When you come to Japan as a foreigner, it seems that there is always a Japanese person who adopts you. This person makes sure you have all the things you need, informs you of important events and perhaps even takes you sightseeing. I’ve had several people take on this role during my time in Japan, and I’m beginning to think that every so often the island holds a meeting to determine who will take care of the gaijin-san for the next few years.
The first person who took on the task was my neighbor Ueda-san, who introduced me to the basics of island living. After she died, her daughter-in-law took over, encouraging me to join in cultural events and teaching me about some of the Japanese arts. Then the Buddhist priest spent a good few years educating me about Buddhism, Shintoism and the roots of Japanese culture. In 2004, the job went to a fisherman. Rikimatsu-san was 75 years old and had been fishing for most of them when he took me under his fin, intent on teaching me the ways of the Seto Inland Sea.
That was 10 years ago, but he must have done a pretty good job because I can now actually recognize most Japanese food. The other day at a Japanese restaurant, I could name every fish in the aquarium. Not only that, but I had eaten (not merely tasted) every kind of fish on the menu.
This was a major step forward for my life in Japan, a foray into certain marine pages of the encyclopedia I never would have dared venture on my own.
It was Rikimatsu-san who told me never to catch octopus in October because that’s the month fishermen let the eight-limbed delicacies grow.
And it was because of this same lovely old man with a mop of white hair that I went into the local JA Bank recently to get change.
I handed a ¥10,000 note to the clerk, who gave me back two ¥5,000 notes. But as I eyed the bills, I cocked my head and started sucking through my teeth. The clerk, immediately realizing his mistake, took the ¥5,000 notes back and exchanged them for crisp, clean new ones. He could tell these notes were going into a kinpū money envelope.
I knocked on the door of Rikimatsu-san’s house, envelope in hand. His wife answered the door and when she saw me, kowtowed on the floor before inviting me in. Once I had taken off my shoes at the entrance, she guided me to the butsudan — the black lacquered altar.
While usually a solemn photo of the recently deceased hangs above the butsudan, instead a bright and witty portrait of Rikimatsu-san smiled at me.
I couldn’t help but return the gesture. The handsome devil — it was like he had never left us.
“When was that picture taken?” I asked.
“It’s from our 50th wedding anniversary photos,” she said.
“So that’s why he looks so happy,” I remarked. His wife fought off the compliment, protocol dictating humbleness.
After some time, she told me what had happened.
“He fell off his bicycle. Blood gushed from the wound on his head and someone called an ambulance. I held his head all the way to the hospital but he remained unconscious. He never woke up again,” she said, fully composed.
While I sat on the zabuton cushion in front of the butsudan, she told me stories about Rikimatsu-san while trying to hold a smile so I wouldn’t feel so awkward. After a long silence, I knew it was my turn.
“We used to go fishing together,” I started.
“Oh yes,” she said while nodding her head, listening intently.
One morning I woke up at at 5 a.m. to Rikimatsu-san yelling to me from outside my window. “Amy-san! Are you awake? Let’s go fishing!” he bellowed in that deep fisherman’s voice that evolves from years of projecting over distances of water.
I opened the bedroom window facing the port and called down to him from the second floor. “Fishing? Now?”
He looked at his watch. “OK, I’ll give you 15 minutes to get ready.”
I changed clothes, stuffed a piece of bread in my mouth and ran out to his boat, which was tied up in front of my house. Little did I know that he was going to take me to his secret spot for fishing mamakari (Japanese sardinella), an Inland Sea specialty.
At 5:15 we motored out of the harbor, the only light coming from the port marker flashing red every five seconds. Once out of the port, the seas were calm as we moved toward the Shiraishi lighthouse.
Passing 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 secret fishing spot 15 minutes later, we readied the hooks and waited for dawn.
Gradually the Inland Sea came to life. Boats appeared amongst the morning mist and the pink glow of a new day. Rikimatsu-san dropped in a fishing line with 12 bare hooks spaced evenly along it, but within five seconds he was reeling the line back in. Ha, he forgot to bait the hooks! I thought. But when the line came back out of the water it was full of mamakari, one fish attached to each of the hooks. These were the dumbest fish I’d ever seen.
We continued reeling in lines of fish for the next two hours. The hardest work was taking the fish off the hooks, as I inadvertently mangled the poor aquatic vertebrates, leaving an occasional eye behind on the hook or, more frequently, the entire jaw. But honestly, the fish did not seem to mind, because as soon as I put the line of hooks back into the water, a dozen more jumped on.
One time when I dropped the line in, after five seconds Rikimatsu-san signaled for me to leave it in the water. When 10 seconds had passed, he gently tugged on the line with two fingers and told me to wait again. When 30 seconds had passed, I brought the line in, empty. The fish had stopped biting. Or perhaps we had caught all there were.
This old fisherman put his gear away and pointed the boat back towards the flashing red light of the port marker. With the sun just coming up behind us, he stopped the boat in front of my house and dropped me off with a bucketful of flopping mamakari. It was my first fishing trip, and even I was hooked.
Rikimatsu-san’s wife gestured for me to start prayers, so I lit a stick of incense and knelt before the portrait of Rikimatsu-san, thanking him for the memories of fishing trips and for teaching me the ways of the Inland Sea. I also thanked him for the fishing boat he passed down to me 10 years ago, which I still use today.
The boat’s name was, and still is, Fuji-maru, named after his wife of more than 50 years.