Night Fishing in Tokyo
The Sumida river flows through Tokyo the way the memory of Fisherman Yoru (night in Japanese) will course through my head, reminding me about the joys of being alive.
Months ago, back in Singapore, I met someone who introduced me to a world of illegal fishing. Something about rivers in the dead of the night for an insomniac such as myself seemed compelling enough for me to meet a Tinder match by the river bank one evening before an exam. Fishing in public spaces is strictly prohibited in Singapore.
Subsequently, he brought me to a “pay-pond”, where one can rent a space to fish out of a communal pond. We were there from midnight to noon, and that was where I caught my first ‘biggie’ (big fish).
For the sake of clarity and distinction, I will refer to Tinder boy as Fisherman Yoake (dawn in Japanese). System of nomenclature here is quite self-explanatory.
Some of my times with Fisherman Yoake were spent sitting by the river watching him set up bait, doing the occasional casting. Casting refers to throwing out the line with a lure or bait hooked on it. A lure can come in the form of a hard plastic fish that wobbles or actual meat bits.
There is a momentum you have to get right to cast it far out and steady. Fisherman Yoake asked if I wanted to try. He guided me.
When a fish gets caught in the snare, its fight or flight response is activated and the line gets taut. A skillful angler would let the fish swim away for a bit before tugging on the line and reeling it towards them. Typically, there is a three-second lull where you let the fish try to escape. Think of the scene in Black Panther where the arms dealer Ulysses Klaue played by Andy Serkis lets one of the guards run away before shooting him in the back of his head. The thrill of the catch is all part of the fun.
Here on, it gets tedious. You have to reel the fish in, tighten the line, then loosen it, and repeat the process over and over. This exhausts the critter. All these culminate to the apotheosis of the hunt. Right before you feel the staggering weight on your line loosening, is the brief instant before the fish buckles and relinquishes its leverage over you.
As it floated up to the surface, we saw the monumental catfish in a debilitated state, enervated in its frail from. We called the farm keeper over to haul it onto land for the trophy photo before releasing it back into the pond. It did not look like a very big pond; I wondered how many of those catfish it contained.
I have ceased speaking to Fisherman Yoake, because, what always happens, life.
Snapping back into real time, a month-long travel-writing program takes me to Tokyo. Residing at a guesthouse in Kuramae, I found the Sumida river was right behind. Someone spoke of it on the first night, so I left for the river tout de suite.
Winds guffawed and waters babbled ferociously like a boiling broth. As I lit a cigarette, a man clad in a black polo shirt became plain. The ‘fisherman’s stance’ – that is how you spot one before seeing the rod.
Upon closer inspection, I confirmed that he was indeed fishing. Perching myself on a bench, I retreated into my mind, contemplating my next move.
Should I make conversation with him? Should I ask if I can fish? But my skills are mediocre and rusty. He is going to think I am a crackhead. Besides, I might end up fucking up his momentum, leaving him empty-handed for the night.
As I took hurried puffs the way I do when I am unsettled and deep in thought, ‘Love Like a Sunset Part I’ and then ‘Part II’ by Phoenix were playing. Something about Thomas Mars crooning “right where it starts, it ends” really got to me, and I switched from a state of reticent dilemma to lucid clarity. I am befriending this elderly fisherman!
With Google Translate in hand, I sauntered towards him with aim. He heard me, and curiously angled his head in my direction. The nearer I got, the more he reminded me of Carl from the movie Up – alone, furrowed brows, sullen-looking, same squarish face. The flashback scene the film infiltrated my mind, giving way to a little aperture in my heart. I love Carl, he is precious.
I gave the sincerest smile I could muster, and my standard protocol as an inadequate Japanese-speaker kicked in. “Sumi-masen!” aside, I enquired about his night’s haul.
I learned that he usually fishes alone. He had not caught anything yet, but revealed a few of his previous hauls. I showed him my big fish. He was impressed and I was unable to hide my goofy grin.
Unzipping his bag, he withdrew a tool box. In it were a stunning array of lures – hard plastic fishes, all vibrantly colored. He saw me looking on wide-eyed, bright-eyed, stun-eyed, and took the cue to show me the Facebook page of the shop he gets these lures from.
In actuality, I was not as much interested in the lures’ origins as I was touched that he was sharing a part of his life with me, some strange stranger who’d intruded into his nighttime pastime. I know how it can be like, the hustle and bustle of life, the crowds, the incessant talking; fishing is a good way to get away, an escapism of sorts. So is walking by the river.
I asked about his family, if he has family. I was comforted to learn he had two grandchildren. I asked if he ever comes to fish with his wife; he shook his head gently with a soft smile and muttered something I could not make out. He proceeded to light a cigarette. I lit mine. We stood in silence for a while. I foraged my head for more questions. I wanted to know more about Fisherman Yoru.
“So when do you come out to fish?” I meekly posed.
He fished out his phone, clicked on an app and a graph popped up. I tried my best to interpret while he mumbled and gestured with his hands. Eventually, I figured that the graph indicated tide levels. He comes out during high tide, because fish get washed up nearer to the shore.
When we were done with our cigarettes, I asked for photos, and he was more than happy to comply. Before I left, he asked if he could have a photo of me as well. I was pleased to oblige.
Later on, he came by my bench and told me he was heading back. Apparently, law enforcers put out a rule that fishing is allowed until 1am, and any fishing done after will be prosecuted.
As we parted ways, he told me to be careful as it was late at night and I was a girl. In return, I told him not to worry as I was a “strong and independent woman”. We shared a laugh and a hug, and he expressed that he will be back on other nights, so perhaps we will meet again.
Later, I watched as his slow but able body whisked in with the night shadows. As I ambled along the riverside back to the guesthouse, transports of euphoric fullness pulsed through my heart.
I have not seen him again although I still go by the river on some nights, hoping to catch Fisherman Yoru once more from the corner of my eye.