The beautiful city of Makurazaki is found on the Satsuma Peninsula, surrounded on three sides by mountain ranges and facing the East China Sea to the south. The region is blessed with a mild climate, plentiful fish feeding grounds and an abundance of sawtooth oak, making it the perfect place for the production of bonito. It’s no surprise that the Makurazaki region has become the largest producer of dried bonito flakes in all of Japan. The factories here use traditional techniques to produce the flakes, which was thought to have been brought to Makurazaki in 1707 by Yahei Mori.
The process combines the simple operations of grating, simmering, roasting and fermentation — creating a natural seasoning with superb taste and lengthy shelf life
The katsuo fish (Katsuwonus pelamis), which migrates to Japan’s surrounding seas via the Kuroshio Current, has been used to make dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi) for hundreds of years. Katsuobushi is used to make one of the key ingredients in Japanese cuisine: dashi stock. This ingredient is said to be one of the best examples of the taste of umami. Other well-known examples of the flavour are soy sauce and miso soup, as well as mushrooms and tomatoes. The tradition of flavouring cuisine with katsuobushi has a long history in Japan. It is even referred to in what is thought to be the oldest book in Japan, the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), as katao (literally meaning “hard fish”).
The production of bonito flakes skilfully combines the simple operations of grating, simmering, roasting and fermentation to create a natural seasoning with superb taste and long shelf life. Varieties of katsuobushi differ between regions of Japan. Back in the day, it was commonplace for every family to shave their own dried bonito flakes. However, pre-shaved bonito flakes and artificially-made powdered dashi are now becoming the norm.
In the Satsuma area, there were at one point about 300 official makers of katsuobushi, but nowadays this number has fallen to 40. Once abundant, the katsuo fish is also becoming a scarce resource in southern Japanese waters. Consequently, factories now often have to use katsuo fished from different parts of the country.
Kanetamaru is a small factory where all the work is done by hand. Workers first debone the fish and remove the head, before simmering the katsuo and then hanging it up to dry. Once it has dried, the fish is smoked. The smoking process uses local wood and takes place in a huge four-story building fitted with a roaring fire in the basement. The dried bonito is smoked on each of the stories of the building in turn, creating a full-bodied flavour. After smoking, the bonito is shaved into flakes and packaged ready to eat. If it is intended for a high-end restaurant, the dried bonito may also be fermented for up to a year to intensify the umami taste.
At the larger Yamazaki Katsuobushi factory, they produce bonito flakes on a more industrial scale. Even here, some parts of the production process, such as deboning, are still done manually. After seeing the Makurazaki katsuobushi production process, visitors are invited to grind the dried fish into bonito flakes and then taste the fresh dashi broth that is made with them.