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Oma Tuna, Black Diamond of the Sea

The windswept coastal town of Oma, Aomori, attracts Japan's tuna epicureans who travel to the tip of the northernmost prefecture of Honshu to savour black diamonds.  

By Greg Goodmacher
March 17, 2022

Oma's tanned, hardworking pole fishermen bring up the catch of the day: a sumo-wrestler-sized (440 kgs is the record) bluefin tuna. Those often fetch astronomical prices. For example, one sold for 333.6 million yen at Tokyo's famous New Year's fish auction in 2019. In Japanese, these sumptuous fish are called honmaguro, but auctioneers call them "black diamonds."  

Photo: The Oma Tourist Association

Residents transform each diamond into extraordinary dishes using its umami-flavored heart, black skin, and other unusual sections rarely served in Japanese restaurants. Since prehistory, this speedy missile-shaped ocean predator has been a staple food of Oma residents. Now, locals welcome visitors who come to savour Oma's tuna-based food culture.

Oma's culinary brilliance shines in unexpected places—like in shukubos. Shukubos are typically Spartan lodging for Buddhist pilgrimages. However, Shukubo Bukkoan is akin to a classy Kyoto ryokan inside a Japanese garden. Only one couple is permitted per evening. 

My host was the continuously smiling Monk Yudai Kikuchi, whose ancestor founded Oma's Fugen-In Temple. Kikuchi and his lovely wife enjoy explaining their special tuna-themed dinner. A slice of a tuna's heart was chewy, like octopus, but dripping with umami. The baked tuna neck was reminiscent of fine steak. A thin cut of the dark cooked liver was earthy and iron-rich. Like Kobe beef, slices of chutoro and otoru sashimi glistened with marbled fat.  

After dinner, I strolled in the quiet semi-darkness from the dining room to the WiFi-less suite-like shukubo/cottage located halfway between the dining room and the temple. Surrounded by 1,000 sq.m of wooded temple grounds, serenity as fresh as the sea breeze blowing through the pine trees envelops guests, who have the setting exclusively to themselves in the evening. 

Early in the morning, I enter the candlelit temple. Monk Kikuchi personally blesses and instructs shukubo guests in Soto Zen meditation and the meditative hand-copying of Buddhist sutra. Breakfast is exquisite—the traditional Japanese Buddhist vegetarian cuisine is prepared by the monk and his wife 

Photo: The Oma Tourist Association

Nearby Oma Port is the place to catch fishermen whose ancestors have been catching tuna for generations. Between rows of small family-owned boats, you might see strong-backed fishermen hoisting silvery-black tuna onto trucks. It was a lucky day for me and the fishermen I met. They had pole-fished three tuna weighing approximately 160 kgs each.  

Every day trucks from Oma transport tuna to Tokyo's Toyosu Market. From Tokyo, fish distributers fly around 200 kgs of Oma Tuna to Hong Kong. So a diner at The Peninsula's Imasa Restaurant might have been served the tuna the day after I saw it at Oma Port.  

To witness fishermen battling tuna, join a Y-Project tour. Oma tuna can swim at 90 km/h. Landing a tuna can take between 20-120 minutes of strenuous work from bite to boat. Between August and mid-October, you can journey with fishermen into the heart of the deep Tsugaru Strait through operated tours. Sea conditions are relatively calm then. Standing on the ship's deck, you might (nature is unpredictable) observe fishermen on your boat or a nearby boat fighting to haul tuna from the cold sea.  

Three ocean currents colliding in the Tsugaru Strait produce an environment teeming with plankton, which squid, saury, and mackerel feed upon. The tuna prey on these. When Aomori sea temperatures range between 6.5°C-10°C, the well-fed tuna grow the premium fatty flesh that qualifies them as Oma Tuna. 

Photo: The Oma Tourist Association

To eat the best Oma Tuna, the tuna cognoscenti of Japan flock to an unremarkable-in-appearance, small sushi shop on a narrow road close to Oma Port. Photographs of Japanese VIPs at his shop cover the walls. One image advertises a televised tuna cooking competition the chef entered. He won, of course.  

The allures of Hama Sushi are Chef Ito's masterful cooking and his character, both of which he abundantly serves his customers. Chef Ito says he "speaks with the fish." Each fish, he explains, has its own uniqueness. So, he prepares each piece according to those characteristics. He adds that he cannot serve inferior tuna because "people will come to Oma expecting the best. Therefore, I must meet their expectations."  

The sushi and sashimi dishes guests at the counter were eating looked superb. Still, my traveling companion suggested we embark on an adventure. So we ordered the maguro course. It's a multi-course tour of Oma's culinary heritage. The dishes included skin in vinegar, boiled bloody meat, stomach, stir-fried diaphragm, deep-fried cheek meat, eye muscles, and steak. At first glance, I wondered if I should have stuck with sushi, but my taste buds were soon screaming for joy.   

Photo: Y Project

Oma's jubilant festivities are also worth experiencing. April 3's ancient religious dances held at Benten Shrine commemorate the death of Sea Goddess Benten. The Big Catch Prayer Festival and Tenpi (originally a Chinese sea goddess) Procession are July 15. Fishermen drop a talisman into the Tsuruga Strait from their gaily decorated boats while praying for safety and abundant fish catches. Locals wear costumes, dance with dragons, and explode firecrackers. Rowing competitions, fireworks, and tuna feasts are highlights of August's Blue Marine Festival. When tuna reappear in September and October, local chefs hold tuna carving exhibitions for visitors at the Oma Port fish warehouse. 

The informal tuna capital of Japan is indeed an exotic place worth visiting, even for most Japanese.