At 3 a.m., across a valley of dark and hushed rice fields, bright yellow lights suddenly appear on the horizon. I'm in a car with two friends, Yuki and Atsushi. We left the town of Karatsu a couple of hours before and wound our way east through rural Saga Prefecture. Our destination: A tiny port along the Ariake Sea, home to the area's famed nori farmers. Those lights -- the only illumination in an otherwise black night -- have to be the port. We turn off a country highway and follow narrow lanes that crisscross the farmland towards them.
The port is buzzing with activity as we pull up. Flat-bed utility trucks arrive and reverse down a concrete launch, warning signals bleating beep-beep-beep. 40-foot boats, diesel engines roaring, punch out to sea, one after the other. Other boats mill in the channel with bright spotlights glowing and sail over meet the trucks at the water's edge. Nori farmers, both men and women, wait next to the trucks. They're wearing white rubber boots, rubber gloves and orange, yellow, aqua, purple, lavender and pink rain slicks. Their faces are protected against the chilly night -- just below freezing -- by towels, cotton masks, balaclavas, hoods and knit caps. They quickly haul stacks of three by two-foot blue plastic baskets from the trucks onto the boats and hop aboard carrying food containers and cans of coffee. The boats pull out. More trucks back up and more boats arrive, loading and heading out in rapid succession.
I spot a tiny woman in a pink rain slick. How many boats leave here every morning? "80 from this port, 100 from a neighboring one," she answers with a laugh, surprised to see a Westerner suddenly appear here in the middle of the night. Her face is hidden behind a white facemask; all I can see is her eyes and a stripe of deeply tanned skin. How long have you been a nori farmer? "40 years. I work with my son."
By 3:30 a.m. the boats are gone. Two dozen trucks are parked and silent. The only sounds I hear now are waves gently lapping against a concrete breaker. My friends and I return to our subcompact, bundle up against the cold and try to sleep.
As I've learned more and more about Japanese cuisine, the more I've wanted to know the stories behind different ingredients. I believe you can pick any Japanese food, peel back a layer -- and discover a remarkable world. I thought to put this notion to the test with a humble ingredient like nori, the papery sheets of seaweed that wrap countless maki rolls in countless sushi restaurants -- stuff we take for granted. So I decided to head to this port by the Ariake Sea, off the coast of the southern island of Kyushu, where I heard the finest nori in Japan is harvested.
The beep-beep-beep of truck warning signals rouses me and my friends from a fitful rest. I look at my watch. 6:30 a.m. Not yet sunrise but the sky has molted from inky black to gunmetal gray. I can see the silhouette of mountains running along the coast. The trucks are back in action as boats begin to return to port, sailing slower now, their hulls heavy and low in the water.
I watch nori farmers jump off the boats. Two or three of them together grab the plastic baskets and heave them onto the truck beds. The containers are now filled with a sopping, waterlogged tangle of nylon rope that looks like it's been dipped in black tar. A farmer tells me the baskets weigh 60 to 90 pounds apiece. I watch him and his partners load 18 of them before pulling away. More boats arrive to unload. More trucks pull away. The farmers work rapidly. I ask one of them if I could follow his truck. Sure, he says with a wave of his hand.
My friends and I tail the truck in our subcompact. It's daylight now. A couple of minutes later we arrive to the farmer's house in a tiny village that sits between the harbor and rice fields. We watch the nori farmer, his wife, the farmer's father and his children unload the truck. It's groaning, difficult work. In pairs they hoist the ropy tangle into a centrifuge to spin out excess water, then return it to the truck. The tangle now looks like a black-colored, three-foot long matted dreadlock.
We follow the truck to a plot next to a rice field with an aluminum frame built over it. The farmers get out, untangle the dreadlock and string it up on the frame. It stretches for twenty feet: A lattice of nylon netting four feet high. Goop sticks to the lines -- nori. I put my nose to the lattice. It smells briny like the sea.
"We pull these nori beds in from the sea to dry them in the sun, which puts them in a dormant state," the farmer explains. Afterwards they store the beds in a freezer for a month before returning them to sea when the water temperature drops. The cold water revives the nori and it grows to harvest length. This backbreaking effort is what yields the finest seaweed.
We amble up a lane and meet other nori farmers in their homes and fields, busy processing nori beds. The fifty families in this village all work the Ariake Sea. I meet the Doi clan -- grandmother, father, mother, sons, daughters, cousins -- who've been collectively harvesting seaweed for 45 years. I tell him I want to join them on their boat. "We're returning to sea later this morning," he says. "Buy a lunchbox and meet us at the dock by 10."
The 25-year old son pilots the boat out to sea. Two other farmers sit with him at the stern. Three fiberglass dinghies rest across the bow. We soon arrive at a vast field planted in the calm sea. 10-foot PVC poles stick up from the water in every direction like the quills of a gigantic porcupine. I estimate the field to be some 50 square kilometers in size.
The son ties up the boat along an aquatic plot, four nori beds wide, and the three farmers launch their dinghies into the water, paddling against the tide with a single oar from a standing position. Once they reach the beds, they inspect each connecting line and adjust them. They continue this tedious task for the next six hours, stopping at a half-dozen different plots.
While we sail between plots I talk to the 25-year old son. His family works together with six others -- close friends and relatives -- to tend to 1,600 nori beds. They plant in October and harvest from December to March. In between they engage in a complicated ballet of tending, rotating, freezing and reintroducing beds. But why here? What makes the Ariake Sea so special?
He points to mountains that ring the sea as far as we can see. Nutrients wash down from these slopes and nourish water the color of chocolate milk. These "nutritious salts," as he calls them, feed the nori. Tides also play a big part. The tides in the Ariake Sea are amazing: They vary by as much as 6 meters - almost 20 feet. This exposes the seaweed to plenty of sunlight, the son explains, which kills bacteria.
As we sail under a bright sun, I think about how human ingenuity and fortuitous natural conditions combined to create an ideal environment for growing nori, an environment nurtured by the dedication and tireless work of these aqua-farmers. I peeled back a layer and found something special.
I tell the son I'd like to join him for the harvest in a few months. "Sure," he says with a smile, I'm welcome to come back.