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Sunday, Dec. 9, 2007

Japan's love affair with Oma's tuna

Aomori fishermen use a single line to reel in massive hon maguro — the 'black diamonds' of the sea


Special to The Japan Times

On Jan. 5, 2001, a 202-kg Pacific bluefin tuna sold at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market auction for $173,000 ($860 per kilogram), making it the most expensive single fish transaction ever recorded.

News photo
Yutaka Yoneza (right) with a "true tuna" that he caught in Japan's Tsugaru Strait using the single-hook hand-line method. Ships out of Oma harbor are famous for high-quality catches. HILLEL WRIGHT PHOTO

That Pacific bluefin tuna, known as hon maguro (true tuna) or kuro maguro (black tuna) in Japanese, was caught in the Tsugaru Strait, a narrow and dangerous passage that separates Japan's main island of Honshu from its northern neighboring island of Hokkaido, and links the Pacific Ocean with the Japan Sea. It was landed at Oma Port on the Shimokita Peninsula, at the northern tip of Honshu. Oma is famous throughout Japan as the port of landing for the highest quality hon maguro, which is dealt almost exclusively to high-end sushi restaurants where gourmands can pay up to and over $100 for a serving of otoro, the fatty belly meat from a giant Pacific bluefin tuna — which are also known as "black diamonds" in this nation.

Because of its association with the best quality and most expensive tuna, Oma, despite being extremely remote and practically inaccessible, has become a favorite location for the Japanese film and television industries. Cooking shows and documentaries featuring Oma and hon maguro, especially in winter, are extremely popular.

In January of this year, a six-hour made-for-TV movie drama called "Maguro" was filmed on location at Oma by Ishihara Productions, Japan's leading film company, starring a large cast of some of Japan's most famous actors. It was shown serially on prime time television during the five-day New Year holiday. Its popularity was based not only on the star quality of the cast or the reputation of Oma's tuna, but primarily on the highly exciting and challenging fishing method exclusive today to Oma, known as ippon zuri — single-hook hand-line fishing — and featured in documentary footage in the movie.

Ippon zuri is done on relatively small boats of about 4.9 tons that are crewed by a fisherman who uses live bait on a single line fed out of a tub placed on the back deck. Bait fish include mackerel, yellowtail (inada), squid, saury, sardine and even flying fish and dolphin fish, and are kept live in wells on board.

One late October day, Toyohide Yonezawa, aged 45, heads out of Oma harbor on the Houryu Maru No. 88, a new, fairly typical ippon zuri fishing boat. His vessel has a little more working space than his father Yutaka Yonezawa's Houryu Maru No. 77, and the fiberglass deck is less vulnerable to damage than No. 77's wooden deck.

News photo

Today he's using live mackerel for bait, but next time out it might be young yellowtail — both species are present in large schools around the strait. And where there are large schools of bait fish, there are large schools of tuna. Today the wind is light, the sea fairly calm, and dozens of huge hon maguro can be seen jumping a meter or more out of the water — perhaps out of sheer pleasure at the abundant table?

Yonezawa moves his boat slowly forward, trailing the baited hook behind. The 180-kg test monofilament line is coiled in a light blue plastic tub. Yonezawa lets it run freely through his hands; his white nylon gloves are reinforced with flexible plastic webbing. Suddenly the line zips through Yonezawa's fingers and straightens out dead astern. The fisherman's fist closes for a split second as he sets the hook with a sharp backward jerk.

The fish runs as soon as Yonezawa's fist opens. He plays it hand over hand, pulling quickly until the fish turns and runs again. These fish are big and fast, but tire easily. Once the runs begin to slow down and shorten, Yonezawa edges down the deck toward the mid-ship controls and puts the engine into "jog" mode, just enough forward power to keep the boat's head to the wind. Next he threads the line into his tuna-puller, an electrically powered reel, and the fish is slowly winched in toward the boat.

The fish struggles awkwardly as it weakens. But Yonezawa knows that it's still got strength in reserve for one last desperate dash for freedom, so he sends an electrified metal ring down the line to shock and stun the fish. Next, gaff hook at the ready, he pulls the fish, hand over hand again, alongside the boat.

This is a small one, only about 50 kg, so Yonezawa lifts it aboard with the aid of a small boom winch. There is still time to fish, but no more bite the bait today. During the lull in fishing action, I think back to my own days in the 1960s as a hand-line tuna fisherman out of the Pacific Ocean port of Hilo on the windward side of Hawaii. The tuna found in those tropical waters are yellowfin, called ahi in Hawaiian.

They are big fish, which average about 70 kg — a really big one might reach 90 kg — but nowhere near the size of hon maguro. We fished them in the same way that Yonezawa and his fellow ippon zuri fisherman do, with lines coiled in tubs on deck, with one hook baited with a live fish. We used horse mackerel for bait, which is called opelu in Hawaiian and aji in Japanese.

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