“Kama” in hand, seaweed in the bag: Camp Courtney opens gates for 15th annual Hijiki Harvest
Camp Courtney, OKINAWA, Japan -- A brisk wind brings a chill as the tide breaks from the shoreline and rolls back out to sea. As the waves calm, conversation can be heard and the anticipation felt as Okinawa residents pour onto the beach in droves to harvest small green and brown seaweed plants called “hijiki.”
The annual Hijiki Harvest on Camp Courtney occurs every year and lasts about a week, drawing Okinawa residents from all over the island. This year marks the 15th annual harvest, which began March 4. The turnout was in the hundreds, with as many as 200 residents harvesting from the shore and at least 50 coming from the sea in their boats.
“Residents from Akano, Uken, Konbu, and Tengan gather at the event that marks the first time of the year Uruma City Hall allows us to harvest hijiki,” said Yukio Yokota, an Uruma City native and retired hospital worker of 34 years.
Residents brought a variety of bags, baskets and wheelbarrows to help carry the abundant supply of hijiki home. Most harvesters carried a “kama,” a small, scythe-like tool with a curved metal head and wooden handle, used to cut the plants free from the ocean floor.
For some, the harvest is more than just collecting seaweed for consumption. A lot of people bring their families and use the harvest as a way to spend time with their loved ones, according to Yoshihisa Akena, an Uruma City native and retired Japanese security guard who served the Camp Courtney Provost Marshal’s Office for 29 years.
Hijiki is one of more than ten thousand types of seaweed, and Camp Courtney is one of the few places it can still be harvested.
“Hijiki is a very important food item for the Okinawa people,” said Ichiro Umehara, the Camp Courtney community relations liaison. “Unfortunately, in many places outside of Camp Courtney it is overharvested to almost nothing, and that’s why many residents look forward to the Courtney harvest.”
The Camp Courtney harvest started in early 2000 and has continued to give residents the opportunity to come on base and harvest the seaweed.
“At the time it was the Ishikawa City mayor,” said Umehara. “He asked the camp commander if he could set up kind of a friendship day for the Okinawa people to harvest the seaweed, and that’s how it got started.”
Residents love hijiki not only for its taste, but also for its nutritional value.
“Hijiki is nutrient-dense and rich with iron and supposed to be beneficial to your health,” said Akena.
After the seaweed is harvested, it is usually boiled and dried, then later rehydrated and used in a variety of dishes. Because of its versatility, it can be cooked in omelets, fried rice or hamburger meat, but is most commonly mixed with vegetables and other foods, especially carrots and deep-fried tofu.
“After harvesting hijiki, I boil them with tap water and a little bit of seawater for 30 minutes, sun dry and bag 500 grams of seaweed as preserved food,” said Yokota. “I still have a bag of dried hijiki I harvested from the event three years ago.”
The sound of the residents’ chatter and laughter no longer filled the air. Instead it was replaced with the sound of waves rushing to meet the shore as the harvesters made their way back up the hill to the road. They left with smiles and bags chock-full of hijiki, satisfied with the year’s yield, but always looking forward to the time when the camp will opens its gates for next year’s harvest.