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Black Diamonds of the Sea

Experience the thrill of the catch with Oma’s pacific bluefin tuna
  • Oma Tuna
  • Japanese Seafood
  • Sushi and Sashimi
  • Fishing Culture
  • Regional Cuisine

Photo courtesy of the Oma Tourist Association.

Oma-cho, Aomori Prefecture – Tohoku

Journey to the Shimokita Peninsula, located in the northernmost part of Japan’s main island of Honshu. At the tip of the peninsula, you’ll find the quaint fishing town of Oma, well known in Japan for the Pacific bluefin tuna that the local fishermen haul out of the rough waters of the Tsugaru Strait.

The tuna, branded Oma Tuna and called “black diamonds” because of their tremendous value, are considered Japan’s finest—fetching incredible prices at auction and appearing on menus of the country’s top restaurants. Seafood connoisseurs would be wise to savor the delicacy that is Oma Tuna sashimi at least once during their Japan trip. True aficionados of the Oma Tuna, however, should head to its fishing grounds where they can witness firsthand the fight to catch the fish and sail out on the sea that nurtures its growth.

The Perfect Place for Tuna

Oma, the Tsugaru Strait, and Hokkaido across the water, as seen from the Nishifukitsukeyama Observatory. Photo courtesy of the Oma Tourist Association.

In this rugged, windswept region, the power of nature is on display. Along the coast, rock formations carved by rough waves tower above the sea. And in the Tsugaru Strait, connecting the Pacific Ocean to the Sea of Japan, three currents converge, producing choppy torrents.

Oma Tuna grown large on the bounty of the Tsugaru Strait are prized for their high-quality, perfectly distributed fat. Photo courtesy of the Oma Tourist Association.

The three currents—the Kuroshio, Tsushima, and Kuril—create an environment where plankton thrives, providing a rich feeding area for squid, sardines, and other fish that Pacific bluefin tuna feed on. With so much to eat, tuna are plentiful—but not all are worthy of the Oma Tuna title.

Each Oma Tuna is identified by a seal with a serial number that indicates the name of the boat that caught it, when it was caught, and the fishing method used to catch it. Photo courtesy of the Oma Tourist Association.

In a League of Their Own

A fisherman hauling tuna aboard. Photo courtesy of Y Project.

In 2007, the Oma Fisheries Cooperative established Oma Tuna as a regional collective trademark. Only a tuna that is shipped from Oma weighing at least 30 kilograms can receive a seal designating it as Oma Tuna. This weight requirement doesn’t usually pose a problem, since the average weight of Oma Tuna is 100 kilograms, with plenty of the fish coming in at many times that weight. In fact, the largest recorded tuna, caught in 1994, weighed a whopping 440 kilograms.

Even more impressive is that these enormous tunas are caught using the pole-and-line fishing method or the longline method, both of which pit fisherman against fish in a fierce battle. The average speed that tuna swims is 40 kilometers per hour, but when agitated, they can swim as fast as 130 kilometers per hour. It’s a testament to the incredible skill of local fishermen that they can land such enormous, fast-moving fish.

Photo courtesy of the Oma Tourist Association.

These fishing methods, used for over one hundred years, require intense effort by the fishermen, but their use enables the fish to be caught and brought on board without injury. These days, electric shock is used to stun the fish before they are hauled on deck, decreasing the risk of injury to the fish and their escape. From start to finish, it’s demanding and exciting work, which you can observe up close.

Photo courtesy of Y Project.

Get in on the Action

Tours can accommodate up to ten aspiring fishers. Photo courtesy of Y Project.

Oma Tuna season runs from August to January, with the largest fish caught in the colder months of fall and winter when fat stores are at their highest. However, you should try to visit Oma between August and mid-October to experience the thrill and excitement of chasing tuna. During this time, you’ll have a chance to join a veteran fisherman out on the water as part of a Y Project pole-fishing tour.

With many boats fishing at the same time in the strait, you have a greater chance of seeing an Oma Tuna reeled in. Photo courtesy of Y Project.

Marvel at the power of the ocean currents as you travel five kilometers to the open sea, where your boat will be one of many aiming to bring in a hefty tuna. While you won’t get a chance to run the line yourself, you’re bound to find more than enough excitement just watching the fishermen work, all the while providing commentary.

In the middle of the action, with the wind in your hair and sea spray on your face, you will be captivated by the energy and enthusiasm of fishermen primed to reel in a big one. Of course, there are no guarantees when it comes to fishing, but there’s a good chance that during your two hours on the water, you will get to see a “black diamond” reeled in—if not by a pro on your own boat, then by a fisherman on a nearby vessel.

Upgrade your tour to include a delectable meal of Oma Tuna. Photo courtesy of Y Project.

If you lack dependable sea legs or want to see what else Oma has to offer, sign up for a walking tour to discover the town’s many charms. Guided by locals, explore seaside roads, sample local specialties, and visit the town’s shrine, where you’ll be able to enter its hall of worship—a rare experience.

Photo courtesy of Y Project.

Tours that range from one and a half to two hours are available and can be upgraded (for additional cost) to include a meal of Oma Tuna. Discover all that Oma has to offer with the help of friendly locals, and get an idea of what life is like in this remote fishing town.

Boats head to the open ocean to lower a purified talisman into the sea as part of the Tairyo Kigan Sai (Great Catch Prayer Festival) and Tenpisama Gyoretsu (Tenpi Procession) celebrations. Photo courtesy of the Oma Tourist Association.

From Unknown Village to Celebrated Star of the Tuna World

Cape Oma and its monument to tuna fishing at the northernmost tip of the Shimokita Peninsula. Photo courtesy of the Oma Tourist Association.

Today, Oma is renowned for its tuna and is a popular destination for those with a desire to experience tuna fishing firsthand. That hasn’t always been the case, though. It wasn’t until the year 2000, when public broadcaster NHK televised a serial drama with a connection to Oma, that the town gained widespread recognition and its tuna began to fetch astonishing prices at auction, a phenomenon that continues today. Indeed, in 2019, a single Oma Tuna went for 333.6 million yen at auction.

The skill displayed in cutting a massive tuna is as much an attraction as the tuna itself. Photo courtesy of the Oma Tourist Association.

Capitalizing on its sudden fame, the town organized itself as a top tuna-lover’s destination, offering tuna-cutting demonstrations and the chance to eat freshly cut tuna right next to the sea where it was caught. September and October see tourists gather in town for the Sunday Tuna Day events, with demonstrations twice a day and tuna set lunches at prices you won’t see outside of Oma.

Photo courtesy of the Oma Tourist Association.

Though most visitors want to go to Oma for the tuna season, July offers its own excitement with the town’s Tairyo Kigan Sai (Great Catch Prayer Festival), a festival to pray for a bountiful catch in the coming year, and its Tenpisama Gyoretsu (Tenpi Procession), a march through town to honor Tenpi, a goddess of the sea.

Photo courtesy of the Oma Tourist Association.

In the Tohoku region of Japan, Oma is the only area where Tenpi is worshipped, so if your trip coincides with the festival and the procession, usually held the third Monday of July (Japan’s Marine Day), consider yourself lucky to be able to see such a rare event.

Discover the remote northern coast of Honshu, its stunning vistas and its quaint villages. In Oma, realize the thrill of the chase out on the open ocean and the charms of the town itself. Whether you opt to hunt tuna or tour the town, you’re guaranteed a unique experience. Stray from the established tourist paths, and make your trip spectacular.

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