The oyster bars of Barcelona, where I lived in the late-1970s, were cheap. So was the cava, Spain’s own sparkling wine, guzzled in carefree abandon. Some years later, I found myself living in Charente, one of the finest oyster regions of France. A local vineyard made an inspired bubbly at a fraction of the cost of the more prestigious brands associated with the Vallee de la Marne or the Montagne de Reims districts. These all formed my earliest impressions of the shellfish.

These days, however, whenever I smell the seared shells of oysters laid out on grills and along barbecue pits, I am more inclined to think of the riverside bars and restaurants of Hiroshima, or the sea-facing oyster cantinas of Sendai. On the Itoshima Peninsula in Kyushu, I have walked past nests of tiny eateries that felt like dedicated oyster malls. Such spots spring to life as the mercury drops throughout November to January.

An ama diver prepares a range of seafood, including oysters, at Osatsu Kamado ama hut. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
An ama diver prepares a range of seafood, including oysters, at Osatsu Kamado ama hut. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

In search of some of the freshest oysters and other seafood available at this time of year, I arrived at a wooden hut in the Mie Prefecture fishing village of Osatsu on the Ise Peninsula. Called amagoya, these simple, sea-facing eateries are overseen by women divers known as ama. I watch as they turn oysters, scallops, sea bream and turban shells over red-hot coals that warm the cold winter air.

The ama, who are accustomed to the freezing coastal waters of the peninsula, are in buoyant mood, interacting with guests in much the same way as the maitre d’ of a friendly Mediterranean bistro. Between easily digested food explanations, the older ama recount tales of being entangled in fishing nets, sudden attacks of cramp, treating cuts and gashes from razor-sharp rocks, and confronting the occasional shark.

The number of ama has been decreasing in recent decades, and the pandemic has not made the situation any easier. The area has been stripped of many of the tourists that provide custom to the divers, and buy their catch.

Toshio Hanatani, a writer and owner of Kamomenb, a small guesthouse in Toba, recalls that, “Even when I kept the business open, there were no customers.” He believes, though, that people who patronize local seafood restaurants are coming back. “By the end of this year, the number should be as high as it was before the pandemic.”

This bodes well for ama like Rika Izuma, whose catch supplies local businesses. Aside from her work with the sea, she is an activist, a vocal spokesperson for promoting her chosen vocation, and the founder of the Arashima asaichi (morning market), which takes place twice a month in the fishing village she calls home. If that were not enough, she is also a member of the pop ensemble, Toba-ba.

Izuma also tells me there is a local campaign called Toba Sakana to Eat. Restaurants who have joined it say they are already seeing an increase in customers. A model of enterprise, Izuma highlights the existence of many oyster beds in Arashima.

“Some ama here cultivate oysters,” she affirms, “so I buy from them, make tsukudani (preserved seafood simmered in soy and mirin) and jars of oysters in oil.”

A succulent fried oyster set is served at an eatery in Toba, Mie Prefecture. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
A succulent fried oyster set is served at an eatery in Toba, Mie Prefecture. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Nothing if not enterprising, many ama have turned, like Izuma, to other sources of income, setting up direct order internet shopping sites, making accessories from abalone shells, and requisitioning beached up fishing kits for craft-making purposes. Some, like young ama diver Rikako Sato and her husband, a freelance marine biologist, have opened guesthouses. Located in the town of Ijika, Guest House Amarge offers more than just a bed for the night. Sato, who offers guests an entire one-floor home, owns an ama hut and is the perfect guide to seeing what life is like in her small fishing village.

Within Arashima’s secluded bays, the views of crossbeam oyster rafts floating serenely in the calm waters are princely. Framed oyster cages are hung beneath the rafts in much the same way the eggs of Atlantic salmon are fenced in, fattened and hatched in the floating pens of Norwegian fjords. Each oyster is carefully removed by hand, scrapped of superfluous growth, then returned to pristine waters, with nearby signs warning against public bathing. This is just as well. Oysters cultivated in polluted water can carry hepatitis.

Exploring the peninsula’s fish restaurants and stands provides insights into aquaculture yields, and the way oysters are prepared and served. Eaten raw or grilled over hot coals is the most common method, but I also came across shells boiled in iron pots, oysters maturated in salt, blanched with scalding water, cooked with rice as kakimeshi, and in one instance, served after a soaking in sudachi lime juice.

The coming days and weeks will likely see a return of visitors, eager to sample the region’s seasonal offerings. Anyone who has watched the ama, sensing their dependency and dedication to the sea, will wish them well.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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