43 Shimokita: Big beasts in the Big Gap

The torpedo-like tuna fish are the star attraction in the sprawling port of Oma (Big Gap), at the northern tip of the axe-shaped Shimokita peninsula.  Oma and tuna go together like Devon and cream teas; visitors insist on having some.  A University student in the next tent to me, having cycled all the way up from Sendai broke her student budget in a restaurant at the cape, spending 3,000 yen on a bowl of raw tuna on rice.  As a reward, a local man treated her to a serving of throat and heart.

In the early morning, I cycled to one of Oma`s harbours.  On a concrete step, a large lady was laying out lines of purple tengusa seaweed to dry.  A painstaking job, seaweed strips are harder to wash than socks; she has to wash and dry the tengusa 3 times before it is ready.  She gave me the good news that a tuna boat was on its way into port.

For 30 minutes I waited on the wharf along with the crows, the seagulls and a 4 year-old girl in pink plastic wellies – her Dad was the skipper of the incoming tuna boat.

The boat had a young crew of stocky, sun-browned men in black t-shirts; they walked with a confident swagger, like a rugby scrum on a night out. Their catch of two 70-80kg tuna fish were hauled in on hooks attached to the end of a forklift.  Silver scales sparkling in the sunshine, not a blemish on either beast, they looked magnificent.  I heard later the crew`s swagger and smiles were not on show everyday; a month or two without a catch and the tuna fisherman come under real pressure.

I found out a little about Oma`s other beasts in a museum commemorating the .  A greybeard descendant of one of the 17,00o exiles gave me a guided tour of the one room exhibiton.  The samurai families came from the Aizu clan, they were sent by boat after their defeat in the 1868-69 civil war.  At the time Shimokita was a frontier of freezing temperatures, blizzards and uncultivated land.  Shimokita remains notorious for freezing temperatures and blizzards; but the land around populated areas has been tamed.

One new trick the ex-samurai learnt was dairy-farming, one of the more successful even went onto to open a dairy farm in Tokyo where the skyscrapers of Shinjuku now stand.  Selling milk to green tea guzzlers and the lactose intolerant was not easy though; even now it is hard to convince Japanese that the warm, white juice squeezed out of a cow`s udder is a refreshing beverage; milk needs to be civilized by being mixed with sweet coffee, canned and stacked into a vending machine.

In the afternoon, the basket-bike took me on a tour of Oma`s harbours before dropping me off at the local hot spring.  Afer the bath, I followed the curious custom by having a glass bottle of chilled milk – purchased from a vending machine of course.

A couple of hundred yards from the onsen, a small herd of black shorthorn cattle were out grazing.  Cows out to pasture? A fine idea. Up on the green sloping fields overlooking the stretched-out seaside town, Oma did a pretty good impression of Devon.


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