My good friend TS-san invited Chizuko and I to come watch her and two other women from a cooperative called "Himawari-market" (ひまわりマーケット) prepare tsukemono. "Tsukemono" refers to a huge variety of pickled vegetables that are ubiquitous in the Japanese diet. In Otaki, there are two main types of tsukemono. The first is "aka-kabu" (赤かぶ), which means red beets in English. The second is a type of tsukemono that is unique to this region, called "sunki" (すんき). This tsukemono is made using the leafy tops of red beets and is peculiar in that the process requires no salt.
We arrived at sunki-n0-sato (すんきの里)--meaning "house of sunki"--at about 10 in the morning. The woman were already furiously at work cutting the kabu. The sweet smell of smoke drifted through the air from a wood-fired cauldron of water burning outside. Chizuko and I announced ourselves and the women welcomed us in. TS-san introduced us to GS-san and O-san, who are both experts in the pickling process.
GS-san commented that the kabu is slow this year and she wonders whether this is not connected to global warming. Usually its better to do sunki when it's really cold, she continued, but since we harvested the kabu, we have to do the sunki as well. I ask how much they will pickle today. About 70 kilograms of kabu!! I watch the speed with which GS-san cuts the kabu and realize that the goal is perhaps not so lofty for her. The women explain to me that in the past residents of Otaki used aka-kabu to pay taxes to the Owari-clan (尾張藩) that maintained political control over the Kiso Valley in the Edo Period. The tradition of pickling aka-kabu apparently is a long one in Otaki.
After a short break for tea, it was time to get to work on the sunki. Outside, piles of beet-tops lay in small bundles. Each one will be boiled briefly and then placed in a pickling barrel along with sunki from last year. The use of sunki that has been saved from the year before is what makes this process so fascinating. The old sunki is called "tane", which means seed in Japanese, though I don't know that the etymology is the same. When I asked GS-san how the tane was originally made, she said that she didn't know. I've since asked other women in the village and have gotten some ideas that it may have involved the use of some wild products gathered from the forest. The truth is, no one really knows how sunki was originally made. Today, the process of making sunki relies totally on the existence of tane that are reserved from the stock made each year. In other words, a cultural knowledge set continues to be handed down from generation to generation in a physical form. The practice of making sunki relies totally on the transmission of this cultural product.
Himawari-market, the group that makes aka-kabu and sunki in Otaki is a totally locally grown cooperative business. Women in the village who had long made these tsukemono for their own use got together and began producing them for sale. They have since invested in their company by purchasing needed equipment using their own funds. Everything they make is locally produced and 100% organic.
The aka-kabura-tsuke (赤かぶら漬) is absolutely wonderful; one of the best tsukemono I've ever tried. Sunki is a bit of an acquired taste, but very good, and it goes well in a variety of dishes from miso soup to pasta. Also, it is totally salt-free, so you don't have to worry about excessive sodium intake.