from the Ibaraki seas…
Over the weekend I made the trip to Nakaminato, a small fishing town athwart the estuary of the Naka River in north Ibaraki Prefecture. Compared to Tokyo Bay, the weather was excellent (the glass over 1020mb throughout the previous day) and this time I would be imposing myself on the gentleman-skipper Captain Yutaka – a white collar office worker during the week, who loves offshore fishing so much he bought his own fishing boat, a genuine 5-ton fishing buss rather than a outboarder or pleasure craft, and takes his friends fishing with the only condition that all anglers chip in to pay for the petrol for the day.
It is a surprisingly rapid and pleasant ride to Nakaminato from Tokyo, by express to Mito and then a local one-carriage diesel affair to the coast. On leaving the station, it was nice to find the whole area comprised of well-watered rice paddies, which to the Japanese freshwater angler means tanago and mabuna fishing. There were some positively enticing points on offer, all completely devoid of anglers – and I spotted some tanago sign as well as plenty of crayfish and wild medaka (now an endangered species, due to over-use of agrochemicals and concreting of waterways). Next time I will bring my tanago rod and some bloodworms.
The next step was to buy supplies for the next day, and then I headed to the skipper’s weekend home by the sea, a tiny kutch shack with a corrugated tin roof but with all the necessary amenities such as gas stove, fridge-freezer and Japanese bath, to find he had set aside a mebaru rockfish and a saba chub mackerel he had caught that day, for our dinner that night. I had taken the precaution of picking up some Yebisu beer and local squid, sea bass and prawn sashimi, and after a shower each we were all cushty with the skipper setting the mebaru to simmer in a liquor of soy sauce, sake and brown sugar and the saba pickling nicely in rice vinegar.
For your sake, I am glad the table is preserving my modesty. There were no ladies present and it was hot, very hot; both of us were in a state of considerable undress. The stewed mebaru was excellent, although I let the skipper eat most of it as I tucked into the saba, which was glistening with fish oil, thick-cut and quite delicious.
Inevitably after the beer rapidly disappeared the local firewater shochu was produced. To preserve my senses I watered mine down heavily, but the skipper matched me glass for glass with the neat stuff. With an early start the next day, we brought out the futons and turned in at about 9pm. Because the room was quite small I was alarmed slightly by the proximity of our bedding; after all, even the courts of law have determined that a man is not responsible for his actions whilst he is asleep, so I asked the skipper if he could kindly keep to his own futon during the night. This was of course a disaster, for as soon as he fell asleep he rolled over and planted his leg upon me, whilst breathing shochu fumes and snoring terribly. After a tactful shove and using my blankets – quite unnecessary in this heat – to construct a Great Wall of Ibaraki between our futons his essays were stopped but his snoring was incessant, which meant I slept only a few moments during the entire night. Eventually, and mercifully, the clock struck four and it was time to get ready, the skipper rubbing salt into my sleep-deprived wounds by declaring how well he had slept that night.
It was a short trip to the shore, and after greeting the other anglers we boarded and got our gear ready. The first part of this fishing – in the estuary of the Naka River – is critical, as we would need to land plenty of iwashi anchovy sardines to use as live bait. The skipper had the spanker unfurled and hoisted before I could give him even a few lines of Heave Away, Me Johnnies to encourage him, he bellowed to the foremost angler to cast off and shove off forward, and we were away. I was struck by the immensely thick fog – a genuine pea-souper, I doubt you could see your hand if inside it – that sat like a blanket over the north part of Nakaminato harbour, but fortunately it turned out to be drifting and dispersing over land and we were not going to be endangered by it.
We ran into a good iwashi shoal almost immediately, and with long sabiki rigs with the barbs pinched down to preserve the fish, between us all we filled both forward and stern live wells in about twenty minutes and headed off to the first fishing point. A few aji were mixed in with our catch and I looked forward to eating them, in the event of no success during the day. On our way out a pod of dolphins crossed our wake and followed our ship for a while, leaping alongside in their playful manner, seemingly almost close enough to touch, which I thought highly amusing but the skipper did not, as dolphins are a bad omen for fishing with sardine bait. To his satisfaction they left us long before we reached the first fishing point and we set to work.
The fishing was slow and no matter where we tried, there was very little fishing action. It proved to be a long day, enlivened only by occasional mackerel caught on hooks baited with slivers of mackerel flesh – they are certainly a fish of foul habits. One of the other anglers caught a stonefish and another a mebaru; I was not in luck apart from taking a brace of cannibal scombrids. Later on in the day we headed inshore, to try our luck in the shallows. Here I got a very powerful hit but no hookset; I ended up losing a fish which had managed to eat every part of the sardine live bait except the head, which contained my hook; whatever the fish was, it got its meal for the day, and I was denied mine.
Because the fishing was so quiet, the skipper said he would stay out till 1300, an hour after the time we originally scheduled to finish up. The skipper took a small hirame and another angler caught a big ainame – the fish we were here to catch. Perhaps the unrelenting sun, sleep deprivation and lack of catch had taken its toll; the most exciting moment of the day so far was opening up my right index finger with fishing line, trying to free my sinker that had snagged on the rocky bottom. I was just about ready to take down my rod and set to packing everything up when suddenly my rod bent over and after putting in a good hookset, had a fish on…her fight was admirable but I was very keen on not letting this one get away, and after a good play had landed my ainame. Not a beast for these waters, but certainly the largest I have caught yet.
I think the skipper was almost as relieved as I was, that I had finally caught an ainame, and after a little more unsuccessful fishing we headed back to port. The fishing for the day was slow but I had caught a good variety of fish that would prove excellent eating that evening. The skipper gave me the hirame he caught, stating he could not bothered to trifle with such a thing, which I thought a great kindness.
The day was ended with a special treat from the skipper; a water-melon he had had chilling in an ice-chest all day, that he sliced up and served us. The Japanese have a curious habit of sprinkling salt onto water-melon before eating it, which seems highly eccentric to me but then again, my Japanese grandfather used to dress his water-melon with gin; I ate my salted fruit slice without complaining. We sat in what little shade there was on the moored ship, sweating and spitting seeds over the rail.
After an uneventful trip back to Tokyo on the train, I set to preparing the fish in my bag. If only I had snagged a few more mackerel, I would have set aside some for smoking, but today was not the day. Being rather tired from a lack of sleep, fishing all day and the hot sun, I went for simpler dishes – sashimi, for the mackerel and hirame, and the all-in-one-pot dish uo-suki for the ainame.
I had bought plenty of extra ice to pack my cool-box with and after mixing this with an appropriate amount of seawater, went to extra care to kill my landed saba mackerel quickly and plunge them into this coolant straight away. I see so many Japanese anglers who let their mackerel thrash about in a bucket, stewing in its own blood and slowly decomposing; not only is the flesh of the fish bruised by its death-throes, this is highly unadvisable as mackerel can give you a hefty dose of scombrotoxism as well as one of the more horrid varieties of parasitic infection, without you chill and store the fish properly. Anyway, this creature was destined for the Japanese dish shime-saba.
Angler’s shime-saba, with only just enough shime to ensure the fish isn’t poison but pretty much still sashimi. With unusual foresight, Ibaraki Prefecture maintains a blanket ban on the use of chum, either commercial or sport, on its seas, and the difference is clear when you eat the mackerel taken from its waters. The bowels of the fish do not smell repellent when filleted, and even the flesh of the fish itself has a much more pleasant natural aroma.
“Uosuki” or fish sukiyaki, made for cooking the ainame; the fish goes in at the very last moment after all the tofu, enoki and shiitake mushrooms, shirataki noodles, mizuna green leaves and spring onions are cooked through in a hot broth of dashi, sake and soy sauce. Just like the meat variety, the pieces of cooked fish, vegetable and tofu are dabbed in a raw beaten egg before being eaten, and I like to give it a shake of ground chilli pepper too. It is entirely up to the diner, whether he chooses to let the fish poach through completely so it is soft and flakey, or just briefly whisk the fish in the hot pot until it is curled slightly at the edges but still raw inside. I prefer the latter.
The hirame the skipper kindly gave me was also put to good use. I made two types of sashimi from the ventral fillets of the fish.
Regular sashimi and engawa (wing) . These disappeared very rapidly.
“Special” sashimi, made from the other belly fillet of the hirame, seasoned liberally with olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, capers, freshly ground black pepper and Okinawan sea-salt. This makes an admirable companion to ardent spirits such as shochu.
It is always pleasant to travel in Japan, and even more so to catch different varieties of fish compared to what you get in Tokyo Bay, where I do the majority of my offshore fishing. I hope to use the services of Yutaka-maru again in the future!