Saturday, 12 June 2010

No cold, no heat, no tiredness

Now that the leaf canopy has arrived to soften the snow-mauled mountains, cloaking their winter wounds in green flames, it can seem even more as if they are empty. Looking at these precipitous wooded slopes you could be forgiven for thinking that yours are the only human eyes at work.
Aekichi-san in May on his daily rounds looking for sansai (wild vegetables). He is in his seventies

Yet every day, in every area, beneath the secretive trees scores of eyes are bent to the ground from the early morning. Gradient, undergrowth, bears and snakes are no obstacle. When you have been doing the same thing for fifty or sixty years, why worry? It is as natural as breathing for the inhabitants of Aizu to collect wild vegetables. It is almost an automatic response to the colour green to try and match it to one of the many shapes and forms that spell 'food.' They are not hunters, but they are certainly gatherers. And they do it with a passion and focus that equals any animal hunt.

This isn't an occasional pass-time - it is a serious part of everyone's diet, and the picking, preparation, preservation and eating of sansai is an important part of local culture, on a par with farming and vegetable growing itself. Special patches are closely guarded secrets, and it is a matter of great concern if outsiders, especially organised gangs, come and steal the locals' wild food. Each season provides it's own changing harvest, each with it's own taste and texture, but each with a sense of the mountain in it. Local people feel that there is a special kind of health to be had from sansai, as if the power of the mountain is somehow in it - and looking at them, who is to doubt it? It is certainly in your body if you are the one who goes and gets it every day...

Preparing zenmai, a complicated process. It is poisonous if you don't get it right.

Now that the growing season is here, aunty Siako-san is helping us in the allotment, as we know what is most accurately described as 'bugger all' about growing things. Hell, I can't even grow hair. She fits us in between her own rice fields and vegetable plots, always on the go now that winter no longer keeps her a prisoner in the house. Her and her husband won't stop until the rice is in now, always with a ready laugh and apparently tireless. "If you are a farmer," she said over a cuppa in our kitchen, "You cannot feel the cold, you cannot feel the heat, and you cannot feel tired." Then she laughed, and went out to do some more work.

Coming back from picking Kogomi (an edible fern shoot) with Aekichi-san in May, we crossed some small rice fields in the hills that looked as if they were still being worked, although there was no road to them. Further on, we met a wizzened little man in his eighties at the end of the nearest track, contemplating the snow that was preventing him riding further in on his moped. On the floor were some tools and heavy looking sacks that he obviously wanted to get through to the rice paddies. Hayasaki-san and he knew eachother and chatted a while, while I weighed up whether to offer to help or not - always a difficult decision with this elderly but extremely proud populace. Well, he was looking balefully at that snow, and he did look to be well on in his eighties. What the hell. "Can I help you with those?" As if prodded with a sharp stick he immediately picked up the bags and began walking across the snow.  No cold, no heat, no tiredness.


  1. Hi, Haven't you try some Kogomi already? Your picutures makes me feel to cook some wild vegetables tomorrow!

  2. Yes, we usually have sansai as soon as they come into season. We are very lucky, as if we haven't managed to pick any, someone gives us some. Having those seasonal tastes is wonderful, and they have usually been picked that morning, so they are fresh too. We are starting to get produce from our allotment now, too. I hope you can enjoy some soon...