Part 3: The Festival / Part 4: Oyster Farming / Part 5: Camp Life
Kobuchi-Hama is a tiny fishing port on the Oshika Peninsula, which is to the south-east of central Ishinomaki. On the bus down there, we passed whole villages that had been wiped out entirely. Due to the tsunami, every stage of the oyster farming process had been interrupted and fisherman had lost not just their families and homes, but their livelihoods too.
The Oshika Peninsula was the closest point to the earthquake’s epicentre on Honshu (the main island of Japan). The area surrounding the main building in Kobuchi-Hama is covered with a tangle of ropes, nets, buoys, the odd washed-up boat and — often — nothing where there used to be something. The land mass shifted violently; we had to leave before four o’clock every day because the workshop now lies below sea level at high tide. This is worth remembering every time someone complains that a tsunami advisory of “just 50 centimetres” is meaningless.
I didn’t know anything about oyster farming before I came to Ishinomaki. If asked, I would’ve initially guessed that people collect wild oysters from rocks, and then realised that would be too time-consuming. Admit it, you’ve never really thought about it either.
First, the oysters grow on shells threaded together on thick wire, with small plastic tubes separating them out. There’s a photograph of how the shells look before the oysters start growing below, but having not been there for this part of the process, I’m not really clear on this section at all. I don’t know how the oysters get on them, because the next time I saw them we had jumped a stage, to cutting the cords and emptying the shells with the oysters already growing on them into large yellow baskets
The shells arrive packed on a large wooden pallet, brought by a forklift truck. Three or four people pull off the chains of shells (about double the length of your arm), cut them in the centre with wire-cutters and throw each half into a basket. Everyone else grabs one section and removes the wire. This is a little more difficult than it sounds, because there is a metal knot over one end; you have to grab the final shell and shake the rest loose. You then have to get the final shell, but often barnacles have grown over the knot and you have to either work it loose or smash it.
For about an hour, there’s a flurry of activity as people move the shells off the pallet and into the baskets, while everyone else tries to separate them before more are dumped on top.
Next, we attached these shells to ropes. But first we had to retrieve said ropes from the tsunami debris covering the docks. They were twisted around metal poles, knotted around rusted spikes, threaded through nets and covered in seaweed and mud. Some of them weren’t long enough and some didn’t have the necessary loop of rope at the end. Sometimes we would pull three quarters out, only to find that the last quarter went straight into the heart of the knot. Once we got them out, we laid them out straight in the mud to be wound up and tossed into a basket. Our team retrieved more ropes than anyone expected, but this was by far the hardest task of the week.
Attaching the shells to the ropes was the most common task for our team and we would spend whole days doing it. There were about ten baskets in a row, which rested on crates so they were just above our waists. At both ends were machine with two hooks. Two ropes were hung between the hooks and they fell either side of the crates.
First the ropes were unwound, so they were slack; two teams approached the crates of muddy shells and oyster seeds from both sides and started sliding the shells into the gaps in the rope, about a fist-width apart. Three minutes or so later, a fisherman would give our handiwork a quick once over, then we would all step back and the ropes would be tightened. This involves spinning them very tightly in the opposite direction and so mud, oyster parts and less identifiable sea creatures are flung up in the air and over everyone nearby. Accompanying this is a cracking sound, like ice-cubes in a drink, as the ropes bite into the shells.
As we worked, we chatted to the fishermen, which is where foreigners are particularly useful. With us, we have something to talk about that has no connection with earthquakes or tsunami or even Japan. Or family.
So we talked about whether it was still foggy in London, whether onigiri is delicious or not and beer. Probably natto and chopstick ability were mentioned too.
On the last day, I got to go on a fishing boat. From there, the area is so beautiful. Just pine-covered trees either side, a few islands and the open sea. Then you look behind you and see the devastation around the port and you remember.
The bay was covered with a network of linked buoys; the boat pulled up alongside one and a pulley system with a metal hook at the end lifted up the linking rope. We started attaching a number of loops of rope to the newly exposed rope and heaving coils of oyster ropes off the boat. Experienced crew members held one end in their hand and threw the rest straight out so they unwound in a spiral, with the rock-filled plastic bag used as a weight going down first. I threaded mine down over the side more slowly. After that, we attached the oyster ropes to the rope loops, which were attached to the ropes linking the buoys.
The oyster ropes hang straight down underneath the water, and tsunami victims have been found caught up in them in the past. It’s no surprise that volunteers without these memories seemed to outnumber the fishermen on such trips.
While they will never read this, I would like to thank the fishermen who helped us learn the ropes as quickly as possible and were kind to us despite everything they’d seen and experienced. Thank you!