This is for Grandma, who doesn’t know what mulberries are, despite somehow managing to teach us the nursery rhyme “Here we go round the mulberry bush”, and despite me posting photos of them every year when they are in season.
Mona and I have been waiting anxiously all spring for the fruits to finally ripen and our patience has paid off. There is one particular tree right along the walk to school that we pass by and search for the day’s sweet purple berries, leaving the red ones to ripen for the next day. If we can manage to harvest a large amount, they will be great for jam or pie, or to add to our yogurt in the morning, but the only thing we have when we get home are purple teeth and fingertips.
And a little known fact, one that I have yet to validate – the unripe fruit and green parts of the plant have a white sap that may be stimulating, or mildly hallucinogenic (or toxic).
Last week Mona and I traveled to Saitama to go to a camp with some other mixed nationality families. I was a bit sad that despite having mountains and trails and camping areas literally a ten minute walk from our front door, we had to travel five+ hours on the train, but it was worth it.
Mona is very fluent in Japanese now, but struggles sometimes with English. I have to constantly ask her to repeat what she has said to me, but use English instead. Sometimes she does, sometimes she doesn’t. At the camp though, there were children and adults who don’t speak Japanese, so she was forced to struggle through and she did wonderfully. I could see on her face as the little gears in her brain worked to find the words in English, and since we have gotten back she initiates a conversation in English with me without me having to pretend I don’t understand.
It was also worth it because the camp was held at Tama Hills Recreation Area – a hunk of nature in the middle of the city that is owned and operated by the US Armed Forces – only those with an invite from a service member can get in. Aside from being able to buy American snack food with $US, it was also very “American” in that it was much more loose and relaxed than uptight Japanese camp areas, no one complained about us taking an axe into the forest and gathering our own firewood, and everything was “American sized”, right down to the gigantic playground play set and miniature golf course. They also had horses that Mona was not into riding this time, but she had a lot of fun feeding and brushing them. Next time we get there maybe she will ride the pony and I can get some people together to use the paintball field.
Anyway, Mona loves sleeping in the tent, loves ‘smores, and loves the playground (enough that she peed her pants with excitement when we arrived, and ended up going commando the rest of the weekend after refusing to put on a clean pair), so she obviously loved the weekend.
These are rice shoots being prepared for planting. They are grown in trays that fit into the planting machines. This was taken only about ten days ago and already most of the fields are planted while ours sit sad and dry, probably wondering why they have been forgotten by the tilling machine this year.
The spring is going by so quickly. Oh so quickly. Seems like only yesterday I looked out the window and the trees still had not begun to bud, and now they have passed through tree-puberty, and reaching their last stage of adolescence before they take on their deep summer green.
At school-bus stop:
Neighbor: Oh good you made it on time today. I saw you walking the other day.
Me: Yeah, that was by choice.
Neighbor: Kawaiiso! (Poor little girl)
Me: No, we choose to walk.
Neighbor: (Chastising me for being selfish) *You* may like to walk, but walking is not good for the children until they are in first grade. It is too far.
Me: No, it was Mona who wanted to walk.
Neighbor: (grudgingly says) Hmmm… maybe because you make her walk to the bath every day.
I didn’t mention to the neighbor the fact that last time I went to the bath with Mona she wanted to run. She ran the entire way and I was actually hoping she would get tired – because I was. When she is 18 there will be a summer olympics, so I am going to start prepping her to be the cute Japanese female athlete that dominates Olympic coverage in Japan every two years.
Anyway, some photos from the walk to school. The buckets are spent tara-no-me branches – tree buds of the Japanese Angelica Tree a delicacy here in spring time. Behind them are the rice shoots being raised for planting later this month.
One of the most preliferous wild vegetables in our area is yomogi (Japanese Mugwort). A few years ago we had calculated that we could work hard for a few months in spring, and cruise by the rest of the year on all the money made from foraging and processing/selling this weed. And in fact there are people who do this. Of course, you have to be satisfied living a simple easy life, without lots of stuff, and you can’t worry about ho other people see you. In the end, it was not a prestigious enough job or something so the idea was dropped.
The upside of not doing much foraging this year is that we don’t have bags of drying, never-to-be-used yomogi vieing for floor space with rotting fukinoto (bog rhubarb), suiba (Japanese Knotweed), and others.
Still, at least Mona did get a chance to take advantage of this wonderful surroundings we are lucky enough to live in, and made some Yomogi Mochi with her mom.
Last year Mona was still a girl. She did not know that you are not supposed to walk outside barefoot, she did not know that you can’t eat with your fingers, she did not know that getting dirty is wrong. Somewhere along the way she has learned these things, and now, when I try to take her out for a walk to pick some sansai wild vegetables, it is like pulling teeth. She just wants to get back home and watch Tomoe’s youtube or NHK cartoons, or even just watching NHK daily news – as long as it moves.
I did manage, after much kicking and screaming, manage to get her out yesterday to do some token wild vegetable foraging. We didn’t pick anything that will end up on the table, but at least we got to touch some green, and she still really enjoys her suiba (Japanese Knotweed).
The other thing I noticed while looking at some photos from last year’s May foraging season (below), is that her pants are really getting shorter.
There is something even more sad than not being able to grow my own rice this year – even more sad than the fact that I will still be called on to mow down the weeds in and around the field (which is almost as much work as, or more, than growing rice, as we found a few years ago when we left just one plot fallow.)
A group of University students who had come out last year to help plant the rice and spend a week learning about food will not be returning this year. Its not because we have no rice fields to plant for them, and we got good reviews from them last year, even were in discussions to bring other departments over to study other aspects of Japan than just food.
Aside from learning about and planting rice, gathering and preparing wild veggies, making mochi, making soba, miso tasting, making natto, followed up by an Iron Chef style competition where the students broke into groups which planned their own recipies visited the supermarket to try to find all the needed ingredients, and spent a day cooking to be judged by the local experts.
Their food was so good that I felt bad for the inn-keeper who might have been feeling inferior.
Anyway, for whatever reason they are not returning this year, so I really gotta find some rice fields to plant.
That is not to say that spring is not near. Most of the snow is melted, and there are enough flowers coming up now that Mona and i can go for little scavenger-hunt walks and find things other than “Something white”.
Below are some shitake mushroom logs. The little white spots are spore plugs pounded into holes drilled into the tree. Placed in a cool damp dark place, these will soon start to sprout some nice shitake.
Mona and friends challenge the mini everest at our local ski hill.