Japan Trip Twelve: Going Fishing

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This is the 12th installment in a multi-post series about my time on a Japanese tv show. If you haven’t read everything that’s come before, please go back to the beginning. Otherwise, carry on!

I woke up on the morning of my third (my god, only the third) day in Japan, feeling not exactly refreshed. That horrible jet lag mixed with advanced exhaustion had made my stomach ache all through the night. The alarm had gone off at 4 am for me to be able to get ready for being on camera all day in time to go fishing. After all, fishing is an early morning thing. I headed downstairs and found the crew waiting for me. Of course, they had been up even later than I had, first eating their dinner and then preparing for the next days production. My sympathy was limited, though, since none of them had started out with a twenty hour traveling day or a twelve hour time change.

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We all bundled into the van and headed for Tomei. It was still dark out, the horizon just beginning to lighten to deep azure. The cold air felt wonderfully bracing. When we got to town, to keep up the pretense that I had spent the night at the Hamaguchi’s home, we filmed outside the building. You-San wanted me to come out of the door as though it was my dwelling, but we found the house locked up tight. Instead, I was filled walking away from the building, trying to look well rested and excited for the day. And though I was utterly spent energy wise, I was excited.

It’s pretty challenging to think of a more iconic image for life in rural Japan than a fisherman. Japanese people eat a lot of fish traditionally. This makes sense for an archipelago nation. The fishing industry in Japan is worth more than ten billion dollars annually. A lot of that must be from big trawlers, but some of it also comes from individual fishermen in towns like Tomei. Not many American tourists get the opportunity to go fishing like this. Since I was the only American to go to Goto in some time, my experience might even be unique.

We walked down to the water where there was a dock with several small fishing vessels waiting. I saw the fishermen I had met the night before getting ready, coiling ropes, loading equipment, and making other seafaring preparations. Saori-San and I waited on the side of the road while You-San and the rest of the crew joined the fishermen. “In a minute,” said Saori-San, “they’re going to signal you to walk over. I know you met the fishermen last night, but we’d like you to pretend that this is the first time.”

“Okay,” I said.

“We’d like you to speak some Japanese with them.”

“Alright,” I said, expecting it to be more of the conversations I’d been having. Ohayo Gozaimasu… Kipp-San desu… Arigato… You know, basic stuff. Saori-San proceeded to rattle off a full Japanese sentence for me to learn in the next couple minutes. I don’t remember what the Japanese words were, but they translated to “Thank you for taking the time, please teach me how to fish” or something along those lines.

Feverishly, I asked her to break it down into smaller chunks and repeated after her. I felt like Harry Potter learning how to cast a Patronus. “Expecto patrono — no, patronum — sorry — expecto patronum, expecto patronum.” I wish it were that easy, I once got 100% on a Harry Potter spell quiz.

Finally, Saori-San left me to hide behind the camera, and I tried not to feel unreasonably jealous as I waited too, once again, make a fool of myself on film. You-San waved his hand. I faked a confidence I certainly did not feel, striding over to the father and son, giving them a polite bow. I rattled off my lines as best I could. Once done, Saori-San said I did perfectly. Imagine my annoyance when, months later, I watched the episode and saw that my efforts were wasted as they cut that scene. But, that’s getting ahead of myself.

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Kawasaki-San and his son, Toshio, were very friendly and seemed excited to meet this inexplicable American girl. They got me fitted up with a life jacket and some white rubber boots. I don’t know how many times you’ve seen footage of Japanese fishermen, but those white boots are pretty synonymous with the profession. It’s like brown xtratufs in Alaska or UGGs on a college campus in October. So, being presented with my very own white rubber boots made me feel very legit.

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Thus clad, I climbed into one of the boats. It was smaller than your typical Maine lobster boat, or at least shorter. Kawasaki-San stood in the stern, steering the vessel, while I sat in the middle. George-San, You-San, and Saori-San sat towards the prow, filming me as we sped away from the harbor and into Tomei Bay. Once the camera began filming less of me and more of the scenery, Saori-San moved to sit next to me.

We passed by a long concrete jetty where a row of impressive looking birds was standing. I asked Saori-San what type of bird they were since I was sure I had never seen one in America. She didn’t know but asked Kawasaki-San who shouted over the engine that they were Kosagi, which it turns out is the Japanese word for the Eastern Great Egret. The way that he said it, with a disinterested shrug, gave me the impression that Kosagi are a bit like seagulls on Goto and not nearly as exciting as I found them.

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I love being on the water. I grew up zipping around Prince William Sound in our family’s skiff when we ran an oyster farm in Alaska. In Maine my father owned a boatyard, meaning that most family outings were based around taking various boats to the islands that dot the coast of Maine. Since my father sold the boatyard a few years ago, my time on the open water has been restricted to the ferry between Hyannis and Nantucket, where one of my sisters lives. The cold ocean air on my face and the sound of the rushing water were beautiful. Not too mention, the staggering beauty of my surroundings.

The mist clung to the mountainous islands around us, once again reminding me of Jurassic Park. It was all so familiar and yet wholly new. Another fishing vessel, captained by Toshio-San, was marking us on the port side. I could just make out Chan-San, crouching on the deck, and filming our boat. For once, I remembered to take out my phone and take some pictures. Kawasaki-San told me I was welcome to take pictures so long as his rigging wasn’t in them. The equipment was a closely held family secret of his own design.

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The boat slowed down, and we came to a stop near a series of buoys that formed a large circle. The other boat stopped on the other side. Kawasaki-San explained that the buoys were holding up an enormous net that was floating in the water, collecting fish. I tried to keep out of the way as Kawasaki-San, and the other crew member began pulling up the netting. They did this with winches, pulling the sopping wet net out of the water. On the other side, Toshio-San mirrored the work.

Over a matter of perhaps twenty minutes, the boats got closer and closer to each other, the area of the net under the water also shrinking. Finally, with only around six feet of net in-between the two vessels, the fish became visible, swimming in circles, caught and unable to get away. There were a dazzling number of them, all different colors and sizes. The fishermen seised their pole nets and began scooping the fish out of the ocean, depositing them into large tanks in the hull of the boat. The various types of fish would be sold for different purposes, including the tanks of local restaurants, like the one I had eaten at the night before. Others, like the flying fish, would be bought by Hamaguchi Suisan for making kamaboko.

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In spite of the years I spent on an oyster farm as a child, I hadn’t been fishing since I was too small to hold onto a pole without help. Thus I had never actually caught a fish. So, I was delighted when You-San said they wanted to get a shot of me catching a fish. At this point, all of the big and impressive looking fish had been taken out of the water already. Undeterred, You-San had them scoop a large madai (sea bream) out of the tank and throw it back into the net. They then handed the pole to me, and I scooped the unfortunate and bewildered fish back up. For once, I turned to the camera unprompted and joyfully exclaimed, “My first fish!” (Guess what shot didn’t make it into the episode?)

Once all the fish were onboard, the crew put the net back into the water, and we made our way back to shore. Kawasaki-San told me that this was only one of several nets that the family had set up around the island. On a typical day, they would go and collect fish from all of them. Instead, we headed back to the docks and unloaded. Once I had handed back my life jacket and put my regular shoes back on, I noticed that Mrs. Hamaguchi had joined us. Saori-San had been talking to her and, seeing I was finished, she beckoned me over.

“Hamaguchi-San has breakfast ready at her home,” she said. “We can go over now, we’ll meet the crew afterward.”

Breakfast without cameras? I couldn’t have been happier. We followed Mrs. Hamaguchi, and instead of going to the house where we had been the night before, we went to a similar house close by. This one looked far more lived in and had the cozy, warm feeling of a home. We sat down in the living room where the meal had been laid out on a low table.

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The food was delicious, and I loved being included in the happy domestic scene, without any pressure from the cameras. We spent a happy hour talking together and enjoying the meal. All too soon, the men arrived, and it was time for us to get back to work. I thanked Mrs. Hamaguchi for her hospitality and followed after my film crew, with no idea what might happen next.

Until next time, remember that that sea bream counts as a first catch, no matter how staged it was.

If you enjoyed this post you might like this one, about Japan’s rabbit island. Or this one, about making chopsticks with my father.