Down by the ferry terminal in Oarai you can find Mentai Park, one of Ibaraki’s more unique theme parks. Mentaiko is a popular side dish in Japan, consisting of marinated pollock or cod roe, and Mentai Park was born from the desire of mentaiko company Kanefuku Co., Ltd. to share their passion for high quality mentaiko production with the world. They decided to add an educational gallery and a shop where they could sell their products directly to their preexisting factory, and in December 2012 Mentai Park was born.
This attraction certainly makes an impression at a distance, and I am sure it has inspired a number of passersby to pull into the car park purely out of curiosity. On the roof is a giant statue of Tarapiyo, one of two characters created by Kanefuku to guide visitors through Mentai Park. You can meet the other character at the front door – wise Professor Tarakon, who will teach you everything you need to know about mentaiko.
Stepping through the doors you will find yourself in the shop, but I would recommend leaving this for last. Head across the floor to the entrance to the gallery. Stepping through the door you will find a 100m long hallway where you can learn a wealth of information about mentaiko, including the life cycle of the Alaska pollock, from whose roe mentaiko is made. There are many interactive features, making it great fun for children and adults alike. One of my personal favourites was a motion interactive floor projection – basically a virtual fish pond you could walk on that would react to your footsteps.
However, the main feature of the gallery is the large windows facing into the factory, through which you can observe all stages of the mentaiko making process, from the harvesting of the roe, preliminary preparation, marination, and maturing right through to the packaging of the final product. Professor Tarakon and Tarapiyo explain each step on large signs above the windows. One sign also tells you how many kilograms of mentaiko have been made that day, and how many workers are on duty in the factory.
Walking out the other end of the gallery you will find yourself in the shop again, with an appetite for mentaiko. You won’t have to wait long to satisfy it – you can sample some of the delicious ways that you can plate up mentaiko, including sliced mentaiko, mentaiko sushi, and even mentaiko sandwiches. Since you just watched it being made out the back, you know you’re getting a fresh product. In addition to trays of mentaiko, you can also buy a number of other products, including mentaiko dumplings. There are also vending machines dispensing free drinks for customers. Got a long trip home? No worries, there are special Tarapiyo cooler bags available to keep your mentaiko fresh. Next time you’re in Oarai, don’t forget to stop by and learn a little more about one of Japan’s favourite dishes. It certainly makes a delicious detour.