Tofu has been an essential food in Oshima. For weddings, funerals, festivals and rituals, it was one of the special foods in the island. Yet in another way, it was an everyday food since there were numerous community events throughout the year, for which there was always someone making tofu. It is made by heating soy milk over a vigorously burning bamboo fire, and sea water is used instead of nigari to curdle it into tofu. The result is a tofu with a texture similar to firm tofu in western countries but with a subtle saltiness. Having been fascinated by the taste of it as well as the stories around it, I was determined to make tofu from scratch with the traditional millstone method. Here is the first step of my tofu journey.
I had once said to my bamboo basket teacher Tokuzo san and his wife that I wanted to make tofu with the millstone. He said “No chance. Our millstone is all worn out”. The used-to-be-indispensable tool is now often seen on top of pickles (as a weight) or in the garden (as an ornament), and most of them have had their grooves worn away. As my dream grew bigger day by day I bugged them more than a few times, and finally Tokuzo san told me to ask stone masons if they have the tool for cutting the grooves. The journey begins with visiting those old stone masons.
I started with the retired mason in my neighbourhood and was told that he didn’t have the tools anymore. “Ask the blacksmith or a mason on the other side of the island”. So I went to the blacksmith, also retired, who said “I’ve made it but don’t have one. That’s a special tool just for that purpose”. So I ended up with 80 year old Yamauchi san, the youngest of the stone masons in Ojika. He was sitting in front of his house, looking out over the sea rippling in the early spring wind when I suddenly pulled over my bike.
Stone walls add a profound cultural touch to the landscape in which they stand. Whether with uniformly split stones that are often seen around houses and temples, or with stones in their natural shape piled around rice paddies and farm fields, they make a quiet but strong impression. Yamauchi san specialized in the former style. Although trucks had already been in use to transport stones by the time he started his apprenticeship, carrying them up and down on the site was done by hand. Splitting and laying required precise calculation. As he showed me his well-used tools and explained about the stone work, I couldn’t help but fantasize about the craftsmen in the past who were well-built, enduring, and bright. How sad that they are not around anymore! Laying a stone foundation for houses was also a large part of their work, but such jobs decreased substantially once concrete became popular. Yamauchi san grew tobacco or at times found seasonal jobs in the mainland for some years, then got a job at a construction company in Ojika. After retiring, he would fix walls here and there when asked and had continued to work with stone until a few years ago when he started having trouble walking. He would still be happy to pass on his skills, but no one is taking it on. “I’ve had a couple of young apprentices but none of them lasted long enough because of back pain. Of course it hurts. If only they could get over the first while…” The skills and the spirit that give life into otherwise lifeless stones are fading out of this island. The familiar sense of melancholy grew in my heart, but on this day, excitement won over since I had had no idea there was a stone mason alive who I could talk to.
I should get back on track; the millstone. It turned out that cutting grooves wasn’t done by stone masons, but professionals in the trade would come from outside and visit around the community. So Yamauchi san has never done it and his set of tools doesn’t include that particular tool. Still, he picked one of them and handed it to me. “For now, this will probably work. But I think I have that tool somewhere. I’ll find it by your next visit”. That means I could come here again. I went home with the heavy tool and started planning my next Oshima day.