Fourth in a series about our adventures in Nagano Prefecture with One Life Japan.
After thatching in Koakazawa we stopped at a woodworking studio in Oakazawa, a larger village a little further down the valley. A dozen or so gnarled and bumpy trunks of tochis (the Japanese Horse Chestnut, Aesculpus turbinata) stood sentry around the building and parking lot. The largest and oldest of these was reportedly 750 years old, and required about four of us stretching to our utmost to give it a good hug.
Valued both for their nuts as well as the wood, these woodland giants are often tucked away along wooded stream and river beds in lower mountain areas, making it a challenge to harvest. According to one of the carvers, close examination of a local road map can show where a great tochi once stood. As construction moved along someone spotted a tochi they wanted, and the road subsequently swung through that spot.
The carver showed us a recent creation - a table - made from a piece of tochi trunk cut lengthwise. The wood absolutely flowed with light - palest gold to chocolate - under our hands. Glimpses of the original tree remained in soft bumps of bark here and there on the edge, and in the crackle of grain where a burl formed on the outside.
The tochi seed, closely resembling its American buckeye cousin, is no easy nut to crack. Once gathered they require a fairly long processing period - about a month - to remove the bitter flavoring and loosen the shell before grinding can begin. A shortage of wood ash as people transitioned away from the traditional open hearth home along with the availability of easier to process and store foods marked the decline in the preparation of this traditional food. (We saw it most often in the form of tochimochis - rice "cakes" filled with tochi meat or a half rice half tochi rectangle grilled to perfection and eaten with soy sauce.) Now an aging population of tochi experts is taking with them knowledge of this traditional and natural food source.