May 19, 2010
It is spring here in Iwate and as any gardener knows early spring is a lean time for fresh food. Especially here in the north of Japan where heavy snow cover makes winter growing near impossible. As the stored root vegetables come to an end and the first of the new seasons vegetables are not yet ready in the garden attention turns to the mountain forests and the pre-agricultural practice of foraging.
The Sakawa family of Ureshipa farm take food self-sufficiency seriously and integrate the foraging of wild foods into their farming practice. At this time of year, when little else is available, weekly trips are made into the mountains where four people foraging for a morning can gather enough vegetables to feed six adults and four children for a week! (Even more impressive when you bear in mind that the diet here is about 98% vegetarian.)
Japan seems to be unusually blessed with an abundance of delicious edible wild plants. It could also be said that it is blessed with much land too steep and mountainous to be suitable for agriculture so the natural habitat for these wild edibles still covers large areas of the country.
Alongside the mountain vegetables extensive use is also made of the edible plants that grow wild around the farm – the ‘weeds’ that other farmers are trying to eradicate. It is not unusual for the day’s cook to spend thirty or so minutes scouring the terrace banks and paddy’s for tsukushi, gobo (burdock), fuki or warabi (bracken) to make up the evening meal. Often the children will return from school with a handful of wild edibles collected on the walk home.
The combination of forest edge, wet paddy and cultivated terraces (and the absence of resident grazing animals) creates an environment capable of supporting a vast array of plants. When utilized as natural crops rather than battled with as weeds the over all yield of the environment increases as energy expenditure decreases.
It could be said that foraging is really a form of farming, the true ‘natural farming’ maybe. With many of the species that we are foraging for the disturbance brought by harvest stimulates growth and ensures the future abundance of the species. When the succulent buds of the taranome are plucked, for example, the plant sends out two new shoots where before there was one. As the forager moves through the forest she aids in the distribution of the spores, seeds and roots of the species she gathers. Those who live by foraging fully understand the implications of over-exploitation of a resource and carefully manage their harvesting to ensure the continuation of each species. This is ‘farming’ as an inter-dependent relationship with the land.
But foraging in Japan is not for the feint hearted. Of course there are the bears, whom we try to give ample notice of our presence by the wearing of bells, but the real danger is actually in the harvesting. Many of the edible wild plants are ‘pioneer plants’ moving in to disturbed land to begin the processes of natural remediation and stabilization. Because of the steep mountain slopes, high rainfall, heavy snowfall and frequent seismic activity naturally occurring landslides or slips are very common in the mountains. And it is on these ‘slips’, often right at the top of these slips, that many of the desired wild foods are to be found.
Japanese food is famous for its extensive use of sea vegetables and the wild harvest of these is another important activity at Ureshipa. Very early in the spring we travelled to the Pacific coast in Iwate to harvest nori, arame, wakame, and funori. The harvested sea vegetables are washed and dried for use throughout the year, providing essential minerals to the diet.
There is more than just the wild foods to be gained from these trips to the beach or into the mountains. The Japanese have a new field of medical research studying the effects of what they call shinrinyoku, or ‘forest bathing.’ Of course its not hard to believe that a trip to the forest is good for you but now scientists can tell you ‘exactly’ why it is good for you. It seems that visiting the forest is a form of aromatherapy, where we breathe in “volatile substances, called phytoncides (wood essential oils), which are antimicrobial volatile organic compounds derived from plants (trees), such as alpha-pinene and limonene” to quote the official Japanese Society of Forest Medicine website. There is an impressive list of health benefits stemming from this “natural aromatherapy” of which some are not really so surprising, such as the reduction of blood pressure and stabilizing of autonomic nervous activity but others, like “the expression of anti-cancer proteins including perforin, granzymes A/B and granulysin,” are maybe not quite so obvious. No wonder I am enjoying these foraging trips so much!