Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Sea Urchin Festival

With a backpack full of beer and blue sky overhead I walked along the harbor to the Northern tip of Teuri Island. Cats prowled the dusty street, slipping in and out of ramshackle wooden sheds and squabbling with healthy looking sea gulls over fish scraps. Gulls are called "seacats" in Japanese, a fitting description given the noise they make, which sounds just like a cat asking to be fed.

At the end of the street, where the road dead-ended into a sea wall, an old woman sat in the shade of her doorway, shucking sea urchins. She smiled and fired off a few questions in the local dialect, accepting my stumbling replies without batting an eyelash. Older people in the countryside often simply assume that I speak Japanese, while younger, more cosmopolitan people who have encountered Westerners before are shocked when I manage to say hello. It occured to me that to this woman, I was probably only slightly more foreign than the college students from the ferry, still struggling to set up their tent on the very doorstep of the porto-potty.

"Here for the festival, are you then?" she asked. "There'll be an enka singer performing tonight. She came all the way from Iwate, if you can believe that. And fireworks afterwards of course. Where are you staying? Camping? Ha! Well, the inns are full anyway and it won't rain for another day or so. Good weather this year, isn't it, and plenty of urchin too. Don't take too long walking or we'll eat it all!"

As we talked, the woman kept right on shucking urchins, splitting them with a knife, scooping out the edible yellow gonads and dropping them into a pan of fresh water. The shelled urchins, each about the size of a baseball, went into a large trash bucket, where their spines scratched helplessly against the plastic.

Leaving the old woman to her work, I rounded the cape and started off down the Western Shore. Bits of Russian, Korean and Japanese garbage had washed up amidst the boulders of the beach and big drift wood logs lay piled in the shadows at the base of the cliffs. Sea roses and orange lilies clung to grassy hollows amidst the nesting birds, who were too absorbed with their own family politics to pay me any mind. Fishing boats motored about offshore, outlined white against the dark blue of the sea, and far off on the horizon a small clump of clouds marked the peak of Rishiri Island, an extinct volcano rising 1,700 meters above the ocean.

After downing a couple of beers and taking a quick swim in the teeth-chatteringly cold water I boulder hopped my way back to the village, where the festival was now in full swing. A young fisherman with a shaved head and big hoop earrings called me over to his stand, where I bought a plate overflowing with wedges of fish, scallops, hunks of octopus and thin sliced squid for a little less than $4. "Take these too," said the fisherman, grinning, handing me three sea urchins, which he pulled out of a tank and sliced open just as the old woman had done. "Try it raw," he said, handing me a little wooden ice-cream spoon. "But just eat the yellow stuff."

The urchins rotated their spines frantically, trying to propel themselves to safety as their guts glistened in the bright sunshine. The gonads were arranged around the inside of the shell, surrounding the urchin's red organs. While my other seafood cooked on the grill, I struggled to scoop out the slimy yellow clumps of eggs and then let them dissolve on the back of my tongue. In most sushi restaurants raw sea urchin roe is served on little mounds of rice wrapped in seaweed, $1.50 per bite, but the taste was stronger this way, a pure distillation of the ocean.

Halfway through my second urchin and well into my third can of beer, a young man dressed in baggy shorts and sandals sat down across the grill and greeted me in English. "My name's Chris," he said, offering his hand. "At least that's what I have the students call me. I teach English at the junior high here on Teuri."

"How many students do you have?" I asked.

"Seven," he replied. "That's Sato, the math teacher, and the funny looking guy over there teaches science."

Both of the young men he pointed to looked more like college kids than teachers.

"How did you end up all the way out here?" I wondered. "Are you from Hokkaido?"

Chris laughed, "Nah, I'm from Tokyo. This is my first assignment. I was pretty shocked at first but it's not so bad. The other teachers are all just out of school too and the fishermen are really friendly. Everyone knows everyone else. You can't find that most places these days. Haven't been through a winter yet though, so check back in on me next March. Hey, there's a couple of my students. Miyuki-chan! Chotto kite!

Two girls walked over, stopping open mouthed when they saw me. "How are you," I said. They giggled, poked each other and ran away.

"They're shy," said Chris. "No one gets off the island much. Most of them will probably go to the mainland for high-school though. There's only three kids at the Teuri high school now."

"Do you teach English at the high-school too?" I asked.

"Sometimes," said Chris. "But the prefecture sends a high-school English teacher over from the mainland a few times each month. I gotta go," he said, gesturing over to Sato, who was struggling to balance three cups of beer while a kindergardner hung onto his right leg. "You're welcome to join us if you want. And if you need anything while you're here just let me know. Everyone knows where I live."

Eating my way across the grill, I thought about what Chris had said. Teuri village is a tiny place on a rock in the middle of the ocean. Most of the people who live here are pensioners and there aren't any jobs apart from fishing and city government that most islanders qualify for. Was it in the best interest of the island children to keep them isolated here all the way through school? How much did the prefecture spend to educate those three high-school students? In Utashinai the high-school will close down in two years, but my current junior high kids will just ride their bikes a little farther down the valley, to Sunagawa. Where would the island kids live if their schools shut down? Would the village die without them? Would there be volunteers to light the charcoal at the uni festival in ten years? Would there be anyone to catch the uni?

The problem of shrinking schools in dying villages propped up by unnecessary infrastructure projects is one of the main dilemmas facing modern Japan, where low birth rates and the popularity of big cities are rapidly transforming the countryside into a gigantic nursing home. Work is done for the week, but this is an issue I hope to address in later posts.

Next week - folk songs and fireworks


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home