Tag Archives: trees

A Walk in the Park

21 Mar

Hi blog.

I’ll spare you the excuses, mostly because I have none.

We are into late March, meaning the end of the academic and financial years, unstable weather – one day’s minimum might be higher than the next day’s maximum, rain one day and dust storms the next – and cherry blossoms and the hype surrounding them.

Feeling somewhat low over the spring equinox long weekend – right after my 45th birthday, no less – I decided to take the plunge and go out in search of something to blog about.

This will be a mostly visual post.  I cycled to Tokorozawa Aviation Memorial Park (it feels so strange to call it that – everyone I know uses “Kokukoen”) in the hope of seeing something worth photographing.  And something I could photograph with my not-so-great smartphone camera.

A Trachycarpus palm, one of the evergreens found in this area.  I should get around to writing about them some day.

 

Small bracket fungus growing on a tree stump.

 

Mississippi red-eared sliders vie for the best basking spot on what was the warmest day so far this year.

 

A yulan magnolia in full bloom. Avid followers might recognise this.

 

They smell better than those cherry blossoms too.

 

A mighty Japanese zelkova stands still bare of leaves. This is one of the most ubiquitous trees in suburban Japan.

 

A pair of brown-eared bulbuls and a pair of white-cheeked starlings acting a little wary of the bloke with the camera.

 

A brown-eared bulbul plays by the water.

 

A gorgeous pink camellia. The brown-eared bulbuls sometimes feed on the nectar.

 

On the way to the park, along the banks of the Azuma river. White, pink and red camellias under a cherry tree and palm.

 

Rape blossom, cherry and camellias under a street lantern. Comma placement is VERY important!

 

Sometimes a walk in the park is just what one needs.

Ume, harbinger of spring

19 Feb

In the plum blossom scent, the sun pops out, a mountain path

Basho

 

 

Hi blog.

While the kan may have officially come and gone, there is still little sign of spring.  The days are getting longer – the sun doesn’t set until after 5:00 these days – but the cold weather, especially the icy cold in the mornings, continues.  Looking for signs of spring, I can see that the magnolias are beginning to bud, the cold north-westerly winds generate dust storms and add time to my commute to work.  There is, however, a better candidate – ume.

See the pink? That’s ume in the early stages of blossom.

It makes for a change of scenery…

 

Ume (Prunus mume) is a plant lost in translation – it is widely known as the Chinese plum or Japanese apricot, while its flowers are often translated as plum blossom.  It is also known by the Chinese name mei or mai, the Japanese name ume, or its scientific name mume.  The latter is sometimes said to be derived from Chinese.

 Since the plant is neither plum nor apricot – it actually sits between the two – I’ll use the name ume here.

Ume (梅) is originally from China and was brought to Japan around the 6th or 7th centuries.  Growing between four and 10 metres in height, it is valued for its fragrant blossoms and fruit.  The trees blossom – in the Kanto, at least – from February to early March, producing five-petalled flowers (although double blossoms are also known) in various shades, from white to pink to red.

The white blossoms are commonly known as hakubai (白梅), and the red ones as kobai (紅梅).

Some white blossom poking its way through some bamboo.

 

The blossoms are also prized for their fragrance, which is noticeably absent in cherry blossoms.

Early blossoming pink ume left as an offering to one of the local statues of Kannon.

 

Originally, flower-viewing parties meant either ume or wisteria until the Heian period, when cherry blossom became the norm.  Even so, there is poetry dating from this era which praises the ume over the cherry.

Blossoming in winter has also earned the ume a place in the “three friends of winter” next to pine and bamboo.  Ume designs are often found on New Year greeting cards, and small potted ume are sold as New Year ornaments.

Moreover, the blossom has found its way into several heraldic designs.

Ume.

Reversed double blossom.

Ume crane.

 

In addition to its blossom, the ume is valued for its fruit.  Many of these are pickled with salt and are called umeboshi.  Ume are also used in jams, dipping sauces and juices.

My personal favourite, however, is umeshu, a liqueur made from white spirits, ume and sugar. This is typically steeped for six months to a year, but I once had the pleasure of receiving a small bottle of 25 year-old umeshu, dark and syrupy, in which even the stones of the fruit had dissolved.

Umeboshi. These are rather small ones, but with a hint of sweetness. I love the plump ones flavoured with honey, and avoid the hard red ones.

Around the time the fruit ripens, the East Asian monsoon season sets in.  This is known as tsuyu or baiu in Japan, and is written 梅雨, literally “ume rain”.

 Owing to its gnarly wood and relative hardiness, the ume is also a favoured subject for bonsai.  There is even a specific word for this  – bonbai.

 

The ume is the official flower of dozens of cities, towns and wards in Japan, and as I write this, the parks and gardens boasting thousands of ume trees will be gearing up for the tourists coming to see the blossoms.

 

I may or may not be able to make a trip out so far, but luckily there are are few ume trees on my commute.  Now all I need is some warmth!  (And a glass of umeshu…)

Trees don’t just grow on trees…

2 Apr

 

I took advantage of some free time during a sunny and warm period to go for a little walk and look for wildlife.

Unfortunately, nothing except pigeons seemed to be on the out-and-about.

However, you don’t see this every day…

Growing in the fork of a coppiced oak were two seedlings, an oak and a maple.

The taller of the two appears to be an oak, and the shorter one a maple.

Even Monkeys Fall From Trees

13 Nov

We’ve just had our first taste of what to expect in winter.  Wearing two undershirts, a shirt, a vest and a windcheater and still feeling cold… sometimes I wonder how people survive in colder climes.

I’ve been suffering from blog withdrawal of late.  Poor weather, increasingly shorter days – the sun sets soon after 4:30 –  but no shortage of commitments outside of blogging (I don’t get paid for this, you know) have kept me from encountering subjects or actively searching for them.

The orb-weaving spiders and praying mantises have just about finished their single-year lifecycle, leaves are falling, and everything is making the transition over to winter mode.

 

Anyway, I took advantage of a lesson-free afternoon, and got a couple of photos of an interesting tree.

 

This is the crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica).  A medium-sized (growing between three and nine metres tall) deciduous tree originally imported from China, it is a popular park tree for its pink or white flowers which bloom in August.  In fact, the most commonly used characters for it (百日紅) – literally “hundred day crimson” – are taken from its Chinese name and refer to the relatively long-lasting bloom.  An alternative name, hyakujikko, comes from this.

 

So why would I take an interest in it now, long past flowering and when it has lost nearly all its leaves?  The answer lies in its bark.  As the tree grows, the outer bark is shed, revealing a smooth mottled skin-like bark.  This gives it its more common Japanese name, sarusuberi (猿滑) – literally “monkey slip”, based on the belief that the tree is so smooth that even monkeys cannot climb it.  Other regional names also reference the smoothness of the bark.

 

As smooth as a baby’s bottom. You need to actually feel the bark to appreciate how smooth it is.

 

The last leaves remaining on a shoot.  Yes, that’s a ginkgo in the background.

 

In addition, the tree often grows into gnarly twisted forms, and the absence of foliage really brings this out.

 

Twists and gnarls, all still smooth, are features of mature trees.

 

 

I think the tree actually looks its best when it’s bare.

 

Oh, and apparently monkeys can climb the tree easily…

Takao – a hill by any other name

22 Apr

Mt. Takao is a popular hiking retreat for urbanites – within one hour of central Tokyo, several routes, including one paved all the way (perfect for those elderly types who buy all the essential hiking gear which never seems to get dirty, much like suburbanite Australians driving big 4WDs to the shopping centre and no further), and two options to bypass the steepest slopes: a funicular and a chairlift.

At just 599m, there is no way Takao deserves a titular “Mt.” (And I have NO qualms about mocking people who list it as a “mountain” they’ve climbed – especially when I suspect they made half the trip by means other than their own two feet.)  On the other hand, it is a good daytrip to get away from the city and actually have the opportunity to encounter something different.

Just to get you in the spirit of things, here’s a little article from The Daily Yomiuri December 27, 2007.  (Sorry, no link as the Yomiuri doesn’t archive articles).  Serious hiker Ian described it as “pure GOLD”

Rescues spike on popular hike / Novice climbers flocking to Michelin Guide 3-starred Mt. Takao

The Yomiuri Shimbun

This year has seen a marked increase in the number of hikers needing to be rescued from the 599-meter high Mt. Takao in Hachioji, Tokyo, with 43 people in 41 incidents having been rescued this year as of Tuesday compared with 26 people rescued in 20 incidents last year.

The rise is being attributed to a spike in the number of beginner hikers attempting to scale the mountain without appropriate gear.

However, others argue the spike in rescues is due to a spike in climbers triggered by the mountain being featured in the most recent Michelin guidebook on Japan, published in April.

The guide gave the mountain three stars as a tourist spot.

Mt. Takao is located about an hour from central Tokyo by train and has many easy routes for beginners.

A recent boom in mountaineering helped push the number of visitors to the mountain to about 2.5 million people last year.

Michelin published in French “Voyager Pratique Japon” in April, which features 820 sightseeing spots across Japan.

Noting that Mt. Takao is “located close to a big city, but is richly endowed with nature,” the guidebook gave the mountain its highest rating of three stars. Mt. Fuji was the only other mountain to garner three stars.

According to the tourism section of the Hachioji municipal government, in November about 250,000 tourists came to view autumn leaves, about 25 percent more visitors compared with the same period last year. The guidebook is believed to have partly contributed to this increase.

English, Chinese and Korean guideposts were set up in September at the start of hiking trails in response to the increase in foreign visitors.

However, the increase of hikers also has increased the number of accidents involving hikers, such as getting lost and falling down slopes.

According to a survey by the Metropolitan Police Department’s antidisaster division, about 15 to 20 incidents a year were reported for the past three years until last year.

However, over 40 incidents have been reported this year. In June, Takao Police Station started a mountain rescue unit.

Many of those who have needed rescuing have been beginners attempting to climb the mountain with little planning, including being dressed in clothing unsuitable for hiking.

In October, a 51-year-old man dressed in a suit and leather shoes asked to be rescued after he began climbing in the afternoon and was unable to follow the trail after it got dark.

In November, a 49-year-old drunk man was injured after falling about three meters.

A 37-year-old man had to be rescued after suffering dehydration after trying to ride up the mountain on a bicycle without drinking water.

Although the peak of the hiking season has already passed, many hikers visit a temple near the top of the mountain during the year-end and New Year’s season and to see the sunrise on Jan. 1.

Kenichiro Maruyama, head of the mountain rescue unit, has a warning for reckless hikers. “If you underestimate Mt. Takao, you may lose your life. You must prepare rain gear, survival food and a flashlight at least,” he said.

(Dec. 27, 2007)

I had the kids in tow, so anything other than the paved No. 1 route was out of the question (but I made the kids climb the whole way, heh, heh.)   One positive thing that can be said about the paved trail is that it discourages hikers from leaving it, and prevents further damage to the local ecosystem.  Plants grow right up to the trail edge, and it was good to see my kids take an interest in their surroundings.

 

Of particular interest to the kids were bracken ferns with their new spring fronds, the acauba with their large red berries, and the cobra lily urashima, which was a new experience for me too.

Fronds, particularly those from Pteridium aquilinum  – known as warabi (蕨) – and Osmunda japonica – known as zenmai (薇) – are a common food product here, and it is lucky that collecting plants is forbidden on the mountain hill, otherwise these areas would be virtually strip-mined and we’d have hordes of middle-aged to elderly women trampling all over the place.  With fronds like that, who needs enemies?

 

I can’t identify the type of fern or bracken, but the fronds caught the attention of my kids.

The aucuba (Aucuba japonica) is a plant I only knew by its Japanese name, aoki (青木) learning its English name while researching for this post.  Actually, aucuba is a latinization of aokiba, a regional name for the plant.  It thrives even in the shade of broadleaf canopies, and the large red berries are rather attractive.

 

The large berries (over 1cm long) of the acauba.

The cobra lily Urashima may be a subspecies of Arisaema thunbergii, or a separate species (Arisaema urashima), depending on who you listen to.  Ah, nomenclature wars.

After spotting this plant (OK, actually the kids spotted it and pointed it out to me, but let’s not get hooked up on details), I dived into my guide book and thought it may have been the crowdipper (Pinellia ternata), although the crowdipper lacks the purple colouring.  Later reading suggested that the crowdipper, which is an early import from China, was very similar in appearance to the cobra lily Urashima.  The latter, a native, has a purple tinge.  Furthermore, this plant was listed on the official Takao website.

The local name is urashimaso (浦島草) – literally “Urashima grass” –  and the most widely accepted reason is the long spadix appendix (try saying that quickly!) which brings to mind the fishing rod and line of the fairy tale character/folk hero Urashima Taro.

 

The flower and sapix of the cobra lily Urashima. The appendix can reach up to 60 cm in length.

I was hoping to encounter some fauna other than Homo sapiens, but the vast majority of creatures preferred to be heard than to be seen.  Bush warblers made their presence known, and at a spring (where water trickled out of the rock face) we could hear frogs calling.

 

Takao has a long association with the Shugendo religion, and the Takaosan Yakuonin Temple of one of the Shingon branches is a major drawcard for visitors.

Because it is a sacred mountain hill, small shrines and statues line the trails and temple grounds.  But the most famous icon is the tengu.

 

“Beware of tengu”

I won’t go too deeply into tengu beyond the two main types, tengu (a red-faced, long-nosed mountain spirit) and the karasu-tengu, which has the face of a crow.

 

Tengu acting as guardians to the fierce-looking Buddhist diety.

Tengu or Daitengu.

Karasutengu. This and the previous photo were taken within the temple grounds.

Giant tengu mask to the right of the entrance of the main temple building.

And on the left, karasutengu.

A tengu as on of the Nio statues.

A karasutengu as the other Nio statue.

 

Another element of the supernatural on Mt. Takao is the legend surrounding the Takosugi (“Octopus cryptomeria”).  Apparently, the roots of a large crytomeria tree were blocking the construction of a path for pilgrims.  A couple of variations exist, but the main gist is that the tree wrapped its roots back behind its trunk – in a single night – reminding people of an octopus.  One variation of the story is said to date back 600 years, even though the tree in question is believed to be 450 years old.

A large crytomeria tree, over 30 metres tall. There are lots of these near the temple.

 

The “Tako Sugi” (蛸杉). See how the roots have turned back around the trunk instead of spreading out. The person in the picture gives you some idea of the size. Unfortunately, the roots have been fenced off to avoid further damage from hikers touching them.

 

We celebrated our climb to the summit (all 599 metres, he says cynically) with some overpriced ice cream, before deciding which route to take down.  I managed to convince the kids that taking a dirt trail leading to a suspension bridge would be more interesting – which it was.

View from the summit. That’s downtown Tokyo in the background.

 

We also encountered plenty of gold-banded lilies (Lilium auratum).  These attractive flowers are natives to Japanese mountains and hills, and appropriately have the name yamayuri (山百合), literally “mountain lily”.  Apparently, the bulbs and shoots of these plants were a food source in ancient times, and even today are sold as vegetables in supermarkets.

A cluster of immature gold-banded lilies.

 

Closer up.

 

A signpost at a trail junction pointed to the Ja Waterfall.  Even though that path would not lead back to our station, meaning it would be a return trip, my eldest decided she would like to see the waterfall.

The fall itself was not particularly spectacular, but there was a “mizugyo” dojo, for the ascetic practice of sitting or standing under a waterfall while reciting sutras or prayers.  We saw someone, clearly having a connection with the temple, leave the dojo.

The Ja no Taki (“Serpant Waterfall”)

Gateway to the dojo.

Someday I would like to try mizugyo/takigyo/takiuchi – provided it is in summer!

 

A short rest and then the climb back to where we left our original path.  My youngest decided he was too tired to climb, so I had to carry him part of the way.  We made it back to route number 1, and it was downhill all the way.  And murder on my knees!

 

Mt. Takao is not a mountain.  But it is a mountain of fun for those around Tokyo who want to get away for a day.

‘Tis the Season to be Sneezy

10 Apr

Spring continues to advance – days with double-digit maximums are the norm (although northerly winds and single-digit days persist), small vegetable patches that looked decayed and lifeless just a few weeks ago have been hoed and are now full of promise [cue “Circle of Life”], various magnolias are in bloom (unfortunately, getting photos means sticking my camera into other people’s yards), and the weather reports include daily updates on the status of cherry blossoms.

My persimmon tree is in bud.

Daffodils, known locally as suisen (水仙). Not many people realise that they are not native to East Asia.

A type of lily known as katakuri (片栗). It is a source of an expensive starch.

A magnolia. Yes, I did have to stick my mobile phone over a fence to get this one!

 

One of my favorites, along with “pillage” and “plunder”! In additon to having a pretty flower, the canola is an edible vegatable.

A Japanese quince or boke (木瓜) in flower.

Raise the Pink Lantern! These lanterns adorn the Azuma river during cherry blossom season.

The river banks are lit up at night for nocturnal enjoyment of cherry blossoms.

A sudden low-pressure cell passed over Japan on the 3rd of this month, bringing typhoon-strength winds (over 25 m/second in the centre of Tokyo) and rain, and causing at least four deaths.

 

Another sign of spring, although this starts in late winter, is the onset of hay-fever in millions of people.  (In my darker, more cynical moments, it is the Japanese allergy to nature)

 

Hay fever is known is Japan as kafunsho (花粉症), which literally means “pollen syndrome”.  Many Japanese people are genuinely surprised to hear that hay fever exists in other countries.  I am not a hay fever sufferer, and many assume that it is a uniquely Japanese problem.

 

The leading cause of hay fever is the cryptomeria (Cryptomeria japonica) or sugi (), often – incorrectly – called the Japanese cedar.

Cryptomeria at work. The orange-brown areas are the pollen building up.

This tree was the preferred timber for construction of housing, and thousands of hectares were planted, at the expense of biodiversity, during the housing shortages after World War II.  As the economy picked up and then fell, the trees became less economical to harvest compared to imported timber, and the monoculture plantation forests have been left largely unmanaged.

 

As trees age past 20 years, they can produce large amounts of pollen, which increase as the tree ages.

Added to this is the lack of grass in populated areas.  Grass helps catch pollen once it makes contact with the ground.  Concrete, asphalt and pounded clay allow fallen pollen to be taken up by the wind and blown “back into circulation”.

Furthermore, research suggests that dust and air pollution may aggravate allergic reactions to pollen, so city dwellers are more likely to develop hay fever symptoms.  Nature strikes back…

 

There is a whole industry based around hay fever – masks (used during the cold and flu season, but hay fever season greatly increases their demand period), yoghurt (said to help increase resistance), medications and air filtering devices.  Another staple of the weather report is the pollen forecast.

 

Governments are starting to take action.  There have been proposals to cut down cryptomeria and replace them with broadleaf trees – like they were before the crytopmeria plantations.

One major proponent of this is Tokyo governor Ishihara, mostly because he started suffering from hay fever…

Going Nuts!

23 Oct

The Oxford English Dictionary has this to say about the etymology of horse chestnuts:

late 16th century: translating (now obsolete) botanical Latin Castanea equina; its fruit is said to have been an Eastern remedy for chest diseases in horses

 

Like its European counterparts, the fruit of the Japanese horse chestnut (Aesculus turbinata) or tochinoki (栃の木) contains toxic alkaloids.  While deer are able to digest these quite safely, they are poisonous to humans and, despite the origins of the English name, most likely to horses.  They have, nevertheless, a long history in Japanese food culture – archaelogical evidence shows that horse chestnuts were utilized by the pre-rice Jomon people.

Leaf of the horse chestnut, with my hand for relative size.

From medieval times down to the not-so-distant past, the failure of rice crops could result in starvation, particularly in the mountains where large quantities of rice could not be grown.  Horse chestnuts were gathered as a reserve food supply and stored in the roofs of houses, where they could be accessed if the family got snowed in.

A long process of soaking and boiling renders the kernel edible.  Freshly gathered nuts are soaked in water for a couple of days to kill any weevils or other insects, and then sun dried for up to a month, before being put into storage.  To leach the toxins out, the nuts are soaked for a few days, the shells removed, then leached in running water for between a week and ten days.  The nuts are then boiled and left to soak overnight in a water and ash mixture.  After the leaching process, the kernels are generally pounded with glutinous rice into mochi.

Today, mochi made with horse chestnut flour – tochimochi (栃餅) – are sold as local cuisine in some areas.  This website shows some of the process of making tochimochi.

In addition to its “food value”, the horse chestnut is prized by apiarists for its nectar-rich flowers.  The timber is valued similar to walnut, and is traditionally the material used for making mochi mortars (usu).

There is a Japanese horse chestnut tree in the park near my house.  Unfortunately, it was heavily pruned and didn’t produce any conkers this year.  I’ll have to get my photos from somewhere else…

Japanese horse chestnut – tochinomi (栃の実). Courtesy of Wikipedia

 

Horse chestnut and sections of husk

 

Contemporary Japanese tend to be obsessed with two things: food; and their country’s unique (and often considered uniquely unique) culture.  White rice is ubiquitous; it still remains the stable food – so much that following WWII, huge efforts were made to ensure 100% self- sufficiency in rice – despite 70% of food being imported.  In feudal days, warlords measured their wealth in rice production, and samurai were paid stipends in bushels of rice.  The Japanese word for “meal” (gohan) is identical for the word for “cooked rice”.  I (and I’m sure thousands of other Westerners too) frequently get asked the question, “Which do you eat, bread or rice?” (The assumption is that if rice is the basis of the Japanese diet, then bread must be the basis of European-based societies)

So I am not usually thanked for pointing out that for at least half of Japan’s history, rice was not the staple.  Most people are blissfully unaware that rice is not native to the island chain at all.

So, what did people eat before rice was brought from the mainland?  They were hunter-gatherers.  Deer, wild pigs and fish provided a large portion of their protein intake, but the staple was acorns.

 

Acorns –  known locally as donguri (団栗) – come from three sources: evergreen chinkapins (or chinquapin) – sudajii (すだ椎) or shii (); evergreen oaks- kashi (); and deciduous oaks – nara (), all members of the beech family.  Each type contains a certain amount of tannin and saponin, which effects how the acorn can be eaten.

Some of the chinkapins can be eaten raw, and the acorns of certain deciduous oak require no more than a simple roasting.  On the other end of the scale, the nuts from the evergreen oaks contain a significant amount of toxins and need to be treated in a manner similar to (but not as extensive as) the horse chestnut.

Acorns are a vital part of the food chain.  Most people associate them with squirrels, but rats, tanuki, deer, pigs and bears feed extensively on them too.  In fact, recent cases of Japanese black bears making their way onto farms and into villages have been attributed to a lack of acorns in the mountains, forcing the animals for forage elsewhere.

Acorns showing relative shapes and sizes. Top left: shii; top right: kashi; bottom: nara

Fruits of my labours

21 Oct

Autumn is well and truly here, and the cold, cold winter is just around the corner.  Leaves are changing colour in the mountains – most noticeably the reds of the maples and the yellow ginkgos.

Ginkgo leaf – official symbol of Tokyo Metropolis

An early Chinese import, the ginkgo is a popular street tree but also enjoys special status around shrines and temples.  It is also the official tree of Tokyo, Kanagawa and Osaka prefectures (its leaf is part of the official Tokyo Prefectural symbol), as well as being the official tree of some 33 cities – including Tokorozawa – in addition to Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward and Nagoya’s Naka Ward, 20 towns and four villages.

I was first introduced to this tree during a high school biology field trip the Adelaide Botanical

Manhole cover in Tokorozawa showing city symbols, including ginkgo leaves

Gardens.  The Chinese maidenhair tree, as it was known to us, is a fossil tree with distinct male and female trees.

The Japanese name is icho, but it was known as ginkyo in older times.  The name icho is thought to derive from the Chinese yājiǎo (“duck foot”), a description of the shape of the leaf, while ginkyo is a possible reading of the characters (銀杏).  This can be confusing, as the name of the edible fruit kernel is, although written identically, pronounced “ginnan”.

The ginnan is indispensable in certain dishes, but obtaining them is laborious, mostly because the flesh of the ginkgo fruit, which must be removed, has a horrible smell.  So horrible that almost no animals eat it.  (The badger is said to be an exception)

“What’s that smell?” Ginkgo fruit rotting on the ground.  The flesh of the ginkgo fruit can iritate human skin, and must be removed from the nut.

Fruits that are important along the food chain include persimmons, pomegranates, chestnuts and Japanese horse chestnuts, and, of course, acorns.

pomegranates

Pomegranates in a garden near my house

Persimmons, or kaki (), are another early Chinese import, and are found in many suburban gardens.  My own garden boasts a sweet persimmon tree.  These were more important in days gone by and children had little access to sweets – many TV shows set in earlier times depict kids stealing from their neighbour’s persimmon tree.  A variation of this theme has the thief biting into the fruit only to discover that it is an astringentpersimmon.

Persimmons from my tree

Sweet and astringent persimmons – amagaki (甘柿) and shibugaki (渋柿) respectively – generally can be distinguished by sight – the most important sweet cultivars tend to be flat-ish and take on an almost square profile, while the most common astringent ones are more bulb-shaped.  This is only a rough guide, so beware of biting into an unidentified persimmon!  I’ve felt my tongue go numb from sinking my teeth into the wrong kind!

You may be thinking, “So why bother with astringent ones if you can’t eat them?”  Well, you can.  They can be treated with carbon dioxide, or soaked in shochu to remove the stringency.  But they are at their best as dried persimmons (hoshikaki – 干し柿).  The persimmons are peeled but the stalk left on, and hung up in a cool, dry place.  The winters of Eastern Japan are notoriously dry and quickly sap the moisture from the persimmon.  The result is a soft dried fruit with a pleasant taste.

Astringent persimmons also have uses in dyeing and paper.  The dye made from the fruit turns cloth a light brown colour, and it is also used to improve the water resistance of Japanese paper, particularly in umbrella making.

Persimmons are a favourite of birds, monkeys, deer, tanuki, wild pigs and bears.  Unfortunately, the ageing and depopulated country side means more persimmon trees are left unattended, attracting these animals into the small human settlements.  It is usually only a matter of time before a wild pig or a bear injures someone and the offending animal is killed.

The persimmon plays an important role in the children’s story The Feud of the Monkey and the Crabs.

 

Another seasonal favourite is the chestnut or kuri ().  This is a Japanese native, and hikers may be lucky enough to find one in the wild.  The nuts of the wild variety are small but sweet.  The husks are prickly and need to be handled with care.  Some people burn the husks to roast the nuts inside, although boiling and roasting over hot stones are the more common ways of cooking the nuts.  A popular autumn dish is kuri-gohan – chestnuts (with a few ginkgo nuts) boiled in white rice.

Unripened chestnut husks

Chestnuts with husk opening

The nuts are a favourite of wild pigs.

Chestnut in the open husk or urchin

The chestnut is one of the avenging characters in the afore-mentioned The Feud of the Monkey and the Crabs.

 

Next time – going nuts!

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