It's Seaweed Weather!
"Kyo-wa nori-tori tenki desu." "Today is seaweed gathering weather," my Grandpa, Yoshiaki Amatatsu said while looking up at the semi-cloudy sky. Although I could speak a formal style of Japanese, which I learned from my grandparents, listening and understanding Japanese was much easier. To an eight-year-old in 1960, Grandpa was old (77 that year) and thin, but kind and quiet as he towered over me.
This morning, there was a cool breeze bustling through the trees on the farm. Gray clouds were forming, possibly rain later in the day, but the tide would be just right to gather seaweed on a crisp spring day.
"You have to eat something!" Mom said.
She and Grandma had earlier made lunch consisting of onigiri (rice balls or triangles) filled with tsukemono — pickled yellow daikon, mustard greens, or umeboshi the tangy, salty, shriveled, purple plums — and some of them wrapped in seaweed. They also baked tender chicken teriyaki, glistening golden brown with the marinade of shoyu, sugar, ginger, and garlic.
My family took part in the seaweed ritual once a year, which they had been doing for decades on Bainbridge Island, when on a certain spring day, the red/brown seaweed were plentiful off Point White.
"Oishii desu ne?" "Isn't it delicious?" Grandpa said anticipating the taste of the dark strands — baked in the oven, then crushed and sprinkled over rice, or broken into steamy udon soup, or dried to a crisp on top of the wood stove and eaten as-is, crunchy and salty, like eating a piece of Puget Sound.
Arriving at Point White, we walked to the beach with our galvanized tin buckets and our green rubber boots.
"Brrrrr it's cold!" I grumbled as we waded into the frigid water to hand pick the seaweed. I wore two pairs of socks and a heavy wool beige cardigan under my hooded red jacket. My fingers were numb, but I kept pulling the slippery long pieces of seaweed and dropping them in the bucket until it was almost too heavy to haul over the unstable beach rocks back to the car. The day before, Grandpa made drying racks that looked like rows of wooden clothesline beside the house. We rinsed the seaweed in cold, fresh water, and hung them up in single strips. In a couple of days, the seaweed would dry, we would bundle them in brown paper, tie with white string, and store in the basement.
On any other day, Grandpa worked in his hatake (garden) weeding, hoeing, fertilizing and growing our family's vegetables of radishes, carrots, tomatoes, corn, zucchini, cucumbers, pumpkins, squash, and rhubarb. He pruned trees of sweet cherries, purple Italian plums, Bartlett pears, yellow transparents, Red Delicious, and King apples, many were grafted for variety. Sweet fragrant raspberries, and a few rows of the big juicy Marshall strawberries were also grown, but the acres of strawberries he had planted and harvested since 1915 were gone by the time I was born.
Before we left the beach, the tide having come in, we sat and rested on the Point White dock, eating our lunch. My short legs dangled over the edge of the wooden planks. As we ate, we put down fishing line that was wrapped around a piece of wood or cardboard. We didn't need a pole or reel. With hook, sinker, and earthworms that were dug up from the garden, we fished in the dark cold water in about 15 or 20 feet to catch silvery perch and shiners.
"Doshte koko ni kimashtaka?" "Why did you come here?" I asked him while we waited.
"Kuyka shitai no de America ni kimashta no desu." "I came to America for a vacation." Grandpa said in his barely-audible voice. It was impolite to ask a lot of questions, but I learned that he fought in Manchuria as a young man in the Japanese Imperial Army, and his family had been samurai who eventually became physicians. He had studied medicine at the university in Japan, and as the eldest son, his duty was to take over the family's medical practice. He chose America instead.
Suddenly, my line started jerking. "I got a shiner!" I shouted as I tried to hang onto the slippery little fish.
Grandpa smiled and took the little guy, unhooked it, and added it to our small pile of fish. "Mo kairimasho." "Let's go home." We picked up the bucket of fish and headed back to the car loaded with seaweed and a couple of red sea cucumbers.
The perch and shiners were pan-fried, and Grandma chopped up the sea cucumbers and pickled them in a brine of shoyu and vinegar. "Sake to taberu." "Good to eat with sake." Grandpa smiled. He would share the snack with his men friends while playing a game of Go, the Japanese strategy board game.
After the long day, I welcomed the bath in the ofuroba. Grandpa built it himself many years earlier out of wood, the pieces fitting together tongue and groove. The "tub" was deep enough that the walls were higher than my head when I sat down into the steamy water that was heated by a fire. This traditional Japanese bathtub was in a room that was built onto the back of the garage.
The evening was dark and chilly as I ran outside, and I could see Grandpa in his floppy fedora hat with pipe hanging from his mouth, crouching down outside of the fire pit, stoking the orange-yellow flames. Once ready for the bath, I remembered mom saying "Don't use the soap in the tub!" I stepped onto a wood-slatted matt with a drain below it and drew out a basin of the warm water and poured it over my head and lathered-up.
After rinsing off with clear cool water from a nearby smaller tin tub, which was also used to cool down the hot ofuro water, I climbed in. "Ahhhhh", even at eight years of age, I knew that relaxing and soaking in a deep tub of hot water was delight for the soul.
Finally, I got out, dried off, put on my PJs and walked back to the house. I don't know how the water was drained (or added), and I never had to tend the fire. Grandpa took care of that. I believed that life on Bainbridge Island with Grandpa would always go on like this.
In 1941, just a couple of days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Grandpa was taken away by the FBI for having dynamite in his storage shed. He used it for blowing up stumps to clear his fields. Unlike many Japanese-American families who were interned together, he spent nearly four years in a camp in Bismark, ND, separated from his family who were in Manzanar then Minidoka, because he was classified as an enemy alien of the United States.
In the same year of my story, 1960, Grandpa, who became an American citizen, relinquished all of his ties — properties and holdings — to his family in Japan. It was his final gesture that he would not return. Bainbridge Island was home.
Grandpa died on his birthday, October 23, 1971, at the age of 88. Grandma Taka Amatatsu died three weeks later at age 80. My mom Michi Noritake, turning 90 this December, is alive and well on Bainbridge, and my brother Greg Noritake and wife Leinette now live on what was once our farm.
(Left to right) Taka Amatatsu, Yoshiaki Amatatsu, Wendy Noritake, Michi Noritake. 1953.
Photo courtesy Wendy Noritake.
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