Headed out on the Yutaka-maru, sailing from Nakaminato, Ibaraki, for another good day’s fishing.
I have described squid fishing in Ibaraki in a previous post, so I shall skip past the usual preamble – the same izakaya, the same excellent food, ramen, and distilled rice spirits – and cut straight to the fishing part. Although Tokyo is warming up gradually after an unusually long and cold winter, up north in Nakaminato it is still around freezing before dawn, and the deck, rail and lines were all coated in ice when we went aboard. The usual strong early spring southerly winds that usually make fishing a gamble this time of year, against all reason were blowing from the west which made for a choppy ride once we left moorings on the Naka River and headed out into the Pacific proper and steered south. There was also a fairly high swell which put the five-ton Yutaka-maru through her paces, but since we were not heading all the way to Kashima, we arrived at our first fishing point in about an hour, shortly after the sun crept up past the thick clouds on the horizon. We started taking squid almost immediately, although the bite was sporadic. As it happened I checked my barometer earlier in the morning and it read 1024, so likely we would have good weather as the day went on, but early in the day the wind was blustery and the swell made it pretty challenging to keep one’s feet. I managed to knock my head on the spanker-boom at least twice, which is not bad going for such a flat-footed lubber as myself, but the true test came later, when Captain Yutaka yelled out my name from the bridge and made ambiguous motions with his hand and chin out towards the sea. Since he always likes to point out interesting things to me – dolphins or porpoises, unusual seabirds and the like – I thought he wanted to tell me something, and he waved me over to the bridge. Seeing as I was the angler furthest aft, this requires me to squirm past the twanging-taut vangs of the boom and the shrouds of the mast and round the fife-rail, for the larger man such as myself moderately perilous on any kind of sea, complete with the bear-trap of the live-well hatch lying in wait also. I managed to not crack my head on the way nor fall into the live-well, and when I finally got to the bridge, grasping the rail, I asked him what he was about; he replied, “I only wanted to see you come forward,” to great hoots of laughter from all aboard – he had got me well and truly, browned to a turn as they say. I dare say he will next be asking me for the key to the keelson. Fortunately I had taken the precaution of drinking a few cans of chuhai on the journey out and was in philosophical mood enough to join in and laugh at myself, whilst secretly planning what kind of revenge I could exact on him in the future, of course. Anyway, the barometer never lies, and as the morning wore on the wind suddenly died, the skies miraculously cleared and the sun came out over a glorious sea. I took some more squid, and Captain Yutaka obligingly took a photo for me.
This time round there was no periods of mad squid feed, and although most anglers took one or two squid at each point we fished, as the wind died out and the sea went calm the squid stopped taking the bait. I had one memorable catch where I hooked three squid on one line, but after about 11am it was as quiet below the sea as it was on the surface. The weather however, was glorious, bright sparkling blue and just the noise of the lapping of waves against the side. It was at this point Captain Yutaka went below and cooked up his usual lunchtime treat, this time a paper cup of piping hot Japanese curry with a piece of toasted mochi in it. It went down well, helped along with some kanchuhai, and with the sunshine my Guernsey frock was almost too warm. I picked up my first angler’s sunburn of the year, having grown pale from all the skulking about indoors over the winter, and I have yet to discover a suncream invented yet that can stop me from roasting – my reddened nose made me look like a drink-sodden parson.
At one point the angler behind me began singing and fidgeting oddly and I crossed over to the other side to check if he wasn’t sun-mad, or roaring drunk. However, on enquiry it turned out he was singing a song “To encourage the squid to take the bait” so taking his example, I sat back down again at my place and sang a few verses of ‘Whiskey in the Jar’, addressed to the squid in the sea; it didn’t work and neither of us caught any more squid that day. Well I always enjoy fishing, whatever the catch, and as time flies, it was soon noon and Captain Yutaka told us to pack up to head for home. I took nine big Bleeker’s squid, and most other anglers caught a dozen or so, and as we took down our gear the skipper grabbed one from the live-well and chopped it up. I thought we would eat it as sashimi, but instead he sent the smallest of our number forward with the mantle of the squid, still see-through and with the skin maddeningly changing colour as you looked at it, and he climbed up and slapped it onto the ship’s exhaust and made it fast with wire. For a minute I thought they had both gone out of their minds, or were conducting some sort of fetishistic ritual, but the Captain eyed me with a knowing leer and told me to wait and see. In the meantime, we ate the legs of the unfortunate squid, which were doing their damnedest to wriggle off the chopping board; with no soy sauce or wasabi or any seasoning other than seawater, and were sublime, apart from the habit of the sucker-cups getting stuck to one’s teeth.
With our squid mantle lashed not to the masthead, but to the smoke-stack, we turned about and made for Nakaminato. Almost as quickly as it had died, a strong wind from the west began to blow and the spray came aboard in buckets. We anglers huddled as best we could behind the bridge, and mused over the day’s fishing. I managed to snap the exhaust before the weather got too heavy, an odd sight indeed:
When we were about a mile off the Naka River estuary, Captain Yutaka closed the throttle and leapt up forward to free the squid. It was pink and cooked and ready to eat, and as I reached for my knife he said, “Tear a piece with your hands and pass the rest on”. Although I doubted his word, the squid came apart in one’s hands, and we alternately scorched our fingertips and greedily ate the squid, which without any exaggeration, was the best cooked squid I have ever eaten in my life: tender, perfectly cooked through and decidedly more-ish. The squid mantle survived two rounds of everyone on deck, with many loud ejaculations of “Umai (delicious!)” and certain shameless anglers who privately hid pieces of squid on their person, after which we were left smacking our lips and already turning over in our minds when next we would sail on the Yutaka-maru, to be able to eat such a thing again. Anyway, after paying up (the Captain only ever takes money to cover the gasoline for the trip, divided equally between all anglers) the journey home was uneventful, and since I had enough time in between changing trains in Katsuta I was able to head out and buy some local natto, a specialty of the area (in particular, Mito). While it is death to some, it is ambrosia to others, and I fall into the latter category. I bought the fairly standard brand “Tengu” though you rarely see it still wrapped in its straw bundles, which also make it a nice present for those at home in Tokyo. I was back home by 6pm with a cooler box full of squid and my nose definitely in need of some aloe vera cream.
Well, the squid angler’s perquisite – after the chimney-roast, and living legs – is of course fresh squid sashimi, and after a hot bath, some ointment for my roasted nose and forehead, a couple of cold Yebisu beers and a despatch of some of my catch to my neighbours, I was ready for a squid feast. After a 4am start, a long day fishing under the sun and numerous chuhai spirits and a hot train journey, you must excuse the presentation of the dish, but the taste is the same – and unless you have eaten a squid taken and killed only a few hours previously, it is not possible to describe how good it is, unless you do it yourself:
The tentacles I very lightly seasoned with salt and put under the grill, but not for too long. I ate these with mayonnaise and a dash of hot sauce:
I wasn’t in the mood for rice or pasta or anything heavy, so to finish off proceedings I stir-fried the rest of the squid with butter, spring onions and white pepper; it needs little else and is delicious.
I was too tired for strong drink, or singing songs, by the time I had finished eating, and I crept into bed and was out like a light. I always enjoy fishing on the Yutaka-maru and every trip is memorable, in its own way; I hope to go out again on her again, soon! Many thanks as always, to Captain Yutaka in Nakaminato.