Horsetails, a plant that is sometimes described as a harbinger of spring, were enclosed in a letter from a reader in Tanba, Hyogo Prefecture. It said they were the first three of the season picked by the author while out for a daily walk.
This is the time of year when many herbs that eventually find their way to our tables bud in the fields. Horsetails, or "tsukushi," are particularly well known.
Kaichi Tsuji (1907-1988), the former proprietor of "Tsujitome," a kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto, wrote of the plant: "It looks aloof and unconcerned about worldly matters. It makes me think of a monk who has attained a state of enlightenment."
I hear horsetails that shoot up at the beginning of the season fetch high prices as ingredients.
"Manyoshu," a collection of Japanese poetry that dates back to the Nara Period (710-784), has poems about other edible plants, including "yomogi" (mugwort), "yomena" (starwort) and "warabi" (bracken fern), which people picked and ate during spring.
Recently, researchers found remains at Oujiyama in Miyazaki Prefecture that suggest that people in the Jomon period, some 13,000 years ago, were eating leeks. The plant is believed to have been a wild species like today’s "nobiru" (wild onion) and "asatsuki" (chives).
I don't think they used it as a relish but that thought makes me feel much closer to them. Many fire pits suggesting the use of fire were also found. Apparently, Jomon people were cooking and eating a variety of plants. I wondered if they were also out picking herbs during the spring.
Suddenly, I remembered the following haiku by Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828): "In my world/ Even grass that grows here and there/ Turns into rice cakes."
The grass he was talking about must have been "yomogi." The poem brims with joy at the arrival of spring. Last year, The Asahi Shimbun’s tanka column, Asahi Kadan, ran the following poem by Tamako Noda of Ibaraki Prefecture: "I make yomogi dumplings and wait/ Children ask me when the grass was picked."
In the poem, Noda is expressing her anxiety about radioactivity following the Great East Japan Earthquake. This spring, too, there are places where people cannot pick herbs from the ground carelessly. I can almost hear the angry voices of horsetails coming from the mountains and the fields.
--The Asahi Shimbun, April 5
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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.
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