SAGA - When the colors of trees and plants fade in the cold winter air, nori comes into its prime with thick bushy leaves. To observe nori production and processing from scratch, I recently visited Saga Prefecture, which produces the nation's largest quantity of the seaweed. Nori is indispensable for sushi rolls and other Japanese dishes.
From a window of my plane as it descended over the Ariake Sea before landing at Saga Airport, I could see numerous thin poles sticking out of the calm surface of the sea. The poles supported nori cultivation nets that appeared to me to be like vegetable fields.
The next day, I watched the nori being gathered.
"The tastiest nori is harvested before dawn after it photosynthesizes during the daytime and accumulates nutrition," said Narito Sasaki, 45, a nori cultivator.
A worker at a nori processing factory examines sheets of nori after being produced by an automatic manufacturing machine. Sasaki took me to his nori cultivation ground in his boat to show how it was harvested.
A pair of workers aboard a small boat picked nori leaves while machines pulled in the nets, each 1.5 meters wide and 18 meters long. I could see black, bushy nori leaves through a net. These, Sasaki told me, would be made into the black, paper-thin sheets of nori familiar to diners everywhere.
The harvesting was completed in three hours, and we returned to port. The net was returned to the sea for the next harvest, a process that was continually repeated.
The harvested nori leaves were sent to a processing factory next to the port. They were washed, cut and made into thin sheets, each measuring 21 centimeters by 19 centimeters. They were then dried and examined to make sure no foreign substances were present. At the end of the half-day process, the dried nori - ebony and shining - was ready.
I sampled a nori sheet. As it quickly lost its shape, the smell of the sea filled my mouth.
"I'm proud of the feel of the nori melting in one's mouth," Sasaki said with a smile.
Dried nori sheets are generally sent to the Saga Prefecture Ariake Sea Fishery Cooperative Federation for grading and bidding.
The top-grade nori, called Ariakekai Ichiban (No. 1 of Ariake Sea), is made from the first harvest of soft leaves from each net. Out of 10,000 sheets, only about three are usually of such high quality.
However, due to disease and other factors, the leaves collected in the autumn last year were for the first time unable to meet the federation's standards for the highest grade.
"It can't be helped [if we are] to maintain the excellent quality of our products," Tadanori Egashira, an executive of the federation, said in reference to the strict grading.
Nets are replaced once in the middle of each season, which took place at the end of last year. Egashira said, "We'll hope for top-quality leaves from the next lot of nets."
I was surprised to learn that local nori cultivation became a full-fledged occupation only after World War II. The ecology of nori was determined for the first time then and a method of artificially planting nori seeds on nets in autumn was devised.
To ensure good growth, cultivated nori needs to be above the sea surface when the tide is low to be exposed to the sunshine. The Ariake Sea is ideal for nori cultivation because the difference between high tide and low tide is about six meters.
"The blessings of nature and the wisdom of humans are the secret of our tasty nori," Egashira said.
Local people enjoy nori as snacks, and it goes well with alcoholic beverages.
New recipes using nori also have been developed.
Chitoshi Tateoka, 59, who operates the Xiang Li Chinese restaurant in the city, created a nori noodle soup. The delicate, salty soup had a ginger flavor that added to the sweetness of the nori, the only ingredient other than noodles. The soup was so tasty I just slurped it down.
Nori cultivation workers have to give up their New Year's holidays.
When I heard this, I thought of isobe maki, a grilled piece of chewy mochi wrapped in nori. When I eat this food, I'll always feel thankful for the blessings of the sea and the people's hard work.
Maeumi, an outlet of the Saga Prefecture Ariake Sea Fishery Cooperative Federation, sells good bargain products, such as nori sheets with tears in them. The store also sells various processed products, fresh seafood and nori-flavored soft ice cream. San Nori, a subsidiary of the federation, sells nori products online.