Thursday, 22 October 2009

Vegetable givers

Part of today's haul - not easy to manage on bike handlebars

The unstoppable generosity of Aizu people, like smallholders the world over, is amazing to behold and receive. Any thought of trying to refuse, guiltily aware that you cannot respond in kind, is bulldozed by the realisation that it is more likely to offend and confuse the giver rather than relieve them of an obligation. What If giving and sharing are indeed founded in the dry and cold machinations of the selfish gene, a way of bonding social obligations in times of surplus and a mutual protection in hard times? It is also a way of expressing pride in your abilities to grow and to find food, and a way of touching stranger and neighbour alike that needs neither language nor explanation. If only the scale and suspicions of city life did not frustrate this most basic social act.

At first I thought people gave us so much because we were new and my wife's family are from the village, and that it would stop once people realised that we were not able to give as much back. But no, it appears they expect nothing in return, being happy that we have brought a child to this, one of the fastest ageing communities in Japan. "I love to hear the sound of children playing, and your son being here brings the other children to this part of the village to play," said the mayor's wife as she dropped off yet another offering. And yet it is enough to be simply passing through.

Yesterday I took my lens for a short ride in the last hours of slanted sunlight, meaning to reach the top of a pass before returning. I stopped to look at one of the Gaudi-like iron fire towers that each village has, with bells and a small precarious platform perched above rusting ladders. Distracted by the light glinting off a rail-crossing mirror, I moved into the allotments, to be greeted by the man working there behind his house.

Yokota-san and his wife Uriko-san - they'd give you veg as soon as look at you

We shot the breeze in stuttering chunks, manfully and politely ignoring the mangled mess of my barely existent Japanese. Where was I from? Where was I going? Where is my house? We managed to get as far as establishing my village and house, and he was delighted that not only was I actually living here, but that I had a child at school - that really cheered him up. He wanted to know which of the many families in the area with the same name my wife's mother belonged to - we struggled with that one. Then came the magic words that opened the vegetable floodgates. Looking across his well-stocked allotment full of healthy and big plants, I said "Sugoi yasai des - kileh, neh?" (Great vegetables - beautiful aren't they?). Works every time. "Ah! Choto mateh!" (Wait a minute!) he said, and bustled around, clipping here, cutting there, uprooting in another corner. i knew better than to try and stop him.

His wife came around the corner and joined in on the act, cutting some beautiful greens with small yellow flowers.

Eaten within the hour

She was getting carried away, in her element, looking around for what could be next, bringing out a big cardboard box. "No, no, he's on a bike!" Yokota-san cried. "What, no basket on the front?" she gestured. How strange. I teetered home on my shortened but enriched way, a large plastic bag with a big cabbage, carrots, daikon radish, broccoli, and greens endangering my steering. "Come again!" he called, enjoying the break in routine and the chance to be appreciated by someone other than his neighbours, who all have the same prodigious growing skills, and therefore probably take it for granted.

I arrived at the house joyously, like a hunter home from the hill. "Look what I've got!" "Oh, yes, said the big M. "Aunty dropped off some sweet potatoes, and M-chan's mum sent some cakes round too." That's my thunder stolen, by Thor. Wouldn't you know it. Upstaged by the neighbours, vegetable givers every last one. Last time I went next door to borrow some pliers (charmingly called 'Pinchi') I came back with a bag of wild mushrooms for goodness sake. Ah well, you can't fight it - might as well eat it... And we gave the cabbage we had previously bought to a mum picking up her child: serves 'em right.

Flippin' sweet potatoes


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