Thursday, May 28, 2009

Kerama Deer

Something I like about the school system here is their concentration on local specialties. This week we went on a snorkeling trip one afternoon, an actual SCUBA dive another. Gardening is taught and so is eisa drumming.

The Kerama deer live on four islands, but Geruma has the most pride for them. So tomorrow the 5th graders are going to a university in Naha to give a presentation about them. They did a practice run-through today. Their 'study' is slightly less than scientific, but it suffices for elementary students. I am unsure what they concluded, but their pictures of deer trails, tracks, and antler rubs were pretty cool.

Something notable about their presentation - and I've seen it in all adult presentations in Japan as well - is that they don't use bullet points. Instead, they put all of the text on the visual aids (or Powerpoint slides) and just read from them. I'm not sure if it works, but I know there is less eye contact.

[Here's a Kerama deer crossing at low tide between Fukaji and Geruma islands]

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Getting in Trouble in Japan

Today I learned a new Japanese word that I wish I hadn't: だいじけん (daijiken). It means "big [bad] event or happening."

So I often get invited to play dodgeball after lunch with the kids. And it's hard for me to play softly, so I reserve my energy and throw the balls with all my might at the junior high kids, who can take the hits. I know what you're thinking - no, I didn't take out a little kid (though I have done that before). Instead, I threw the ball hard at the j.h. boy and it was a good throw, sailing through the air chest high. But it cruised right past him and kept on going, the full length of the gym. It maintained its height over the stage and right into the [plastic] "stained glass" artwork the kids had made for the previous year's graduating class. The stained glass is made of thin colored plastic and is backlit at all the assemblies and events. It looks pretty nice, unless it has a hole in it.

[second panel in, lower left]

At the time it wasn't too big a deal - it could later be easily fixed with cellophane tape. So we strung the net across the stage (the fatal flaw the first time around) and kept playing. Afterwards, the kids streamed back to their classrooms and told the story "Guess what David-sensei did!?"

It didn't take but a few minutes for a teacher to take charge and make the kids gather together for an apology to the principal. And I had to go, too. We all filed into the teachers' room together and one of the j.h. kids reluctantly stepped up to explain what happened. I think I was supposed to speak, but I really didn't know what to say, so I stayed quiet.

[I got lucky in avoiding all the intricate patterns]

I understood what the j.h. student was saying and I was flabbergasted that she never said my name. She absorbed the blame into the entire group, which was very Japanese (and nice) of her. And the teachers didn't ask who did it - it was the responsibility of the whole group to remember to string the protective net across beforehand.

I asked later if I could help fix the stained glass, but a teacher told me it might happen tomorrow or Friday because the kids need some time 'to think about it'. I feel terrible, of course, because this was completely my fault. We were playing in a safe direction, then switched lengthwise and nobody remembered the net. They're kids. We were all high-strung and having a good time. It's easily fixable. I don't think they'll mope too long, though - inside they all know whose fault it really was.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Significance of The Fish

I did a little thinking today about that tuna. I pondered how long it must have lived and how good it must have become at feeding on smaller fish. I wondered how many lines it had been on the end of - and broken off - before it met its end with a rope tied to a boat.

Then I went to the significance of the fish to Zamami.

Last night, after the party ended past 11pm, the fisherman reboarded his boat and took off for Naha. When you've got a fish that big you want to get it to market as soon as possible. So this morning it was officially weighed in at 257 kilograms, or 567 pounds. Today it was on a plane to Japan and tomorrow morning it will go to the auction block in Kumamoto.

That fish will then travel to a restaurant or, more likely, a few restaurants. Tomorrrow night many Japanese people will be eating it as sashimi for dinner. They won't know where it came from or what story it carries, just that they are paying a nice price for nice fish.

If you are a visitor to a Japanese fish market you will see tuna like this and many more a few steps down on the size ladder. But without the perspective of what it takes to catch one, it's hard to appreciate the story, or even imagine it. Zamami understands, which is why there were 60 people who brought beer and aomori (Okinawan sake) and were playing drums and the sanshin when the fisherman arrived at 10:30 last night. It's a big deal here. And it's how markets such as that for sashimi impact families and communities [and fisheries].

Sunday, May 24, 2009

A Huge Yellowfin Tuna

Nevermind that marlin story (below), check out this tuna!

I got word a few hours ago that a big tuna was caught by a local Zamami commercial fisherman today and he was expected to arrive back around 10pm. Luckily my apartment affords a front-row seat to the marina, so when cars, scooters, bikes, people, and dogs started streaming by at 10:10pm, I knew his arrival was imminent.

[About 60 people, or 10% of the village's population came to welcome home the fisherman]

His tuna was rough-guessed by him at 200kg (440lbs.). Some details were sketchy because of the language barrier and the excitement/drunkenness of my informant, but I think it took about an hour to get the fish in. He caught it using a rope and presumably some heavy monofilament leader and live bait. He didn't have a pole/reel or use an electric reel, but rather he fought the fish with his boat (and it still took an hour!). When he got it close he had to spear it, then get it (somehow!) through a gate that opens on the side of the boat.

[A fish this size is once-in-a-lifetime, even for a commercial fisherman. I was lucky just to be able to witness it - note in this picture that he had to cut off the tail to get the fish in the hatches]

Daichi (fisherman, green shirt) and his wife. This is a big moment for them. A fish this big caught in Aomori prefecture (north of Japan) would bring in $50-60,000+, but the fat content of those tuna is ideal for sashimi. Okinawan tuna is leaner and I was told this fish will probably bring in under $10,000. But that's more money than I made today.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Another Weekend, Another Marlin

Yesterday was a perfect weather day: rare breaths of wind and flat water. But that didn't translate into awesome fishing. We had one marlin trip two outriggers (left, overhead) at 9:30am as we were chasing a school of feeding bonito, then we dried up for 5.5 hours. Five-and-a-half hours is a long time to troll around on a hot day with nothing happening. It's longer when you only got 6 hours of sleep the night before.

But at 3:10pm the right flat (not an outrigger) pole went off. The marlin stayed shallow and jumped a lot. As we were bringing in the other poles a second marlin hit the left outrigger and went deep and hard. It was a big marlin that snapped the line after two minutes.

[I sneaked this picture in during the final approach]

[I haven't missed yet, so I've moved into the role of 'first spear' (of two, which are then followed with two flying gaffs - the big hooks)]

[70kg blue marlin, 40 minute fight]

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Along with 13-hour kayak-based fishing trips (two Saturdays in a row) come breaks on beaches. I don't stop on beaches without scouring them. When I get to faraway islands - places where I will likely be the only person to visit this year - I stop at every beach and take my time. But I've brought home a lot of useful crap in the last year, so I'm ever more selective about what I'll pick up. Something I find myself doing is upgrading previous finds. My 14 garden containers, rain water collection buckets, and compost box came from the beach. Two weeks ago I found a fantastic bucket fresh off a fishing boat and two solid plastic crates that I brought home so I could 'trade up'. Here are some my more unique/useful finds this year:

[all of these from last Saturday - this is about a quarter of my scavenged fishing float collection]

[these are more rare than you'd think from reading my blog, but I seem to keep finding them: one each from the last two Saturdays]

[yep, a {mostly} air/watertight bottle full of instant coffee! If guests won't drink it, I'll gladly use it in occasional recipes]

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Zamami's New Mayor

Overshadowed by Sunday's marlin fishing trip was Zamami's mayoral election. The man who was predicted to win won. He is the father of two of my favorite Zamami students and husband to the woman who sponsors my Naha food orders, so I know their family well. I don't know how he'll do as mayor, but I know I want to write him a letter (in Japanese!) about some aesthetic improvements Zamami could make.

The election ended at 8pm and the counting was done around 9:30pm. I happened by Satoru's house when the results were being read. The old mayor gave a speech and there was much uninhibited jubilition by his campaign. The new mayor then immediately left to take a boat over to Aka to thank them for voting for him.

I tried to ask what the vote count was, but the girl mistook my question for "how much money should I contribute as congratulations?" She forwarded the question to Yukibo-san, the boat captain. He said "no worries, our contribution is the marlin!" (Another point for fishing!)

[a marlin-full of sashimi]

[work's not going to be any fun for these guys tomorrow]

[really I just went to take pictures of the marlin - oh, but the old mayor is rear-left and the new mayor's father is rear-right. Both congratulated me, but I'm not sure why]

Monday, May 18, 2009

Marlin Fishing - 5/17

7:50am: Leave the port with seven people on the boat.

8:30am: Set the lines.

8:40am: First hit, jumping a lot and appears to be a big mahi mahi or wahoo, but turns out to be a very small striped marlin. In the boat by 8:55am.

[smallest marlin I've seen at just 20kg - in fact there was some debate about whether it was a sailfish]

10:20am: Second hit. Marlin trips an outrigger line (to break the line free from the outrigger quick-release but not to get hooked). For 3-4 minutes we play with him, reeling in the trailing line quickly, then letting it back out to imitate wounded prey. We can watch the marlin come up and trail the lures and hit them with his bill, but not strike. Eventually, after much verbal encouragement from me, he does strike and get hooked. He takes out about 300m of line before getting off.

10:45am: Third marlin hits. This is a big one that hits the right outrigger hard and takes line faster than I have ever seen before. In fact we didn't even have the rest of the loose lines in the boat before the reel started getting dangerously low on line. The captain immediately reversed course and starting backing down on the marlin to gain some line back, but with this slack (and a new fisherman on the rod), the marlin got off. The captain estimated this marlin at over 200kg and I am inclined to concur. Big and strong.

11:25am: Fourth marlin hits. He tripped two outriggers and was on for 20 seconds before getting off.

[Uma bringing in her first fish - she's a good sport with all the boys]

11:45am: Fifth fish. We thought it was another small marlin so we put the girl in charge of bringing it in. It turned out to be a big mahi-mahi, which I gaffed when it got next to the boat.

4:30pm: Long, long break after that morning flurry, but a marlin hit the right outrigger hard and started jumping. Just as we got the lines in he got off. But as he got off I noticed we'd left one line still in the water. So we had one line 300m out that a guy was reeling back and another line set at 20m still in trolling position. While there was still a lot of hoopla surrounding the lost marlin another marlin (the sixth of the day) hit that short line and took off with great speed. He went for about a minute before snapping the line. I have never seen a marlin snap a line before. The lines are big and strong and meant to take whatever strength the drag on the reel doesn't control. When we looked at the snapped leader (400lb. test, I think), we saw that the crimped loop at the end had been squeezed tight. The captain, aware that it's pretty hard to make an accurate guess at a BIG marlin, speculated that this might have been the elusive "Grander", which is a marlin in excess of 1000 pounds.

[the crimped loop on the right is what the line should look like, the squeezed line on the left is what remained after the huge marlin broke us off]

5:15pm: (Long past our usual return time, but how can we leave when we've had 6 marlin on?) The seventh marlin hits and gets off quickly.

6:00pm: Head home. I let the captain know that I am up for full days of fishing both next Saturday and Sunday.

7:00pm: Clean fish and quickly prepare for the new mayor's celebration party (polls close at 8pm and results should be out by 9pm).

[this fish came out of the stomach of the marlin and nobody could identify it - note the slash on fish's belly where the marlin hit it with its bill before eating it]

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Zamami's Mayoral Election

Tomorrow marks the most important political event that will take place during my tenure on Zamami. The mayoral election is a big deal because the previous mayor is widely blamed for giving Zamami the dubious distinction as the third poorest municipality in all of Japan. So the next mayor gets to climb us out of financial abyss as well as solve our broken incinerator and water shortage problems. Quite a bit for a community of less than 1000 people.

[the three candidates, two of whom I know well]

[campaign headquarters for a candidate]

Sadly I don't get to vote, but I get to go fishing! The candidate the boat captain supports is expected to win (according to someone from his campaign) so our task is to catch a marlin to feed the victory party.

[the candidate expected to win holds a speech to a packed house]

[no crowd, but a megaphone!]

Friday, May 15, 2009

Goat Hunting

Today at school a teacher came up to me and asked if I was busy at 4pm. I said no, so he invited me along with a bunch of the teachers and some locals to take a boat trip out to the small Agenashiku Island in front of Zamami. There is a population of goats living on the island that belong to the PTA and our task was to catch a couple for a party next week. I will never turn down an opportunity for a good chase, so I was pretty psyched.

The goats were in a perfect place for easy capture when we arrived, but our vice-principal did a great job scaring them to the ugliest part of the island.

[Closing in, there are nine goats in the herd]

[How do you catch goats alive? Same way you catch fish!]

We had about 15 people, but we weren't oriented well for pushing (driving) the goats towards the nets. I got bored just standing around so I sneaked away and crawled through the brush to get up on a knob that wasn't being covered. It turned out I was in the most important position for the remaining 2.5 hours of chasing. At least five times I was within 10 feet of goats. If I'd known how hard it would be to get them going towards the nets I would have tried harder to just catch a goat with my bare hands.

We did get two live goats, and I ended with a zillion scratches and about a kilogram less sweat.

[No longer a willing participant]

[Goats: easily trained]

[Wait, you're going to eat us next week?]

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Marlin Tacos

Tonight I [partially] repaid the favor I get every time I am taken on a marlin fishing trip. I used marlin to make tacos for the boat owner and his staff from the restaurant and dive shop he owns. Mixtures of that staff are often along on the fishing trips.

[Uma cooking the tortillas]

[Learning to make tortillas by hand was one of my best food advances this last year]

[おいしい!(delicious!) We ate through 27 tortillas, which probably means they actually liked them. Hurray!]

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

More Weekend Pictures

Here are a few more pictures from the weekend of greatness:

[Though we have enabled ourselves with strong gear and mechanical advantage, arm muscles still play a significant role in getting a marlin to the boat]

[My fourth small glass fishing float (six big ones) found on the beaches of Okinawa]

[One of many turtles, this was biggie. Turtles hardly get a second-look from me, but I figured I should probably get a picture for the blog]

[Sea salt patterns on my shirt after a long paddle]

Sunday, May 10, 2009

This Is Why I Love My Job

Because it allows me to do this on the weekends:

Saturday I woke up at 4am and was in my kayak by 5am, leaving its hidden cove on the NW corner of Zamami. I paddled across to Yakabi and reached it just after the tide changed at 6:30am. On my seventh cast a Giant Trevally (my quarry) hit the lure hard. Really hard. It was a like a bullet was launched from somewhere under the water and it struck some dynamite on the surface. I got two good looks and estimated him in the same size class as my GT last year (22kg, 50lbs). He turned and zigzagged his way to the bottom, making a kayak fight extremely difficult. At one point he actually put slack in my line before slamming into it again and pulling the pole from my hands. Fortunately I caught it by the safety rope that attaches my pole to the kayak. Once at the bottom his sporadic fighting nearly claimed victory when he again caught me off guard with a huge burst of energy. My kayak tipped sideways until water was actually coming in, even while I leaned with all my weight in the opposite direction. After 1.5 minutes, as I was starting to wear him down, the lure just popped out and floated to the surface.

I waited a minute to collect myself before casting again. You couldn't have surprised me more if you'd told me I won the lottery (without playing), but another GT went after my lure. Twice. And missed it both times. As my lure retrieve neared the boat I could see two massive (30kg+) GTs following underneath. I am not bummed about this, though, because I have a feeling they'll be hanging out in that area for awhile (they're territorial). They haven't seen the last of me or my Sea Frog (the lure).

I continued on around Kerama chain, going to Kuba, then Ou, Geruma, Aka, and crossing back to Zamami in a 13-hour marathon day. No more fish, but I saw 10+ turtles, including two that were mating.

Today was marlin day. Up at 5:30am and one of the first boats out of the marina. We went south to the same place where I caught my huge marlin last year.

At 10:35am we hooked up. A smallish marlin hit our right lure, just barely. We played with him for a few minutes, trying to get him hooked. It was pretty awesome watching him actually come up and slap the lure around with his bill (this is how they catch fish, by stunning them). We lost track of him for a minute before the center pole hit and a [larger] marlin was hooked. He went airborne for a couple minutes as we brought in the other lines. It's pretty awesome watching a marlin jump.

Somehow everybody had decided I would take the first marlin, which was news to me. I'm not one to argue such things, though, so I put on the harness and clipped in. This marlin fought hard. One of the strongest I've been in on. He was very heavy and it took about 1:15 before he began loosening up. I got the leader to the boat (helped because the captain 'backed down' on him, instead of normally continuing at trolling speed trying to get him to swim with us) in 1:30, but it took another ten minutes to actually get him close enough for the spears.

[Two spears and a gaff]

This marlin got everybody pretty pumped up. We kept trolling until 2:30 when another marlin touched a lure. We were unsure what hit the lure, then we saw his tail break the surface 20m behind. The captain is really good at managing these situations, as I am learning. He's good at speeding up and trying to convince the marlin to commit. But this one wouldn't. We lost him for a couple minutes, then we all (those of us with polarized sunglasses) saw him re-emerge. A big black hulk behind the last lure. He swam around behind us for two minutes before trailing off. The captain circled back over the spot (GPS marked) then gave me a 'giving up' hand wave. Four seconds later the rod two feet from my head let loose. We brought in the empty rods as this marlin - bigger than the first - went airborne all over the place. He was spending more time jumping than swimming. Just as we got the last rod inside, he got off.

We fished until 4:30pm, 1:30 longer than planned. The captain already seems psyched to get out again next weekend, so hopefully the weather (and a lack of customers for his dive shop) will comply.

[3.1 meters, 138kg, 304 pounds - much lighter than we thought]

Fishing season is what I live for here. Teaching English to little kids is great, but it's a lot greater when my body is drained Sunday night because of such an awesome weekend.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Becoming Included

Last night we had a かじきまつり (marlin festival) at the restaurant owned by the boat captain. I had a chance to flip through a photo album which documents all 63 marlin Yukibo-san has caught on Zamami in the last 15 years. As I approached 2007 I tried to remember where I was on the dates of the catches. Then I reached the 2008 season, when I was living on Zamami. There were four or five marlin to which I considered: “what was I doing that day?” (The answer is ‘not marlin fishing.’)

But this year, I’m in. A girl (Miki) has come to my apartment both trips to make sure the invitation was extended to me. This is partially due to my continued ‘nudging’ during the offseason, but also to the rapport I’ve built with everybody. Yukibo knows I’m dead serious about fishing and likes me because of this shared commitment.

Before dinner Miki came in and handed me her camera with a video playing on it. The underwater video of a whale and her calf was taken Monday from the channel just in front of Zamami. Most whales are well on their way to Alaska by now, so this is a rarity (and a concern). The video was cool, but I was really happy that Miki thought of me. It was a purposeful act on her part - she loaded the video on her camera because she thought I would like it.

A year ago this wouldn’t have happened, either because the language barrier was too intimidating (she speaks no English) or she didn’t know me well enough or trust me yet. But having reached a point of friendship with her - and many in the community - means so much. The token of friendship is great, but it’s the heartwarming part that means the most.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The First Marlin of the Year

I have been on both trips with ゆきぼーさん (Yukibo-san, the boat captain) this year for marlin. He's a つりきち (committed/obsessed fisherman) like me and we are finally on the page (we are pretty much both up for a marlin trip any time we can make it happen). Today, despite only four people, we went fishing.

One of the the guys was a newbie, so we agreed he would take the first fish. At 12:40pm, we hooked up. The marlin actually hit a pole to my right, briefly, then hit and got hooked on the far left pole.

[He looks tired, which he shouldn't be because he's only 30 minutes in]

[Since this was a small one, Yukibo handed over all the duties of getting the marlin in the boat. This gave me an opportunity to try a new job: spearing the marlin at the edge of the boat with a flying spear-point (attached to a rope, it detaches from the spear). It's a striped marlin - note how colorful it is in its waning moments]

[Many people showed up to witness the return of the first marlin this year. It weighed in at 52kg - big for a striped marlin, small for the 'general marlin' category]

[cutting up the marlin]

Later in the afternoon we had a marlin hit a lure, take some line out on it, then get off. He came back and hit the lure again, before taking out more line and getting off again! An hour later we had another barely touch a lure. Good to know they're still out there because we're probably going fishing again this weekend! (I cannot express my happiness at getting in with the marlin fishing captain. From now on, I think I'm set as a member of the team.)