All about Tuna fishing
All about tuna fishing
The tuna caught near Ōma are thought to weigh 100kg on average. They are seven to eight years old.
People say that tuna will die if they stop swimming. Tuna usually swim at a speed of around 40km per hour. When fleeing from danger or chasing prey, however, they can reach speeds of up to 120 to 130km per hour. In recent times, the fishing season in the Tsugaru Strait has fallen somewhere between August and January of the following year. The exact period changes from year to year. Pole fishing is practiced during the day, while longline fishing is practiced during the night. Both of these fishing methods place a premium on conservation.
In Ōma, pole fishing is the most common way of catching tuna. The fishermen attach young squid or Japanese amberjack to their lines as live bait. They also use a special fishermen’s secret from Ōma: dead mackerel pike or flying fish that form a kind of “mock bait”, as they are made to look as if they are still alive. After attaching the bait, the fishermen throw their lines into the sea and wait for the tuna to bite. When a tuna bites, the lucky fisherman hauls his line in by hand (although more and more boats do this mechanically these days). In recent years, some fishermen have begun to use electric shockers to temporarily stun tuna swimming close to their boats. They can then haul the motionless fish on board. This technique reduces the number of tuna that are lost, as many struggle so hard on the fishing line that they manage to escape.
The struggle between fisherman and tuna finally ends when the fish is harpooned close to the gills, which are a vital point. The tuna are winched onto the deck, where they are then drained of blood and further prepared to maintain freshness as long as possible. After all this, the fishing boat can return to port.
This is the most commonplace method for catching tuna. Fishermen drop long lines in the water, both ends of each line attached to buoys and plastic float balls. Numerous “branch” fishing lines are attached to the main line to ensnare multiple tuna at the same time. The main line is about 7km long and has about 70 fishing lines attached at 40-50m intervals.
The black diamond of the Tsugaru Strait
Ōma tuna have been well-known among Japanese foodies for a very long time, as the fish caught in the coastal waters around 5km from Cape Ōma always fetch high prices in Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji fish market. The town became even more famous in 2000, when national TV broadcaster NHK made a drama series called Watashi no Aoi Sora (screenplay: Makiko Uchidate), which was set in Ōma. The town’s signature pole fishing of tuna was broadcast into living rooms all over Japan. On the Tsukiji fish market’s first day of sales in 2001, the first auction of Ōma tuna fetched an unprecedented ¥100,000 per kg, with one fish selling for the truly historical price of ¥20,200,000. Thus, the “Ōma tuna” brand was born.
Ōma used tuna to inspire a revival of the town. In 2001 Ōma began holding a new festival, the “Great Ōma Tuna Festival–From Sunrise to Sundown and In Between.” All sorts of activities were organized to invite visitors to taste tuna in the town that had become almost synonymous with this delicious fish. Ōma’s fishery cooperative also applied to have “Ōma tuna” registered as a Regional Collective Trademark. This trademark was approved in 2007, and every tuna shipped out of the town from then on proudly bore a seal proclaiming its origins. In 2013, an Ōma tuna fetched ¥855,400,000 at auction in the Tsukiji fish market. Today, visitors come all the way to Ōma just to meet famous fishermen who have appeared in the media.
Ritual of fisherman
The Funadama Festival
A fisherman’s year really begins on January 11th, with the Funadama Festival (“Ofunada-sama”). It is a very important day for Ōma’s fishermen, because they go to shrines to pray for a large catch and a safe journey on the sea. All families raise big-catch flags over their houses and give offerings to the gods they believe in, such as the dragon god Ryūjin and the goddess Benten. (The fishermen of Ōma are a very devout lot.)
In the evening, everyone visits the houses of their fellow fishermen to enjoy a delicious feast and wish each other good luck for the upcoming season.
“Sagasanji” is the name of an annual festival held at the Benten Shrine. The name “Sagasanji” is most likely derived from the word for the third day of the third month according to Japan’s old lunar calendar. The anniversary of the death of the goddess Benten is said to fall on the third day, so on the third day of every month except for April, a festival is held at the hall of worship of the Benten Shrine. The grand festival takes place in April. For this occasion, people pile into boats to cross over to Benten Island for a ritual kagura (religious dance) performance at the main shrine.
This festival takes place on the national holiday of Marine Day. To pray for safe and bountiful fishing, all the fishing boats of the town sail out together, big-catch flags hoisted high. They ceremonially lower an amulet into the sea to pray that the fishing boats will always be safe out on the water. The flotilla of fishing boats dancing on the waves, with hundreds of colorful banners flying in the wind, makes for a truly spectacular sight.
Over 300 years ago, the shrine of Tenpi was moved to Ōma. Since 1996, the Tenpi Procession (“Tenpi-sama Gyōretsu”) has marched through the streets of the town on every Marine Day in July. Tenpi, also called Maso, is a goddess who protects those at sea. She has been venerated in many countries in Southeast Asia since the time of the Chinese Song Dynasty, including in Taiwan and China. Tenpi is enshrined at the Inari Shrine in Ōma, which is the only place in the whole of the Tohoku region where this goddess is venerated.
Inari Shrine Festival
From the 8th of August (the festival-eve vigil) until September 11th, processions are held and festival floats are carried through the town. The processions feature traditional Japanese festival musicians in the style of Kyoto’s Gion Festival, a children’s procession led by a tengu (a long-nosed bird spirit), festival floats (called Inarimaru, Niwakayama, Taishōyama, and Bentenmaru), and much more. The floats all have their own musicians who engage in spectacular musical duels when the floats pass each other by. This grand festival is the high point of any summer in Ōma. All the townspeople look forward to the workmen’s chant of “Dottoko” that the people carrying the floats perform with great cheer before the door of every family.
Around the time of this festival, the long-awaited tuna make their first appearance of the year in the Tsugaru Strait. The town glides quietly into autumn, then into winter.