Once a year, come spring-time, one of Japan’s greatest natural mysteries leaves the dark, murky ocean deeps to light up Toyama Bay in a once in a lifetime light show that can’t be found anywhere else. Literally translating to Firefly Squid, the glowing Hotaru-Ika has not only baffled scientists across the world for years, but it is also one of Toyama’s greatest attractions, and a beloved local delicacy. Join us as we take a deep dive into Japan’s mysterious and beautiful, glowing squid.
A Lifelong Trip Around the Sun
Although many have spent years trying to unravel the secrets of this deep-sea dwelling, elusive squid, one thing that’s known for sure is that the Hotaru-Ika’s year-long life begins and ends with its miraculous light show. Each year, beginning in March, the Hotaru-Ika’s spawning season begins. During this brief period, the female squid rise up from the depths in numbers, lighting up the bay to signal not only the end of a generation, but to celebrate the birth of a new one. Following this gorgeous display, the newly hatched Firefly Squid return to depths of around 200 to 400 meters, where they remain, keeping their life and their glowing abilities shrouded in mystery.
The tiny squid, only ever reaching about 7.5cm in length, spend the majority of their lives at these depths, making any attempts to study the Hotaru-Ika in its entirety a feat not easily accomplished. The only glimpse of these elusive creatures that scientists can grasp during this time are the very vast and few squid lucky local fisherman pull up in their nets. However, once a year has passed, these mystical sea creatures swim up to the surface to begin Toyama Bay’s annual light show and introduce the next generation of Firefly Squid to the world, beginning their trip around the sun once more.
Why, Oh Why Do You Glow?
The ocean is full of riddles, mysteries and unexplainable wonders that lie completely undiscovered by the world, and the Hotaru-Ika is no exception to this. Preferring to remain up to 400 meters underwater, many scientists have spent years attempting to answer the questions of this bioluminescent squid that has kept people intrigued for decades. How do they glow? Where does their bioluminescence come from? And, most importantly, why do they glow? Thanks to the diligent and painstaking efforts of these scientists, we at least have theories and speculations that help us better grasp the mysteries of the Hotaru-Ika.
For example, we know that the squid’s lights are created through a complicated chemical reaction using molecules called “luciferins” and “luciferases”, I know, it’s a tongue twister. We also know that this reaction is generated within its own cells, allowing it to emit this bluish-light from the hundreds of photophores (light organs) that cover its body. However, one thing scientists cannot explain is the reason why the Hotaru-Ika glows in the first place. There are three possible explanations behind the glow; communication, camouflage, and to lure prey. But, as a deep-sea dwelling creature, it has been near impossible to actually prove which theory is true. Those who study the squid are undeterred, with passionate scientists determined to unravel all the mysteries of this magical creature, and quite possibly uncover great scientific breakthroughs.
Tourism, a Museum, and a Mascot!
The Hotaru-Ika has been captivating audiences for centuries, with a documented relationship between Japan and the squid going back as far as 1585. It wasn’t until the 20th century, however, that the area truly began to capitalize on the fascination with these magical squids. Starting with a business strategy proposed by the Governor of the Toyama Prefecture in 1912, Firefly Squid sightseeing has boomed, drawing in tourists from around the globe, looking for a chance to catch a glimpse of this once in a lifetime natural light show.
The love for the Hotaru-Ika is, of course, not lost upon the locals of the Toyama Prefecture, who place great pride in their ability to use this magical squid to represent their area. Knowing this, it’s no surprise that Namerikawa opened the highly popular Hotaruika Museum in 1989, providing guests with a chance to not only learn about the squid, but also enjoy a live light show come spring. Even the adorable mascot, Kirarin, has become the face of the museum, as well as the face of Namerikawa city and Toyama Bay. After all, who can deny adding a large, kawaii Kirarin plushie to their souvenir collection.
From Fishing Frenzy to Plate
Looking for a more up close, open ocean experience? There is another spectacle to catch in Toyama Bay with the arrival of the Hotaru-Ika. Come spring, families and fishermen, both professional and personal alike, flock to the beaches in hopes of bringing back their yearly haul of fresh Firefly Squid. Whether it be parents with their little ones rushing into the fresh, night-time water, buckets in hand, or those along the more professional lines with their nets and flashlights, there are not many in the Toyama area who miss this late night swim. Creating an atmosphere of both friendly competition and a form of festivity, it’s another unmissable experience brought forth by the magical squid, with everyone in the water looking for a chance to grab one of these tiny creatures.
If the fishing isn’t for you, or you just simply weren’t as lucky as others, fret not, as there isn’t a shop or restaurant in the prefecture that won’t be taking advantage of this seasonal food. From sushi, nigiri, to just simple boiled squid with rice and/or miso, there is no going wrong with this unique squid that is said to be unlike any other you will ever try. Supermarket shelves are stocked with squid, prepared or raw, ready for you to incorporate into any Japanese dish you could want, and of course, some of the best dishes are the simple ones. No need for fancy ingredients or a Michelin star chef. One of the best ways locals suggest to try this squid is boiled, lying over a bed of rice, soaking up the flavor. Or perhaps even just on top of steamed vegetables with a side of miso to add to the dish.
The Hotaru-Ika is not just a mysterious, magical squid, but also a seasonal experience unlike any other in the world. Added on to any Sakura event, Firefly Squid sightseeing is a unique and excellent addition to any spring experience in Japan.
Featured photo Hotaruika Museum
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