I arrived in Kyotango City on November 29th, just in time for the oyster harvesting season. All of my previous oyster experience rested in the one oyster I ate in 2013. There would be a lot to learn.
Luckily, I had another great host who was patient and ready with English explanations. Mr. A has 5 oyster platforms on Kumihama Bay. The bay is connected to the Japan Sea by a small channel, giving the perfect mixture of calm and salty water. Baby oysters are born in oysteries in a few select locations (Miyazaki and Hiroshima Prefecture, for example), then get shipped around the country in March each year to grow up in their new homes. The fishermen of Kumihama Bay continue to use traditional methods to grow and harvest their oysters. After receiving the baby oysters, they attach them to wide shells and hang them on ropes underwater. They must be hung at a certain depth to make use of the salinity in the water. Once that’s been done, they’ll grow all season on the nutrients they get from filtering the water. When winter rolls around, the ropes are drawn in and harvested.
I was excited to meet these oysters for the first time. We got suited up and stepped out the back door to where Mr. A’s boat lay waiting. The bay offers a few areas which are deep and well sheltered against the elements. Fishermen cluster their oyster platforms in these places, keeping an eye on each others’ progress. All of the platforms in this bay were made of bamboo poles floating on 50 gallon barrels. Most fishermen will stroll across with their arms full of the harvest, confident that they won’t fall in. Mr. A decided it wasn’t worth the risk of sinking beneath a wintry sea, so he invented a hook system to pull the oyster-laden ropes to the boat. Once in, he runs them through a machine that strips the oysters off the rope, something that everyone else does by hand. He is clearly too progressive for this area.
With a few buckets now full of oysters, it was time for G and I to get busy. We took our mallets and scalpels and began separating the oysters from each other and tossing out “the garbage”. There was so much life attached to these oyster clusters, most of which looked like it came from an alien planet. We stripped off oddly shaped things, squishy things, and bright colorful things and threw them back into the bay. The one thing I did recognize was baby crab, hiding out among the wreckage.
Once the “garbage” was removed, they got a good power washing before being sorted according to size. It was still early in the season, but it seemed that this would be a bad season for oysters. Everything was turning out smaller than usual.
I found this process to be quite addicting. You only need keep your hands busy with the peeling, prying, and tossing but your mind is free to wander. It was inspiring to handle these strange little creatures that grow so silently under the sea. They were like living rocks with an odd sense of style, sporting ugly barnacles and outlandish sealife, but growing these dainty purple ruffles at their tips. My favorite pastime was to make up songs about them, mostly replacing popular lyrics with “oyster”. Some of my repertoire included “My oyster lies under the ocean”, and “I wish I was a Kumihama oyster (then everyone would be in love with me)”. I also chatted with Mr. A and G about their life and work.
Mr. A’s dream was to be an architect. He went to university to study, spent a semester’s exchange in Australia learning English, and began a good job in Osaka. His parents and grandparents stayed behind at the family home and continued to run the fishing and Bed and Breakfast business. It was a lot of work for his aging grandparents, with no sign of letting up. Mr. A’s grandmother wrote him a letter asking that he return home: it was time to take over the family business. I was moved by this story of dedication. While Japan is changing, it is still commonly expected that the eldest son take care of the parents and continue the family business. Mr. A put his dreams on pause to uphold this cultural tradition.