Emiko Yamabe’s 20s were spent job-hopping and soul-searching, but now, aged 48, she says she’s having the time of her life.
Still, it works as well “okami” proprietor of a sushi restaurant in Tokyo’s upscale Ginza district is not the sole reason for her happiness.
Yamabe finally found something to be passionate about: fish fins.
To date, she has collected around 40,000 tail and pectoral fins from at least 100 fish species, which she makes into key chains and displays for sale. She also published a photo booklet to show off their beauty.
Yamabe is in charge of serving customers and preparing fish for sushi at Sushidokoro Shiki.
She was captivated by the various colors and sizes of fish fins, each unique in its own way, with beautiful natural designs. What a waste to see them thrown away, she thought.
Yamabe decided to collect them several years ago.
Through trial and error, she came up with a method to dry fins in a refrigerator and coat them in resin.
When she distributed fins to regular customers last year, one person had her gift turned into an earring. Her oddball hobby also charmed customers, who suggested she branch out and make ballpoint pens and other charm items featuring fins.
Yamabe operates an Instagram account, calling herself “@uohire.uroko,” to lure visitors to the world of fish fins.
She compiled a booklet earlier this year, featuring 40 or so colorful pictures from the photo-sharing website and adding a size description for each item.
According to Yamabe, the tilefish, despite its dopey face, has such delicate and transparent pectoral fins that she refers to them as “heavenly robes.”
She said the fins of the black scraper are particularly beautiful as they are a vivid light blue. One time, she puts them on her eyelashes as fake ones for fun.
Yamabe soon began receiving inquiries from bookstores willing to sell her booklet.
She takes great delight in seeing what normally is thrown away turned into “treasures.”
Although Yamabe says she now finds life fulfilling, she made no secret of her struggles through her 20s.
She graduated from the Faculty of Letters at Chiba University at the age of 22 during the period “employment ice age,” when college graduates had a hard time finding work.
She sent applications to numerous companies to take employment exams, but hardly received any replies.
Yamabe eventually landed her first job, at a video rental company, but left two years later after developing doubts about its policy.
At a loss over what to do and what she wanted from life, Yamabe worked as an accountant for companies on a temporary dispatch basis.
Fast-forward 10 years or so and Yamabe, who was a member of a fishing club at university and always loved the taste of fish, remembered how she yearned to skillfully fillet fish when she was in her 20s.
She recalled an episode when she went fishing with a colleague and caught a skipjack tuna.
Yamabe tried to make “kakuni” (braised bonito cubes), but was not sufficiently proficient and ended up with a handful of flesh.
At age 33, she started taking night classes at a culinary school while she worked for the fish section of a supermarket from morning until afternoon to improve her filling skills.
After landing a job at a sushi restaurant, she asked the chef to allow her to fillet fish even though she was working as an accountant.
In 2013 when she was 38 years old, Yamabe decided to go into business for herself with Masashi Yoshimura, 49, with whom she hit it off while they were working at the same sushi parlor.
The duo opened Shiki, for which Yoshimura is the owner-chef.
Thanks to her love of fish fins, Yamabe has met people from all walks of life over the past year, including photographers, designers and publishing industry members.
“I never thought there was something that could convince me ‘This is it!‘ It was so close to me,” Yamabe said with a smile. “I finally found something that I can enjoy from the bottom of my heart.
Yamabe expressed her hope that her fish fin items will be featured at aquariums and museums someday, and she also wants to host workshops on her hobby for children.
A special exhibition will be held at the Ginrin Bunko library at the Toyosu Market in Tokyo’s Koto Ward from Nov. 21 through Dec. 27 to display her unusual art.
Her booklets and key chains sporting fish fins will also be available for sale at the venue.
Admission is free.