Japan Trip Nine: Hamaguchi Suisan

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This is the ninth part of a multi-post series about my time on a Japanese TV show. If you're just discovering this series, I suggest you go here, where it all began. Otherwise, forget I said anything, carry on. 

When we were done eating lunch, we left the restaurant, after thanking the owner for her kindness. Back in the van, we drove out of the town of Fukue and headed down the coast.  The road was long and ran both parallel to the island's beach and through some of the coastal mountains.

The most interesting thing about the beaches were the tetrapods, which I had never seen in real life. If you don't know what a tetrapod is, you're not alone. Basically, they are giant concrete blocks, with four arms, which look a bit like jacks from the children's game. There a common sight in Japan where they are used to protect the shores from the harsh waves of inclement weather, and I imagine help a fair bit with erosion. Some people think that tetrapods take away from the natural beauty of Japan, but I just thought they were amazing. It was like adding a geometric art piece to the natural beauty. Maybe I would feel different if I had to look at them everyday but seeing them for the first time just made me so excited to be in Japan. 

Our destination was Tomie, a smaller town on the southern tip of Fukue Island. The kamaboko company that we were going to was located on a piece of land that jutted off the coast, so the factory was surrounded by the ocean on three sides. It faced a beautiful view of coastal mountains across the grey water. When we parked and got out of the van, the breeze coming off of the ocean was refreshing, though the air was still thick with humidity and the sky was ominously grey. 

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The factory was a single story building, the front part brick, the back part white and nondescript. The entrance had a low, covered deck and a long, white noren hanging over it. This was Hamaguchi Suisan, the company where I would spend the next three days and finally learn some of the secrets of kamaboko.

The film crew seemed to have a real love for throwing me into situations without giving me much prep. Instead of meeting the family first, and then filming it, they just had me walk right in with another "Konichiwa!". You-San told me to try and talk as much Japanese with them as I could manage. I don't think he was expecting much from me, as I hadn't really said anything except "hello" and "thank you" in Japanese before this time. But, I had been hitting the books pretty hard before I left, or hitting the MP3s that is, and had memorized a little bit of dialog. 

I stepped inside and was glad to find the room was air-conditioned. Directly in front of the door was a room with a table and shelves covered in beautifully packaged kamaboko. The colorful papers and boxes jumped out from the monochromatic interior. Two coolers provided a muffled whirring noise. To the right were a modern looking kitchen space and a long table with chairs. No one was inside, but as the crew followed me in I said "Konichiwa?" with much more confidence than I had in the restaurant. I was adapting. 

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There was a door behind the long table and a moment later it slid open to reveal two men. They were both shorter than me, dressed entirely in black, and beaming. One had a round face that immediately put you at your ease. The other was handsome and wouldn't have looked out of place in a movie. They both bowed and I copied them saying "Kipp-San desu, I am from America!" Because that's not a weird way to introduce yourself. 

They introduced themselves as the Hamaguchi brothers. The round-faced one was the middle brother, we will call him Jiro, and the other was the youngest son, we'll call him Saburo. Their older brother, the president of the company, was in Tokyo for the week and therefore was unable to be there to meet me. These two men would be my teachers instead. 

They asked me if I spoke Japanese at all and I was finally able to show off my language skills. "Nihongo ga sukoshi wakarimasu," I rattled off, "demo mada jozu ja arimasen." "I understand Japanese a little, but I am not very skilled yet." This is a phrase that I have memorized for just such an occasion. The brothers smiled and said "Jozu desu!" which amazingly, I happened to know meant "You are good!" and I also happened to know that I should reply again with "ie, jozu ja arimasen." ("No, I'm not skilled.")  Then, because I could, I threw in "yoku wakarimasen" or "I don't understand well." This delighted them, which is good because it is about the only conversation I managed to pull off in Japanese. 

I glanced over my shoulder at the film crew and noted with amusement that they all looked very surprised. It seemed they were wondering if I had actually been able to understand more than I let on. Saori-San even said, "I had no idea you spoke so much Japanese." I shrugged and played it cool, then admitted that this was a fluke and I would probably remain silent for the rest of the trip. But, she made my day by telling me that my pronunciation was spot on, which was reassuring since the only people I had ever spoken Japanese to were my family members who obviously don't speak Japanese either. 

The Hamaguchi brothers were very excited that I had come all the way to Japan to learn about kamaboko. Hamaguchi Suisan was their family business and had been for about a hundred years. They made all different kinds of kamaboko, all from fish that was caught around their island the very same day. They had a shop in Tomiemachi and a shop in Tokyo, which Mine-San told me was where she bought her kamaboko. They brought me over to the coolers, where they had all of their different varieties on display. Saburo-San picked up each one in turn and explained about them to me.

 This is actually a picture from the gift shop at the Fukue airport. But you get the idea. 

This is actually a picture from the gift shop at the Fukue airport. But you get the idea. 

We started with the classic ita wasa kamaboko, which is the type I made at home. Of course, their's looked amazing and came in both the white and pink-rimmed varieties. I had been prepped by You-San during lunch and was able to impress them with my knowledge that the pink (or red) layer represents the rising sun. Then I blew them out of the water by referring to the obscure kamaboko trade phrase "ashi". This word means leg in Japanese, but in kamaboko circles, it is also a term to describe the ideal firmness or elasticity of kamaboko. In other words, it should feel like you're pressing your finger into the flesh of your leg. 

We ran through a brief description of the other kamaboko in the cooler, and I asked various questions at the behest of You-San. Once this was done, we sat down at the table and began a kamaboko tasting. I had at least eight different types of kamaboko to try and a group of excited people hovering over me, not to mention two cameras. No pressure. First I took a bite of the ita wasa kamaboko. It was delightful, with the perfect firmness, mild flavor, and elasticity. I praised it to the best of my abilities and everyone seemed satisfied.

Next, I tried the baramon, which is a square shaped kamaboko that is fried rather than steamed. There were two different baramon, one made of white fish and the other brown in color. They were talking about a lot of different types of fish, none of which I knew as they were all Japanese. I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure the brown baramon were made of flying fish. The fried fish cakes were a little richer than the ita wasa and had a more springy texture. 

The one I had been most interested to try after our discussion at the cooler was the datemaki, which was a rolled kamaboko with a yellow color. As Saburo-San had told me, this was because it had egg yolk added to the surimi (fish paste). The flavor surprised me, as it was sweeter than the others. The texture was the same as the ita wasa but the flavor was strong and rich. 

We moved on to two small dumpling shaped kamaboko. These were tsumire, which are primarily used in soups to flavor the broth. They had a very firm texture and strong flavor. I would later try a broth made with tsumire, and I can tell you, they pack a punch! Second to last was Ryugan, a kamaboko that had a hard boiled egg encased inside it. Seeing as how I am not a fan of hard-boiled eggs, this one didn't really appeal to me. That being said, for what it was, it was pretty tasty. 

They had saved the best for last. This was their centerpiece, their signature kamaboko, the gotomaki roll. The log-shaped, steamed, roll holds a secret inside, which you discover when you slice it. A piece of fresh konbu seaweed, forming a four or five-pointed symbol, somewhat like a handprint. In fact, it is intended to be a hand or a crown. I bit into the kamaboko and was pleased by the contrast of the elastic fish and the firm, fresh seaweed. The salty konbu and the mild fish flavor mixed perfectly.

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When I was done eating the various kamaboko they asked me which had been my favorite. I thought about it for a moment and then truthfully answered that the gotomaki roll was the best. I even waxed poetically about the flavor and texture. This was apparently the answer they had been hoping for because they beamed and told me that the next day I would be making the gotomaki roll myself.

Also, they hoped that I would be willing to go fishing first thing in the morning with some locals, to catch the fish we would use to make kamaboko. Willing? I couldn't think of something I'd rather do in the whole world. Go fishing with Japanese fishermen? That's got to be something that few Americans get to experience. My dad was going to freak when I told him. 

The tasting portion done, I was allowed to take a break, sitting to the side and flipping through a few magazines they had out. They were mostly traveling guides for the islands and I was interested to find pictures of several Catholic churches. This stirred something in my memory and I suddenly remembered a piece of Japanese history that I had floating around in my brain. The Nagasaki area had been the destination of many Dutch traders and missionaries before the Edo period. There had been a degree of intermingling and some of the locals had been converted to Christianity. When the Tokugawa Shogunate took control of the country, they made the foreign religion illegal and many Japanese Christians were persecuted and had to go underground. The Goto Islands were home to many of these Christians and after the ban on the religion was lifted they built many Catholic churches.

I couldn't believe I had forgotten this, not only because I had read a fair bit about it at one time, but also I had watched a whole movie about it the very day I was invited to Japan. Silence starring Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver takes place on the coast of Kyushu and a whole portion of it takes place on Goto. I can't say I particularly enjoyed the movie, despite the fact that I have a bit of a crush on Adam Driver. It's super dark and depressing, but I had just watched it and couldn't believe I had forgotten its location already. I guess I had a lot on my mind. It still gets me that right after I was invited to Japan when I had no idea where in the country I would end up, I watched a movie located on the very island I would be visiting. 

While I marveled at this connection, You-San came and sat down next to me. He informed me that there were some children on their way there who really wanted to meet me. "Children?" I said, not without a little alarm. "Yes, some school children we met, who have never met an American." The way he said it made it sound like they were random children who they had bumped into on the street, but they were actually the children of the brothers. Between the three Hamaguchi brothers, there were seven children, but I would be meeting four of them that day. "They want to meet an American and ask you some questions, maybe speak a little English with you." "Okay, I can do that," I said. English is the one thing I'm good at here. 

It wasn't too long before they arrived. Two boys around ten, a girl around seven or eight, and another girl who was probably twelve. They were adorably shy, sneaking into the room and taking seats almost before I realized they were there. You-San had warned me that they were shy so I did my best to put them at their ease. They gave me curious looks but mostly stared at their feet. I myself am pretty shy when it comes to children in this age group, so we were well paired. They pointed the camera at us and with a lot of coaxing from You-San we started a conversation. 

I asked them questions about living on the island and about school. I asked them if they were learning any English and they said they were. But, they were too shy to say any of it. I asked them if I was the first American they had seen, which I knew I was. They nodded their heads and then one of the girls piped up and said that I was the first person they had ever seen who wasn't Japanese. Seeing as how I am a giant, with light hair, and green eyes, I imagine that I was very striking to them. 

Probably seeing that the conversation was lagging, You-San suggested that we go outside and play "Oni Gokko". You would have thought that he just said there was an ice cream truck outside, as those shy children jumped to their feet, eyes ablaze with excitement. Oh god, I thought, what the heck is Oni Gokko? I directed this question to Saori-San and she told me it is a game much like tag. "One kid is the oni, like a monster, and they count to ten, then chase the other children until they catch one and it becomes the oni." Chase? As in run? I am not a runner. I wasn't even a runner when I was their age. I am a scholar, I enjoy scholarly pursuits. Most of these involve me sitting on my butt. I can suck it up and run, but I had hoped to never have to do it both in front of strangers and on film. 

 The children in the back row were the ones I met the first day.

The children in the back row were the ones I met the first day.

We moved outside, where there was a large sports field behind the factory. One of the little boys said he would be oni to start and he stood in the middle of the field counting to ten. What followed were some of the hardest minutes of my life, fifteen of them to be precise. My legs were a lot longer than theirs, but I do not have the endless energy of a child, and I was suffering from jet lag, lack of sleep, and dehydration. Not to mention, I had a stomach full of kamaboko of various descriptions. By the end of the game, I was breathing like Darth Vader and felt like I was going to vomit out all of my internal organs. As we walked back to the building the children skipped along with me, their shyness evaporated. They even taught me how to say sky and ocean in Japanese (sora and kaiyo). 

Let me remind you that I had only had four hours of sleep in the past forty-eight hours. I must have looked like death warmed over because both Saori-San and Mine-San started fussing over me. They gave me an iced tea and made me sit in the air-conditioned van for about a half an hour. Then they asked me about any pre-existing medical conditions, which told me that I was not passing off my misery well. So, yeah, that was all pretty embarrassing but with hindsight, totally hilarious. 

But, the day wasn't over, as I had been invited to dinner with the Hamaguchi family, but would first be going over to see one of their houses. They had offered me a room at their own home while I was on the island, which I had gratefully accepted. However, after watching me nearly die of oni gokko, Mine-San and Saori-San talked me into staying at the hotel instead, where I would have air conditioning and privacy. But, You-San still wanted to film me seeing the house, so away we went.

And here is where I will once again leave you. In the next post I will tell you about the Japanese house I pretended to be staying at and how I was tricked into eating (no longer) poisonous puffer fish. 

Until next time, run like the wind!

If you enjoyed this post, you might like this one, about the oldest Japanese companies. Or perhaps you would like to read this one about Pokemon. 

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