Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Searching for the road ahead

Coming through a recent past where economic livelihood came, along with capital and infrastructure, from external sources--forestry, dam construction, and skiing--the residents of Otaki are searching for a road that can take them into the future.

There is an interest among residents in developing Otaki's unique cultural and natural resources in order to attract tourists. It was with this purpose in mind that about 25 residents met on Monday, June 9th to discuss ways of developing local culinary techniques and dishes. The meeting was organized by Otaki's Tourism Revitalization Council (観光再生協議会). Their idea was for residents to come together to learn some new recipes, but, more importantly, to generate some dialog about ways of developing local cuisine.

A local chef, H-san, who has forty years of cooking experience and runs a pension called Diamond Dust (ダイアモンドダスト) was our teacher for the day. H-san is a straight speaking man who was quick to plead with, and even berate, the participants to work harder to help develop Otaki's local food customs for tourism. Otaki's failings thus far in developing a sustainable tourism base are not due to a lack of people, suggested H-san, rather it's a problem of motivation ("やる気ない"). H-san's tirades came between moments of instruction about what to chop or slice, while his own food preparations continued unabated. There was a passion in both his speaking and his cooking.

Those of us who participated in the study meeting worked in groups of about six to create three dishes. The first was houba-zushi (ほうば寿司). Houba refers to the large leaves of a tree that is common in the Kiso Valley. In the past (and even today) the leaves were used for a variety of purposes, but were especially beneficial in wrapping and keeping foods that might otherwise spoil. The "zushi" part of the name is simply a different reading of sushi, which means rice seasoned with vinegar, not raw fish, as is commonly thought. Houba-zushi then is sushi rice topped with pickled vegetables, cured fish, and perhaps some other ingredients then wrapped in a houba leaf. The houba-zushi we made included cured trout, slices of fried egg, pickled ginger, and various pickled mountain vegetables, such as warabi and fuki. The dish was very easy to make and really delicious. According to H-san and other residents, houba-zushi has at least a hundred year old history in Otaki.

Our next dish, a salad, was more contemporary, but drew on some elements native to Otaki and the Kiso Valley. For the salad we started with watercress then added some bacon bits. Next we added Kiso beef steak that we fried and then cubed. The salad also included some warabi and a bit of carrot. The whole thing was topped with a red beet 赤カブ (famous in Otaki) vinigrette that was really amazing.

The final dish was tempura using wild vegetables and leaves collected from around Otaki. I'll have to plead ignorance on knowing everything that was in the tempura. I believe there was a bit of fuki, perhaps warabi, chikuwa (pressed fish sausage, which tastes much better than it sounds), and a variety of edible leaves. All of these were formed into small patties and fried together. Having eaten a lot of tempura, I can say that what we made was particularly light and crispy. All of the leaves gave it a freshness that I haven't tasted with tempura before. H-san told us that this style of tempura also had quite a long history in Otaki, probably back to the turn of the century.

After everyone had finished with preparations we all sat down to eat. I looked out on the seating arrangement and noticed that the older women of the village had all placed themselves on the far side of the room, while the younger women (most of whom have been in Otaki about a decade or so) were lined up on the other side; Edward Hall's studies of proxemics came to mind. The configuration, however, was also a result of the social expectation that younger women will take care of preparations. In other words, the older women sat down early, next to friends I'm assuming (explaining their grouping), while the young women fussed over table settings. The alignment also reflects a Japanese custom of placing elders and persons of higher status further away from the door. For an anthropologist, such as myself, this spatial division also reflected a broader social gap between what one might call the "old village" and the "new village".

This conceptual division was further illustrated as we began to discuss Otaki's culinary traditions. I unfolded my houba-zushi and began to eat, as the older women took turns sharing some of the recipes they had learned from their mothers and grandmothers. I was surprised to later hear from the younger women that, despite their ten years or more of residence in Otaki, had not until now learned how to make these foods. There is a disconnection between these two groups, the old and the new, that is troubling in terms of Otaki's prospects for the future. This isn't an entirely new phenomenon and it isn't unique to Otaki. John Knight observed a similar pattern between "old" and "new" in Honcho, Wakayama Prefecture, which he writes about in his article "Organic farming settlers in Kumano" [1].

In spite of this perceived gap, through events such as this study meeting, the residents of Otaki are attempting to discover a road ahead. The process, however, is fraught with social, cultural, political, and economic bumps and dips that threaten the entire enterprise. These obstacles are rooted at different scales, from international rises in oil prices that threaten the whole tourist industry, to local social relationships that at times inhibit the formation of networks capable of sustaining communities.

With so much beyond the control of Otaki's residents, who lack access to much of Japan's economic resources, as well as local natural resources, the social and cultural capital that resides within the community itself is perhaps their greatest asset. Opportunities like this one to meet, discuss, and form new social bonds, are an important, preliminary step. The hope is that new structures--social, economic, and political--capable of developing this community capital, can begin to take form.

So, thank you H-san for the wonderful food, and thank you everyone for the wonderful discussion. Here's to the road ahead for Otaki. . .

Knight J. 2003. Organic farming settlers in Kumano. In Farmers and Village Life in Twentieth-Century Japan, ed. A Waswo, Y Nishida, pp. 267-84. New York: RoutledgeCurzon

1 comment:

Rishi Sidhu said...

Hey, I'm an ALT living in Agmeatsu. You're obviously around the area, so it would be cool if you could hang out and meet the ALTs sometime. Great posts about the Kiso, it's great you're writing about it!