ELLA KELLEHER WRITES – Consider, for a moment, that food is not simply fuel, but rather each component to a meal contains a piece of living-giving energy.
“Each grain [of rice]”, as author and translator Winifred Bird describes, “was thought to have a soul, and for many centuries people believed that consuming rice gave human beings sacred energy and power.”
As Bird details in her new book, Eating Wild Japan: Tracking the Culture of Foraged Foods with a Guide to Plants and Recipes (2021), much of the inherited knowledge of and respect for wild landscapes lives within the elderly Japanese country-folk who young city-dwellers find little interest in. Perhaps learning about “sansai” or wild Japanese mountain herbs and vegetables is an important step for today’s youth to get in touch with nature, revitalizing mankind’s empathy and understanding for the planet we must remember to cherish.
“Sansai” teaches us just as much about wild landscapes as it does about ourselves. Bird explains in her travel-log-style book that in “ancient times the Japanese ate wild herbs to cleanse their bodies at the edge of spring.” Like clockwork, every winter ancient peoples would consume heavy foods, rich in fats and proteins, and then cleanse themselves of stored toxins through ingesting mildly irritating or even slightly poisonous herbs as Springtime edges near. Bird explains that this archaic, yet ingenious yearly cycle was learned by watching the lifecycles of hibernating bears. In an age of rapid technological modernization, much of the awareness and knowledge of how to identify and prepare sansai is slipping away – leaving modern humans the arduous task of relearning how our bodies are shaped by our surroundings.
In her chapter on the horse chestnut (tochi-no-mi), Bird describes how the widespread cultivation of this plant was a primordial method to combat famine. Horse chestnut, due to its high caloric density, was a pre-agricultural dietary staple for the Japanese who mastered the technique of leeching the nut’s toxins. Found within a Middle Jomon period gravesite (dating 2,500-1,5000 BCE) near Lake Biwa was a massive quantity of shells, later to be identified as horse chestnuts. The Jomon people, Japan’s first inhabitants, relied heavily on these small nuts to get them through times of scarcity.
Sansai, it seems, educates modern humans about the hardships and resourceful methods of survival our ancestors employed to ensure our continued existence. At the chapter’s end, Bird details an easy-to-follow recipe of how to make tochi mochi, or horse chestnut mochi: seamlessly, Bird illustrates a crafty way of blending the hearty flavors of the past and the sweetness of today’s refined foods to create a delectable treat.
Bird’s book covers various types of sansai – including spring greens, ferns, bamboo, seaweed, and the aforementioned horse chestnuts. Each chapter comes with artistic renditions of the plants drawn by illustrator Paul Poynter, which adds a lovely visual aid to Bird’s descriptions and offers the reader a break from textual monotony. Tucked into Bird’s chapter on horse chestnuts is the grim reality of the plant’s fate if we remain indifferent to its conservation. Her explanation of how the formerly widespread ancient horse chestnut trees are now being cut down for furniture production is as heart breaking as it is eye opening. Only few old families in Japan’s countryside remain that are actively putting together coalitions to stop the decimation of this culturally and historically significant species.
It is not just plants that are facing extermination, but also ancient cultural practices such as seaweed harvesting. Native to coastal regions of Japan such as the Ishikawa prefecture, seaweed harvesting was done for centuries; legends claim that it has its origins as far back as the Heian period. In the prewar era of Japan, ama otome or “maiden amas” were “mermaid-like” young female divers who would free-dive to the sea floor in search of wakame, arame, abalone, sea cucumbers, urchins, and anything else the season had to offer. Such maidens were described by ancient poets as mystical beings because, until recently, the women would dive without breathing gear and clothes.
Nowadays, the tradition of ama otome is fading as younger generations have little interest in reviving this practice. Furthermore, the varieties of seaweed have been greatly reduced as commercial farming simplifies the diets and ecology of the countryside. Bird explains that “reproducing nature is a difficult thing” as aquaculture involves “putting manmade objects into the ocean”, which is presumably not environmentally sustainable.
The narrative section ends with a chapter on the native Ainu people of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. Its indigenous peoples are perhaps the most connected to their traditional ways of eating, and therefore to nature itself. Much of Ainu cuisine relies on the natural flavors of the environment. Two Ainu individuals that Bird meets on her journey explain that the Ainu are believers in a simple philosophy: “Flavors are to be experienced as nature provides them, never manipulated or concealed.” Ainu religion and culture is entirely concerned with protecting and living off their foraged foods, which they consider to be inextricably intertwined with their own culture. Without the knowledge of how to collect and cook foraged foods, how will modern people ever survive future disasters? While a revival of interest in the Ainu way of life is underway, it comes with the risk of the exploitation of the nature with which the Ainu maintain an ancestral and spiritual connection.
The conclusion culminates with a poignant lamentation that the natural beauty of any country’s landscape is abundant with “millions and millions [in] the world – hidden, bountiful universes in miniature, waiting to welcome us if only we can manage not to destroy them through neglect or ignorance or greed.” These last few lines leave a resounding impact, urging the reader not just to venture out and try more localized cuisine, but to also treasure and respect mankind’s spiritual and physical relationship to the environment we depend on.
LMU English major graduate Ella Kelleher is the book review editor-in-chief and a contributing staff writer for Asia Media International. She majored in English with a concentration in multi-ethnic literature.