Behind the Scenes

You’ve come to Banda for the fish and the morning air, and to watch the unassuming, no-nonsense fishermen at work. You’ll also get to catch a glimpse of the social bonds that undergird the community.

The boat’s owner is perhaps 70 years old, a local leader, head of the fisherman’s association, dedicated member of the school board. He always manned his boat with migrant workers from up north except in mid-winter, when he sent them home — the catch was too meager to make it worth his while to pay them.

But the local innkeepers’ biggest lure for tourists was fresh fish, and the long winter break didn’t suit them. “The fundamental point is – there’s lots of good food in Tokyo. But for freshness – you have to come here,” says second-generation innkeeper at Kawabata ryokan. So a band of hoteliers, upwards of age 70, sat on the boat owner and told him they had to have fish in winter as in summer. They’d take it on themselves to supply the manpower; he must supply the boat and his expertise. He grumbled or at least pretended to, but at 55 he was the young one, they say, and they were in any case his clients and his community.

So he took the boat out. And they, for their part, sent their sons out at 5 a.m., a couple of them fresh out of university in Tokyo. Sixty days a winter, for five years, they put in 2-3 hours each morning on the boats, prepping, netting, sorting, cleaning, obeying the boat chief’s exacting instructions, before beginning their real days as hotel-keepers proper. The taciturn boat chief never paid them or acknowledged their contribution except with an annual complimentary round of golf.

The fathers’ gang still meets regularly over drinks. And the sons know everything about the fish that’s so integral to their businesses. You might see one of them, now about 40, who shows up at the marina in his slippers at 6 am (just after delivering his kids to baseball practice). He knows how to  lend a hand and can always get away with sneaking a couple of good-looking fish for his customers.