HOLY MACKEREL : No Fishing Allowed in a Prophet’s Hometown

Jesus killed fish.

I mean him no disrespect in pointing it out, but this undeniable fact (see Luke, chapter 5) is useful in comparing Japan with the West. For instance, one of the greatest figures of Japanese religious history, a monk named Nichiren, was strictly against the killing of fish. Happily for the world’s gourmets, most Japanese ignore that particular teaching.

Nichiren lived from 1222 to 1282, but his influence can still be felt today. There are Nichiren monasteries all over Japan, and in a few in other countries as well. A twentieth century offshoot of Nichiren Buddhism called the Sokka Gakkai movement spawned a political party called Komeito that was part of a recent coalition government under Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa. Nichiren’s primary religious legacy consists of his determination that the Lotus Sutra represents the true teachings of Buddha. This came at a time when a number of different sutras were circulating in Japan, each claiming to be definitive. It took him twenty years of study to reach the conclusion that he did.

Jesus, on the other hand, mastered the scriptures of his people when he was still a kid (see Luke, chapter 2). Score one for Jesus. Jesus also spoke the famous line about a prophet being without honor in his hometown. This was not true in Nichiren’s case. Score one for Nichiren.

He was born in Awa-Kominato, a small town in what is now Chiba prefecture. The people of Nichiren’s hometown pay him homage by refusing to fish in their small bay, which has a population of bream. There are plenty of fisherman in the town, of course, but they sail beyond the bay before they drop their nets.

Some of the local boatmen make their money off of tourists who come to visit the fish. As the result of Nichiren’s legacy of protection, the happy and grateful bream have become friends of humanity, and the bonds of love and understanding between man and fish have endured through the generations. Visiting tourists delight in feeding sembei (rice crackers) to the plump, contented bream who blush and bat their eyes as they nibble from your hand.

Or so the local tourist pamphlets would have you believe.

I personally visited Kominato several years ago — much more recently than Nichiren — and found it rather disappointing. I and the other tourists in the boat cast our sembei upon the waters and waited for the show to begin. After a few moments, some of the sembei disappeared into brief, swirling ripples, but whatever creature had pulled them under never broke the dark surface. It could have been a mermaid or a minnow. Finally, the captain started up the engine to take the boat back to shore. Most of the sembei were still afloat.

Even if the bream tour is a flop, there are plenty of places in Chiba prefecture where fish and people can interact in a more enjoyable way. The Boso Peninsula, which separates Tokyo Bay from the Pacific Ocean, makes up the bulk of Chiba’s land. There are fishy attractions all around it.

Kamogawa Sea World is located just two stops away from Awa-Kominato on Japan Rail’s Sotobo (outer Boso) Line. Even though Kamogawa is just 60 km (40 miles) from Tokyo, its streets are lined with palm trees thanks to the warming influence of the Japan Current. The town’s main attraction, though, is the Sea World theme park. There, you can watch a killer whale show from an open-air grandstand or from the window of a viewing gallery below water level. There are also performances by trained seals, dolphins, and penguins. As for the exhibits, my favorite is their extensive collection of bizarre crustaceans.

If you’re sensitive about ogling fish that are cooped up in tanks, try Katsuura Kaichu Koen. At this unusual aquarium, you will be the one who is cooped up. The building is in the shape of an inverted lighthouse at the end of a pier, allowing visitors to literally descend to the ocean floor. Cages of bait are anchored near the windows to ensure that your finny friends will swim into view. On the day that I visited, there were a number of zebra-striped fish the size of my hand who stood out from their more nondescript brethren. Of course, its impossible to predict what creatures may appear from moment to moment. If you go, get off the Sotobo train at Uhara, one station away from Katsuura proper.

The northeastern side of the Boso Peninsula is Kujukuri beach, a 55 km (37 mile) swath of sand that interrupts an otherwise rocky coast. Rumor has it that toward the end of World War II the Japanese military expected a Normandy-style invasion here, to be followed by a drive across the Kanto Plain toward Tokyo. Geographically it would have made sense, but fortunately for both sides it never came to pass. These days, Kujukuri is just a low-key resort area, with surf shops, noodle joints, and bed-and-breakfasts scattered along the beach’s considerable length.

Chiba’s easternmost point of land is Choshi, a large fishing town on a rocky cape that juts out into the Pacific just north of Kujukuri. It boasts two different soy sauce breweries plus a historic whitewashed lighthouse that serves as the town’s symbol. I’ve actually been to the top of the lighthouse in the past, but where I most recently caught a glimpse of it was on a can of Choshi-made mackerel curry at supermarket in landlocked Saitama. I like mackerel and I love curry, but the two didn’t compliment each other as well as I had hoped. Live and learn.

Still, if you decide to go to Choshi, be sure to ride their quaint old trolley. You may also want to look into the four-hour whale- and dolphin-watching cruises that leave from Inobusaki Marine Park. Choshi is the very last stop on JR’s Narita Line.

Finally, there’s Kasai Rinkai Koen, which technically is not in Chiba at all — but it is only about 100m over the border in Tokyo. On the shore of Tokyo Bay, this aquarium features a large collection of sharks. It also has not only the mandatory penguins (extremely popular birds in Japan) but puffins as well. The literal and figurative centerpiece is a giant donut-shaped tuna tank where you can stand in the middle and watch dinner swim all around you.

Speaking of dinner, Kasai Rinkai Koen is just a few kilometers from the world-famous Tsukiji fish market. There, or at least in the surrounding neighborhood, you can have fish just the way Jesus liked them.

On a plate.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.

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