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Pacific Coast Fishing Adventure

Japan has a deeply established maritime tradition. From the myths of its foundation (islands rising out of the sea as a product of the union of the primordial gods and goddesses) to the still world-leading harvesting and consumption of marine products, when you are in Japan, rivers, lakes, and of course, the ocean are ever-present themes in daily life.

It should be no surprise to anyone that Japan therefore has a vibrant sport fishing population. It’s been shared with me, that, according to the Japan Fishing Association, there are between 10-15 million recreational fishing enthusiasts in Japan today. That means that roughly 10% of Japanese cite fishing as recreational activity. That fact is that with very few exceptions, most Japanese live within a few hours’ drive of the coast which means that the opportunity for fishing adventures is relatively easy to access. It is a pleasure which, for many visitors and even non-Japanese residents to Japan, however, seems strangely remote. As a long-time resident myself, I’m somewhat ashamed to say, that despite having the opportunity to see and or be near Tokyo Bay (東京湾) or the Pacific Ocean (太平洋) almost every day, I can count on one hand the number of fishing excursions I’ve been on during my time here. And, until recently, had never been open water fishing.

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There are many reasons for this state of affairs, but I am most persuaded by the analysis which suggests that Japanese fishing enthusiasts enjoy their sport immensely, but this hobby brings with it a variety of codes, jargon, do’s and don’ts, and any number of other unwritten rules that are designed to separate the outsiders from those “in the know”. The labyrinth is so complex that only the most determined enthusiast will make an effort to break through and enjoy. For the short-term visitor or even someone who’s just casually interested, it can be too much.

Determined to “test the waters” I took a short cut which I hoped would smooth my path into the world of sport fishing. I enlisted the help of a friend and former colleague of mine who, when we used to work together, often shared stories of his weekend fishing exploits. Having a guide into any previously undiscovered world is always a good strategy to help one “stear clear of the shoals”.

Additionally, you might say I was searching for a more “authentic” experience. I was hoping to be able to experience a fishing trip the way a Japanese recreational fisherman might want to, so my goal was to stay away from the high-end of the fishing tour experience and try something a little bit more down-to-earth.

The first thing to think about when preparing for a fishing trip is the gear. Depending on your level of expertise, there is a huge variety and packages of options to choose. Tours offer relatively greater or lesser degrees of “all-inclusiveness”. In my case, owning mainly to the guidance of my friend, the tour we chose was a fairly basic arrangement. Important for me though, he made sure that I had access to all the requisite equipment (tackle). You can always opt to bring your own tackle, just make sure that it is appropriate for what you are planning to fish for. Rental tackle is available and any number of supply stores can and will outfit you as modestly or expensively as your needs/budget can handle.

What I WAS responsible for was making sure I had waterproof clothes and boots in anticipation of things getting a little wet out on the open water. At a minimum waterproof trekking clothes and boots are essential. Hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and water resistant gloves are also recommended (of course, what you are fishing for and season are also key considerations). There are many routes by which you can obtain fishing/outdoor clothes. One thing to keep in mind is that is that most domestic retailers (and even online shops) will only stock clothes up to a certain size and bigger size requirements sometimes result in a greatly reduce set of apparel options. Depending on your experience and expectation, the cost for outfitting yourself could be somewhat surprising. Including, gloves, hat, boots, and full-length outerwear, the bill for my fishing fashion came to a tidy JPY 40,000. I found several stores in Tokyo which stock larger sizes including mont-bell, and a fishing specialty shop in Shibuya called Sansui, tsurigunosansui (釣り具のサンスイ). Perhaps this is another impediment to embracing the sport?

Suitably outfitted, the next task was to decide what to fish for and when. This is easier, and harder, than it sounds. Obviously, being so close to the ocean, any number of options was available. The time of year, weather conditions, water temperature and other seasonal factors are all things to consider. My friend suggested that we join an expedition to fish for Red Snapper, in Japanese madai (真鯛).

For and aspiring open water fisherman like myself, it was suggested that this might be one of the easier fishes to catch, but, of course, nobody could guarantee we’d come away with anything. Each fish demands of it that you select the right kind of tackle and bait. One of the reasons we chose Red Snapper was its being supposedly easy to catch. The bait we’d use would be shrimp.

We chose to fish off the coast of Chiba Prefecture (千葉県), from the port of Kawazu (川津港) which is adjacent to Tokyo. Being so close to Tokyo, I had expectations of a fairly densely populated coast with lots of recreational visitors. Candidly, what awaited me was very different than what I had expected.

Less than a 2 hour drive from the heart of Minato-Ku (港区) transported me to one of the most isolated places I’ve yet visited in Japan. As we drove on towards our destination I got the sense that I was receeding further and further away from modernity and approaching a place where more natural rhythms are pervasive. City lights faded, houses and apartments buildings largely disappeared, and we headed deeper into the night and to the coast for our trip which would depart early, very early the next morning.

Local fishing trips are centered around arranging a seat on a boat. Each boat has a home port, and each captain advertised (more, or less aggressively) availability for fishing cruises in any number of places. More savvy captains post availability online, others in print (Fishing magazines, fishing newspapers). In the case of our trip, my friend had arranged for seats on a boat affiliated with the Port of Kawazu called the Ryoukoumaru (良幸丸), which roughly translates into “The Good Fortune.” While larger ports have more choices in accommodation, Kawazu, not being particularly large, demanded some compromises. There are some hotel-like choices, however, owing to the schedule of our tour, in particular, our late evening arrival and early morning departure, we opted to make arrangements at a what was essentially a Minshuku (民宿) which was run by one of the more prosperous captains in the village and was conveniently located above his family living area, boat and bait/tackle shop, Costa Fishing Service.

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A clean room with bedding (no other furniture) and access to a communal sink and shower awaited us. By the time we arrived it was already close to 10:00 PM so the captain and his family was already asleep. We were expected, so the door to access the rooms upstairs was open and our names were labeled on the door of our designated room so we would not disturb other guests by accidentally going into the wrong room. We unpacked things for the next morning and then quickly got to sleep with visions of huge Snapper jumping into the boat in our heads (at least mine)!

After what felt like a brief nap, the time to rise and prepare for the excursion had come.

And yes, it was 3:30 AM. And, no, I actually didn’t need an alarm clock. All the dreaming about huge catches produced at best a light sleep, so, I was prepped and ready in no time.

We left the minshuku for our rendezvous with the Ryokomaru and fishing destiny! Unfortunately, the rain that has started the night before while we were were on our way had intensified, accompanied by a steady wind. The combination of wind and rain would certainly make for less-than-ideal sailing conditions, but, having been pitched around in all kinds of boats and never once having been seasick, I felt confident.

After about a 5 minute drive we arrived at Kawazuko. Boats were already getting ready. Each boat heads out fishing for a different target catch. The Ryokomaru was for Snapper and we were ready. The darkness and rain made for a somewhat foreboding feeling, knowing that just beyond the seawall protecting the little harbor, the Pacific was waiting for us, but, on the other hand, despite the ridiculously early hour, the harbor was buzzing with captains prepping their boats and recreational fishers arriving so it was easy to be captivated by a scene my eyes had really never witnessed.

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AM, very AM!

Our boat soon arrived at the dock. Our captain, Terahara Sencho (船長) looked like he’d been drafted straight out of central casting. The slightly more weathered than his actual years face, the no-nonsense demeanor and language. In a word, “Rustic”.

The other passengers for the day’s cruise soon arrived. At the dock, we made payment for the cruise (\11,500 for the day, including a box of chilled bait). By approximately 4:30 we were heading out!

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The Ryokomaru

As the Ryokomaru plowed through the waves on the way to the first spot we’d fish, I came to the realization as to just how far removed from a gentle fishing cruise this was going to be.

Perhaps owing to the weather (the forecast for rain and wind having been unusually accurate), the boat was not full. For-hire coastal fishing boats seat between 8-16 persons. On this day, there were 4 us, with only me being the “greenhorn”. I quickly learned that fishing in this manner is a social experience. As we moved towards the 1st fishing spot of the day I met the other passengers on the trip who were all very interested to talk to me, and to share details about their fishing histories, what they do during the week, and their families, while at the same time asking me about what I thought of Japan, how much fishing I had done, and other topics, all the while, assembling tying their hooks to their lines, setting their bait, and whatever other personal fishing aids they had brought with them, including some pretty cool pocket sonar gear brought on board by one of the fishermen.

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The basic pattern for the day would be to head up the coast, then, at a designated point, the boat would stop, the captain would throw a parachute anchor overboard which would allow us to drift with the current, which of course the fish were following. After we’d drifted far enough, we’d haul anchor, and head back the coast, only to drift downward again. Propel up against the current, lay anchor, drift, haul anchor, repeat…

As soon as the anchor was set, the captain let us know that we could start fishing and our poles dropped into the water. As the most inexperienced member of the party, the captain himself gave me a 10 minute tutorial on the technique for casting, for judging how deep to let my line run-out before setting my rod, how to bait the hook (just so, in order for the shrimp to appear to be swimming straight in the water), and how to gently move the line up and down in the water so that the fish would be interested and start to chase the bait. Tutorial finished, I was on my own. Me, and my fish sense.

The scenery was striking, but what I’d not anticipated was the pitch and roll of the boat WITH the waves. It was one thing bouncing through them under power, quite another to be rolling with them. The wind had created quite a rolling surface, and, as soon as we started drifting, the effect on my stomach was almost immediate. Having foolishly declined to take a seasick pill offered by my friend while we were still onshore, I asked if he had one now. To my great misfortune, he replied that he’d left the remaining pills in the car. At this point, I confronted a harsh reality of this voyage. I was going to be out here, on open water (in driving rain, with cold sea spray periodically bursting over the deck, for the next 5 hours. I wasn’t going to swim to shore, and turning back on my account was out of the question, so, I resolved to do the best I could, and hope we’d catch what we came for to make it worthwhile. I was generally fine until I had to take my eyes off the horizon to bait my hook, and then the effect of the roll of the waves would hit me. It was very unpleasant, and unending. I will confess, I failed in my resolve several times. But, I was “all-in” so to speak, so it was up to me to find my way to endure. And, so I began a slow chant to myself:

Keep your eyes focused on the horizon, whatever happens, keep your eyes on the horizon…

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It was at this point, each of the passengers in their own worlds on different parts of the boat, that I realized that while fishing was social, it was also very much an individual sport. My friend used the word “therapeutic” to describe the feeling. I began to understand what he meant.

As we drifted, we awaited the first strike. While we drifted, the captain would call out depths, to help those who knew what they were doing to adjust their lines as the bottom depth changed. Snapper were expected to be swimming just about 5 meters above the bottom. Another reason was to help the less experienced among us (me) avoid getting their line snagged on any matter of ocean bottom obstacles (not, entirely successful).

The actual fishing experience proceeded with a surprising pace. Within 30 minutes or so, we had our first catch, but not yet Red Snapper, and then another, and another. Then finally, my friend managed to capture the first Red Snapper of the trip! A smaller one, but it was what we had come for so it was a source of encouragement.

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The rain came and went, we waves, more or less constant. Every 45 minutes or so we hauled anchor and headed back against the current, reset the anchor and started fishing again. The periods of powered sail provided a welcome respite from the roll of the drift experience.

I came to realize that fishing is a broader metaphor for life. There are periods of boredom, exhaustion, self-confidence, and doubt, punctuated by short, but memorable moments of excitement.

As we approached the 2nd half of our outing, I was still “Oh-fer” and had gone through countless shrimp as the fish teased me by delicately eating everything I put over the side while somehow managing not to bite the hook.

When I was beginning to curse myself for my reckless city-life inspired arrogance, at last, a nibble I could feel, then, a bite, an actual bite! As with all the strikes others had landed, the captain came over next to me ready to haul in whatever I caught with a net. As I felt the tug and watch the pole bend I was singularly focused, everything up to that point was instantly erased from my mind. It was me and the fish, there was nothing else. And, then, almost as soon as it began, it was over. The fish, MY FISH, was on the boat. And, most importantly, it was a RED SNAPPER!

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The Prize Catch

And so it was that we continued on through the morning. Slightly after 11:00 AM, having been on the water for close to six hours, the captain told us to reel in as we’d be heading back to port. Despite the conditions, despite the challenges of lack of experience, it was impossible to not feel a sense of achievement having survived the day and being able to come back with the catch we had come for. Our final tally, four Red Snapper and an assortment of other fish, many of which we gave back to the ocean, but a few of which we kept and made for great eating. Its common, if the fish is large enough, to eat immediately as sashimi (刺身). Today, however, we opted to prepare the fish to be eaten as salt grilled or shioyaki (塩焼). Sashimi will be for another day.

Our arrival back in port coincided with the first glimpse of the Sun we’d had all day and a noticeable break in the windiness that had kicked-up the waves all morning. I couldn’t help but think to myself that someone had decided to send me a gentle message about humility in the face of nature.

We were greeted at the port by the captain’s wife who looked as happy for us as we were happy for ourselves that we caught something. She handed us oshibori (hot towels) and canned hot tea, which were gratefully accepted. We were off the boat and back on land in no time. We unloaded our catch, headed back to the Mishuku, showered, and changed. My friend courteously prepared my fish for transport back home and, almost as soon as it began, it was over.

Even as we were leaving, the captain was already getting ready for the afternoon cruise. With a quick goodbye, having seen us off his ship, he was focused on the next activity for the day.

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The captain, discussing the next cruise

Just before leaving Katsuura I had a chance to talk with some of the family and the staff working at the bait/tackle shop/Minshuku where we’d stayed the night before. It was clear that these people were all about fish. There probably wasn’t anything that they knew better, or even particularly cared to talk about.

At one point in the conversation, as we talked about how business, it was pointed out to me that there really weren’t any more “seasons” for fishing any more. They could sense and feel in their daily interaction with it that the ocean was changing, not dramatically, but certainly changing, and that the predictability of certain types of fish arriving at certain times of year was becoming more and more difficult to anticipate. How much of this is due to the impact we have on the Earth as people, how much is due to natural forces spectacularly beyond human control is a separate question, but if these people, who spend most of their lives on the ocean can sense a change, perhaps it is something we all need to be paying more attention to.

There are many ways to experience fishing in Japan. The excursion I’ve just summarized is one way, and perhaps not for everyone, but for those who seek a deeper interaction with Japan and with Japanese people who may not otherwise be accessible to the average visitor, I would highly recommend taking your chances, swallowing your pride and urban impatience, and casting your line to see what might be waiting to greet your bait in the depths.

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Friends? Perhaps something more? Fishing brings people together.

You can, if you are willing, enjoy the benefits of fishing “therapy”.

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