Setoda’s Warm Winter Light

The captain of the fishing boat climbs down a thin metal ladder that leans against the cement wall that drops down from the pavement from the sea. Below, a boat that bathes in the morning light rocks gently in the port. He clambers on, re-ties the ropes, and signals for others to come on board.

Once the boat is a mere few meters offshore, the sea starts to form jagged peaks like mountain ranges in the winter wind. Soon, the boat starts to seesaw and the fishermen pass poles to each other to divert the boat away from large rocks in the shallows. They push off the bottom with their entire weight like Olympic high jumpers just before takeoff. Such is one of the many challenges of trying to catch octopus by takotsubo in the winter.

In the summer, it’s possible to fish alone in the serene waters. In contrast, winter’s unpredictable winds make it hard to keep the boat in place. Since the likelihood to catch tako is significantly lower, it’s not typical to fish with tako pots in this season – a method which doesn’t use bait, and simply involves dropping deep pots for octopi to crawl into. Yet sometimes it is worth the challenge.

Expectations are set to zero as the fishermen reel in the 300 meter necklace of brick-colored pots, so it’s nothing short of a triumph when they spot a lump lurking in the shadows of a pot. They pull the octopus out, and its long tentacles look mythical and prehistoric as it stretches out in slow-motion.

When all 80 pots have been collected, one of the fishermen perches at the tip of the boat, lights a cigarette and savors each puff as he flashes a child-like beam of accomplishment.

Once the boat is docked and the adrenaline starts to wind down, the fishermen start to notice their stiffening hands under soaked gunte gloves. Keen to defrost their fingers, they wave goodbye before making their way to the shotengai to drop off some of the octopus at Azumi, and head to yubune to soak in the gurgling baths before their lunch and afternoon shift.

On their way, they pass the Ikeda family citrus shop, where the matriarch sits in the corner, surrounded by orange crates and under a long lamp that’s clasped onto the wall. She picks up an orange from her left, rubs it on a cloth to take off little bits, smoothen the skin and create a little sheen, then drops them in another box to her right.

Her son rushes around packing up boxes so that they can make the shipping courier’s 11am pickup time, generating a little heat in the otherwise chilly shop.

Setouchi is known for its year round abundance of sunlight, but winter is winter. On most days, the morning sun feels like a warm blanket after a cool night, on other days like this, cold winds and continuous currents of deep sea water cause temperature drops despite clear skies. Paradoxically, in the colder temperatures, the landscape exhibits warmer colors; it’s more vivid, and the shadows are elongated.

And it’s not just our sight that is more vivid – our sense of touch may feel clearer as well, as the receptors in the tips of our ears to our toes numb in the harsh conditions and then awaken indoors.

Back at Azumi, the dinner menu plays on this heightened awareness of our sense of touch. The first plates – ceviche and asari clam soup – are served in shells so they can be eaten by hand. The shell’s cool and textured surface on the lips adds an unexpected element to the refined meal.

Meanwhile in the kitchen, chef balances an almost scientific level of precision with intuition and touch. To prepare the main chicken dish, he monitors the temperature of the radiant charcoal by hand and then focuses intently on turning each piece of chicken by hand as it roasts, simultaneously checking its firmness, temperature, and coloring.

Whether on a brisk walk down the shotengai or on a boat on the Setouchi waters, winter heightens our senses and calls attention to the textures and temperature of everyday things.