Daytrip to Ibaraki’s attractions – Lake Kasumigaura, harbor and Tsuchiura Castle

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The way it was: Hobiki-sen fishing trawlers on Lake Kasumigaura in Ibaraki Prefecture, where they were the only vessels allowed to fish commercially until 1967. HILLEL WRIGHT PHOTOS

Excerpted from “Ibaraki’s Hidden Lure” by Hillel Wright (Japan Times, Sunday, May 23, 2010)

Often overlooked is Tokyo’s near neighbor of Ibaraki Prefecture, bordered by Chiba to the south and Fukushima to the north, Tochigi on the west and the Pacific Ocean on the east.

Other than scientists visiting one of the 46 research institutes in Tsukuba, or soccer fans of the Kashima Antlers, the J-League’s most successful team — with seven league championships in the 17 years of the league’s existence — most people have probably not considered visiting Ibaraki to explore its considerable attractions.

However, within the prefectual borders there are many fascinating, beautiful and unique destinations, both natural and historical, just waiting to provide a wide range of seasonal, culinary and cultural experiences.

In this report, stand by to be introduced to just three of them that span the year and cover the length and breadth of the prefecture.

First stop is Tsuchiura, located on the western shore of Lake Kasumigaura, and easily accessible by car on the Joban Expressway or by rail on the JR Joban Line, just 66 minutes (and ¥1,110) from Ueno Station in central Tokyo.

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Seat of power: Tsuchiura Castle was the home of the Tsuchiya lords who ranked second only to the Tokugawa Shoguns who ruled Japan from 1603-1867.

Lake Kasumigaura, with a surface area of 220 sq. km and a 252-km shoreline, is Japan’s largest lake after Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture, near Kyoto (674 sq. km). The greatest attraction of the lake, besides the sport fishing it offers for alien species such as channel catfish and large-mouth bass, are its hobiki-sentrawlers with their gorgeous and unusual sails.

Some 20,000 years ago, Lake Kasumigaura was part of the Pacific Ocean, an inlet reaching all the way to the foot of Mount Tsukuba. In more recent times the sea receded, but the lake remained partly saltwater and tidal, being connected to the Pacific by a series of marshes, lagoons and branches of the Tonegawa River. But in 1973, the government ordered the sluice gates on the Tonegawa’s Hitachitone Dam to be closed, and since then it has become a freshwater lake.

Fisheries have existed on Lake Kasumigaura since ancient times. Fisherman often lived on their boats, which they propelled by means of a sculling oar in the stern. Fishing boats were small, about six meters in length, yet some fishermen had their wives and children living on board.

Then, from the end of the Edo Period (1603-1867), Western technology began to arrive in Japan, and the country plunged into a process of rapid modernization.

Larger sailing trawlers, from eight to 15 meters long, and carrying a small crew of three or four, were introduced on Lake Kasumigaura. The crew would row, still using the sculling technique, from the main harbor of Tsuchiura, 8 or 10 km out to the point of the Dejima Peninsula, and then sail back, dragging a midwater trawl on the prevailing easterly wind off the Pacific.

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Cool cats: Japanese catfish in Lake Kasumigaura, where a fisherman of legend bared (almost) all to do what no others did, and catch them in winter.

The hobiki-sen use a single, wide rectangular sail and fish by drifting downwind, the sail being used to generate pulling power for the net which is dragged some 60 to 80 meters behind the boat as it travels beam-on (sideways) to the wind and rides crossways up the crests and down the troughs of the waves.

To crew a hobiki-sen in anything but the most balmy breezes takes great skill in handling the sail and spar to prevent capsizing, and indeed many boats did turn turtle until their crews gained experience.

Conversely, in the case of too much wind or none, the boats simply did not go out. The main targeted species of the hobiki-sen fishermen were whitebait(shirauo) and freshwater smelt (wakasagi). The latter were boiled in brine and dried in the sun before being sold to the fishmongers.

Although motorized freight and passenger boats navigated the lake and its connecting rivers during the late Meiji Era (1868-1912), hobiki-sen remained the dominant type of fishing boat for nearly 100 years. Interestingly, the reason for this stemmed from the sense of social equality prevalent among the rural people of the day.

This feeling is strikingly illustrated through the words of Kakuji Sakurai, a Tsuchiura-based shipwright who lived from 1905-88 and is quoted in an English-language collection of oral histories titled “Memories of Wind and Waves; a Self-Portrait of Lakeside Japan” (Kodansha International, 2002) by Junichi Saga:

” . . . it was thought unfair to have two classes of men, the one relying on muscle power and the other on motor power to do the same work — so attaching motors to fishing vessels was outlawed.”

That ban on the use of motors on fishing boats remained in force until 1967, and, although hobiki-sen no longer figure in the commercial catch on Lake Kasumigaura, a fishery business does continue there.

Carp, raised in net pens, represent the chief fishery today, while Japanese freshwater smelt (wakasagi) caught by motorized trawlers come second, followed by bottom fisheries for goby and shrimp, caught in traps.

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Past continuous: One of the buildings dating from the Edo Period (1603-1867) along a remarkable street in the old city of Tsuchiura, just a few minutes’ walk from the main JR station.

However, perhaps the most extreme and ingenious method of harvesting Lake Kasumigaura’s bounty was devised by a famed local character known as “Catfish Kyubei,” whose story as told by lake fisherman Takamasa Sakurai is also recorded in “Memories of Wind and Waves.”

Catfish Kyubei, it seems, was a lake fisherman who lived from 1905-93 and spent most of his working life fishing for Japanese catfish (namazu) with traps made of bamboo strips and baited with earthworms. In winter, though, catfish become sluggish in the colder water and congregate on the bottom around large underwater rocks. During that frigid season, while other fishermen ceased going for catfish, Kyubei would continue to catch them by diving underwater and using his bare hands to grab them.

In fact, history tells us that Kyubei would plunge into the lake stark naked — except for a straw covering tied around the end of his penis.

When the narrator Sakurai, himself then aged just 10, asked Kyubei about this practice, he apparently replied: “You know where a man feels the cold the worst? Right here at the end of his pole. Leave this exposed and your whole body suffers. Cover it up like this and you’re all right.”

Kyubei went on to explain the method to his apparent madness: “For me to catch catfish, I have to make my body as cold as theirs . . . as long as we’re the same temperature, they can’t tell I’m there, but if I’m warmer, they’re on to me in a flash and take off. That’s why I fish like this.”

Nowadays, meanwhile, though Catfish Kyubei may have departed the lake, its hobiki-sen still sail on Sundays (except Aug. 15 and 22) from late July to late November, from 2-3 p.m. July-September (Tour 1) and 3.30-4.30 p.m. in October and November (Tour 2). Sailings are cancelled in times of strong wind and rain associated with typhoons.

While visitors can’t actually board a hobiki-sen, they can take a tour aboard one of two cruisers that approach within hailing distance of the craft and provide excellent viewing and photo opportunities.

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Poetry in motion: A hobiki-sen fishing trawler as seen today under full sail on Lake Kasumigaura is one of those photo-ops that, especially in this age of digital snapping, few could resist fulsomely recording in all its finery.

It’s a wonderful chance to see true living history — and one made all the more evocative in light of a description recorded in “Memories of Wind and Waves” by hobiki-sen fisherman Susumu Fujii, who lived from 1911-97 and is quoted as follows: “When you got to the fishing ground and hoisted your sail, the wind would catch it in the middle, bellying it out so that it seemed to fill the whole sky. . . . That was a lovely sight — never failed to make my heart swell. No motor-powered boat could ever give you such a thrill.”

Kasumigaura Harbor is a 5-minute walk from the East Exit of Tsuchiura Station, and the Keisei Marina, home of the White Iris, a motorized catamaran cruiser, is about another 10 minutes away along the north shore of the lake. Tour 1 (July 25- September 26) leaves the marina at 2 p.m., with sign-up time from 1-1.30 p.m., and returns an hour later. Tour 2 (Oct. 3-Nov. 28) leaves at 3.30 p.m. and sign-up time is from 2.30-3 p.m. The ship carves a circular course across the lake and drifts alongside the hobiki-sen for 10 to 15 minutes. With binoculars or a zoom lens, you can just about see the fillings in the crewmen’s teeth.

Two other prime attractions of Tsuchiura, both located a 15-minute walk from the West Exit of the station, are the old city with its remarkable street of original buildings from the Edo Period (1603-1867), and Tsuchiura Castle, ancestral home of the Tsuchiya lords who ranked second to the Tokugawa Shoguns who ruled feudal Japan throughout that period — and whose defenses likely gave the name to today’s Ibaraki Prefecture, since the kanji meaning of “ibaraki” is “thorny castle.”


Further readings:

Reviving Nature Around Lake Kasumigaura

History of Hobikisen

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