Photo/IllutrationVarious tools used to cultivate seaweed until about half a century ago are displayed in the Omori Nori Museum. Visitors can experience hands-on laver production. (Photo by Lisa Vogt)

  • Photo/Illustraion

“Eeeh,” I said, facing my friend as I made a huge fake smile after eating “okonomiyaki” topped with lots of “ao-nori” seaweed.

My dining companion was doing an ao-nori check for me, making sure that no bits of unsavory green specks remained stuck on my front teeth to distract people from the pearls of wisdom coming from my mouth. Don’t you hate it when nobody tells you about such things and instead keeps looking at your mouth as you speak?

Seaweed--in English, this single word covers the whole shebang--ao-nori, "iwa-nori,” “hijiki,” “tororo-kombu,” “shio-kombu,” “wakame,” “ma-kombu,” the “tsukudani” paste variety, regular paperlike nori that’s used to wrap sushi rolls, and more.

I love all types of "umami" foods, and I consume a dose daily. I’m not sure about the saying, though, that seaweed makes your hair black because I see strains of gray these days.

Until the 1950s, the Omori and Haneda areas of Tokyo Bay were thriving places full of nori cultivation and manufacturing. As I look at the waterfront today, I find it hard to imagine such a scene. But the development and modernization of Tokyo Bay in the ’60s led to the collapse of the area’s nori industry.

Visit the Omori Nori-no-Furusato-kan Museum, aka the Omori Nori Museum, to see old photographs for yourself--you’ll be awestruck at the way things were a mere 50 or 60 years ago. I commend Ota Ward for setting up this admission-free museum to preserve a piece of this precious history.

Nori is grown and harvested in the coldest months of the year: December, January and February. First, people start cultivating seaweed in the bay by putting up stakes with nets and planting spores. The spores grow into a leaflike thallus that is harvested as nori. The nori farmers would go out in tiny boats and laboriously pinch the nori off the stakes.

Because nori is slippery, people cannot wear gloves. Their poor fingers must have felt like they would fall off! The gathered seaweed is chopped up, mixed with water to make a slurry, and, as in making washi paper, poured and drained into a square mold to create a paper-thin sheet of nori. It’s then sun-dried on a bamboo sushi mat (“sudare”) and packaged, ready for shipment.

The museum holds hands-on nori-making events ("noritsuke taiken") at least a few times each month. How about handmade nori for your next home “temaki-zushi” party? It will be a great conversation starter.

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This article by Lisa Vogt, a Washington-born and Tokyo-based photographer, originally appeared in the March 4 issue of Asahi Weekly. It is part of the series "Lisa’s In and Around Tokyo," which depicts the capital and its surroundings through the perspective of the author, a professor at Meiji University.