By Ivy Jenn
The phrase “when life gives you lemons” has always been a source of confusion for me. I remember the first time I ever heard it, that fateful day in Ms. Reid’s kindergarten class. She introduced the proverbial phrase “when life gives you lemons” to be a metaphor for unexpected hardship. Why this was part of the kindergarten curriculum, I can’t say. I was nonetheless grateful, however, to learn this important lesson. It moved me because for a long time — I thought lemons were underappreciated. If life gave me free lemons, I would rejoice and thank the fruit-blessing deity that bestowed them upon me. This is an extremely long-winded introduction to my article about fishing. If you’re confused, don’t worry, as am I. But hey, we’re already in this metaphorical car with a destination figured out, so might as well enjoy the ride as I take you on a fishing trip in Ukujima.
Ukujima is an island off the coast of Sasebo and home to a myriad of persnickety cats and very chill old people, which make up 99% of the island’s total demographic. You might be thinking, wow this girl seems to have a penchant for hyperbole. I do, but that’s neither here nor there. I am not exaggerating when I say that Ukujima is the geriatric, feline capital of Japan. As a result, fishing is a big deal because it feeds the cats and gives old people something to do. Most people who grasp the nuance of proverbial phrases would think life gave them lemons when assigned to an island like mine. Young people have in recent years left the island by the literal boatful in search for a place less lemony. I, on the other hand, have whole-heartedly accepted the lemons and made, not lemonade, but lemon seasoned Nanbanzuke, which is fried fish marinated in vinegar.
The first time I went fishing, I was invited by the mother of some of my students. They are a cute sitcomy family of five, with a cute little sister, Maho, a grumpy but endearing middle child, Riho, and eldest brother, Kosuke, who dreams of making it in a big city. When we started fishing last autumn at noon, I had no idea that I was a respectable, slightly-above-average, fisherwoman. The father helped me set up my rod and taught me how to secure at its end a small perforated bait box about the size of a thimble for a mid-sized giant (imagine one that Hagrid would use). You fill the box with a shrimp mixture and then slowly lower the line. My pro-tip is to first dip the bait box barely below the surface of the water for about 20 seconds. The smell lures in the fish and they’ll gather and swarm underneath. After you see the torpedo of fish underneath, you slowly lower the line. As the fish plunge in a flurry, they get caught in the hooks of your line. This allows you to catch multiple fish at once, sometimes up to three or four. I made sure to casually swing the fruits (or I guess fish) of my labor around Maho so she would think I was cool. The youth are impressionable so like the responsible child educator I am, I took advantage of that to get street cred. It’s hard to make it as a fisherwoman in Ukujima, where apparently everyone and everyone’s dog can fish, so I had to take the scraps of respect I could get.
Fishing is more than a survival skill: it’s also a form of craft, community, and creativity. Learning how to fish from Kosuke, I can see how the art of fishing was passed down from generation to generation. His father was a fisherman, as was his grandfather. In between each catch, I talked to his family and learned that Maho’s dream is to become a pastry chef, Riho wants to work as a nurse in Fukuoka and drink bubble tea all day, and Kosuke wants to be a hairstylist and travel around America. Their mother and father own a local ryokan, where they are known for their various traditional fish delicacies. Given the family’s long and humble history of fishing, they’ve honed and perfected the ways to cook fish. It’s the type of cuisine borne of survival, necessity, and family tradition. Every part of the process — from catching the fish, to cooking it, to eating it in one’s own home — is a representation of Ukujima’s livelihood.