Photographer: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Bloomberg

A Taste of Japan's Springtime Catch

For visitors to Japan spring normally means one thing — cherry blossom. But for a taste of the season diners should keep an eye out for the humble sand lance. The fish, also known as sand eels, arrive on the shelves as the trees burst into bloom. Production has declined in recent years as overfishing led to catch restrictions. We followed boats on the first day of the fishing season. Photographs by Buddhika Weerasinghe for Bloomberg.

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    A fishing boat glides through the mist near Boze Island, Hyogo prefecture, on the first day of the sand lance harvest.

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    Fishermen prepare their nets. The harvest season kicked off 10 days later than last year after a mild winter kept water temperatures high, leading to a delay in sand lance spawning.

     

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    Containers of sand lance are unloaded at the port city of Himeji. The fish are sold at auction to local retailers. 

     

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    The sand lance is a slender fish with a pointed snout that it uses to burrow into the seabed. Its common name 'sand eel' is misleading as the fish belongs to the Ammodytidae family.

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    The late catch has pushed up prices, with the first 25-kilogram box fetching 50,000 yen ($446), almost double the price of the first box last year.

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    Some of the catch is auctioned off to be used as sashimi, while the rest is shipped to factories including Appare Suisan, where the fish are boiled before being processed.

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    Trays of sand lances move along the production line. At the Appare Suisan facility alone some 70 tons of the fish will be processed during the season, according to the company.

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    An employee prepares a catch for shipment. They will be delivered to markets throughout Japan.

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    Sand lances being boiled at the Himeji Tore Tore Ichiba outlet. A simple way of cooking is to boil them with salt and vinegar.

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    Trays of the fish are displayed for sale at the Himeji Tore Tore Ichiba retail outlet.

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    Once they've been boiled, cooled and dried the fish are packed in small plastic boxes and sold to customers.

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    Often served with steamed rice, sand lances are also a common component of the traditional Japanese breakfast.