Well I finally had the chance to take some summer holiday so I headed north to scenic Matsushima Bay, the famous goby, flatfish and conger eel fishery in Miyagi Prefecture. This time I would be travelling with my rod making teacher, with whom I had been discussing making such a trip since last year.
The journey starts with a two hour ride on the Tohoku shinkansen bullet train to Sendai, followed by half an hour or so on a local line to Shiogama. The Tohoku (literally, “Northeast”) region is probably one of my favourite places in all Japan, not just for the amazing fishing, but also friendly, welcoming locals and great variety of good food. Before the 2011 earthquake I would probably make the trip to Iwate for offshore fishing once or twice a year, but this time I would be travelling to a place I have not been before, Matsushima Bay in Miyagi, but to the sport angler it ranks as among Japan’s most famous places. On arriving at the minshuku guesthouse there appeared to be no living creature around apart from a great sleepy cat who studiously ignored us and napped at the entrance, but after yelling into the kitchen (the doors of all parts are open all the time, common in small family-run guesthouses in the country but unthinkable coming from Tokyo) a small boy appeared. He was probably no older than about five but sported what could only be described as the King of Mullets: it ran down to beyond his shoulder-blades with the tips dyed blond, with the remainder of the head shaved close to resemble a sea-urchin. Chris Waddle would have shed tears over it. My teacher sent him on his way to seek out the lady of the house, and within minutes we were greeted by a pleasant young person to show us our room. I find the curious Tohoku accent, sometimes clipped, sometimes over-emphasising certain syllables, to be not at all unpleasant on the ears and it is quite becoming when spoke by a lady.
Anway, as we were customers who had chartered a fishing boat for the next day, the owner asked, since the tide was making, if we fancied dropping a line at the harbour front. She gave us a bucket and some leftover bait for free and within five minutes of arriving, we were fishing! After snagging some haze gobies, and a local man wandering over to make small-talk, the famous Tohoku hospitality came into its own: the young person, still in her apron, sought us out and told us that the boss had come back from the sea early and having the time spare, would take us for a ride onto the Bay for free for some fishing and in his words, a sunset cruise. We walked back to the guesthouse, put on lifejackets, shipped our catch bucket and went aboard the skiff waiting for us. The boss introduced one of his sons who would accompany us as decky, who bravely made his leg in that shy-polite manner which is often so touching in Japanese children, and we were on our way. After navigating a couple of bridges – with the tide at full flood, we actually had to push upwards against the underside of the iron girders to get the skiff through, a first for me – we were met by the amazing sight of Matsushima Bay proper. No photos can do the beauty or scale of the place justice, with its lake-like calmness and multitude of islands and craggy cliffs, all mounted with pines and bamboo, made all the more imposing by us being so close to the sea surface. With the sun setting, the rocks were bathed in gold and both my teacher and I repeatedly gasped and gazed about like countrymen in the big city.
We fished several different points; each of the multitude of islands has a distinct local name, but I struggle to remember them. It was amazing to find out that apart from the sea-lanes which are constantly dredged, most parts of the Bay are less than two fathoms deep; wherever you look there is a multitude of long bamboo poles or wooden staves driven into the sea floor, no doubt marking the more dangerous shoals, and fishermen’s seines and crab pots. This would also explain why all the fishing vessels we saw, including our own, were flat-bottomed skiffs. We both caught some haze, and I a croaker, and a most unusual by-catch: a brace of mantis shrimp.
We continued fishing as the sun set till the skies in the west rapidly formed on an ominous dark mass over the land and the skipper said we should head back in case of squalls. His timing was impeccable for as we entered the harbour mouth the sky to landward was suddenly lit by a long series of lightning bolts.
As we made our thanks and disembarked the boy whisked off our bucket to the kitchen and we had just a few moments to change for dinner and sit at table. We had our own private dining room and as always is the case when the minshuku is run by commercial fishermen, the evening meal was a magnificent sight: a giant boiled swimmer crab taken that day, four kinds of sashimi, vinegar-cured shad with pickled turnip and miso, chawan-mushi savoury custard, three kinds of tenpura, some boiled and spiced kelp roots, a dish of abalone and bamboo roots stir-fried in a sesame sauce, a grilled file-fish, a small burner heating a claypot containing scallops and shiitake mushrooms in a dressing of soy sauce, miso soup with half a crab in it; and unlimited rice and untold cold beers. My rod making teacher is teetotal, so I was obliged to drink for two.
The lady of the house delicately poured my beer and most anatomically broke up my swimmer crab for me, and bade us enjoy our meal and left us. Whether it was the long train journey or the sea air, we were ravening-hungry and we squared our elbows to the feast with very little conversation for the first few minutes and just the sound of snapping crab’s legs and shells; with no ladies present, no civilising influence, there was no ceremony and we were quite barbarous.
Although the food was all excellent, the coup de grace was the cook who brought us a dish of the haze gobies we had caught just an hour previously, fried into tenpura, the croaker split open and grilled with no more seasoning than a shake of salt, and the mantis shrimps boiled alive in their shells. Mantis shrimp always looks rather verminous, but in reality it is a type of prawn and when done well, is one of my favourite foods, particular as sushi.
The feast was of a great scale but my rod making teacher and I did Lucullus proud, not leaving a scrap; afterwards we sat back on our zabuton cushions, gloated over the destruction – the table was covered in smashed crab shells and running with crab juice – and regained a little of our humanity by making conversation in our post-prandial torpor. Perhaps it is the ravages of advancing age, or just that I have been lucky enough to try many, many different foods around the world and found a prevailing theme that I like, but I find myself increasingly less inclined to elaborate, complex dishes and that high quality fresh ingredients – like fish killed only hours previously, or a well-hanged steak – do not need architectural sauces or dressings or the food piled up in infernal little Towers of Babel, splodges of sauces made into pretty patterns on oversized plates, a list of ingredients the length of your arm and all the dishes given silly names. Although immense in proportions, this meal was perfect to me: just simply prepared fresh food, so typical of fishermen’s guesthouses and not the over-salted fancy-dan gimcrack common to so many restaurants these days.
We were due to leave moorings at 6am the next day so we turned in early. Only those who live in the light-polluted noisy inner city of Tokyo can truly appreciate the luxury of sleeping under a night-sky lit only by the moon, and the only sound being the stridulation of insects. Under such a sky, and with such an enormous meal under my belt, I went out like a light and remember nothing till my alarm roused us at 5am.
Since the boss of the guesthouse was taking other anglers to chase yellowtail at the mouth of the Bay, he arranged for a local fisherman to skipper us for the day. He could have been cast from a die from which almost all old-school Japanese seamen seem to be: a cut-granite face tanned deep mahogany, no taller than five foot with a slight, wiry frame, and with a seemingly never-ending cigarette in his mouth. He seemed pleased we were fishing for haze gobies with traditional bamboo gear – none of this niminy-piminy lure-nonsense – and after a short ten-minute ride along the bay we were at the first fishing point.
I found it amazing how he could navigate in such a place, I was disoriented after the first set of islands. He shipped a large oar, almost as long as the skiff itself, most curiously on the port-side, and by paddling with his left hand kept us over the shoal that held fish whilst he too fished with a bamboo rod with his right hand.
The weather could have been made to order by anglers: the bay was glorious without a breath of wind. We set to fishing and landed some gobies but the fish weren’t really biting that much, but enough to give us sport. We also snagged some more mantis shrimp. One of the reasons we made the trip to Matsushima Bay is the much larger size of the gobies there. Using bamboo rods – I used the one I built in 2010 – the fish really set your fine monofilament line twanging-taut when you hook them and for the dedicated goby fisher, it is a surprise and pleasure to see and catch such magnificent specimens: at this time of year in Tokyo Bay, the fish are probably no more than 10 or 12cm long.
As we were fishing the second point, my rod making teacher suddenly stood up and began bringing his line in by hand; there was an unfortunate wave and motion of the skiff and he fell inboard on his backside. Before I could shout Butcher! and laugh at him, I saw he still had his line in his hand – he got up and yanked it in and lo and behold, he had landed a large blue swimmer crab: what a catch! They are the specialty of Matsushima Bay. I was quite jealous, despite eating two of its fellows just the previous night. Anyway, aside from this diversion it turned out the fish were not particularly in the mood today, but it was really no matter. The weather was picture-perfect, the environment and scenery breathtaking and we mused how lucky we were to be fishing such a place, with most poor joes already toiling and moiling at work or on their Tuesday morning hell-ship commute. We chatted with the skipper, with varying success: my teacher’s mother was from Fukushima so he is used to the north-east accent, and I think I made out about a third of what he said, but everything was in good humour and I made sure it was more so, drinking off a few ice-cold beers from my cool-box.
At around midday we packed up and headed off for home. The skipper was a little apologetic for the rather slim pickings, but as I always say, fishing is fun; fish are a bonus. This was certainly true for this day. I only wish I lived closer to the bay! Although we had checked out, the guesthouse let us take a shower and order ourselves, and then it was time to leave Shiogama. A taxi arrived to take us to the station, the lady of the house, the King of Mullets and the cat stood at the entrance to see us off, and then it was a short train ride to Sendai. Being lunchtime, and having our appetites sharpened by the morning’s fishing, we asked some locals to direct us to a place that served the local specialty, beef tongue. This is generally considered the must-eat if you make it to Sendai, alongside my personal favourite which is a dessert made from mochi sticky rice-cakes dressed with a sauce of sweetened, pounded green soy beans. As walked from the station, perhaps with his spirits inflamed by all the fresh fish we had eaten the previous day, my rod making teacher suggested we ‘pick up some hot chicks and take them with us to the restaurant.’ I stated that our fishing slops that smelled of fish and our bright-red fishermen’s sunburn probably made our chances of success poor to nil, but I really carried my point by arguing that we would have to pay for a meal for four diners, and so as an all-male party of two we headed to Kisuke, the place recommended to us. Dish upon dish of beef tongues appeared: grilled tongue, smoked tongue, baked tongue, tongue stewed and tongue made into dumplings.
It was all very good, helped down with a few beers and the hospitality of the friendly locals. Indeed, as I returned from a trip to the toilet I found my teacher had happened to fall into conversation with the young person operating the grill and so I left them and instead spoke to the head chef, who had noticed we had walked in with rod cases; he proved to be a dedicated sport angler, and in his own private corner of the restaurant he had hung some photos of his most famous catches, his pride being an immense mahi mahi he had taken last summer. Well, all good things come to an end and we soon paid up and left to catch our shinkansen train to Tokyo. We bought some sweets as presents for those back home and the 2-hour ride back was unremarkable. In the next post I shall describe the fate of the fish I had caught on Matsushima Bay, a most enjoyable and memorable trip. Many thanks to Harbour House Kaname in Miyagi Prefecture.