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Saturday, Nov. 6, 2004

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Lunch menu -- the pillage of the day


When you come to Japan as a "gaijin," it seems there is always a Japanese person who adopts you. This person makes sure you have all the things you need, informs you of important events and perhaps even takes you sightseeing. I've had several people take on this role during my time in Japan, and I'm beginning to think that every few years the island holds a meeting to determine who is going to take care of the gaijin for the next few years. First it was my neighbor Ueda-san, who introduced me the basics of island living. After she died, her daughter-in-law took over, encouraging me to join in cultural events and teaching me about some of the Japanese arts. Then the Buddhist priest spent a good few years educating me about Buddhism, Shinto and the roots of Japanese culture.

This year, the job has gone to 75-year-old Rikimatsu-san, an ex-commercial fisherman who has taken me under his fin, determined to teach me how to fish.

And he must be doing a pretty good job, because I'm beginning to be able to actually recognize my food. The other day, when I passed a Japanese restaurant, I could name every fish in the aquarium in the window. Woooooo! Not only that, but I had eaten, not just merely had a taste, of every kind of fish in the aquarium. Double woooooo!

This is a major step in my life in Japan, a foray into certain marine pages of the encyclopedia that I never would have dared venture before.

However, when I fish by myself, I generally don't catch anything. So the other morning when I called a Japanese friend lamenting that after a several hours, I still had not caught anything, he said, "You're just not doing it right. There are tons of fish out there."

At 8:30 a.m. he and his wife arrived in their boat and we went to the same fishing spot I had been all morning. But this time, they moved the boat right into the rocks near land. They baited their hooks with "tsunamushi" (sand worms). As soon as they dropped their lines, they caught fish! Small ones, about 15 to 20 cm long. Being just babies, they were too small to eat. "Oh well, nice try," I said, turning to throw the fish back into the water.

But the Japanese told me to put the fish into the fish hold. "Ii yo! Tabereru" ("It's OK, we can eat them"), they assured me, adding that all the fish in the Inland Sea are small.

I was beginning to see why. My Japanese friends just smiled while bringing in more fish as soon as they dropped their lines.

The next fish they caught had eggs inside. I got ready to throw her back. "Ii yo! Tabereru," my friends assured me.

"But, if we eat this fish, that's like eating the future baby fish with it too, and soon we won't even have any small fish in the Inland Sea." My Japanese friends seemed humored by my sentiment, and this time I let them put the fish into the fish hold.

In the end, we had 20 little fish in a big fish hold. We took them back and cooked them for lunch. It took 20 of these little fish to feed us rather than just a few adult-size fish. Surely this can't be legal, I thought. But it is.

I remembered Rikimatsu-san telling me that in October, he doesn't catch octopus, because that is the month fishermen let the octopus grow. He told me this as we watched a fisherman, in October, checking octopus traps. Every time we go fishing, Rikimatsu-san points out to me rogue, unlicensed fisherman by the dozens.

I suppose it shouldn't have come as a surprise when, at a restaurant overlooking the Japan Sea, the lunch served was imported crab accompanied by eight shrimp -- six with eggs inside them.

The Seto Naikai Conference, to be held at Kotohira Shrine (Kompirasan) in Kotohira, Kagawa Prefecture, on Nov. 13 and 14, is looking for foreigners to join a discussion on the future of the Seto Inland Sea from an international perspective. Participation costs 3,000 yen per person. Registration includes a free shrine tour and a chance to sail in the Inland Sea. For information see www.geocities.jp/senoodesu/anchorage or e-mail senoodesu@ybb.ne.jp


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