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Shirasu-don: Chowing Down on 3 of Japan's Fabulous Whitebait Bowls

Shirasu-don: Chowing Down on 3 of Japan's Fabulous Whitebait Bowls

Date published: 19 March 2020
Last updated: 10 February 2021

If you're a lover of sushi, shirasu-don is the delectable next-level rice bowl dish that'll tease your tastebuds.

Yuasa Town in Wakayama Prefecture is a port that boasts one of the most hauls of shirasu (whitebait) in Japan. Conveniently, here you can find many restaurants that serve up their local delicacy, shirasu-don (don = rice bowl). But what style is guaranteed to put a smile on your face? We've picked up three recommended restaurants in the area that serve up the finest shirasu-don to help you decide.

What the heck is shirasu-don?

You will most likely find shirasu at most supermarkets in Japan as it is a very popular food, but do you know what kind of fish it is?

Shirasu refers to eel, ayu (sweetfish), iwashi (European pilchard), and other juvenile fish (fry). The most common shirasu are katakuchi-iwashi (Japanese anchovy), mai-iwashi (Japanese pilchard), and urume-iwashi (red-eye round herring) that are 2-3cm in size. They all tend to taste fairly sweet and not particularly fishy, with a mild texture. At Yuasa Port, many shirasu are hauled, and October to December is the best season for premium shirasu.

Shirasu-don can come as quite a shock to travelers because the fish still have their eyes, so it looks as if they're looking back at you! But if you can get past that, it's actually a delicious dish adored by locals!

In Yuasa, there are many shops with their own unique shirasu-don made with premium shirasu from Yuasa Port.

▲Start your shirasu-don tour with the Shirasu-don Eating Tour Map

First, we took a look at the Shirasu-don Eating Tour Map published by Yuasa. On the map, there are over 10 restaurants with pictures, and they all look delicious. After contemplating for a bit, we headed to the first restaurant.

1. Yuasa Onsen Yuasa Castle: Exquisite Shirasu at a Castle!?

We first arrived at Yuasa’s landmark, Yuasa Castle. The castle was built in 1143 by Yuasa Muneshige. For those that are wondering why a castle, it happens that this building currently provides meals, lodging, and hot spring facilities.

▲Just as the name states it, it is a castle.

Yuasa Castle is located on a high ground in town and you can see the grand tenshukaku (castle tower) in the back.

▲In the lobby they have armor, bangasa (coarse oilpaper umbrella) and other items on display that provides a calm atmosphere

You don’t always get to spend a night in a castle! According to the staff, this is the only castle that you can stay at and attracts many visitors. We wanted to look around more, but our mission is the shirasu-don. Through the spacious charming lobby, we headed to the dining room.

The spacious dining room is straight down the hallway from the lobby.

They even have floor seating rooms with a great view of the garden. And here comes our meal...

▲Kama-age Shirasu Gozen (1,700 yen tax included) *2,160 yen with shirasu-no kakiage

The Kama-age Shirasu Gozen is the most popular lunch menu at Yuasa Castle. A generous serving of kama-age shirasu (shirasu boiled with salt). The meal also has sashimi made from local fish, a small hot pot, miso soup, and a small side dish.

But there is more. You can also add the Yuasa Castle special shirasu-no kakiage (kakiage is a type of tempura). I feel a bit guilty eating a luxurious meal for lunch. However, this is a meal that is sure to satisfy you.

At Yuasa Castle, you will place the Kama-age shirasu on your rice bowl to make your own don. Soboro style eggs, chopped shiso (beefsteak plant), and a generous portion of kama-age shirasu on warm rice. To top it off, you can add thinly chopped nori seaweed and salted umeboshi plums.

After a mouthful, you can feel the plump texture of the shirasu and taste the slight salt flavor. Also, the slightly sweet soboro style eggs and fresh taste of shiso and umeboshi create a clean after-taste—a very satisfying and refreshing dish.

Adding a little Yuasa Castel special dejiru-shoyu (soup stock and soy sauce) made from the local specialty Yuasa Shoyu, it adds another layer to the flavor.

Finally, the shirasu-no kakiage is made with fresh shirasu, onions, and diced ooba (beefsteak plant). It is perfectly flavored, so you can enjoy the flavor of the ingredients. As you bite in, the flavor of the shirasu can be found between the sweetness of the onion.

  • Yuasa Castle Onsen
    湯浅温泉 湯浅城
    • Address 75 Aoki, Yuasa-cho, Arida-gun, Wakayama Prefecture
    • Phone Number 0737-63-6688
    • Hours: (meal) 11:00 AM – 10:00 PM (L.O. 9:30 PM) *requires reservation on weekdays
      Closed: None

After the Kama-age Shirasu Gozen, we were satisfied and also became charmed by Yuasa’s shirasu. We were already full, but we wanted to compare the different restaurants and headed to the next location.

2. Yokogusu: Enjoy Shirasu in a Warm Local Atmosphere

Next, we arrived at Yokogusu, a Japanese restaurant near JR Yuasa Station. The restaurant is a charming two-story Japanese-style building, and in the entrance area, there are many pictures of Yuasa and one picture of Tokyo Skytree for some reason.

▲The exterior of Yokugusa reminds of us of the good old days of Japan


▲Chauri Yoko is the Okami of Yokogusa

As we entered the restaurant, we were greeted by the Okami (the lady in charge), Chauri Yoko. With her warm smile and friendly manner, she was like our second mother in the countryside.

▲Private floor seating room on the second floor

Yokogusa opened in 1900 as a Japanese restaurant that offered fresh sushi and local cuisine and provided space to locals and visitors for various banquets, memorial services, and other ceremonies for many years. The restaurant has counter seats, private rooms, and a large banquet area. Also, the interior of the restaurant was patterned after a famous restaurant in Kyoto.

We didn’t waste any time and ordered the Shirasu-don.

▲Shirasu-don, shirasu tempura with sashimi (1,500 yen without tax)

The Okami told us that “before shirasu was eaten at homes in this region. We only started serving it at restaurants recently for the tourists. So now please eat up before the food gets cold.”

The shirasu-don at Yokogusa is shirasu, ooba, and nori on rice. Then you add Yuasa Shoyu soy sauce (a home blend) on top.

The shirasu they received from their relatives in the morning is equally boiled in a large pot, and the finished kama-age shirasu has a wonderful plump texture. In Japan, we referred to well-cooked rice as ‘the rice is standing,’ but in this case, it’s more like ‘the shirasu is standing.’

Of course, there is no fishy smell, and it matches the Yuasa shoyu. However, compared to Yuasa Castle’s fresh after taste, Yokogusa has a stronger shirasu flavor.

The shirasu-no tempura is made with shirasu and ooba. As you bite in, it has a nice crisp texture. Compared to Yuasa Castel, it feels lighter, and the flavor of ooba spreads in your mouth. We found another wonderful charm of shirasu.

▲The Okami provides a wonderful atmosphere that makes us want to visit again

The hospitality of the Okami was always present even though she was attending to local customers coming in after the lunch hour.

She kept us entertained, talking about her husband and her hobby of traveling (the picture of Tokyo Skytree was taken on one of her travels.).

Compared to the calm exterior, the interior is very homey and comfortable.

  • Japanese Restaurant Yokogusa
    日本料理 横楠
    • Address 664 Yuasa, Yuasa-cho, Arida-gun, Wakayama Prefecture
    • Phone Number 0737-62-2377
    • Hours: 11:00 AM – 9:00 PM *requires reservation at night
      Closed: Wednesday

3. Kadoya Shokudo: Finishing Off with the Raw Shirasu-don!

Our final destination for eating shirasu-don in Yuasa is Kadoya Shokudo (diner).

▲Exterior of Kadoya Shokudo

Kadoya Shokudo is also located near JR Yuasa Station. It has an exterior of a diner that is part of the community and gives off a vibe where local seniors will have a drink.

▲Owner of Kadoya Shokudo, Mr. Isao Miyai

Entering the store, we were greeted with an interior that matches the vibe of the restaurant. The store has counter seats and few floor seating. As a result, the store isn’t that spacious, but it gives a cozy and relaxed feeling.

The store looks like a common restaurant found anywhere; however, they are very picky about their shirasu-don. Lo and behold, Mr. Isao is one of the figures behind spreading Yuasa’s shirasu-don to the country. Also, Kadoya Shokudo is the first restaurant to serve shirasu-don in Yuasa.

“Since we haul so much shirasu in Yuasa, I wanted to revitalize the town with it.” Mr. Isao looks calm and quiet, but he is filled with passion towards shirasu. He has attended many gourmet competitions around the nation to spread the charm of Yuasa’s shirasu.

Unlike the other stores with the kama-age shirasu-don, Kadoya has the nama (raw) shirasu-don on their menu.

Yes, we get to taste shirasu before it is boiled.

▲Nama shirasu-don with miso soup (1,100 yen tax included)

This is the raw shirasu. Kadoya uses the system where you place the shirasu on the rice. The owner explained that “if it is served on the rice, the shirasu become warm, so we have the customer dish their own bowl.”

The raw shirasu caught in the morning in Yuasa is on the middle of the tray. With special refrigeration technology, more stores are offering raw shirasu. However, since there are still only a few places that offer it, many tourists visit Kadoya for the nama shirasu-don.

The raw shirasu are heavier and bigger than we thought; they are also translucent and shiny.

Mr. Isao told us, “it is better to put the nori on at the very end because otherwise, it becomes soggy.” So we placed the raw shirasu on the rice, added the special sauce, and then placed the diced nori on top to complete the nama shirasu-don.

Bon appetit!

If you describe kama-age shirasu as plump, the raw shirasu would be fatty and plump. The shirasu are fatty but at the same time have a nice texture and are moist, which matches the special sauce made with thick soy sauce.

It is hard to determine if raw is better than boiled; however, you can really taste the freshness more with nama shirasu-don. A special taste that can only be tasted in Yuasa.

  • Kadoya Shokudo
    • Address 1109-1 Yuasa, Yuasa-cho, Arida-gun, Wakayama Prefecture
    • Phone Number 0737-62-2667
    • Hours: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday to Saturday and Sunday 11:00 AM – 2:00 PM, 5:00 PM – 9:00 PM (L.O. 8:00 PM), Wednesday and Sunday 11:00 AM – 2:00 PM L.O
      Closed: Open daily

There are many different flavors of shirasu-don. On your visit to Yuasa, please stop by not one or two, but three restaurants and find the shirasu-don that you adore.

Text by:Advision

*This information is from the time of this article's publication.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.

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