Ibaraki: Fishing method of old offers harmony with nature

Yomiuri Shimbun photos
The Kasumigaura City Museum of History building is modeled after a castle, left, An elaborate two-thirds scale model of a hobikisen fishing boat built by ship carpenters is displayed at the museum.

KASUMIGAURA, Ibaraki — Lake Kasumigaura in Ibaraki Prefecture is the second-largest lake in Japan, after Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture. The Kasumigaura City Museum of History in Kasumigaura, Ibaraki Prefecture, tells the history of hobiki net-fishing, which was a fishing method that originated in the Meiji era (1868-1912) and was practiced on the lake for almost a century.

A huge sail immediately filled the view as I stepped into the museum. Magnificent and enchanting, the sail was for a hobikisen fishing boat and made so it could stretch beyond the edge of the hull.

However, the fishing boat on display was only a two-thirds scale model. The sails of actual hobikisen boats are said to reach a height of 9 meters and a width of 14-16 meters.

According to Takashi Chiba, the museum’s director, fishermen would haul in fishing nets while steering the boat so it slid sideways and the sail would catch the wind.

Hobiki net-fishing was invented by a fisherman in the Kasumigaura area during the Meiji era and was practiced for about 90 years to fish for shirauo Japanese icefish and wakasagi smelts, according to the museum.

The fishing method spread to other prefectures, and hobikisen boats are said to have even been seen on Lake Hachirogata — parts of which were later reclaimed — in Akita Prefecture.

Chiba mentioned an “unusual connection” regarding the fishing method and proceeded to guide me to exhibition rooms on the second and third floors, where some of the region’s great figures are introduced along with traditional folk handicrafts. Such figures include Kanekichi Sakamoto, who introduced the fishing method to people in Hachirogata and was the grandfather of the famous singer Kyu Sakamoto.

“Learning such facts is one of the best parts of history,” Chiba said.

There are spectacular views from the museum’s top floor of Lake Kasumigaura, where more than 900 hobikisen boats once sailed, covering the waters with their white sails.

With the advent of power-driven vessels, hobikisen boats fell out of favor for fishing at the lake in the late 1960s.

Nowadays, hobikisen boats only sail as a tourist attraction and, combined with the aging of local fishermen, the number of such boats is said to have dwindled to about seven in Kasumigaura and neighboring cities.

Regarding the tradition of hobiki net-fishing, Chiba said, “I hope it will be passed to future generations as something useful for society” because he believes people can learn much from a fishing method that respects nature. For example, with this fishing method, nets are drawn slowly so as not to hurt fish, and fishing is canceled on windless days.

His remarks made me think about the symbiosis between people and nature as I stood before the expansive lake.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Models of fishermen are seen on a boat.
The Yomiuri Shimbun
Local folk handicrafts are displayed at the museum.
The Yomiuri Shimbun

Kasumigaura City Museum of History

The facility opened in 1987 as a folk museum introducing local history and culture. It is about 25 minutes by car from the Tsuchiura-Kita Interchange on the Joban Expressway.

Address: 1029-1 Saka, Kasumigaura, Ibaraki Prefecture

Hours: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Closed on Mondays (if a public holiday falls on a Monday, then the following day), and over the New Year holiday

Admission: ¥220 for high school students and older, ¥110 for elementary and junior high school students, and free for children under elementary school age