December 2, 2009
Old-world fishing villages, a cast of crusty characters, and Japan's best octopus make Seto Inland Sea the place for epicures and adventurers. Simon Rowe sets sail.
Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on December 2009
Matsumoto-san looks like the kind of guy you’d hire as an extra in a mobster flick. His short, top-heavy stature reminds me of a bowling skittle. His broken teeth look like a row of condemned houses, through which a pall of cigarette smoke constantly whistles. He wears his hair greased, combed straight up, and sports a form-fitting green jacket in the style of a pro golfer.
When I first meet Matsumoto-san in Yamamoto’s tachinomiya on a cool spring evening in Himeji City, 80 kilometers west of Osaka, I think he might be a limousine driver for the local yakuza. Since Yamamoto’s sits on the periphery of Uomachi, the city’s notorious “entertainment” district and once thriving center for organized crime during the 1970s, the idea isn’t so far-fetched.
Tachinomiya means “standing drink shop” and throughout the cities and villages of the Seto Inland Sea, this humble local liquor store with planks slapped across beer crates for counters and an array of dried sea creature snacks to satisfy the peckish, attracts many a colorful character. It’s a working man’s bar—a place of no pretense, pomp or great expense—where fishermen, office workers and mysterious regulars like Matsumoto-san gather daily to smoke, drink and chew over their woes and fortunes.
A similar ritual is played out in the fishing village of Oe, on the island of Shodo-shima, 90 minutes by ferry across the Seto’s languid sea lanes. Hard-bitten fisherfolk, called amimoto, guzzle hot sake by the bucket load and talk of fluctuating octopus and squid prices, while above their sunburned heads on smoke-stained walls, hang old photographs of Shodo-shima’s fishing fleets and the glory days of octopus seasons passed. The catches are smaller these days, one fisherman tells me, though octopus is still a staple for islanders.
For “outsiders,” places like Himeji and Oe are intriguing pit-stops on a journey through the Seto Inland Sea—an adventure that can begin in either Ako, Akashi, Kobe or Osaka, where one can quietly slip aboard a passenger ferry and in a matter of minutes be plying one of the world’s most hectic waterways.
From the Kanmon Straits, which separate the islands of Honshu and Kyushu in the south, to the whirlpools of the Naruto straits that churn between Shikoku and Honshu, Seto’s horizon is in a constant state of flux. Kansai International Airport continues to thrust out into the sea lanes, attached to Osaka by a man-made umbilical cord of expressways and rail links, while the Awaji suspension bridge, which connects Honshu with Awaji-shima and northern Shikoku, casts a formidable shadow over the 400-odd ships, tankers and barges which pass beneath it each day.
Fishing tradition and seafaring charm remain strong deep in the wet markets of Akashi City, 30 minutes by train west of Osaka. “The tastiest octopus in Japan come from the waters between Akashi and nearby Awaji-shima,” says Yamanaka Tatsuya, a fish monger on Uotana, or “Fish Shelf Street.”
The city’s obsession with eight legs is hard to ignore: streets are festooned with octopus paraphernalia, including hoop nets and oblong clay pots used to lure octopus hang in store windows, while countless racks of drying tentacles line the shopping alleys. More than once I find myself wriggling between huddles of gruff fishermen with Popeye arms and gold teeth, to order a wooden tray of sumptuous octopus dumplings and steaming green tea in Akashi’s tako-yaki (octopus dumplings) bars.
Mornings on Uotana are no less placid: the danger of getting accidentally slugged by maniacal old men carrying tuna steaks and octopus across their bicycle handlebars is very real if you venture in before 7am. Amidst a cacophony of shouts, whistles and human foghorns, you can watch as housewives and restaurateurs tussle it out for the freshest seafood. Fishmongers in white plastic aprons and oversize gumboots dart between tubs of kaki (oysters), hamachi (yellowtail) and nishin (herring) to take orders. Uotana is also a place where you’re more likely to hear the clack-clack of an abacus than the rattle and hum of a cash register; merchant use them with deft speed to tally up the shopping lists and set the day’s bargains.
Time and again
Ten minutes by ferry away on Awaji-shima, the largest island in the Seto Inland Sea, dozens of sleepy fishing villages go about daily life as they have done for centuries. In the village of Iwaya, where rice paddies divide neighborhoods and wood houses lean dangerously into narrow streets, restaurateurs can be seen chalking up their seafood menus minutes after the morning’s catch arrives.
It’s not unusual to be tucking into a ¥500-dish of thin slices of boiled octopus in a cucumber vinaigrette (takosu) or char-grilled squid (ikayaki), which only hours before were swimming hard in the Pacific swells.
Other popular dishes sold from street carts include octopus simmered in soy sauce and sugar (takonikomi), dried seasoned octopus strips (kansotako) which are best eaten with beer or sake. Octopus eggs (takonoko) and deep-fried octopus kebabs with lemon juice (kushiage) also add to this moveable feast.
From June to August, Iwaya’s docks are chaotic. With a time-is-money attitude, wild-eyed fishermen in white bandannas waste no time in selling off their big blue tubs of writhing tentacles. With theatrics that would impress a kabuki performer, wholesalers and shopkeepers scribble secret bids with chalk onto small wood paddles, slap them face down on the counter and wait impatiently for the auctioneer’s call.
The highest bid takes the catch. Though “the catch” doesn’t always share the enthusiasm. The occasional octopus manages to evade the burly amimoto and make a successful re-entry to the Seto Inland Sea.
The Seto Inland Sea flows between Honshu and Shikoku, bordering the prefectures of Yamaguchi, Hiroshima, Okayama, Hyogo, Kagawa and Ehime. Most cities and islands are accessible by rail via Osaka or Shin-Osaka station. Himeji City is 40min from Osaka by shinkansen and Akashi is 30min by Special Rapid Express train west of Osaka. Shodo-shima is accessible by ferry from Himeji, Kobe and Osaka, and Takamatsu on Shikoku. Iwaya village is located on Awaji-shima, 15min by ferry from Akashi.
Where to stay
The Osaka Tourist Association has offices at both Shin-Osaka (06-6305-3311) and Osaka (06-6345-2189) stations that can assist with accommodation around the Seto Inland Sea. Minshuku (family-run guesthouses) and ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) are plentiful in Shodo-shima with prices ranging from ¥8,000-20,000 per person, usually including two meals.
Himeji plays host to the Yukata Matsuri June 22-24, when thousands turn out in colorful summer kimono to sample strange and bizarre snacks. The city also stages the Oshiro Matsuri (Castle Festival), a night parade and traditional Noh drama performed beneath the illuminated castle, the first weekend in August. Akashi is home to the Tondon Matsuri (Fire Festival), a beachside ceremony held January 15 for the souls of fish and the safety of fishermen.