In Fukuoka, a tiny fish called the shiro-uo (or ice goby in English) is considered a harbinger of spring. It measures about 4-5 cm and is transparent. Although it is often mistaken with the shira-uo (or icefish in English) for a similar name and appearance, the shiro-uo belongs to a different family of fishes altogether. Upon closer inspection, you can see that the two fishes are shaped differently have differently shaped fins in particular.
Shiro-uo can be found throughout the oceans surrounding Japan and typically live in shallow areas near the coast. In late winter, they swim up rivers to lay their eggs beneath sand deposits. People throughout Japan have traditionally caught shiro-uo as they swim upstream, and the fish has long been considered an early spring delight. In Fukuoka, people are known to have been fishing for shiro-uo since the Edo era.
In early February, bamboo fish traps called yana are installed at the mouth of the Muromi River. These traps catch shiro-uo that swim into the river at high tide. This is a very old method of catching fish, and records indicate that it has been used in the Muromi River for at least 300 years. Nowadays, the Muromi River is the only place in Fukuoka Prefecture that still uses yana to catch shiro-uo, and the traps remain in place until mid-April.
Several restaurants that serve shiro-uo can be found along the river. Although they can be prepared in many ways, fried as tempura, added to soups, or boiled, one interesting way to eat shiro-uo is live! Just use the net provided to scoop up the live fish and gulp them down with a dab of soy sauce. The sensation is unique, to say the least. In any case, shiro-uo can only be enjoyed at this time of year, which is why they are considered a sign that spring is just around the corner.
Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn254, Feb 2020)