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Fancy funerals for fish are all the rage

by Amy Chavez

For a couple of weeks now, the smaller fishing boats in the port have been sporting special yellow “hikitsuri” flags. A casual inquiry to my fishing friend Rikimatsu-san as to the meaning of hikitsuri, literally “fishing by pulling,” brought an invitation to go out with him and see for myself.

At 5 a.m., we motored out of the harbor, the only light coming from the red port marker flashing every five seconds. As we passed my house on the port, the flashing red light reflected off the windows making it look like my house was going up into flames every five seconds. The seas were calm as we moved toward the Shiraishi lighthouse, beckoning us with its flashing white light every three seconds. As we passed the lighthouse, Rikimatsu-san pulled on his rubber fishing pants over his jeans, securing them around his waist with an old rope looped twice around his hips. When we arrived at the fishing spot 15 minutes later, we were the only ones there. We readied the hooks and waited for dawn.

With fish, it’s all about breakfast, and we wanted to be the first ones to offer them the morning spread. This was one special breakfast indeed: neon pink and neon green rubber squids, attached to 10 hooks on a single fishing line. Dropping this line into the water while pulling it behind the boat would create a floating banquet for the fish who, just waking up and rubbing their eyes, would see this parade of squid and think, “Wow — breakfast!” Whoops, well, my breakfast anyway.

Slowly more boats with yellow “hikitsuri” flags showed up. As the morning light gradually increased, I recognized most of these fisherman as my neighbors. Soon, a few more boats showed up: rogue fisherman of the Seto Inland Sea who fish without licenses or flags. If they’re caught fishing by pulling without a flag, it’s a 50,000 yen fine.

Rikimatsu-san dropped the line into the water and attached it to the side of the boat. “Take a light hold of this line,” he instructed me. At 5:50, I felt the first tug on the line. “Agatte, agatte!” yelled Rikimatsu-san. I pulled up the line, and thrashing around in the water was a long silver thing that moved like a snake. What the hell?

“Tachiuo,” explained Rikimatsu-san, the fish named so because its long shiny silver body looks like the blade of a samurai sword. After bringing it up on deck, the fish bared its teeth even after I had taken it off the hook. I couldn’t blame him for being so angry though — he’d just woken up.

Many fish give in when they are caught, realizing their funeral as a fancy sashimi meal is inevitable. But tachiuo are agile and fight back. As I went to put the fish into the fish hold, it reached up and sank its teeth into my sleeve. Most fish can’t do this, because most fish have no necks. The tachiuo, however, is like one long continuous neck, the giraffe of fish. I dare say this is not very becoming to a fish, which is why to me, tachiuo look and act more like snakes. You get the feeling they’d even slay Nemo in half a second.

“Hayaku, hayaku!” yelled Rikimatsu-san, indicating to me to get the line back into the water as soon as possible. With the first fish caught, the race had begun, as tachiuo only feed for 30 minutes in the morning. Makes you wonder what they do after that — read the newspaper? We continued to drop the line and pull it in as swiftly as possible, each time with one or two raging fish on it. By 6:20, we had almost 20 tachiuo in the fish hold and were on our way home.

And by midmorning, we had prepared quite a fancy funeral for them.