With a twist of his powerful torso, Seijiro Ura sends a bucketful of seawater high into the air. The water catches the sunlight as it falls over a large open area covered with meticulously raked sand. This is one of the first steps in a time-honored method of making salt here in Oku-Noto, Ishikawa Prefecture, and the result is beautiful, sweet grains of salt that will add zest to any meal.
A time-honored production
Ura is a hamashi, a master salter in the 500-year-old agehama tradition of salt making, a designated important folk cultural property. It’s little changed from how salt was made in Japan’s Edo period (1603–1867) when samurai ruled the land. Since Japan has no rock salt or salt lakes, and solar evaporation alone is not suited to the rainy, humid climate, the Japanese developed a method of crystallizing salt by boiling down salt concentrate.
The salt makers are mostly seniors who have been working this tough physical job for decades
Okunoto Endenmura is located at the tip of the Noto Peninsula, an ideal spot for harvesting the seawater that yields delicious agehama salt. The process is only carried out on sunny days between April and October. It’s demanding, physical labor but the salt makers at Endenmura are mostly seniors who have been doing it for decades.
The salt makers carefully rake the sand on the enden
The process begins when kansa, the sand for drying salt, is prepared by repeatedly raking with a tool called a komazarae. Next, the hamashi steps into the surf along the Sea of Japan, scoops up two buckets of seawater and, as they hang from a pole on his back, carries them up to the enden salting area. The water is dumped into a large shikoke tub and is then sprayed over the enden.
Ura collects seawater from the Sea of Japan the old-fashioned way
As the seawater evaporates, its salt content crystalizes on the sand, which is then raked into mounds surrounding two concrete frames. Wooden boards are fitted to the frames to form two large boxes, and the sand and salt crystals are shoveled into the boxes. Next, a concentrated seawater solution created earlier is poured into the box, dissolving the salt in the sand. The resulting briny solution, called kansui, drains into a bucket below the box, where a filter prevents the sand from escaping.
One of the only younger salt makers at Endenmura carries the briny solution to the boiling hut
The boiling process
Pairs of kaeoke buckets, each holding 36 liters of kansui, are hauled to the boiling hut nearby. A large wood-fired cauldron squats in the center of the hut, filling it with smoke and high heat, working conditions that are especially difficult in midsummer.
Ura poses in front of the large, wood-fired cauldron he uses to boil down salt
To begin the two-step boiling process, the concentrate is poured into a tank that feeds a large, 1,000-liter cauldron. About 560 liters of kansui are needed to for salt making. Between the first, or aradaki, and second, or hondaki, boiling stages, there’s a cooling and filtration process to produce optimal salt crystallization. Over the 18 hours needed for the best salt crystals, the hamashi constantly monitors the temperature of the cauldron, making minute adjustments to the boiler.
The entire process of boiling down 560 liters of kansui yields about 90 kilograms of salt
“It takes about seven or eight hours for the crystals to form softball-shaped clumps,” says Ura. “Everything, affects the process, even the size and shape of the logs we use to fire the boiler.”
Once crystallization is complete, the hamashi shovels the salt into a draining chest, where it remains for about three days. Nigari, the bittern that drains off, is used as a coagulant in tofu-making. The entire process of boiling down 560 liters of kansui yields about 90 kilograms of salt.
Getting it just right
Seawater in itself does not determine the flavor of the agehama salt. Rather, it’s the temperatures in the boiling hut that influence its unique taste. That’s why staff at Endenmura often work through the night ensuring boiling goes smoothly and conditions are right for making perfect salt.
Sweet agehama salt is ideal for steak, says Endenmura’s Minori Nakano
“Most salt that people use on a daily basis has a bitter flavor, but ours has a sweetness,” says Minori Nakano, a visitor experience supervisor at Endenmura. “It may be odd to think of salt being sweet, but this salt is especially suited to enhancing the flavors of foods like steak and onigiri rice balls.”
Okunoto Endenmura also has a small display area on the history of local salt making as well as global salt production methods including rock salt manufacturing and samples of rock crystals from various countries. Its gift shop sells salt, nigari and other specialty items such as salty soft-serve ice cream. Visitors can also try their hand at making salt and take home the results (reservations are required).
Okunoto Endenmura is best accessed by car, they have ample parking onsite.
- Roadside Station Suzu Enden Mura (Oku-Noto Salt Farm Village)
- Ishikawa Suzu-shi Shimizumachi 1-58-1
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