Hooked: How Japanese Farmers Live as One with the Sea

[Text by Kyoko Nakayama]

Kesennuma (気仙沼) sits on the Sanriku coast in Miyagi prefecture, Japan, a region famed as one of the three most productive fishing grounds in the world. In 1611, Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno proclaimed Kesennuma “the best port in every way”, a sentiment that was to ring true in centuries to come as the city’s port established itself as a popular base for deep-sea and offshore fisheries.

Since the late 1950s, Kesennuma has become synonymous with pelagic fishing, particularly of shark, tuna, pacific saury and skipjack tuna. The city owes its success in commercial fishing to geographical advantage – its gulf is deep enough to anchor large fishing vessels, and its bay faces the Pacific where the cold and warm Oyashio and Kuroshio currents meet, generating a wealth of marine life. Furthermore, nestled along its shoreline are countless coves and inlets, picturesque whilst providing the ideal conditions for farming seafood such as oysters, scallops, and wakame (seaweed).

Oyster farms can be found scattered along the Sanriku coastline, each producing oyster varietals with distinct differences in terms of size, shape and flavour, depending on farming techniques and environmental conditions. Arguably the most prized are the momare-kaki (‘tossed-around’ oysters), which take three years to mature and are harvested in the village of Karakuwa in Kesennuma.

An oyster farmer explaining the process of growing oysters
An oyster farmer explaining the process of growing oysters in the open sea. Buffeted by the moving waves and tides, these oysters grow to an impressive size – nearly twice that of standard oysters – and gain a wonderfully intense umami flavour, with softer, juicier flesh.

The Old Man and the Sea

Shigeatsu Hatakeyama is a 76-year-old veteran oyster farmer based in Kesennuma. For the past three decades, he has devoted himself not only to raising oysters but also to green advocacy, sharing his insights on how sea farmers can play a role in caring for the environment.

In his writings, Hatakeyama poetically describes the forests and the seas as lovers -- 森は海の恋人(mori wa umi no koibito). In order for marine life to thrive, he says, farmers should pay attention to the water quality in the bay, to the rivers that flow there, as well as to the forests and mountains that feed those rivers.

As a second-generation oyster farmer, Hatakeyama had noticed a correlation between forest vegetation and marine health, even if he didn’t understand why. Deciding to follow his heart, he started planting deciduous broad-leaved trees upstream of the Ōkawa River, which runs through Kesennuma and down into Kesennuma Bay.

This was in 1993. Hatakeyama rallied other fishermen to join his tree-planting campaign, but didn’t stop there. He went around consulting university researchers and exploring the world with them in hopes of finding scientific validation for the forest-river-tree relationship. Eventually, they arrived at the answer: iron.

The breakthrough came about while analysing Shark Bay in Western Australia, a UNESCO World Heritage site renowned for having the world’s largest colony of dugongs. Hatakeyama recalls: “There are at least 10,000 dugongs living there. Dugongs feed on seagrass, each consuming around 50 kilograms daily. And how is it that Shark Bay can grow such vast volumes of seagrass? The answer is, the red soil of Australia is rich in iron, which flows into the sea.”

Iron is an essential mineral for many sea creatures and phytoplankton, but it is oxidised very easily and difficult to absorb. Fallen tree leaves generate fulvic acid, which binds to iron and prevents it from oxidising. When rain falls, this fulvic acid-iron complex dissolves and is transported to coastal regions through rivers. With such fertilised waters, phytoplankton and sea life thrive, resulting in the formation of rich marine ecosystems.

Veteran oyster farmer Shigeatsu Hatakeyama
Veteran oyster farmer and forest hero, Shigeatsu Hatakeyama

Like many others, Hatakeyama and his family lost everything in 2011 after the great Tōhoku earthquake – their boats, their fishing equipment, the oysters they were farming. “The gulf was filled with mountains of rubble; the fishes were gone,” he says. Still, he didn’t lose heart, because the trees in the mountains remained standing.

Sure enough, a few months after the earthquake, fish started returning to the gulf of Kesennuma. French farmers, too, lent a helping hand. In the 1960s, French oysters had been in danger of dying out due to disease and overfishing, so Miyagi farmers donated baby oysters several times to the French to help them recover. After the 2011 tsunami, those same French oyster farms returned the favour by helping the Miyagi fishermen get back on their feet. Not surprisingly, around 90% of French oysters in the market today are the progeny of the Miyagi species.

Recovery and rebuilding is going to take time, Hatakeyama acknowledges. While these efforts are ongoing, the ‘Forest Hero’ is determined to press on, writing more books and conducting more speeches in universities to drive home the message about maintaining biodiversity in a sustainable manner.

“We don’t feed the oysters,” he reiterates. “All the feed comes from the mountains. The forests, the mountains and the seas are deeply interconnected. If we build something, we need to think about this flow. Everything is in the beautiful circle of nature, and human beings are just a part of it.”

Rebuilding the fishing and aquaculture industry in Kesennuma
Rebuilding the fishing and aquaculture industry in Kesennuma

Gifts of the Sea

Nine years ago, Kesennuma was hit by a magnitude 9.1 earthquake and deadly tsunami that killed nearly 20,000 people and ravaged large parts of the city. The disaster, widely pegged as one of the costliest in history, left the lifeblood of the coastal city – its fishing industry – in utter ruins.

Today, a stranger visiting there would be hard pressed to realise it was once the scene of such devastating destruction. The local community has rallied back with great resilience, determined to restore their homes and livelihoods. The city’s infrastructure is slowly being redeveloped, while fisheries are turning towards newer and more sustainable approaches, forming cooperatives to share best practices for the future.

Though the iconic harbour remains a shadow of its former self – it used to be Japan’s busiest port for processing katsuo (bonito) and mekajiki (swordfish) – Kesennuma is well en route to recovery and seeing a surge in aquaculture-related tourism.

Cafe owner Yasutada Onodera showing visitors around Kesennuma
Cafe owner Yasutada Onodera showing visitors around Kesennuma

To introduce their charms to the world, the Kesennuma locals have organised an in-depth travel tour.

Yasutada Onodera, the owner of café group Anchor Coffee, is one of the tour organisers. His family has been living in Kesennuma for more than 600 years. His parents and sister run a shipbuilding company, so Onodera is knowledgeable not just about coffee, but also about the history of fishing in the region.

The tour starts from the port, in front of one of Onodera’s cafes. On the boat, Onodera explains how their people have always been one with the sea. The sea connects Kesennuma to the rest of the world, without having to pass through Tokyo or the regional capital Sendai. They frequently use boats for daily transport, as it’s faster to travel by sea than on land, which would entail driving along a mountainous winding road to reach the opposite side of the gulf. Some children even go to school by boat, he says. Naturally, all Kesennuma locals, including young children, know by heart which direction the wind blows in each season and which shape of clouds bring the rain. It is essential wisdom for living in this region.

Another unique influence of the sea can be seen in their food culture. As Kesennuma is one of the main ports for pelagic fishing in Japan, their fishermen often travel around the world and bring home souvenirs for their families. This has led to the influx of foreign brands. For example, the American brand Best Foods mayonnaise is popular in Kesennuma, as is Hawaiian macadamia nut chocolate and MJB Coffee. Kesennuma locals pride themselves on having developed their own original food culture, which is distinctly unlike the rest of Japan.

Chef Keisuke Matsumoto, former executive chef of Lewin Terrace in Singapore
Chef Keisuke Matsumoto, former executive chef of Lewin Terrace in Singapore

After the boat tour, waiting for the guests was a special dinner prepared by Chef Keisuke Matsumoto. Matsumoto used to be the executive chef of Japanese-French restaurant Lewin Terrace in Singapore, but he returned home to work as a restaurant consultant. For his locavore dinner, he has selected rare local ingredients such as shark heart, seeing how Kesennuma is Japan’s top production area for shark fin. He explains, “Actually in Kesennuma, we use Mouka shark and Ao shark, both of which are sustainable varieties. And we don’t just take the fins; we use the whole fish and do not waste anything. We grill the meat and the skin is used as supplements.”

The best local delicacy, in his opinion, is the heart of the Mouka shark. “We usually eat it as sashimi since it’s very fresh. But as a French cuisine chef, I got the idea from boudin noir (a spiced blood sausage) to confit the heart with olive oil and a bit of rosemary and thyme.” In his expert hands, the shark heart turns out smooth and not fishy, reminiscent of quality beef tartare. He uses the shark fin as the filling for tortellini, which comes in a broth made from local swordfish tail. The meal, in its essence, is pure umami from the sea.

A dinner crafted from sustainable local produce -- shark
A dinner crafted from sustainable local produce -- shark

To wrap up the tour, guests were treated to a showcase of traditional dance and drum performances. Joining the guests were the local pelagic fishing captains, some of whom have travelled as extensively as 37 countries, and together they shared adventurous tales of the sea.