Imagine yourself out on the Seto Inland Sea in a boat. You’re by yourself, floating along happily. You open a beer and kick back for a while letting the boat drift in tranquility. You can see the shore, but it’s a bit far to swim to. Ahhhhhh. But wait — the boat is sinking!
What is your immediate plan of action?
1. Drink the rest of the beer, then start swimming to shore.
2. Drink the beer and use the beer can to bail the water out.
3. Drink the beer and eat the boat. By all means.
The correct answer is No. 3 — drink the beer and eat the boat. That’s because your boat is made out of seaweed! Aren’t you glad it goes down well with beer?
Now you’re probably wondering: Why would anyone make a boat out of seaweed?
Lots of reasons, according to artist Tanotaiga, whose seaweed boat is a project of Heart Art Okayama, an NPO in the city of Okayama. Tanotaiga is tracing the history of seaweed-making in the Seto Inland Sea.
The artist, who hails from Sendai, came to Shiraishi Island in January looking for ideas for an art project. He saw our seaweed factory (nori kobo) and became interested in the origins of seaweed cultivation.
Nori is the Japanese word for seaweed. Why it has the same pronunciation as the word for “glue” is, hopefully, just a coincidence.
In the Edo Period, Shiraishi Island did a roaring trade in seaweed.
During the Genroku Era (1688-1703), the islanders transported the processed seaweed by boat to Fukuyama Port, where it was presented to the feudal lord of the Fukuyama Castle.
But the seaweed trade almost came to a complete halt around 1955. “These days the seaweed is not such high quality,” the artist Tanotaiga says. “The sea is very different now from what it used to be.”
Great changes to the sea were initiated in the 1950s and ’60s when dams were built and land was reclaimed in various parts of the Inland Sea. The change in the natural currents affected the nutrients in the water and thus the quality of life in the sea.
Even the color of the seaweed has changed. Despite government involvement to try to save the industry on Shiraishi, it is questionable how much longer the seaweed business can survive here.
“Another problem,” says Tanotaiga, “is that Japanese consumers are too picky. They won’t buy sheets of seaweed if there is even one hole in them.”
As a result, a lot of otherwise perfectly good seaweed is thrown out because it can’t be sold. “So they actually lose money making it now.”
It is this very “rejected seaweed” from our island that Tanotaiga is using to make his boat. “I would love to be able to take the boat to Fukuyama Port as a symbolic gesture,” he said. “But the boat would sink.”
I think a seaweed boat is a great idea. Japanese restaurants are famous for their sushi boats: small replica wooden boats put in the middle of the table for serving sushi and sashimi.
Often, previously live fish are poised in skeletal form next to their insides on the open boat. Add some wasabi and . . . voila! You’ve got the freshest, most delicious sashimi you can buy.
If you’re eating from a sashimi boat in a restaurant in San Francisco, I’ve heard you can actually hear the fish souls singing “I left my heart in San Francisco.”
For those who don’t like raw fish, or for those who just have a hankering for marine algae with their beer, a seaweed snack boat is a nice alternative.
But, as Tanotaiga will tell you, it’s not easy to make a boat out of seaweed. First, he had to find a place to build it. He finally found an old house on the port with sliding doors and an engawa (open corridor) where he could work on the boat in the living room but within full view of pedestrians and among a beautiful Japanese garden.
He has been working on his boat for two weeks now. The 3.4 m x 1.5 m frame is made out of pine wood and hundreds of 20 cm x 20 cm dried sheets of porphyra seaweed being affixed with a stapler. Bring your own rice.
The artist will put the finished seaweed boat on display on the beach through Tuesday.
At the end of the exhibition, he’ll float it. I can’t help but think it’s the perfect boat for two people to have a romantic sinking. But at least the seaweed will just go back to where it came from.
And the couple on board? Well, they can sink or swim.