In the spring of 2017, I was visiting Toshijima, which lies off the coast of Toba in Mie Prefecture, when I had this conversation with some fishermen.
“Mister, you should come back in the fall and try some sawara (Spanish Mackerel) sashimi. It’s fatty from tip to tail. It’s so fatty that the soy sauce practically slides off. It’s great!”
The Chinese character for sawara combines the character for spring with the character for fish, but in Toshijima, fall is the season for sawara. Because it spoils easily, it is best to eat fatty sawara sashimi close to the source, I hear.
“Fatty from tip to tail.” These words struck me right through the heart, and so in mid-October I returned to Toshijima.
This time, with the cooperation of a local sushi shop, the plan is for Chef Kawase and Chef Imamura to each prepare a French dish for the local fishermen. The main ingredient is, of course, freshly caught sawara . I have been waiting and fondly nurturing this plan to invite some special guests since the spring.
Ever changing island, never changing island. The boundless cheer of the fishermen who make their homes here. The beautiful nature. Packed with all these wondrous elements, our journey begins!
———Taking a ride to scenic Toshijima
The regularly scheduled boat from Toba Marine Terminal takes about 20 minutes to reach Toshijima. The island is about six kilometers from east to west and about one and a half kilometers north to south. The main industry is fishing, thanks to the three Kiso rivers and the pride of Japan Miya river, which carry rich nutrients to the sea. These nutrients feed plankton, which attracts smaller fish, which in turn attracts a rich variety of fish to the natural environment of Toshijima’s fishing grounds.
Toshijima is about 80% natural forests, with the small communities of Toshi, Wagu, and Momotori making up the rest. It has a population of about 2500, but this number is decreasing every year.
Before we get to our main subject, let me introduce some enjoyable spots on scenic Toshijima. If you make a reservation, you can tour the island by car, however, we brought two vehicles with us on the boat.
First, the bicycle. While it is possible to walk from Toshi to Wagu, in order to experience the many wonders of scenic Toshijima, a bicycle is my recommendation.
This time, Chef Imamura explores by bicycle.
First up is the so-called Blue Field, a spot which faces the sea. It features a large wooden deck from which one can experience the closeness of the beautiful sea.
Continuing on beyond the port we come to the narrow roads of the fishing village. Something about this place feels nostalgic.
“The sea breeze feels great, doesn’t it?” says Mr. Imamura.
From the sea, we go to the mountain. Here, our other vehicle, a Honda Super Cub, makes its appearance.
Chef Kawase enjoys a refreshing drive on Toshijima’s mountain road as he makes his way toward Ray Field, a reflection of the previously mentioned Blue Field, where one can enjoy scenic views from the mountaintop.
”I never thought I’d be cruising around Toshijima on a Super Cub at my age, but the refreshing feeling is wonderful!” says Mr. Kawase.
We arrive at Ray Field, where one can enjoy spectacular views from the island.
This gorgeous natural tableau gives one a feeling of radiant good cheer.
According to the Toba Industry Council, Blue Field is at its best in the morning, while Ray Field is most beautiful at sunset. (For more information, visit the Toba Industry Council website)
———Is this also “Fatty from tip to tail” !?
The view of the sunrise from near the ryokan inn. Bathed in the light of the sun, it feels like summer again on Toshijima.
Breakfast at the inn is miso soup made with Ise lobster, a real fishing village luxury. We check out and head to Toshi’s fishing port.
When we arrive at Toshi’s fishing port, sawara are being brought in.
The auction bursts into life.
All sorts of fish and other sea creatures are brought in to Toshi’s fishing port, and if they register at the entrance, regular folks can come and watch the proceedings.
“What a big fish! What is it?” asks Mr. Imamura.
“That’s an ishinagi. Don’t catch them very often.” explains a broker.
“So do they fetch a pretty high price?” asks Mr. Imamura.
“Hmmm...hard to say. It’s a pretty rare fish… I dunno. It’s fatty from tip to tail you know.” replies the broker.
What!? This is fatty from tip to tail too? My mind is abuzz as I stroll about the port with the chefs.
“Oh! There’s a houbou (gurnard) too! They are used in bouillabaisse!” exclaims Mr. Imamura.
Next, we make our way to Wagu port.
“The fish you brought in, are they line-caught sawara?” asks Chef Kawase.
“Wagu’s sawara are all line-caught.” replies the director of the fishermen’s association.
According to the director, the sawara are caught with fishing line and dressed immediately upon being brought into the boat.
As the brokers watch carefully, the sawara are all auctioned off before you can say “Ah”. I am impressed by how neat and orderly the sawara auction is.
Next, it is time to go to the sushi shop where today’s plan will be put into action!
———Popular French chefs compete for an audience of fishermen.
The sushi shop we will visit is also frequented by the local fishermen.
This shop’s sawara dishes are especially popular.
“Are these here chefs famous?” asks Mr. Yamamoto.
“They are famous in Mie and beyond.” I reply.
“The most famous in the world?” he asks.
“Hmm...I’m not sure if they’re the most famous in the world…” I say.
“Well, I’m the number one fisherman in the world!” says Mr. Yamamoto, roaring with laughter.
The fishermen gathered here today are lively and boisterous, like a bunch of comedians, and the conversation is entertaining.
“The sawara around here are delicious because they eat well. Their flesh is white, its fatty white meat!” says Mr. Hashimoto. “And of all of them, the sawara I catch are the tastiest!” laughs Mr. Yamamoto.
Both chefs continue to cook as they elicit the laughter of the fishermen.
Today sawara tartare and lightly smoked sawara are being prepared. Mr. Yamamoto watches as the chefs sear the skin of the fish. “Searing it is the right thing to do. Tataki is seared too.” he says.
The delicious looking dishes are finished. Quickly the fishermen begin to sample them.
“Yep, this is real good!” says Mr. Yamamoto.
“It’s like a delicious ham!”
“I’ve never tasted anything like it, but it’s delicious!”
“This is some fancy food!”
The fishermen’s voices fill the air of the shop.
“This would go well with a 30 year old Bordeaux” says Mr. Yamamoto, inviting laughter with his comments.
“Nah, ya gotta have white wine with fish” says Mr. Imura, joining the comedy duo from the adjacent seat.
The fishermen’s work is difficult and tiring. They all enjoy sitting around and having a drink and a good laugh like this.
These men are professionals. They brave the dangers of the sea, know when and where to catch the most delicious fish, and are adept at dressing fish and other skills also. Thanks to these fishermen, the finest ingredients find their way into the hands of chefs. The chefs prepare the ingredients, and deliver them into the mouths of diners.
Chef Kawase’s reflections make a lasting impression.
“At the fishing port, I was impressed with the neat, no nonsense way the sawara distribution was handled. The fish weren’t scraped up or damaged, and things went smoothly. I chose to make sawara tartare, which is simply finely chopped fish. If you press the flesh like making ground meat or chop it too fine, it gets too soft and spongy. Catching the fish, dressing it, carefully bringing it to market, shrewdly purchasing it, cutting it, letting it rest...so many skilled and experienced hands are involved in preserving the excellent quality of the fish that it would be a disservice to the fish and an inexcusable affront to the fishermen to serve that sort of dish.”
Chef Imamura’s way of asking questions while paying respect to the depth of the fishermen’s knowledge and wisdom is also impressive.
The fishermen didn’t flaunt their deep knowledge of fish, they shared smiles and jokes as they educated us. The chefs didn’t try to promote their own culinary philosophies, they prepared their dishes with a deep feeling of respect for all the people involved in sawara fishing.
This is the mark of a true professional, I thought.
———Looking to the future of the island, a bakery popular with fishermen ?
So far, we have seen Toshi and Wagu, but there is one more community on Toshijima, Momotori. It is there, where beautiful sunsets can be seen, is the island’s sole bakery.
“On clear days, you can see sunsets like this all the time.”
So says bakery manager Tokumoto Atsushi. His wife Eri is from Momotori, and they opened this bakery when they moved back here to raise their children.
Atsushi had a 17 year career as a cook at a hotel in the city of Kuwana.
That may be, but a bakery in a fishing town on an island? As the population here continues to decrease, is there even a need for a bakery?
According to Mr. and Mrs. Tokumoto, many of Momotori’s fishermen have bread for breakfast. Because bread is easy to eat while working, it is popular with the fishermen. Also, because there was no cafe or place where folks could gather in Momotori, this coffee scented community space is popular with the island folk.
Atsushi says “If more people come to the island to visit our shop, interact with the island folks, and make a steady flow of new people, that would be great.”
Mr. Imamura says “My life as a cook began in Tokyo. Now I’m working as a chef in Shima, but I was in Tokyo for 15 or 16 years. I feel like there are a lot of cooks hoping to strike out on their own. I think there are lots of opportunities for little shops like this.”
Our report concluded, it is night when we board the boat back to Toba.
I think I’ll come back next year to partake of Toshijima’s autumn sawara.
With faith in the number one fisherman in the world to catch the best sawara in the world, the desire to fill my belly with “fatty from tip to tail” sashimi, and with the memories of beautiful natural scenery burning in my breast, I set forth for home.
October 10 - 11, 2017
Produced by : Mienokurasu tabisuru WEB Magazine
Otonamie Reporter : Yusuke Murayama (Otonamie Representative)
With the assistance of:
Shima no Panya Hanare
Mie Ken Toba Shi Momotori Cho 259
Tobe Isobe Fishermen’s Association
Mie Ken Toba Shi Toshi Cho Uasuhama 1354-11
Mie Ken Toba Shi Toshi Cho 892-1
Sushi Shop Daiharu
Mie Ken Toba Shi Toshi Cho 778
THE HIRAMATSU HOTELS & RESORTS KASHIKOJIMA
Mie Ken Shima Shi Ago Cho Ugata 3618-52
French Cuisine Restaurant Bon Vivant
Mie Ken Ise Shi Honmachi 20－24
Toba Industry Council
Mie Ken Toba Shi Ooakihigashimachi 1-7
Toba Industry Council HP http://toba.or.jp
The Wonders of Toba and Toshijima website
“Tobazukan” HP http://www.toba.or.jp/zukan/