On the Road

January 3, 2013

Well look at that…The end of the world has come and gone (again) and we’re all still here! With the latest apocalypse/salvation distraction behind us we’re back to the reality of the slow catastrophe daily unfolding and the responsibility for doing something about it.

While the Japanese have just voted in a right-wing, pro-nuclear nationalist “strong leader” to end their woes (not that there was much of a choice – being a modern democracy an’ all) Asako and I have a different idea. In January we’re hitting the road (well, the tracks actually) to propagandize the people and hopefully inspire a little action.


During January 2013 we will be giving presenations in Hamamatsu, Nagoya and Tokyo about our life and work at Shikigami. Through photographs and stories we will discuss our approach to permaculture, deep ecology, forest gardening and gift economics.

Hamamatsu Wednesday January 9, 13:30. Payaka: 4-19-12 Kamoe, Naka Ward, Hamamatsu Permaculture Chubu, Hamamatsu

Nagoya Sunday January 13, 14:00. Tokurinji: Aioi-28-341 Tenpakucho Oaza Nonami, Tenpaku Ward, Nagoya Permaculture Chubu, Nagoya

Tokyo Friday January 18, 19:30. One Kitchen: 3-26 Arakicho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo


1月9日(水) 13:30 Payaka(パヤカ) 静岡県浜松市中区鴨江4-19-12  詳細はパーマカルチャー中部

1月13日(日) 14:00 徳林寺(本堂裏のギャラリー・ハスタクティ1Fにて)  愛知県名古屋市天白区天白町大字野並相生28-341 詳細はパーマカルチャー中部

1月18日(金)19:30 One Kitchen  東京都新宿区 荒木町3−26 サウスウィング荒木町2F奥



Summer, in the Shade

August 27, 2012

As the summer rolls on so too does the succession of wild edibles. The height of summer is often thought to be a relatively barren time for foraging but here, wild foods continue to comprise a significant proportion of our diet at this time. It has been hot, really hot, so our preference is for lurking in the cool moist shade of the trees. A preference shared by many of the wild foods to be found at this time of the year.

A couple of weeks back we held a ‘simple living’ workshop at Shikigami [view photos of the event here] with participants wild harvesting ingredients for the weekends meals. They were surprised – as are most of our visitors – at the abundance and diversity of wild edible plants here. We first introduced them to inutade (Polygonum longisetum), a relatively new one for us too and one that has quickly become a much respected and appreciated summer food. (While I think very highly of the Plants for a Future site and use it often the ‘edibility ratings’ on the site should not be taken too seriously. The entry on Polygonum longisetum is a case in point: it is given an edibility rating of 1 (out of 5). These edibility ratings are subjective, of course, but further, plants are often rated on hearsay rather than from the direct experience of the articles authors. Polygonum longisetum is far better than the designation of ‘famine food’ given it on the site. I would give it at least a 3 out of 5.)

inutade (Polygonum longisetum)
(Polygonum longisetum)

Inutade is a mucilaginous herb growing to 50 – 100cm and one of the dominant ground covers at this time of year. We eat the leaves and the tender tips of the stalks both raw and cooked. As you can see in the photograph above it has quite distinctive dark markings on the leaves. There are a number of related species that carry these markings also. There is one species here with leaves considerably narrower than those pictured but very similar in taste to inutade. Another related species, that carries somewhat similar markings but has a very different leaf shape, is mizosoba (Polygonum thunbergii) and it is extremely bitter. The leaves of inutade alternate from a single stem which ranges in colour from olive green to red. From the nodes, where the leaf attaches to the stem, fine white hairs grow.

not inutade
Mizosoba (Polygonum thunbergii)

We also introduced the workshop participants to wild pesto. (And it is to my dear friends Karin and Cath back in Aotearoa that I have to thank for introducing me to this particular culinary delight.) As the late vegetalista Frank Cook observed, pesto is not so much a specific recipe as it is a genre. So then, what comprises this genre of pesto? Some green stuff, some garlic-like stuff, some nuts, parmesan (optional), all very finely chopped and mixed with olive oil and perhaps a dash of salt. The classic formula of basil, garlic, pine nuts and parmesan is but one way. On this occasion our pesto contained walnuts, parmesan, ushihakobe (a chickweed), tsubokusa (gotu kola), plantain, aomizu (in the Urticaceae, or nettle family and one to which I shall return later), chidomegusa (lawn pennyroyal), clover, oregano…and probably some other plants that I can’t recall right now.

Making wild pesto
Making wild pesto

Wild pesto
Peel and crush the garlic (I use about two cloves for every generous handful of greens but then, I eat a lot of raw garlic. You’ll quickly discover the quantity that suits you). Place a handful of greens on the garlic and begin chopping. As you are chopping keep scraping all the ingredients from the chopping board back in to a pile. Once the plant material is well chopped (does not need to be super fine at this stage) add another handful of greens and repeat the process until all the greens have been added. By this stage, with the repeated chopping as new greens were added, the leaves and garlic should be quite finely cut. Chop the nuts of your choice coarsely, sprinkle them over your pile of finely chopped leaves and garlic and continue to chop. Once the nuts have been reduced to small pieces (but before they have become dust) add grated parmesan (optional) and chop this into very small pieces too. The idea throughout this process is that by chopping the ingredients on top of the previously added ingredients they all get mixed up rather nicely as you achieve the desired fineness for a good pesto (in my humble opinion having it all mashed to a pulp in a blender does not make for good pesto – but as you like). Place your mixture in a bowl, adding salt to taste, then add the olive oil – just enough to achieve the desired consistency if you plan to eat the pesto immediately. If you have made more than you can eat immediately place the remainder in a jar and add more olive oil to just cover the pesto. This should keep for at least a week or two refrigerated (I’m guessing here as I tend to make it fresh each time).

Two attendees of the workshop showed an extreme aversion to garlic and all members of the Allium genus and so experimented further with the basic recipe. Using the same greens they substituted ginger for garlic, sesame oil for olive oil and sesame paste for parmesan. The result…absolutely delicious.

Aomizu (Pilea mongolica syn. pumila, Canadian clearweed), one of the pesto ingredients mentioned above, is another cherished summer green, making regular appearances in our salads of the past month. It is a member of the nettle family and the Japanese name aomizu (green water plant) gives you a good idea of where to look for it. A small annual with a preference for shady, moist places. The leaves look and taste very similar to koakaso (Boehmeria spicata), another member of the nettle family that I have written about previously here and here.

Aomizu (Pilea mongolica)
Aomizu (Pilea mongolica)

Myōga (Zingiber mioga) of the ginger family is a plant native to Japan and Korea that is a popular ingredient in the cuisine of both countries. Its popularity has led to its wide cultivation but it can still be found wild or, once introduced to an appropriate site, let go wild. It is a great plant for forest gardens as it grows well in full or partial shade.

Myoga_Zingiber mioga
Myōga (Zingiber mioga)

In Japan it is often pickled or used in miso soup. The flower buds are the most commonly used part of the plant though the young shoots are eaten too. The flower buds appear at ground level – not on the above ground parts of the plant – so a bit of crawling around on the soil might be necessary. Even if not necessary it is fun and…uhh…grounding.

A stand of myōga left alone will soon fill up the available space with a subsequent reduction in the number of flower buds produced. A bit of disruption to the soil now and then (something the wild pigs usually do a reasonable job of) will increase the number of flower buds produced each year. Here we have summer and autumn flowering varieties.

Myoga (Zingiber mioga) flowerbud
Myōga flowerbud

Myōga pickles
Combine rice vinegar, sugar and salt. Guess the amount of vinegar you’ll need to cover the quantity of myōga you have (when in a jar) and add sugar and salt to taste. Bring the vinegar mixture to a boil and remove from heat. Cut the myōga flowerbuds in half and dip in boiling water for about thirty seconds to a minute, drain and place the myōga in a jar. Cover the myōga, while it is still hot, with the vinegar mixture then let the jar cool to room temperature before putting the lid on. Best kept refrigerated or in a very cool dark place.

An Affluence of Sleep

July 15, 2012

Month four in a twelve month journal of the wild foods we are eating. Previous posts in this series can be found here.

Roused from a midday sleep by hunger I grab a bowl, don a wide-brimmed straw hat and head out to gather a salad.

First I make my way to patches of ushihakobe (“cow chickweed”) and tsuyukusa (Asiatic dayflower), gathering generous quantities to bulk up the salad. Then on to chidomegusa (lawn pennyroyal) and tsubokusa (gotu kola), passing a nasturtium I pluck a few flowers and a handful of leaves, doing the same with shirotsumekusa (white clover). A few leaves of suiba (sorrel), a good handful of shiso leaves, shiroza (lambs quarters) and  amaransasu (amaranth). Moving from the clearing where I have been gathering these sun loving plants I make my way toward the shady forest edge looking for sumire (violet). Passing oobako (plantain) sprouting new leaves I gather a bunch of the small tender light-green new growth (all the more tender for growing in dappled shade).  After collecting sumire and katabami (wood sorrel) I investigate a patch of myoga – still a little early for the flowerbuds, I move on. Skirting the forest edge I pick young koakoso (nettle family) leaves then back in to the sun I gingerly take a few azami (thistle) leaves – these with prickly spines which I shall trim off with scissors later. Ambling back towards the house I gather some leaves of mint, nira (garlic chives), comfrey, mukuge (rose of sharon), lemon balm and lemon verbena, parsley and oregano.

Back inside, having trimmed the spines from azami, I toss everything in a bowl and top with kurumi (walnuts) pickled in a honey vinegar and dress with yamamomo (Chinese bayberry) vinegar.

wild salad

A cup of suikazura (Japanese honeysuckle) flower tea in hand I return to horizontality and thumb through a book, recently read, looking for a passage in which an anthropologist suggests that one measure of a societies affluence might be the amount of daytime sleep afforded. Unable to locate the sentence I lay the book aside and go back to sleep.


Koakoso (Boehmeria spicata) I mentioned a couple of months back as a pot herb. I was less than enthusiastic about the taste but I have found a new love for this plant as a salad green. The light green young leaves make a really nice addition to a salad – their mild flavour making them suitable for bulking up more pungent plants. Shadier locations will likely yield a greater quantity of the tender young things.

koakosouKoakoso (Boehmeria spicata)

Ushihakobe (Stellaria aquatica) is a chickweed. It is not the chickweed (Stellaria media) but a closely related species that continues to grow vigorously through summer when hakobe (Stellaria media) is resting.

Ushihakobe (Stellaria aquatica)Ushihakobe (Stellaria aquatica)

Mukuge (rose of sharon, Hibiscus syriacus) is a plant of Asian origin (but not of Syrian, as Linnaeus thought when he named the plant). It is a large deciduous shrub (up to 3m x 2m) with edible leaves, flowers and roots. I haven’t seen it growing wild here (yet – hopefully some of our fifteen or so plantings will be happy enough with their locations to go wild – it is a prolific producer of seed so chances are good) but it is a common ornamental plant and therefore one for you urban foragers to look out for. Also, as ours are still small I have so far only tried the leaves which I like a lot: mild flavoured with a pleasantly mucilaginous texture. There is a flowering specimen growing in a private garden in the village but, tempting as it is, I am well aware that every time I cycle through the village there is at least one set of eyes following me (“that strange foreigner who lives deep in the mountains”).

mukuge (Hibiscus syriacus)A mukuge (Hibiscus syriacus) sapling

Katabami (Oxalis corniculata) is one of the many plants known to the English speaking world as wood-sorrel – their lemony tang being reminiscent of sorrel (Rumex spp.).  The intense lemon flavour of oxalis and rumex species, while pleasantly refreshing and uplifting, is due to the presence of oxalic acids and a good indicator that moderation should be exercised. Large bowlfuls everyday are not the way to eat this plant. Some leaves mixed through a salad being more the way to go.

Katabami (Oxalis corniculata)Katabami (Oxalis corniculata)

Shiso (Perilla frutescens) is, of course, the green leaf served as a garnish with sashimi and sushi (lately replaced by pieces of green plastic cut to vaguely resemble patches of grass). A really fantastic herb and all over the place! Don’t be timid with shiso. The flavour is mild enough to eat in quantity, it is nutritious and medicinal. Great as a salad leaf, or pickled in soy sauce and mirin, shiso pesto, shiso tea…. An annual that readily self-seeds to establish colonies and an excellent insectary plant, it’s a good candidate for scattering around in a forest garden, on abandoned land, city parks…. Green and purple varieties are common in Japan – the latter is not normally eaten fresh but is pickled and used in the making of umeboshi (pickled plums). Later in the year I’ll come back to shiso to talk about making use of the seeds.

Shiso (Perilla frutescens)Shiso (Perilla frutescens)

Shiso‘s medicine: antiasthmatic, antibacterial, antipyretic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, antitussive, aromatic, carminative, diaphoretic, emollient, expectorant, pectoral, stomachic, tonic.

Shiroza (lambs quarters, fat hen, Chenopodium album) and  amaransasu (amaranth, Amaranthus spp.) can be found growing wild throughout much of Japan. The young leaves of both are great in salads. Older leaves of shiroza can be boiled, steamed, added to soups etc. Both shiroza and amaransesu leaves are very nutritious. Both are weedy…let me rephrase that; both are important pioneer plants initiating processes of succession, thus enabling the return of forests – and so are also good candidates for seedballing barren sites or sunny openings of forest gardens.

Shiroza (Chenopodium album)amaranth (Amaranthus spp.)
Left: shiroza (Chenopodium album) and  right: amaransasu (Amaranthus spp.)

The dear old yamamomo (Myrica rubra) up the hill from our house has decided to give the fruit producing thing a miss this year but thankfully produced a good enough quantity last year for plentiful vinegar and wine making.

yamamomo (Myrica rubra)Yamamomo (Myrica rubra)

Yamamomo vinegar:

Mash up ripe fruit (the riper the better) and place in a well cleaned fermenting vessel (glass, ceramic, enamel coated metal but not uncoated metal as the acidity of the vinegar will eat in to it. My preference for cleaning such vessels is a strong antiseptic herbal tea such as sage, juniper, yarrow, kawakawa…). Dissolve sugar in water (about a quarter of a cup of sugar to 1 litre water. Use spring water if possible or, at least, water that has been boiled and let cool to around 40 degrees Celsius. The yeast on the skin of the yamamomo fruits, the beautiful microorganisms that are going to make this wonderful vinegar for you won’t appreciate it any hotter than that. Cover the fermenting vessel with a loose weave cloth and let sit stirring periodically (once a day is good). After about  a week strain out the fruit and continue to ferment. After about a month the vinegar will be ready but leaving it for longer may mellow it out nicely. You can make vinegar from most fruit this way.

Finally this month is himekouzo (Broussonetia kazinoki), a somewhat scrappy looking tree/shrub with alluring berries which can be eaten raw and are very tasty but every so often one will irritate the tongue and roof of the mouth with a long lasting itchy sensation. The berries have long hairs which are likely responsible for this but it is a little strange that while all himekouzo berries have these hairs only some cause a reaction. There seems to be no way of telling before you put the berry in your mouth either. The sensation is unpleasant enough to likely put most people off playing Russian roulette with the raw berries but there are other ways to use them. I have tried cooking them in a tapioca pudding but ended up with a bowl of itchiness so they need more than just cursory cooking. Although I have not tried making a jam with them yet I suspect the cooking and mashing up of the berries in the process would take care of the problem. Likewise, ( and also so far untested), cooking, mashing and making fruit leathers. What does work is making himekouzochū, that is, soaking the berries in shōchū, vodka or the like. A good vinegar can be made from them also.

himekouzo (Broussonetia kazinoki)himekouzo (Broussonetia kazinoki)
(Broussonetia kazinoki)

But the fruits are not the only edible part of this plant. The leaves are good cooked and the really young leaves can be eaten raw. The leaves do have a slight raspy texture but this is barely noticeable and nothing compared to the raspiness the berries can have. The flowers can also be eaten. Himekouzo is a close relative of kazhinoki (paper mulberry, Broussonetia papyrifera) and, like that plant, fibre from the bark can be used to make paper, cloth and rope.


Basic Skills for Simple Living

August 11 & 12
A two day workshop on rocket stoves, composting toilets and summer wild foods. Making, using, doing. Participants will camp on site. More info in English or info in Japanese


Open Day

August 18
A guided tour of our site and explanation of our approach to forest gardening, natural farming and various aspects of living simply. For more info in English see here or for Japanese info see here.

New website

May 4, 2012

We have finally launched our bilingual website shikigami.net.
Info on all the mischief we’re up to plus much more to come over the next few months.
If you happen to be checking it out and notice any spelling mistakes, broken links or if it looks funny in whatever browser you’re using please drop us a line and let us know so we can tidy it up. Enjoy!

kumagaisou flower

It’s coming up for ten months since we moved into these mountains and already great big tap roots have sprouted from the soles of our feet and sunk deep into the earth. As our roots grow and spread we proceed lightly and slowly, finding our way of inhabiting these forested mountains, becoming forest people, mountain people.

Food is a very direct way to connect to a place. Literally the plants become your flesh, plant cells become your cells, a transference of wild energy.

View to the south east. Fruit and nut trees in the foreground with deciduous forest background left and sugi (Cryptomeria) plantation background right.

The sustenance of food is more than just physiological, it is, of course, economic too. And in a culture where the food has been put under lock and key it is surely liberating to not be paying. Time is liberated, for one. To be here doing this we needed to start producing as much food as possible as quickly as possible as otherwise, food would constitute our main expense. And expenses lead to jobs… In ten months we have been able to achieve a reasonable degree of food self-sufficiency by extensively foraging and establishing a good sized garden of annual vegetables.

Looking south west over the terrace where we have been growing most of our annual vegetables.

Our method of gardening is in stark contrast to the fastidious approach practised throughout Japan. Where the local farmers see a chaotic mess of weeds and crazy plants growing over the top of each other we see lush, natural growth and abundance. And a lot less work! The late Masanobu Fukuoka with his notions of “natural farming” and “do-nothing farming” may have been from Japan but he doesn’t seem to have been of Japan. Nevertheless, like countless others, tucked away in the mountains, up valleys, out of sight of the villages, we keep Fukuoka’s spirit alive.

Tomatoes, hot peppers, basil, shiso, beans, okra, eggplant, cucumber, kushinsai…

Direct sowing winter root crops amongst the summer vegetables

Seedlings of winter vegetables. Asako has developed a great seed raising/potting mix from materials close at hand and our seed raising trays grow in the bamboo grove.

Growing annual vegetables is the most efficacious way of producing food fast. Hence, our first priority was establishing a garden largely planted to annuals. We also utilized open spaces between trees to plant large crops of annuals (in a temperate climate) such as sweet potatoes, azuki beans, peanuts, yacon and ginger. These crops were grown in true natural farming style. That is, no preparation of the soil was done we simply cut the grass and scraped the surface where the seed was to be sown or plants transplanted. Once or twice grass around the young plants was cut and used to mulch the plants.

Azuki beans growing behind a mikan (citrus) with a chestnut and myoga ginger in the background.

Foreground, peanuts; midground, sweet potatoes; background, chestnut with an understory of myoga ginger and tea.

Ginger (the regular kind) with red and green shiso behind, a wonderful Japanese culinary and medicinal herb and excellent attractor of insects. Leaves and seeds of the shiso are eaten.

We are now switching focus to the development of a forest garden where perennial plants and tree crops will dominate. We are very fortunate to have many well established fruit and nut trees here. An excellent foundation on which to develop the forest garden.

With the forest garden we will still maintain some openings where annuals can be grown, particularly self-seeding ones, or sun-loving perennials such as the Jerusalem artichokes pictured below.

Jerusalem artichokes flowering in a nice sunny patch in front of a persimmon.

Pomegranate and kumquat with lemon balm, spilanthes and dong ling cao underneath. In the background to the right are myoga ginger, tea, peach and mulberry.

A large portion of our forest garden understory will be occupied by tea. Contrary to what you might think, if you have ever seen a tea plantation, tea actually thrives in partial shade. In fact, here in Japan, shade grown tea, called Gyokuro, is considered to be of the highest quality. But the plantation mentality has never been about quality, has it. Tea grows wild in the mountains around us but in the full shade of a closed evergreen forest canopy leaf and seed production is considerably less than plants in partial shade. So a great plant for shady edges that are lightly brushed by the sun or for under deciduous trees, allowing for winter sun exposure, when the tea is in flower.

Tea plants seeding as the multi-use kudzu clambers over top.

Tea is also very tolerant of being clambered over by other plants. In the picture above it is kudzu that has sprung out of the forest and is reaching over the tea. From kudzu we use the root medicinally and as a thickener, the vine for basketry and the flowers for making wine or vinegar or eating in salads. We will harvest the kudzu vine before we do our next tea harvest so it should not impede harvesting of the tea. We harvest for tea twice a year, once in spring to make sencha and again in autumn to make bancha. The seeds are also harvested in early autumn to make cooking oil. We shall be doing our first seed harvest and pressing in three or four weeks time. (For those that have read the post from May 17, we will be testing all tea products for possible caesium contamination before consuming in any quantity or selling. The joys of living with nuclear fallout).

A large part of our “work” this first year has been observation. Many of the plants are unfamiliar to us and as we watch them through the seasons we come to learn what they are, what they produce and what their eco-system function might be. A long term project! Attempting to understand energy flows through the land, particularly water, has also been a preoccupation. This is a super charged landscape: steep forested mountains surrounding us, a number of perennial springs and an equal number of ephemeral springs, above ground streams, underground streams, ancient streams buried by shifting mountains, terraced slopes that recharge the land. Feeding this we have the rainy season and the typhoon season. Any attempt to drastically transform this land would be to invite disaster. As I mentioned earlier, we proceed slowly, lightly.

Forest of the eastern slopes

From garden to forest-garden to forest. The realm of deer and wild pig. Of sansai, mountain vegetables like shidoke and wasabi. Of magnificent walnuts and oaks and other-wordly fungi. The forest around us provides our fuel for cooking and heating water, vines for basketry, timber for building, medicinal plants and much food and it charges our springs with pure cool water. But to quantify what it gives us is to miss the point. For the real point is the vision the forest engenders.

Walnut along side a stream

The fall. Losing paradise by clearing the forest to grow fields of crops and domesticated animals and later sub-divisions and parking lots. Cain, the agriculturalist killing Abel, the forager. The story is well enough known but have we grasped the meaning? One vision, carrying the mark of Cain, marches us toward the precipice. In the forest we have another vision.

more images of stuff growing at Shikigami