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In many cases, the Japanese language uses the word umi, literally “sea,” to mean “beach.” For example, if your friends extend the invitation, “Hey, let’s go to the umi next Saturday!” they’re expecting you to show up with a towel and sunscreen, not a compass and cutlass for fending off pirates as you sail your ship full of cargo to the Bahamas to exchange for molasses.

So when we first heard about a restaurant in Kyushu right in the middle of the umi, we thought it was built on the sand. And while we like an eatery with an ocean view as much as anyone, the reality is even cooler, as the restaurant is actually built off-shore, with half of its seating area below the surface of the water.

Located in the city of Karatsu in Saga Prefecture, Yobuko Mambou was the first floating restaurant built in Japan. To reach the entrance, we had to first walk the length of the 50-meter (164-foot) pier that connects the restaurant to solid ground.

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▼ We knew we were in the right place when we saw the mambou, or sunfish, painted on the side of the building.

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Built in 1983, Yobuko Mambou has seating on both its upper and lower levels. A seat topside would allow us to admire the blue skies and rippling surface of the water as we ate, but life only gives you so many chances to dine under the sea, so we had the staff guide us down to the lower level. On the way to our table, we passed by a large window giving us a view of the restaurant’s mysteriously beautiful fish enclosure.

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As you’d expect, Yobuko Mambou is a seafood restaurant. The house specialty is squid, and we wasted no time ordering their most popular course meal, which would give us three different kinds of calamari.

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The first item, though, was a small dish of mozuku-su, a type of vinegared seaweed.

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Next came our first tasty cephalopod dish. Shumai are a type of dumpling, and while they originated in China, they’ve since earned widespread popularity in Japan. Most shumai are stuffed with either pork or shrimp, but a few places make theirs with squid. Yobuko Mambou claims to be the first restaurant in Japan to do so, and while we’ve got no way of confirming their claim, we also can’t dispute that they do an amazing job with their deep-fried squid shumai.

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Just looking at them, we could tell we were in for a treat. We grabbed one with our chopsticks, dipped it quickly in the accompanying sauce, and took a bite. Between the perfect firmness to the impeccable flavor, it was all we could do to keep from causing a scene with our gasping over how good they were.

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Next up was another calamari course, this time prepared ikitzukuri-style. In other words, the squid was still moving when they brought it to our table, having been sliced and prepared by the chef just moments before.

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In many cultures, having a squid that’s still very slightly moving placed on the table would be cause for concern, outrage, or just plain old terror. In Japan, though, ikitzukuri is the surest guarantee that what you’re about to eat is as fresh as possible, something which was further backed up by the delicious taste.

▼ The ikitzukuri squid is followed by a soft-boiled egg, which acts as a tasty palate cleanser.

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The shumai and ikitzukuri are standard parts of the course we ordered, but for the third calamari dish, diners have a choice between squid stewed in soy sauce and sugar, sliced as sashimi, grilled with salt, or deep-fried as tempura. Considering how much Yobuko Mambou had already impressed us with the shumai, we decided to re-up with more fried squid and asked for the tempura.

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We have absolutely no regrets about our choice.

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Finally, the whole meal was capped with a few orange slices.

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Full of squid and satisfaction, we sat for a few moments to digest and take one last look out our undersea window before giving up our table to the first group of diners in the long line that had formed. As we walked out, we noticed that while the restaurant’s fare is good enough to please adult gourmands with sophisticate tastes, there were also plenty of families, kids and all. We can see why, since a visit to Yobuko Mambou combines the fun of watching aquatic life with better-tasting food than you’d ever find at the snack bar of an aquarium.

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Restaurant information
Yobuko Mambou /海中魚処 呼子萬坊
Address: Saga-ken, Karatsu-shi, Yobuko Tononoura 1946-1
Open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. weekdays, 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. weekends and holidays (subject to change due to weather and season)
Telephone: 0955-82-4434
[ Read in Japanese ]