Well I made it to the Sanriku coast, more specifically the fishing town of Sakihama on Okirai Bay, Iwate Prefecture, for the second time this year. Initially I planned to go fishing for hirame using live sardine bait, but according to the skipper this year’s hirame fishing is not so good. However, in the area both Pacific cod and karei flounder were both apparently putting up a good show, so I booked myself in for two consecutive days fishing, the first, offshore for cod and the next, inshore for flounder. As always, the hospitality of the locals was wonderful, the local produce delicious and the fishing fantastic.
The journey to Sakihama is a cool six and a half hours door-to-door, involving two taxi trips, a bullet train ride and two separate journeys in little diesel mountain railways. As the crow flies the distance between Tokyo and Okirai Bay is about 500-odd kilometres, but this is Japan, where 80% of the land is volcanic mountain covered in impenetrable forest, and the actual journey time is increased greatly by tortuous, winding roads and long stretches of tunnel. There is also the ever-present danger of an earthquake to send you to your doom, the Sanriku area in particular being very prone to seismic activity.
As always, I took the shinkansen bullet train. Tokyo Station is a pretty hectic place at the best of times, and it was rendered even less amusing as I was nursing a hangover of epic proportions, and lugging a 70-litre coolbox, my waterproof tacklebag containing all my fishing gear and my rucksack full of clothes, toiletries and also various gifts for the people I was going to see. Anyway I gingerly nursed my can of Cola drink and waited for my train to arrive, which was on time to the minute (as usual, this is Japan, not England). Once on board it was a breeze, hangover or otherwise. With my luggage stowed away, my feet up and a tiny bottle of the local stomachic puggle (apparently derived from cabbage) sent down the hatch I was ready…to fall asleep for the next two hours. But I awoke in time to see the foreboding mountains of Iwate and whizz through the ear-popping deep tunnels within them. Many people don’t realise that Iwate is by far the largest prefecture in Japan (Hokkaido not being a prefecture), as large as the whole island of Shikoku itself. The shinkansen line runs through central Iwate in a pretty much north-south route, so after reaching the central hot spring resort of Ichinoseki, the next step is to change trains onto a tiny two-carriage diesel mountain railway, and enjoy a three hour-ride eastwards to the sea.
The views of rural Japan from the train were spectacular: at this time of the year, the rice is just ready to be harvested, so when the sun comes out the paddies are seas of lovely golden rice, and all the villages buildings are surrounded by conical sheaves of harvested rice, and all the windows and doorways are festooned with bunched of drying onions. Tall, foreboding, dark mountains – at this time of the year, their peaks are almost constantly shrouded in low clouds – frame and surround all the flat areas and the rivers, waterfalls and mountain streams that form in amongst them are completely deserted and crying out to be fished. However, the glorious weather ended as the sun set, and pretty soon it started to rain. I crossed my fingers and hoped that the weather would improve in time for the next day’s fishing.
The last leg of my journey by train brought a surprise: on boarding, the windows were covered in traditional Japanese fishermen’s hats, fishing nets and abalone shells, and the seats had been replaced by tables festooned with flags praying for success at fishing…the ‘big catch train’. Goodness knows what was going on there, I’ve never seen anything like it before. I took this to be a good omen (I am remarkably superstitious when it comes to fishing; not as bad as I used to be though). By this time the rain was coming down pretty hard, and so I put my fishing waterproofs on the train and soon arrived at my stop, Sanriku. I got a taxi at the station and in a couple of minutes arrived at the guesthouse at 6:30pm, exactly the time I had planned to.
I got out the taxi and saw the boss of the guesthouse waiting to greet me on the sofa in the reception area. He and his wife remembered me from last year – hardly surprising, a 6’1″ bewhiskered white man, wandering about in fishing togs, in a remote town with a population of 1,400 tends to stick out a bit – and made me very welcome. After my spectacular bath (a huge affair, big enough for me to float about in, with big windows overlooking the bay) I donned my too-small yukata (I kept my pajamy bottoms on underneath it, out of regard for the other diners), eased the tiny slippers over the ends of my feet and headed downstairs for supper. Now this place is always a treat as the evening meal is a feast of Roman proportions, much of it taken that day from the sea right in front of the building; the owner is also a commercial scallop farmer and fisherman (almost every one in Sakihama is connected to the fisheries industry). In minshuku guesthouses the bath, toilets and dining room are all communal, and my table was set with two others. There was a group of four elderly freshwater anglers, who that day had supplemented their catch by filling the boot of their car with wild mushrooms, and a middle-aged couple who appeared to have been indulging the local firewater with great gusto. After saying hello I made my way to my table and was struck by the amusements in offer, in both quality and quantity. In short, there was: a whole hotate scallop raw and prepared into sashimi, a whole hotate scallop shucked and placed on a dainty little burner with vegetables and butter, a sibling burner next to it on which lay a dish containing the liver and flesh of squid, a whole soy sauce-stewed flounder, a three sea urchins, still alive, cracked open and laid upside-down on a plate with a spoon to eat them, skipjack tuna, saury, mackerel, sweet prawn and squid sashimi, a special dish of lightly poached ocean sunfish dressed with sweet vinegared miso, some raw hoya sea squirt, a plate of homemade pickles, oden ditto, a dish of sweet soy sauce-braised sea urchin egg, and numerous other little things.
Well I filled my glass, said kanpai with the boss who came to my table for a drink and a chat, and then squared my elbows and set to the amusements. After a couple of dishes I began to really get into my stride as I hadn’t eaten that day yet due to my hangover, and the fresh sea air and/or green puggle I consumed on the train must have refreshed my embattled gastrointenstinal tract as I felt on top form.
Among the amusements was this sashimi made from the ocean sunfish, Mola mola. I am always ready to try new or unusual foods and this was one I certainly wasn’t expecting.
The fish dishes disappeared one after the other like the dew on a morning rose, and the owner’s wife was so impressed she brought me seconds, a second plate of raw uni sea urchin, to accompany the huge bowl of rice and the miso soup laden with huge ‘meat’-balls made from ground fish, which concluded the meal.
After seeing off the dessert – pineapple and melon slices – to complete the rout, my table was spotless and my hosts left in awe of my digestive powers. The old chap at the table next to me became convinced I was Russian, and so we spoke at length about fly fishing for salmon in Kamchatka, so as not to disappoint him. Just like Mortdecai says, not all ambassadors work in embassies. The boss said I should be in luck at sea tomorrow, although I could not be sure if he were pulling my leg as he was on his fourth tumbler of pure shochu, before retiring for the night.
The first day I did what I always do, i.e., wake up much too early – out of excitement, I imagine – and anyway I did not sleep so well, as the Russophile inebriated old man in the room next to me was snoring and making all sorts of hellish noises (not that I can complain too much, as I am an infamous snorer). I was supposed to be up at 5:30am but was wide awake at least an hour before. There really isn’t very much to do at 4am, with no computer or other distractions so I toyed with the idea of making some prank calls to people I dislike in Tokyo but instead I double- and triple-checked my gear and took my time walking to the harbour. The skipper was happy as ever to see me and we piled on board in drizzling rain, laden with fishing gear and a huge box of frozen saury which we would use as bait. There were two other anglers on the share ride and after getting our gear set up and ready we pulled our hats low over our brows and huddled behind the bridge for the trip out to sea; the rain really picked up and the waves were pretty big as well. Just like anything else local knowledge is priceless and I picked their brains about cod fishing, this being only my second time out, and like most Japanese anglers they were happy to share their knowledge and give me some advice about the day’s adventure.
It was pretty hard fishing, with the boat bucking about in the ocean waves and the wind pretty strong as well. You have to fillet the saury bait yourself, and watch for the cod hits as your rod bobs up and down with the movement of the ship. The water we fished in was between 150 and 200 metres deep and the lead sinkers used to get our bait to the seafloor were No. 250, the size of my fist. The tackle was comprised of six hooks in line, spaced about 40cm apart, with the sinker on the very end. Anyway, after the third or fourth attempt I got a good strong hit and set the hook, laid the rod in its rest and hit the power button on my electric reel. After a long, nervous wait the leader came in sight and I pulled in the last few metres by hand, and lo and behold a middling-sized cod floated into view. Visions of fish and chips and steamed cod liver filled my head but the skipper had the presence of mind to take a photo for me:
I drained the fish of its blood and packed it in my coolbox; at least this trip I would not go home empty-handed. We set off again to deeper water and had another go; this time I got a good hit the moment my tackle reached the seafloor, and after setting the hook the skipper shouted at me from the bridge to crank just one turn of the handle and wait. I did so, and got another hit, repeated the process and waited. I got two or three more hits and decided I couldn’t wait any longer, so set the reel to ‘on’ and waited. The skipper said ‘Bah, that’s a tiddler’ but I knew when I had the rod in my hands it was much heavier than the previous time and the drag on the line was really taking its time, so I replied with a ‘Meh’ (or its Japanese equivalent); this moment I managed to record on video. Would I beat last year’s record – 73cm – and bring in a monster?
Well when the fish came into view, I was disappointed, but in a pleasant way: I had snagged three normal size cod in one go, and the skipper rushed out onto deck to help me bring the fish in. They flapped about and made a mess of my tackle, but my cooler was going to be full that day…
Anyway, after this success I spent a little time taking care of the fish and packing them away, and didn’t really try too hard at the next couple of fishing points. I had taken enough for the day, and any more would mean a lot more work in the kitchen back home and less room for the next day’s flounder. I snagged a couple of smaller rockfish – excellent eating – and then decided to call it a day. I took in some of the spectacular views of the coastline and watched the other two seasoned anglers at work, and chatted to the skipper. Before long it was time to head home, being a half-day boat, and I sat back and enjoyed the ride.
After reaching harbour I packed the cod in extra ice in my cooler and headed back to the guesthouse. I had a nice long soak in the bath and smoked a pipe in my room, before making a rapid toilet and heading off to the bottom of the road to meet the skipper. We set off in his car to the city of Kamaishi, stopping for sushi on the way. The sushi place is owned by an old friend of his and we always seem to go there whenever I visit Iwate and as usual, it was excellent quality for ludicrously low prices. The katsuo sushi was excellent – the skipper ate ten pieces – as was the mackerel and anago conger eel. I just remmebered to snap a brace of katsuo and swordfish sushi.
We then headed towards a late-night bar that again, we always seem to end up at whenever I am in Iwate. True to form, the madam of the establishment said ‘You men must be hungry’ and despite our protests, she produced two local specialties: whole salt-grilled saury (sanma) and some skipjack tuna (katsuo) sashimi. The saury is simplicity itself: the fish is scaled and washed but otherwise left whole, sprinkled with salt and grilled over a medium fire until cooked through.
The katsuo (skipjack tuna) was something special. Kochi (in Shikoku) is most famous for katsuo, but those in the know will always choose fish taken from the Sanriku sea during autumn. The fish are at their fattest and strongest, and the cold waters also mean their flesh is free from parasites (the Tosa specialty katsuo tataki, where the skin of the fish is burned over a fire, is made simply because of the danger of parasites and not due to superior taste). One would be hard pressed to find this quality of katsuo in even the best sushi restaurants in Tokyo. It was quite excellent and between the skipper and I, we demolished the serving in minutes.
On the subject of which, I must bring up one of my private bugbears: katsuo in English is skipjack tuna, not bonito! Anyway, as the evening progressed, inevitably a bottle of foul Japanese whiskey was produced, and I was obliged to partake some. Watered down into a iced and utterly repellent highball, I did my best to pretend that it was pleasant to drink, and both the skipper and I became increasingly tired and emotional under its exhilarating influence. As we both would have an early start the next day fortunately the karaoke machine was not wheeled out, and we polished off the remnants of the bottle as we waited for the daikosha (someone who will drive you home in your car) to arrive. My memory of the ride back to Sakihama is sketchy, but I do remember the driver was a salmon fisherman, and he and the skipper became quite animated in discussing the biology of that noble fish.
The next day, I was the only customer booked for fishing so we took the skipper’s little ‘work’ boat and decided to work the scallop and kelp fisheries inshore, quite close to the harbour. Only commercial fishermen licensed by the local co-op can enter these areas, and fishing underneath the rope structures can produce a variety of fish. The skipper must have been feeling the effects of the previous night’s indulgence as much as I was, for just as I was about to cast off our stern line and set off for our day’s fishing, it dawned on us that he had forgotten to bring any fishing rods.
After much cursing and fiddling around we set off again, this time with a bag full of cans of coffee, which we despatched one after the other, to clear the head. We made the ship fast to some of the scallop lines in the water, and started fishing. Compared to the previous day, the weather was excellent; a little windy, but the sun was shining and it was pleasantly warm. It was quiet at first but once the tide changed I started getting a lot of fish. After pulling in about a dozen flounder, including one nice sized marbled flounder, I realised that I had taken more than enough fish for the day already, and faced with the daunting prospect of lugging my cool box, completely full, all the way home. The weather was wonderfully warm and pleasant, so I gutted and cleaned the previous day’s cod, and scaled the flounder, on board with just one line lazily dropped in the water (the skipper had long since gone to sleep at the helm). The gulls greedily accepted the cod innards, and to my surprise I found one of the fish contained a small amount of cod milt, which I carefully wrapped and secreted in my cooler without the skipper noticing. In the end, I took a total of twenty flatfish, comprising three different species: slime flounder, shotted halibut and marbled flounder. My good friend the Japanese greenling (ainame) didn’t make an appearance, but my cooler was bursting full of fish and it was still only midday. So I woke the skipper up and told him I was done for the day, and after he checked some of his scallop crop we headed back to harbour. Since my train was not due till 2pm, we tidied up in a leisurely fashion and stopped off to pick up some extra ice to pack in my cool box for the six hour-journey back to Tokyo. With the ice, my cooler was very heavy indeed – the handle bent alarmingly in the middle when I picked it up – but that was better than having nothing in it at all! I paid up for the two days’ fishing, and gave the skipper some extra for the taxi ride from the previous night, and we headed off to the station.
After an uneventful journey, I arrived home in Tokyo at about 8:30pm, absolutely exhausted. I think I pulled a muscle in my arm from carrying my cool box about, but the fish were in a state of excellent preservation. I fulfilled a promise to my neighbour and gave him a cod and a nice-sized flounder, and set to dealing with the remainder. The cod were scaled and filleted, and the fillets patted dry and wrapped up and refrigerated. The flounder needed more work, and I de-slimed, scaled and gutted them. I made fish and chips with the cod, which came out quite excellent, and the hallowed milt I have also covered earlier, and remaining cod was preserved in white miso (covered in Japanese, here). However, I also made a favourite dish from my childhood: fishermen’s pie. Chunks of cod are layered over wilted spinach leaves, over which is poured a white wine-onion-cream-parsley sauce, and the whole affair is covered in freshly made mashed potato, a sprinkle of cheese, and baked at 150°C till the fish is cooked through and the pie browned on the top.
The flounder made excellent gifts to my neighbours and colleagues at work, but I was still left with more than ten to consume so I prepared them in a manner that would preserve them yet retain their deliciousness (I dislike freezing fish, your catch becomes no better than the fish you buy in a supermarket) for the next few days: I sun-dried them. This is a timeless traditional method and very easy to do. The fish are scaled and gutted as usual and then cured in saltwater. To help the fish cure properly, I score the thick flesh on the back of the fish right down to the bone in an ‘x’ shape. After a number of hours, the fish are removed from the salt water and patted dry, then hung up in a net (to keep off flies, crows and of course, the neighbourhood cats) to dry on my balcony. The resulting fish can be kept at room temperature for several days, and if refrigerated, for weeks. I made two batches.
The shotted halibut in particular is highly prized by gourmands, and to buy a similar dried preparation in a specialist store would cost at least 900 yen (about 9.50USD). To eat, the fish are delicious either grilled over a low fire or deep-fried till crisp. I made both, with excellent results.
Anyway, this about sums up my summer trip to Iwate. I am not sure when I will go again, but I am certain this was not my last trip!