Here in Nagano prefecture it’s already coming to the end of spring. The flowers have long since bloomed, the birds have finished with their songs, and here we are staring down the barrel at Japan’s hot and sticky rainy season.
But before we say goodbye to spring I wanted to write a little about one of my favourite experiences these past few months – that of foraging for (and receiving gifts of frankly unbelievable quantities of ) the various species of edible wild plants in our local area.
Now, as a born-and-raised city boy, before moving here my understanding of seasons basically amounted to:
- winter = cold.
- spring = cold and then not cold and then cold again. Also blossoms sometimes appear.
- summer = hot.
- autumn = not cold and then cold. Leaves are brown now for some reason.
Surrounded as I was (first in London, then in Nagoya) by concrete and cars, I never really got to experience the changing of the seasons. The temperature would gradually go up or down, and I’d occasionally walk to the local park, see a single flower, and think “this is the life”. But here in Nagiso we’re surrounded by nature, and almost can’t help but notice the world changing around us.
Tsukushi – strange aliens you can put in your mouth apparently
My wife and I have been going on lots of walks – along the same handful of routes almost every day – and it’s been amazing seeing the world around us turn from coffin-lid brown to an almost pompously vibrant green.
Plants seem to grow inches by the hour, and a road you walked down one day might be completely different – or completely overgrown – just a week later.
We first noticed this when we found tsukushi (‘horsetails’ in English) by the side of the road one morning in late April. They’re sometimes used in Japanese cuisine, but initially I was against picking them, since my city-reared instincts convinced me that anything growing in the ground must be somehow full of poison. But my wife convinced me, and that evening we fried them up with some eggs. They were pretty good.
tsukushi final rating: 7/10
Okogi – an unassuming, underappreciated leaf
Next, we were introduced to okogi (‘???’ in English) by a friendly neighbour. After bumping into him a few times on our morning walks (again, in late April) he invited us into his garden and taught us about a few varieties of spring plants.
Soon enough we were provided with a paper bag and told to pick as much as we liked. Our neighbour warned us that okogi has a bitter taste, and isn’t hugely popular, but once fried up with some olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic it was delicious. But then again, what isn’t delicious when fried up with olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic?
okogi final rating: 7.5/10
Warabi – an incredible hassle for only moderate results
After another neighbour tipped us off to the presence of warabi (a kind of edible bracken) in the area, we set out one morning in early May to have a look. Convinced that we’d maybe find a few stalks if we were lucky, we climbed up the mountain behind our house only to see hundreds upon hundreds of the bloody things just growing out of the ground (out of the ground, people!).
Warabi are pretty popular in Japan, especially with among older generations, and as such are pretty expensive even in small quantities if you try to buy them in the supermarket. We gathered about half a kilo in twenty minutes (making sure to not strip the place bare).
This trend continued for the next two weeks, in greater or smaller amounts, until we eventually gave up picking any more. I’ve even become convinced that we could run a nice little side business picking warabi here and then flogging them in the nearest city.
The thing about warabi, though, is that you can’t just cook them. No, they taste absolutely awful if you do that, you absolute idiot. Instead, you have to soak them overnight in a mixture of water and bicarbonate of soda before they lose their characteristic inedible bitterness.
Once you’ve done that, you’re all set. But hold up, cowboy – you can’t eat too many, or they’ll make you incredibly sick – apparently leading to some kind of vitamin deficiency my Japanese wasn’t good enough to 100% understand.
On the plus side, they taste pretty good with soy sauce. Never say that I wasn’t an impartial judge.
warabi final rating: I shouldn’t have to put bicarbonate of soda on a plant to eat it
Takenoko – a millstone around my neck
Finally, the main event of our wild plant harvest: takenoko (bamboo shoots). These things start popping up (again, out of the ground) around the start of May, and grow unbelievably fast.
We didn’t go out looking for bamboo shoots ourselves, but that didn’t stop us from acquiring approximately 5-7 kilos of them over the course of a few short weeks. Almost every other day a friendly neighbour knocked on our door and handed us some bamboo shoots they’d found on their mountain (that’s right – many of the families around here literally own one of the small mountains along the valley, which I’ve now decided is my new life ambition).
This was lovely, and of course much appreciated – the first two or three or four times. Unfortunately, after a while we had so many we didn’t know what to do with them. We tried boiling them, roasting them, frying them, pickling them, deep frying them, and so on, but every time I opened the fridge I was faced with yet more. We soon came to dread the knock at our door, and I, at least, won’t deny that I sometimes thought of them as I lay there in bed, in what I can only describe as an extremely Tell-Tale Heart situation.
This trend culminated in bumping into another neighbour sitting outside his house with a literal pile of bamboo shoots. Eager to be friendly (‘or rather eager to get rid of them’, my now bamboo-phobic inner voice told me), he gave us a literal sack of them. Carrying them home, I was extremely happy to be welcomed into this small community with warmth and gifts, but secretly wishing those gifts came in slightly less heavy, bamboo shoot-filled packages.
bamboo shoots final rating: did my back in carrying them home
So, the first spring of our life here in the Nagano countryside down. And what do I have to show for it? (1) A newfound appreciation for the turning of the seasons, (2) a newfound sense of being a part of nature, rather than being somehow separate from it, and most importantly (3) a newfound appreciation for the sight of a bamboo shoot-free fridge.
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