The Sustainable “Great Lakes”
The Five Lakes of Mikata, Mihama Town & Wakasa Town
May 22nd, 2017
by Yuri Iwasaki

Located just a 40 minutes’ drive south from Tsuruga Station, you’ll find the Mikata Goko (the Five Lakes of Mikata) within the Wakasa Wan Quasi-National Park. Yes, these majestic lakes are beautiful to look at, but there is more to them than meets the eye. Read on to find out more…Looking at them, you will notice that the lakes are different colors. Another mysterious name for them is “the Lakes of Five Colors.” This is caused by the varying levels of salinity and ratios of fresh water, brackish water and sea water in each lake. It is this variation that gives each lake unique characteristics, especially in relation to fishing and local traditions.

However, the Five Lakes of Mikata were not exempt from the environmental pollution which resulted from rapid economic growth. They also had to face the destruction of ecosystems caused by alien species that careless fishermen released. Traditional fisheries of the Five Lakes of Mikata attract experts on environmental issues as ideal models for sustainable societies.

Let’s see the traditional fishing style and culture of each lake.

Mikata Lake, which is the second largest of the five, is known for groups of local fishermen catching carp in a most unusual way. Visiting it in the early winter morning, you will see them hitting the surface of the lake and making big splashes. In this way, they make the fish slow down so that they can be more easily caught in the nets. This method, which originated in the early 20th Century, is called Tataki-Ami: “Tataki” means “to hit” and “Ami” means “net.” Team work is essential for successful fishing of this style because four or five fishermen work together to chase carp into nets. Spend some time watching the fishermen at work and you will see carp being caught fresh out of the water, right before your eyes.

Suigetsu Lake and Suga Lake are well-known habitats for a tasty Japanese delicacy: eels. Usually, eels live in fresh water, but uniquely, these lakes have a mixture of fresh and salt water, which has a surprising effect on the eels; these conditions produce eels that not only taste better, but are also less smelly when cooked! Fishermen use a traditional method of catching them; they place bamboo tubes down into the water to trap the eels, because they know that eels like to hang out in narrow spaces. Since fish hooks are not used in this method, there is less chance of the eels being damaged when they are caught. If small eels get trapped, they can easily be released back into the water, to help sustain the eel population.

Clams live in Kugushi Lake, and from late summer to fall you can watch fishermen wade into the water looking for them, using traditional methods. They scrape the bottom of the lake with a special rake that has a bucket attached, collecting the clams. Clam shells have been unearthed during archaeological digs here, indicating that people fished for clams as early as the Jomon era (approximately 3rd to 5th Century BC). Things don’t get much more traditional than that!

In mid-January every year, Hiruga Lake is the scene of the Suichu Tsunahiki, a 380-year-old traditional festival where local men jump into the water to compete in a tug-of-war competition. This is where the lake meets Wakasa Bay, and crowds come from all around to witness this popular festival. The folk tale says ancient people placed a thick net in the water to capture a giant snake that appeared from the lake. This tug-of-war festival is the most important event for locals to pray for successful fishing and happiness of families.

The number of fisheries in the Five Lakes of Mikata is decreasing, as is the number of fishermen who maintain traditional fishing methods. Local communities encourage people to eat more fish and shell fish in order to preserve the environment of the lakes. There are plenty of fish restaurants dotted all around the five lakes, making it very easy for you to sample local seasonal fish dishes. These include grilled eels, carp and crucian carp cooked in a pot or served raw as sashimi. You can eat all these, safe in the knowledge that the foods are fished locally using traditional methods, which contribute to the sustainability of these wonderful lakes.

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