Saturday, June 7, 2008

山菜 Mountain Vegetables

Truly one of the best parts of living in the mountains is being able to find a variety of wild vegetables. The other evening while walking around the village, Chizuko and I found this warabi (left) and ninjinba.

Back at home Chizuko boiled the warabi, cut it into pieces and served it with soy sauce and some bonito flakes. The ninjinba is a little bitter, so we've been using it in sauces and soups.

Another favorite of Chizuko and I is tara-no-me. These sprouts of green grow out of stalks that seem almost dead. They are covered in thorns and I've had my hands bloodied a couple of times trying to gather them. However, when you fry the buggers (Chizuko does them tempura-style) the thorns lose all their bite and you can eat them no problem. Dip these in a little salt. . .wow, what a treat.

The wee bit of knowledge that I have gained concerning edible plant varieties has come through informal chats with residents. A walk in the mountains becomes a lesson in botany (as well as history, ornithology, entomology, et cetera). There's been numerous occasions when I've been told, regarding a plant I'm admiring, or perhaps holding in my hand, "you can eat that!" Music to my ears.

Gathering mountain vegetables is also an occupation (at least part time) for some. From what I've seen on the internet you can fetch a fair price in Japan. Unfortunately, mountain vegetables seem to do worse in the dark forests of cypress and cedar that cover so much of the national forest around Otaki. I would imagine that in the past burning was beneficial in promoting the growth of various wild vegetables, but that practice has vanished in Otaki. . .at least for now.

With so much talk of "eco" buzzing around Japan presently, I wonder constantly how the logic breaks down here, deep in the mountains. If you want to see low impact living, just take a walk through Otaki in the twilight and breath in the thick smell of wood smoke pouring from houses. I'm not saying the residents of Otaki are ecological nobles--in fact ideas of "eco" are surely rarer here than in Tokyo. Yet, residents in Otaki have learned to live by using what the environment around them has to offer: wild vegetables, wood, the occasional beast. This is changing of course--in part because of "eco" driven policies regarding national forests. "Hands off"; "natural"; "eco"--that's an external reality that hasn't existed in Otaki for hundreds of years.

I want the residents of Otaki to have the ability to help make decisions regarding the forests that are intertwined so tightly with their lives. The people of Otaki are the ones on the ground, keeping tabs on the subtle changes occurring in the environment around them. Yet decisions continue to be made in offices, based on numbers and definitions and projected outcomes.

Boy, how discussions can fly. . .
I digress.
For now I'll try to just be content and eat my veggies.

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