For the third consecutive year I made the trip to Imizu, Toyama Prefecture, a small fishing town located on the southernmost shore of Toyama Bay. The Bay is a deep, wide feature on the Sea of Japan coast, formed by the Noto Peninsula to the west and the Tateyama mountain range to its east. The warm Tsushima Current flowing from the west brings with it a host of rich marine life such as Toyama’s famous firefly squid, and the bay is a winter feeding ground for migrating yellowtail. There is also a host of endemic species such as shiroebi, a type of small prawn that is a local delicacy. The unusual depth of the bay – falling to well over 100 fathoms almost immediately outside Toyama harbour – also makes it a host to a variety of mid- to deepwater fish that are common targets for both commercial fishermen and sport anglers. This year I went in pursuit of a certain variety of stonefish known locally as onikasago, which, despite its appearance and rather vicious poisonous spines, is quite delicious.
It takes about three and a half hours to reach Imizu by train from Tokyo, using Japan’s excellent shinkansen bullet train system. The trip didn’t really have the most auspicious start, with a local man drowning on the beach in front of the guesthouse the very day I arrived in Imizu. However, after the long journey made in unseasonally stifling heat, it was nice to be greeted by the familiar face of the kindly landlady and after dropping my luggage in my room I had a bath. The guesthouse has about a dozen or so rooms, each eight to ten-tatami mat affairs (thankfully) with airconditioning, but the toilets and bath are communal. After my bath it was time for dinner, and I had taken the precaution of buying a bottle of local sake to go with it. Considering the low cost of staying in the guesthouse the meal was superb, both in quality and quantity, featuring almost entirely local produce: four different types of sashimi (giant octopus, sweet prawn, bigeye tuna and yellowtail), parboiled spider crab legs, grilled kuruma prawns, grilled fish with shredded cabbage, tofu, soy sauce-simmered pork, potato salad, aubergine pickles, soba noodles, littleneck clam miso soup and white rice. The landlady also knows my personal favourite Toyama specialty is shiroebi prawns, and included a generous portion of them in my meal.
After making short work of the amusements, faced with a 4.30am start the next day I turned in early, about 8pm, after checking the weather forecast for the next day. Despite almost always getting up late for work, it is a personal matter of pride that I have never once been late for a fishing trip. Rather kindly, the skipper’s wife came to pick me up in the morning and gave me a lift to the harbour from the guesthouse, and in the car she explained that there were no other customers scheduled that day for the share ride, so in effect I had the boat to myself as a charter. I apologised for this, but she said they much preferred having one customer to none; it turns out that fishing on the Bay has been very bad this year, for a number of reasons, and that once word had spread very few sport fishermen were coming to Toyama. Personally, and rather perversely, I prefer fishing in such conditions as it proves a greater test of one’s skill and learn much quicker. Anyway, when we reached the harbour the skipper, Captain Andoh, was already waiting for me on board his ship, Hokuryumaru (literally ‘Dragon of the North’) with her distinctive purple deck. Captain Andoh is one of the real nice guys of the trade, and is well liked among sport fishermen and journalists from the angling media. I produced some cakes I brought for him and his wife which thankfully survived the train journey from Tokyo, and we prepared to head out to sea. Since the deepwater fish had been proving so difficult to catch, the skipper proposed that we chummed for Japanese jack mackerel in the morning to make sure I at least had some fish to take home with me, and then had a go at the stonefish later.
We set out onto the practically still waters of Toyama Bay and were immediately greeted with a superb bay sunrise, that reminded how much I like coming to the Sea of Japan. The sky is burnt golden until suddenly the sun appears over the Tateyama mountain range and just for a few moments the view is spectacular, until it is up in the sky proper with a fierce heat. We then got down to the serious business of mackerel fishing, and almost immediately began taking fish. The mackerel came on in bunches, interspersed with very quiet periods; the skipper suggested I should gut the fish to preserve their freshness, and I did so whilst fishing. I regretted not taking my cook’s knife, chopping board and soy sauce as some ‘living sashimi’ would have been a perfect lunchtime, but as I prefer travelling light on my long-distance fishing trips this time I did not. By about 11am my ice chest was about half-full with delicious Toyama Bay jack mackerel, and we set out to the stonefish point.
The skipper had gone to great lengths to warn me that in most likelihood I would not to catch anything, and he was right. Over the space of two and a half hours, I had one good hit, which didn’t hook: the clever beast of a stonefish managed to eat the entire sardine bait but leave just the head of the fish – containing the hook – alone. I also snagged a curious deep-sea creature, called mishima okoze in Japanese (I have no idea what the English is) that was an OK size but the skipper said didn’t make good eating, so I released it. Because the fishing was so poor, I agreed with the skipper’s suggestion and we headed back to port earlier than scheduled.
On the way back to the guesthouse I did some shopping, including sending some of Toyama’s famous local sake back to Tokyo by post, and also set aside another bottle to have with my evening meal, a prospect I greatly looked forward to. The very low level clouds rolling in from offshore – a famous feature of the Sea of Japan coastline – formed a dramatic sunset as I had my bath, and suitably refreshed, I headed off to the dining room at about 6pm. Another great feast awaited me, this time comprised of yellowtail and jack mackerel sashimi, and shiroebi ditto, a charcoal-grilled slab of yellowtail on the bone, whiting and prawn tenpura, soy sauce-simmered daikon radish with ground beef, stewed white fish with roe, lightly seasoned whelks and well buttered cubes of boiled sweet potato.
After the meal, the combination of a delicious and copious meal, an early start to the day, the sun and heat (which was intense), the lack of a decent catch and quite possibly, the bottle of chilled Toyama sake (which was excellent) I consumed, I felt rather fatigued and headed off to bed, hoping the next day’s fishing would be better.
The next day, the fishing turned out pretty much as bad as the previous. In the early morning I snagged a type of small grouper, which proved to be the only photo-worthy catch of the trip. Such grouper are delicious as sashimi, which I looked forward to having as a consolation dinner later that day.
I stocked up on mackerel again, which again came on rather sporadically, but this time I didn’t even get one stonefish hit. A fugu chewed on my sardine bait – easily recognisable as gouges in the bait left by the creature’s beak – but that was it. Since we had an earlier than normal start we headed back to port at around 2pm. The skipper was apologetic again and rather kindly gave me a small stonefish he had caught, although I declined his equally kind offer of his mackerel. After settling up for the day’s fishing, and saying my goodbyes, his wife gave me a lift back to the guesthouse. Despite checking out, the landlady said I was free to take a bath before heading back to Tokyo, so I did. I gave her all the jack mackerel I caught that day, as I had caught more than enough over the two days, and needed a little room in my ice chest for some souvenirs. After bathing and changing clothes, I called a taxi to take me to the station. At Toyama station I picked up some eatables to take home as presents, including some shiroebi and some sweets for my colleagues. The train journey back to Tokyo was uneventful and I was back at work the next day.
In short, this year’s trip to Toyama was as enjoyable as the previous two, even if the fishing was less successful (last year I was very lucky with the rod). But then again, for me at least, fishing only makes up a small part of the enjoyment of the trip, and I enjoy the process of fishing regardless of the catch, as the saying goes: “A bad day’s fishing is better than a good day’s work”. The weather was fantastic, and I was lucky as September is typhoon season here in Japan. The locals were as hospitable and kind as always, and the food and drink exceptional. I have already pencilled in Toyama for next year!
Thank you for reading, and be sure to check again soon for another post about cooking the catch from my fishing trip!