The community of Ina in Nagano Prefecture is trying to preserve its dying tradition of catching and cooking local aquatic insects by encouraging younger people to learn the skills as its catchers age.
Caddisfly and stonefly larvae, colloquially known as zazamushi (zaza insects), can be caught upstream in the Tenryu River near the city of Ina. The catches are often made into type of tsukudani — a common Japanese dish cooked by simmering a wide variety of ingredients such as fish, clam or seaweed in soy sauce, mirin (rice wine), sugar and sake.
The word “zaza” is said to originate from the sound the river, where the insects, once a historically valuable source of protein, live and breed.
Determined not to let this part of the area’s history and tradition die out, local authorities have organized opportunities for young people to catch and eat zazamushi.
At the Tenryu River in late January, three fishermen demonstrated the traditional skills for catching larvae at an event organized for students at a local agricultural high school.
Shoji Nakamura, a veteran insect hunter with more than 50 years in the business under his belt, rolled over rocks in the river’s shallow waters with his feet, wearing boots wrapped in a steel chain to help keep his balance. A cheer erupted from onlookers when the 78-year-old used a net to capture the disturbed larvae as they floated to the surface of the water.
After observing and then taking part in capturing the larvae, the students were offered larvae tsukudani to try.
“They were crispy and tasty like shrimp. It was fun to catch them too,” says Taisei Imamura, an 18-year-old high school senior, who clearly enjoyed the experience.
The best season for catching zazamushi is from December to February when their fat content increases. People who want to catch them have to join a local fishery association and obtain a fishing license every season.
At its peak, there were 78 licensed fishers in 1994, but the number has since drastically declined. Only 10 people aged between 69 and 85 were still practicing this season.
“There was a fisher in his 40s until recently,” says Takayoshi Hara, head of the fishery association. “But a typhoon dispersed the insects, causing poor fishing for some time, so he stopped coming.”
Nakamura, however, continues to catch zazamushi, while still pursuing his own agricultural work and a job at a social welfare facility. He used to go catching for around 20 days every season, but now says that the number of days is decreasing because of his weakening physical strength.
Aside from continuing to offer experiences with zazamushi, Nagano Prefecture and the city of Ina plan to strengthen the tradition further with events, such as tasting sessions at shops in Tokyo that promote prefectural food.
“We would like people to learn about the merits of our traditional culture so that it can be preserved as part of people’s lives,” says an Ina city official.