japan's native light, fresh, ingredient-based cooking updated to include foreign ingredients and cooking techniques. For example, dishes in a winter meal included an antipasto platter with raw slices of rich, fatty buri (Japanese amberjack fish) topped with Namihanado sea salt and mikan citrus juice, smoked olives, and three varieties of daikon radish; an oyster stew made with a puree of hakusai cabbage and leeks seasoned with lemon juice; and steak seared over olive tree wood and served with strawberry-infused balsamic vinegar and Namihanado sea salt.
The restaurant is small; there are only six tables, and it is perched on a hill. Its large balcony is nearly enclosed by the surrounding forest, providing equally intimate outdoor seating. Located in Kusakabe Port, it is a convenient as well as memorable place to eat if you are visiting Namihanado salt works. Reservations by phone are a must.
Chef Nobuto Shibuya is also behind this small gelato shop and cafe, located on the coast down the hill from Ristorante Furyu. Not surprisingly, it makes exquisite gelato, which comes in a range of flavors of whatever fruit, vegetables, herbs, and spices are in season, in addition to the more traditional flavors. The gelato that is made from the many different varieties of local citrus is especially refreshing.