After several delays, I finally managed to make the trip up to the Sanriku region, specifically Okirai Bay on the Pacific coast of Iwate Prefecture, for some winter fishing for inshore flatfish (they are numerous in variety, and known in Japanese collectively as karei).
This year I utilised the services of the same fishing boat as I did last year, the Sei-eimaru (Japanese website). My last visit to this part of Japan in March 2007 was lucky for me for a number of reasons, not least that I caught a monster Pacific cod at my first attempt. Unfortunately this time round, I only had enough free time for one day of fishing. The skipper warned me it would be cold, and he was certainly not exaggerating. The weather forecast for the Sunday gave a top air temperature of 0°C, with lowest predicted for the day a bone-chilling -7°C. I packed my woollen hat, insulated boots, thermal socks, thermal underwear top and bottom, my lucky Fishing Fury t-shirt, my squid ink-stained long-sleeved shirt, and my special extra-warm thermal overalls and jacket. Since I would be getting there and back by public transport, everything had to fit in either my rucksack or my waterproof tackle bag. I just about managed but had to wear my boots as there was no room for a second pair of shoes.
The journey from Tokyo takes about six and half hours by train, with stops to change trains twice, from giant shinkansen bullet train to tiny local countryside diesel one-carriage affairs. Whilst not a train-spotter or train fetishist by nature, I do enjoy travelling by train in Japan as you get to see much more than you would on the roads, and the rail system is cheap, well-ordered and efficient, unlike that of my own country. As the little train heads downhill from the mountains and towards the sea, I always look forward to my first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean and the rugged coastline that characterises the area. I was not disappointed either, as we arrived at Ryouri Bay and I was met by a spectacular view; not a cloud in sight, the sea still, bright blue and lined with row after row of little buoys that mark out where scallops and wakame seaweed are farmed.
I arrived at the station at around 2pm, and the skipper, Captain Yoshida, kindly came to meet me. Unlike the more mountainous areas like Hanamaki where I changed trains, the coast was not as cold as I expected; there was little to no snow on the ground, and there was no dry, biting wind about. The skipper said that because of its geographical location the area, compared to the rest of Iwate, had fairly mild winters and hot summers, and so was known as the ‘Shonan of the Sanriku area’ (Shonan is the surfing and tourist hotspot on the Sagami Bay coast of Kanagawa Prefecture). I’m not sure if this is true or he was being ironic, as the air temperature when he sid this was, according to the roadside thermometer, -2°C.
We headed off to buy some tackle, then the skipper suggested we have some ramen at a place he knew. Given the cold outside, a nice bowl of hot ramen hit the spot just right. The restaurant was called Menta, and apparently is quite well known locally although according to the skipper, the owners resolutely refuse any attempt by television or media to publicise them, so as to preserve the relaxed, local family atmosphere and ensure they need make no compromise in quality or price that might accompany a sudden large increase in customers. In Tokyo the current trend is for a rather sordid concoction called tonkotsu ramen, which seems to be simply, very salty and cloudy soup with a half-inch of melted lard, and numerous small chunks of solid fat floating in it, on top. However, at Menta the pork-based stock had by far much less fat; the rich, complex taste of the soup itself did all the work and did not not rely on grease or saltiness. The egg noodles were a thin cut and cooked just how I like, al dente. Completed with a soft-boiled egg on top, and a side plate of grilled won ton, the meal was perfect. In fact, the won ton turned out to be so acceptable that we consumed a plate each.
Moving on we stopped at a local fishing store so that I could buy some bait. Locally the creatures are called isome, which I gather are some kind of lugworm. The skipper seemed to know the owner quite well and I am sure she gave me extra. Then we headed up the coast by car to Kamaishi. On the way we talked in the car, and the skipper surprised me with his in-depth knowledge of not just fishing but a wide range of topics including economics, current affairs and the environment. Unlike many generational fishermen, it turns out he has travelled and worked most parts of Japan in the construction industry. However, it was when we got talking about the sea when he became truly passionate and revealed some of his treasure trove of knowledge. He spoke about too many things for me to remember everything, and attempting to record them here really wouldn’t do justice to the man. I would recommend sitting down with any man who has been at sea for more than 50 years, and just listening. There are some things you simply can’t learn from books, television or recorded media.
We stopped at the skipper’s favourite bar in Kamaishi for a nightcap before calling it a night. As he was driving he couldn’t drink, but I had a few beers. The landlady remembered me from last year, and we chatted for a bit. I paid my boat fee for the following day, and for some of Iwate’s famous hotate (scallop) shellfish that the skipper would send, live by refrigerated mail, to Tokyo. For some reason we ended up on the subject of paella, and both the landlady and the skipper said they wanted to try it, but never had the chance to eat the real thing. I promised them that when I get some nice Spanish saffron, I would make paella for them. As we left the bar, the skipper said, “To stay in a guesthouse will be expensive. Please stay at my place tonight.” I was quite touched by his kind offer and could not refuse, so we headed off to his house, which is a short way from the harbour.
After rising at about 5:30am, we got ready for the day’s fishing. Captain Yoshida’s wife very kindly gave me two onigiri riceballs and a Thermos flask of piping hot coffee to take with me for breakfast, and also gave me two sweet potatoes, roasted on the stove, wrapped them up in foil and newspaper, to put in my pockets to serve as both handwarmers and a nice hot snack for lunch. There were about ten other customers waiting, and after we had all piled on board we set out at about 6:30. It was bitterly cold, and made more so by an occasional northerly wind, but the sunrise was glorious and soon we arrived at the first fishing point. On the very first attempt I snagged my first karei for the day, a “slime” flounder (Japanese: nametagarei; scientific name: Microstomus achne) but it was a tiddler of about 20cm, and since it was not hooked internally and otherwise healthy, I released it. As morning broke it became clear that the day was going to be very tough, as the fish seemed to be not biting at all, and the gusts of freezing wind became more frequent and stronger.
After about an hour or so I got a good hit, and landed a nice karei; it turned out to be a marbled sole (Japanese: makogarei; scientific name: Pseudopleuronectes yokohamae) and was the largest I have caught yet, at 39cm. The skipper took my photo for me with my camera. However, as the tide began to ebb the fish seemed to stop biting altogether. A couple of greenling were landed by other fishermen, and the old hand behind me took two “shotted halibut” (Japanese: mushigarei; scientific name: Eopsetta grigorjewi). Other than that, the day turned out to be fruitless in terms of catch. The skipper did his best to try and find us a spot where fish would take the bait, and we spent a good deal of time in transit, but it was to no avail.
As noon approached, I became increasingly grateful for the flask of hot coffee, as it kept me going in the intense cold. Other than reeling in a couple of spiky starfish, I didn’t catch anything else and we headed back to harbour at 12:30. I was lucky in snagging the one large marbled sole as most of the other customers didn’t catch a thing. The skipper kindly gave me a lift to the station, and on the way we talked about fishing conditions and how best to target flatfish. He also told me about the deepwater fishing on his boat during the summer months, and invited me to come and go fishing again with him in the future. I picked up some presents at the station – some of Sanriku’s famous wakame seaweed for my girlfriend and some sweets for my work colleagues – and before I knew it, my train had arrived.
The catch could have been better, but then again, how many fish I catch really only comprises a small part of my fishing trips. The genuine warmth and hospitality showed me by not only the skipper but also all the locals – the lady at the station and a chap on the train chatted to me about fishing and cooking – was touching, something you rarely encounter living in the big city where all strangers are automatically treated with distrust. The countryside and scenery is spectacular, and the sea is beautiful and clean; even just seeing a night sky full of stars is a treat for someone living in Tokyo! If I lived closer I would probably go fishing there every month, but on consideration, the remoteness and long journey from Tokyo are part of what makes Okirai Bay so special for me. I will certainly be going again.