Tarbouriech Oysters in Japan

Change is on the wind in Kumihama Bay. Oyster harvesting practices there are terribly old fashioned, but Mr. A is already rocking the boat by using a machine to strip oysters off the rope, and using a workaround so he doesn’t have to walk on the precarious platforms with heavy loads. But if the governor of Kyoto Prefecture has anything to do with it, there may be an entirely new system on the bay in the coming years. This is the Tarbouriech method.

Once upon a time, a French oyster fisherman came up with an innovation to grow beautiful oysters. Oysters naturally grow on rocks near shorelines, and are therefore affected by tidal movements. So the fisherman took the traditional oyster platform and found a way to raise the ropes out of the water for a portion of the day, drawing on energy stored from solar panels. When the oysters are exposed to the sun like this, it’s a minor stress, causing them to thicken their shells with a pearly pink interior. They are also spaced very carefully so each one can grow to the full expression of its ruffly beauty without fear of running into other oysters.

After years of testing out the new method, the fisherman successfully exported the technology to another oyster fisherman in Italy. It was so good, they decided to expand even further to another big oyster market: Japan. The fisherman called on his assistant to find a place in Japan with the perfect conditions: connected to the sea, sheltered, and unaffected by natural tides. She scrolled Google Earth for days before alighting on – you guessed it – Kumihama Bay.

Kumihama Bay Satellite View Map

It’s a big thing to enter into a foreign market. The fisherman began by contacting the Kyoto regional government and set up a conference to present the idea to Kumihama fishermen. This is where Mr. A discovered Mr. Tarbouriech. He was quite keen on the idea and kept in contact over the months, hoping that they could work together to make this happen.

It just so happened that Mr. Tarbouriech and his assistant would be visiting Kumihama Bay again during my stay there. While our mornings were filled with shucking and cleaning oysters, the evenings were spent in emails, reading a sample agreement form, drafting Mr. A’s visions for the project, and preparing for their stay at the minshuku guesthouse. Much of the reason for their visit was to discuss ideas with Mr. A and try to move the project to the next stage. Two oyster fishermen wanting to work together. Simple, right? If only.

The Kyoto government wanted to have full control of the project. They received the dates of Mr. Tarbouriech’s arrival in Japan, and crafted a whole schedule for their time there that did not include meeting with Mr. A. We were confounded. The Japanese can be very subtle when it comes to turning people down, but both the Kyoto board and the local fisherman’s associate made it clear that Mr. A was not invited to the important talks. To their chagrin, they found that sometimes foreigners don’t accept “no” for an answer. After many emails and a long Skype conversation, we arranged that meeting after all. There was a big oyster conference in Osaka which Mr. Tarbouriech would be speaking at. We would meet them afterward for our own meeting at the JETRO foreign business tax consultancy.

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G and I rummaged through our bags of farm clothes to find the most appropriate business attire we could muster up. The morning of the conference, we drove the 3 hours to Osaka. Mr. A attended the conference while we girls explored the adjoining mall. It was like entering a different world. We had gone from natural landscapes, home-cooked meals, and grimy sea-gunk to capitalism central. It was dazzling and disorienting at the same time. That evening we joined everyone at the JETRO office. The tax lawyers and accountants seemed puzzled by us. Had we been with Mr. A’s company for long? No… Did we have an address or business card? No, not yet. We were only there to listen in to both the English and Japanese dealings so that we could help with any minor translations and be an extra set of minds on Mr. A’s side. We watched the sun set over Osaka from the 30th? story window of the conference room, astounded by the circumstances. We listened in to tax percentages and international business startup processes, and learned that Japan is really trying to draw foreign business into the country.

Osaka Business District
Osaka in the morning light.

After the meeting we loaded our precious passengers into the car and drove the long way home. All of this chat was just getting to know each other. The real talk happened the next morning over tea. Mr. A and Mr. Tarbouriech exchanged life stories and approaches and found so many things in common. They talked through some of the business concerns, and looked through pictures of the French oysters growing in the Mediterranean. We moved the meeting to the Inaba Clan historical building and ate bento boxes overlooking the beautiful Japanese garden. Mr. Tarbouriech unveiled a box of oysters he had brought from France. He ate the first of what he hoped to be many more Tarbouriech oysters eaten in Japan. I had to agree that they were the most beautiful oysters I had ever seen.

Tarbouriech Oysters in Japan
Look at those beautiful shells and meaty interior!

We were on a tight time schedule. The prefectural representatives were waiting for the VIPs to join them on a boat tour of the bay that morning. True to foreign fashion, we arrived just a little late and apologized profusely for the delay. When the boat had launched, we celebrated the victory. Nothing had been decided, but a good base for future business was established that day.

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