Funazushi: you either love or hate this fermented sushi. The pungent dish is made from Nigoro buna, a species of crucian carp found only in Lake Biwa, and has been enjoyed in the area for years.
Households on Okishima, an island on the lake, have passed down the practice of making funazushi for generations. The tradition continues today, as fishermen teach local school children how to prepare the fish.
On July 3, loud echoes from enthusiastic students’ voices fill the air. Students from Shiga Prefecture’s Omihachiman City Okishima Elementary excitedly gather in the school courtyard, waiting for a hands-on sushi-making class. Funazushi is part of the curriculum — eight students from grades 5 and 6 learn how to clean and stuff the bellies of the carp with rice.
“Take a good look while you clean the fish, okay?” Tomita Toyoharu, 59, a local fisherman and instructor, tells the kids as they prepare to handle the carp for funazushi.
Toyoharu himself went to Okishima Elementary and comes from a family with a long history in the Okishima fishing business. He has been fishing for nearly 40 years. He began teaching how to make funazushi around 10 years ago to help the community get more in touch with Okishima’s local flavors.
“It’s really slimy!”
“Let me wash it next!”
Four 5th grade students timidly grab each carp, excitedly washing them by hand, one by one.
“I’m still learning,” says Ryuto, 12, a 6th grader, as he washes each fish with near-expert precision. He is the only student who is being raised on Okishima. “I watch my dad and grandma make funazushi,” he says, bashfully.
After being washed, the carps have their bellies stuffed with rice and are then placed in a wooden cask (about 50 cm in diameter and depth), between other layers of rice.
In the Tomita household, sugar is sprinkled over it all at the end, “to bring out the flavor.”
When the class is over, around 30 carp stuffed with rice are placed in the barrels, sealed, and weighted with stones. The funazushi will ferment in the barrels and be ready to eat in January next year.
Kousen, 12, a strong 6th grader who carried some 20-kilogram stones by himself, tells us with a grin: “All the 6th graders love funazushi. We can hardly wait to see what it tastes like.”
Tomita, who taught the energetic students, says: “Funazushi used to be made at home. I hope the kids will like this island specialty and become interested in fishing.”
Around 70% of Okishima’s population of 250 is in the fishing business. Crucian carp, sweetfish, lake prawn, and Biwa trout make up around half of the catch at Lake Biwa. The aging population has led to a shortage of fishermen here.
Engine sounds of fishing boats leaving the docks at Okishima reverberate across the lake at 2 A.M. on July 16.
Tomita casts his net on the lake. “Today, I’m hoping for Biwa trout. When the catch is good, one haul will be around 100 kilograms. It will be a little smaller today, though.”
Tomita looks at the waters with a slightly disapproving look as the boat’s shining light attracts fish. The fishing continues until around 6 A.M. when the sky grows lighter. The haul is 20 kilograms.
Tomita takes his catch to Higashi Omi’s Notogawa Fishing Port on the lake’s eastern side. An owner of a fishing shop expresses his gratitude, “Fishing on Lake Biwa has been slowing disappearing, so we’re really thankful for the fishermen from Okishima.”
At 7 A.M., sunlight fills the morning sky, shining down on the waves rising on the lake. Boats head back to the ports on Okishima. “I hope fishing on the lake continues,” Tomita says wistfully.
Summer has come to Okishima. Swimming competitions and children playing fill the town, out of school for summer vacation. The island, surrounded by nature, brims with youth and hope.
Mizue Torigoe and Sarasa Shimizu, The Sankei Shimbun Photo Journalism section, contributed to this article.
(Click here to read the article in Japanese.)