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Slimy, salty but tasty seaweed brings life back to Japanese village

Ian Williams / NBC News

Women in the Japanese village of Utatsu work on the seawood harvest on a recent morning.

UTATSU, Japan – At first light, the cove at Utatsu is a picture of tranquility, the silence broken only by the chugging of engines as a fleet of small boats makes its way out across the flat blue water.

But the small harbor from which they leave is cracked and has sunk by two and a half feet. Beyond the beach is the crumpled remains of a seawall, tossed aside by the tsunami, and behind that the foundations are all that are left of a cluster of homes.

"I can't even find the words to describe it," said Hiroko Mirura, who heads a local women's fishing association, and who lost her husband in last year’s tsunami.


Before the disaster, the local economy was built around scallops, oysters and seaweed – with the seaweed from here prized across Japan. But Utatsu lost 80 of its 100 fishing boats.

 

The boats that survived were mostly out at sea when the raging water swept in, but for the first time since the disaster, they are now back out, harvesting seaweed.

Ian Williams / NBC News

A Japanese seaweed fishing boat in Utatsu, Japan works on the harvest.

 

"It's a start," Mirura told me, "but we still need to fix the fishing facilities." Now up to 200 people are back at work.

Slimy mess tastes good
We joined the seaweed farmers on a bitterly cold morning as they pulled from the water giant branches of the slimy weed, known in Japan as wakame. It's grown from long frames, marked by rows of buoys. Mostly this is a family business, and men and women with craggy weathered faces worked methodically at the weed with their curved knives.

Few words were spoken, though one man, taking a break, cigarette hanging from his lips, told us: "It's good, the quality is very good this year." They expect it to fetch high prices in the market.

Nearly one year after the devastating earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan, stunning images show what the hardest hit areas looked like then and now. NBC's Ian Williams reports.

Back on shore, the Wakame is dunked in boiling water, to soften and clean it, before being salted as a preservative. In the past this processing machinery had been kept at their homes, but was mostly swept away with those houses.

The new equipment has been provided under a program backed by the U.S. charity Mercy Corps and their Japanese partner Peace Winds. The giant U.S. retailer Walmart also provided support.

"This is really the beginning of seeing their economy come back to life," said Randolph Martin, who heads Mercy Corps' East Asia operations, and has spent a good chunk of the last year in Japan looking for this type of high impact micro-investment.

"It’s more than just getting the economy going. It's about getting their lives and livelihoods back," Martin told me. "You look here and you don't see helpless victims of a disaster. You see resilient survivors."

The Japanese village of Utatsu was famous for its seaweed, until last year's tsunami devastated the industry. Randolph Martin, from the U.S. charity Mercy Corps, explains how fishermen are revitalizing their economy.

 

Around 100 sets of processing equipment have been supplied to the community here. One elderly man bent over his tank of boiling water, stirring the weed with his gloved hand. He stepped back to hand me a stalk of Wakame with a sort of cork-screw type head on it, and regarded as a particular delicacy. It was slimy, crunchy and salty – but surprisingly tasty.

The elderly man laughed, so did several women seated on the ground nearby, sorting through more seaweed, just dragged like some slimy alien off another boat.

The task of rebuilding this battered coast is enormous, but for the small hamlet of Utatsu the return of their seaweed business is an important step towards restoring their livelihoods and sense of community.

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