Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Umeboshi Stewing Away

Rainy season (tsuyu) in Japan coincides with ume (plum) harvest and preservation. Umeshu is just one of the options for these green lovelies and umeboshi (pickled plums) is another. There is no other flavor like umeboshi - the tart tang of the plums with the cool flavor of the red shiso leaves - and it has come to be one of my favorites. It seemed only logical to try my hand at making them this year.

3 kilograms ripe plums (not green, but rather pink and/or yellow)
600 grams coarse salt (ama-shio or ara-shio)
300 grams of red shiso leaves

8 liter bin (jar) like the one I used for my umeshu
3 plastic bags capable of holding 1500 grams of water securely
Cheesecloth or light towel
Rubber band
Big bowl for soaking the ume
Sharp stick for removing the stems
Medium-sized bowl for working the salt into the shiso
A handful of rubberbands that will fit around the mouth of the jar

I soaked my ume overnight again, and removed the stems just as I did when making the umeshu. I removed any fruit that were seriously bruised or cracked and used them later in salad. I again sterilized the jar using a kettle of boiling water, although there are a variety of options including a shochu bath.

Meanwhile, a friend plucked the shiso leaves from their stems and gave them a good wash. I then doused them with salt and massaged them until they began to wilt a bit. (The salt draws out the liquid just like it does in the kimchi and sauerkraut making process.)

Starting with salt, I layered the three ingredients - salt, ume, shiso - alternately until I ran out of ume.

On the final layer, I laid an empty plastic bag to act as a kind of buffer. Then, I inserted a second empty plastic bag into the jar. My friend held the mouth open while I measured out the 1500 grams of water and poured it in to create the required amount of weight. The weight keeps the plums submerged in their own brine, which in turn encourages the pickling process. I tied it off with a rubber band, and held this section in place with a second rubber band. (I didn't want the bag flopping into the jar and leaking as it sank with the shrinking/pickling of the plums.) Over the top of all of this I placed a light towel held in place with a rubberband. Set in cool dark place and wait two weeks or so for the next step.

I, of course, used a combination of recipes for my batch. I used this recipe (recommended by my friend here and with a large amount of salt) and this recipe from Just Hungry (less salt but more detail). The coarse salt I used might be remarkably similar to pickling salt in the US. And, I'll confess right now that I didn't measure the shiso. The lady at the local fruit stand gave me the amount she thought I needed when I told her how many kilos of plums I had. I went with her recommendation.

I suspect my initial layer of salt was a bit too thick, but only time will tell. Also, I went with the highest amount of salt recommended as there aren't really any "cool" places in our apartment. I decided more salt would increase my chances of actually preserving the plums and avoiding any issues of spoilage.

Next Steps
As the plums, shiso and salt stew away under the weight of the water bag the level of liquid in the jar will increase. Keep an eye on the water bag to make sure it doesn't leak into the container. After about one week or so, reduce the weight of the bag by about half and continue soaking. Later comes the drying, storing, and eating!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Why Aphids

Ok, I'm mildly obsessed these days with aphids. Whether I'm in the garden or out on the balcony, abura mushi (Japanese for aphid) are everywhere. Trying to do battle organically and sensibly is my current challenge, and I thought I'd share some of what I've learned so far about why they find my plants so delectable and what can be done about it.

Aphid Attractions
I'm still researching this, but what I've learned thus far is that they are attracted to the color yellow, which means those giant zucchini blossoms must seem ideal. It also explains why nasturtiums are listed as a trap crop.

They are also encouraged by high amounts of nitrogen in the soil. High levels of nitrogen encourage a fair amount of new growth, which is wear aphids often best like to feed. Despite their tiny size, they need a great deal of the heady brew offered by new growth where the greatest amount of amino acids are present. I worked a fair amount of composted chicken manure and old coffee grounds (both excellent sources of nitrogen) into the beds before planting, which may subsequently be contributing to my aphid problem.

Humid weather (welcome to Tokyo in summer!) is an ideal environment for them, too. Keeping plantings and plants a bit less dense so air can flow and sunshine can penetrate are, as I've mentioned before, pivotal. I'm slowly beginning to learn the art of judicious pruning on tomatoes, eggplants, and now zucchini.

Aphid Deterrants
Companion planting is high on the priority list. The practice of mixing herbs and flowers in with vegetables serves to attract beneficials, repel pests, or act as a trap crop. Bringing in beneficials (like a praying mantis or two) to eat aphids and keep their numbers down means more vegetables at harvest time and healthier plants. Companion planting effectively puts up a big welcome sign for pollinators, too, which again means more vegetables at harvest time. Fennel, parsley, cilantro, dill or other herbs that bloom in umbel (umbrella-shaped) blossoms are nearly irrisistable.

Aphids and other pests find mint, peppermint, onions, and garlic repellant. Planting these among vegetables or concocting a spray from them will help ward off garden evildoers. Those that decide to enter the garden anyway will get munched on by the beneficials.

There are some plants aphids adore more than vegetables, and sad as it is to say nasturtiums are one of them. Planting a trap crop around the garden means a lack of those lovely blossoms for summer salads, but it helps ensure the survival of other vegetables. Some determined aphids will, of course, still make it through, but it shouldn't be more than a good dousing with water or a praying mantis or two can't efficiently dispatch.

A Few Good Resources
I wanted to learn a thing or two about aphids, and this article from Vegetable offers good basic information on the bug, what it likes, and how to avoid it as well as get rid of it.

Perhaps offering more information than one could possibly ever want to know about aphids is this article from The Earth Life Web. Great links, references, and explanations will help the aphid obsessed and infested gardener get to know this pest.

The best site I've found yet about organic pest control techniques, this article from OISAT on trap crops offers an incredibly useful table of crops, their companion crop, and the targeted pest. This article from Hobby Farms is a nice companion piece, too.

This fact sheet from Colorado State University's Extension Office offers a handy table for making insecticidal soaps, and Organic Matters Magazine also offers a short but useful article on aphids and remedies such as onion and garlic spray.

Monday, June 28, 2010

A Scooter Full of Vegetables

This past weekend we visited a friend's place near Ichinomiya in Chiba. About an hour south of Tokyo we were near enough to the ocean to smell the salt air, and rural enough to be surrounded (almost literally) by rice fields. As we prepared to head out for a day of surfing and beach-combing, we heard a motorbike in the driveway and a voice calling out.

Leaving our breakfast on the table, we went out to the driveway to find Miyamoto-san parking her bike, talking a mile and a minute, and chuckling all the while. Our host reported that whenever she sees the car, she stops knowing the family often can't resist her fresh-picked wares. This morning the front and back baskets of her motorbike showcased early tomatoes, potatoes, and big bags of beautiful rice.

Cruising all the way over from her farm on the other side of the station (a good 15 minute ride, at least) Miyamoto-san peddles her vegetables around to the summer homes in the area. When her grandmother died, she moved to the farm to help her grandfather and never left. Anywhere from 60 to 100, it's anybody's guess as to when that actually was.

As usual, Miyamoto-san's hunch was right on. Within moments we snapped up the tomatoes (so juicy we ate them leaning over the sink) and (to some degree against our better judgement) one of the five kilogram bags of rice. Seriously, who can resist locally grown rice delivered on scooter by a little old lady farmer? Not this yasai otaku, that's for sure!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Tiny Yuzu Soaking Up the Sun

I couldn't resist photographing these little guys the other day. My relationship with yuzu started with a chance discussion at the farm that went straight into marmalade. Then it was ramen, and this Spring the blossoms caught my eye and the attention of any number of bees. Now, the little green globes that will be spots of bright warm sunshine come January are in the works.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Zucchini Get a Breath of Fresh Air

The aphid population on my zucchini seems to have dropped off a bit. The double-whammy (aluminum foil and Neem) seems to be helping, although I'll be keeping a close watch on the situation as the remaining harvest time goes along. (My tomatoes, some very precious Brandywines and Black Zebras, are also showing signs of stress from an invasion so I'm mildly concerned about them, too.)

As we surveyed the scene the other day, the farmers pointed out that I should remove the older leaves of the plants. In the wet, hot, and humid weather that is the rainy season in Tokyo, the mass of leaves created a still, warm, and dark place where aphids (or the diseases they can carry) could thrive. Trimming away old or ill-looking leaves opens the center of the plant up to light and air, which also strengthens the impact of the extra-light-inducing aluminum foil. The extra space makes it easier to apply Neem oil again, harvest, and beneficial insects can cruise in easily at will.

At home in Michigan, I confess to not managing my plants at all. I simply let them sprawl and run at will like the rest of my plants, which created a jungle-like effect that I dearly loved; however, a favorite spouse of mine would grumble a bit when helping with the watering. (To be fair, it did make walking in the garden a bit troublesome.) Here, where growing space is at a premium and garden hygiene a paramount concern, judicious pruning of plants is a requirement.

It's important to note, though, that this practice requires some balance. Enough leaves need to remain in place to allow photosynthesis to continue unabated while removing enough to keep air circulating and sunshine penetrating. The farmers advised aiming for old leaves and extraneous branches (similar to the "sucker" branches on tomatoes), which also allows the plant to focus its energy on making fruit.

Worth a Thousand Words
The first two photos show the farmers most beautiful zucchini plants trimmed and producing like mad. The airy structure allows easy access for beneficials, wind, sunshine, and the daily harvest. My zucchini, shown in the third photo, clearly need a bit of a tidy in comparison. The plants look healthy enough, but space could be made to help protect against future troubles. And to make finding those yummy patty pans that much more convenient!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Aphid Snacks for the Praying Mantis

My aphid obsession runs from my zucchini at the farm to both balcony gardens and back again. Abura mushi (oily bugs), as they are called in Japanese, are a common pest for Tokyo gardeners and farmers. The hot and humid conditions of summer make an ideal environment for them, and for the organic gardener and farmer it's paramount to cultivate good growing practices. Companion planting to ward off pests and attract beneficials becomes integral to success, along with building good soil, trimming and staking of plants, as well as creativity.

The other day while watering on the back balcony I noticed an infestation of aphids beginning on one of my nasturtiums. After an initial scowl of disgust followed by some squishing, I recalled my little praying mantis over on the pepper plants. (Often used as a trap crop, nasturtiums are also a favorite of ours in salads and as an attractor for beneficials. It is, technically, no surprise to see the little vampires at work.) Wondering how to get him (or her) to come to the buffet, I decided the most practical thing would be to take the buffet to him (or her). My new best friend gets a healthy snack, and I get a healthy plant back!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Green Beans Go the Way of Chrysanthemum Greens

The green beans are starting to roll in, and the farmers graced me with a huge bundle recently. Their advice? Try whipping them up in the same way as shungiku. So, that night I did just that, and the resulting dish disappeared in seconds flat. Quite possibly a new favorite (and pathetically easy) way to eat green beans. (Although, Maan's green beans undoubtedly remain my other favorite.)

Green Beans ala Takashi Farm
1 bunch of green beans
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons sugar

Cut the beans into bite size pieces and plop in water that's come to a good rolling boil for two minutes and thirty seconds. (Any longer and you've got mushy beans, which frankly, is a turn-off.) Drain, mix with the remaining ingredients, chill, gobble.

My plan for next time is to perhaps add some pressed garlic, ginger, or chillis. My mouth is watering even now!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Umeshu: First Batch Underway

While February and March are plum blossom time, this time of year sees supermarket and fruit store shelves full of the resulting fruit. Last year I only looked at the heaps of green and gold ume, and wondered exactly what they were. By the time I got my answer the season was over, and the next fruit in line began filling the shelves.

Since then I've got a slightly better handle on what's in season when and what to do with it, and my first-ever batch of umeshu (pronounced oo-may-shoe) is underway.

Ume (pronounced oo-may)

Back in Michigan my penchant for fruit led to shelves full of jams and jars of fruit in sauce as well as a freezer full for oatmeal, baking, or just little treats during the winter months. While there is some jam-making in Japan, one of the most favorite uses for ume is umeshu or plum wine. I'd usually left such activities to my friends over at Ambry Farms, but this year I decided my time had come.

Umeshu (pronounced oo-may-shoe) is quite possibly one of the tastiest things Japan serves up. (Ok, I know I keep saying that, but I can't help it. And this is really quite nice.) A sweet wine, umeshu uses unripe plums aged in combination with sugar and shochu (Asia's answer to vodka). A tasty batch takes about six months, but some of the loveliest amber colored umeshu is aged for considerably longer (upwards of thirty years for one I've heard tell of) with an even deeper, sweeter flavor.

The same friend who gave me a lesson in sushi and sashimi last year shared a basic version of his umeshu recipe. It proved to be quite easy in the end, with the most difficult portion being the time spent at the store trying to sort out the best ingredients. A very nice clerk and two incredibly enthusiastic older ladies all spent a goodly amount of time helping me choose the ume, the right bottle of shochu, and discussing sugar. It was lovely!

Umeshu -Equipment, Ingredients and Recipe

1 big jar
One large bowl
A sharp ended stick or shishkabob skewer

I used a four liter jar (bin, in Japanese) made specifically for this kind of thing. A twist lid fits nicely over a second airtight lid inside that has a little spiggot that can be opened when it's time to serve up the brew. A handle makes it easy to transport. The jar needs to be big enough to accommodate the all of the ingredients as well as the extra liquid produced by the plums as the umeshu processes. A large enough french canning jar might also work well here, but I'm not entirely sure.

The skewer or sharp stick is used to carefully remove the stem ends from the plums. This helps ensure there is no foreign debris in the jar during the winemaking process, but be careful not to puncture the fruit.

1 kilogram ume, unripe and unblemished.
700 grams of rock sugar
1.8 liters of shochu

(The basic recipe is quite simple, and can be found here. The site is in Japanese though, so I'll give a rundown of the process. I also found the accompanying photographs quite helpful. The photo at the top of the post shows all the basic ingredients and equipment together, too.)

Soak the ume in a bowl with enough water to cover them for two to four hours. This helps remove some of the bitterness of the fruit, and is reported to make a smoother tasting end product. Meanwhile, sterilize the jar using either the alcohol for the winemaking process or using boiling water.

After draining and drying the ume, remove the stem from the fruit but be careful not to puncture the fruit. (I've tried to illustrate the process in the photo above.) Place alternating layers of fruit and sugar in the jar. (I started with the sugar, but it may not matter.)

Pour in the shochu. It should cover all of the layers and then some, but there should still be plenty of room left at the top for additional liquid from the plums. Store the jar in a cool, dark place for at least six months, but do give it a gentle shake about once a month to help the ingredients mix.

The best ume to choose are entirely green (auoi or blue ume), but these can be a bit expensive. I opted for the slightly less expensive, slightly more ripe variety. Rock sugar, called korisato, really does look like little rocks. It breaks down more slowly and so does a slow release of it's sweetness while the umeshu brews. I used a shochu specifically recommended by the older ladies in the store, but as a favorite spouse of mine says, "Any bottle of white lightning will do."

I sterilized my jar using basically the same technique I would for canning jars; however, since the lids are made of plastic I modified things a bit. I poured boiling water over and inside the jar, and gave the lids a brief soak. My fear was that they would melt some in the process, which is unappetizing on a number of different levels.

I'm a total newbie at this, so I spent some time looking at other recipes recommended by friends and that I found on my own. Just Hungry's recipe is, of course, great. The explanation is quite extensive, and I found it to be a useful companion as I prepared for my own experience.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Biwa Season Opener

Like any good farmstead, the one where I help out is full of fruit trees. Not just blueberries (although I am quite grateful the bushes line the path to and from my little garden space) that console me in these dark days of aphids on my zucchini, but mikan, yuzu, and biwa. Mikan season is essentially over, and the next round of yuzu are only tiny, tiny green balls taking it slow on these hot days and absorbing the sunshine for winter harvest. Now, it's biwa's turn to shine.

An odd looking fruit, the biwa (known outside of Japan as the loquat) has a cool subtle flavor, and is lovely to eat standing in the shade. Word has it that it makes a lovely jam, liqueur (along the lines of umeshu), and that the leaves make a tasty and healthy tea. These will simply be dessert.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Aphids in the Garden

My garden zucchini are not as lucky as my balcony vegetables. I've not seen a praying mantis in my garden, although there is certainly a feast to be had there. Little black aphids have made themselves at home in the patch, and the plants are beginning to show some signs of wear. Ants, aphid partners in crime if you will, are present and signal that there is enough honeydew present for them to come out to harvest. The farmers zucchini have recovered nicely from their bought with these little buggers, and I confess to hoping mine would also weather the storm. Yesterday though, they looked quite miserable. Some stems and leaves are beginning to turn yellow, and there's some blossom drop and leaf curl, too.

Unlike America where gardeners steal out at night to slip zucchini into neighbor's mailboxes, here it is a short-season crop. By mid-summer the plants bear a striking resemblance to people as they wither and wilt in the heat and humidity Tokyo dishes out. Something of a specialty crop, zucchini could only be found on an Italian restaurant menu, not supermarket shelves until recently. It's a relatively high-priced vegetable here (roughly $2.00 for ONE), too. Raised from seeds, I've got a bit of an attachment to these little ones, as I'm hoping to make at least one batch of zucchini pickles before their season ends. I've really got no time for aphids.

Aluminum foil mulch
Feeling more than a bit silly, I laid aluminum foil out under the plants. A number of different sources recommend this strategy - including the farmers - and so I'm giving it a go. The reflection of light confuses the aphids, and prevents them from landing. Construction paper coated with aluminum foil is the often recommended mulch, but I opted for average aluminum foil (easy to maneuver under the plants) held down with bricks. This strategy is not always as effective on larger, more mature plants since they manage to block some of the reflected light; however, it seems like it's worth a shot. The additional heat and can also result in a higher yield, but many sources also warn that as the season progresses and heat increases the plants need to be monitored for over-heating.

Neem Oil Spray
The aphid population is large enough and doing enough damage that I'm also choosing to use a neem spray. One of many organic methods out there, the oil results from the pressing of the fruit and nuts of the neem tree. Everything from a snack to medicine to a sacred beverage in its native India, neem oil and spray is now also part of the medicine cabinet for organic growers large and small . Neem oil disorients pests as well as suffocating them. Eventually taken up in the deep tissue of plants, neem won't affect future aphids (their little proboscis's don't penetrate that far), but it does mean it deters other pests from chomping on my plants. Beneficial insects are protected because they're not eating the plants in the first place, and humans already eat neem in many forms so it's not harmful to ingest, especially in these very small amounts. Recommended for a severe problem, I'll be out this evening in the patch carefully applying it and hoping to see a harvest.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Blueberries on the way!

That sweet little patch of budding bushes is turning into fat blueberries even as I type. The bushes are in full leaf, of course, and as we've worked in the nearby fields planting, harvesting, pruning, and staking, the blueberries working away each day, too. We've got a few still in the freezer from last year, and I'm hoping to harvest enough for at least one batch of jam. There's a U-Pick place just up the bike path near the nashi orchard, so just maybe my berry dreams can come true!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Balcony Wildlife

Saturday morning while watering the plants on the balcony, I spotted a nymph praying mantis on one of my pepper plants. Called kamakiri in Japan (meaning scythe), it is enough revered for its strength, tenacity, and fight that it warranted a motif on a warrior's helmet. This praying mantis is quite possibly my new best friend. My pepper plants had been plagued by aphids (like my zucchinis in the garden), and I was preparing to do battle with insecticidal soap and tinfoil. The praying mantis is a happier solution overall, and certainly better than the one I contrived last year. (In Michigan, I'd thankfully had loads and even one in the hoophouse.)

My usual aphid routine had been to squish, rinse with water, and repeat; however, Saturday there were none to be found and this little fellow staring back at me. (You'll have to squint at the photo but his pointy little head is just visible on the top leaf.) My plan now is to encourage him to stay, and make himself at home. The balcony is already a fairly diverse habitat - flowers, herbs, vegetables, and even a small tree - with plenty of places to hide, hatch babies, etc. I don't imagine all of my pest problems are gone, so food probably won't be an issue. The nectar from the assorted flowers and herbs I've got (plus the multitudinous blooms of my fellow urban gardeners) should suffice. Water is the only thing left, and I'll put out some small shallow bowls around for sipping. (That's a bit of advice I've followed for years now from Sally Jean Cunningham's Great Garden Companions, an indispensable garden reference.)

Here's hoping the little guy (or gal) decides to stay, and here's hoping I find similar beneficial in the garden. Or how to say insecticidal soap in Japanese....

Monday, June 14, 2010

Brown's Field: A Sampling of Organic Life in Chiba

On a recent excursion to Chiba with greenz, an organization I write for here in Japan, we visited a little place called Brown's Field. A compendium of things - cafe, bakery, farm, and spa to name just a few - Brown's Field offers a little something for everyone. For us, it was a good cup of coffee with a tasty afternoon snack. We'd been on the go since morning touring the Nakadaki Art Village - an intentional community of farmers, surfers, artists, and doers - and Brown's Field offered welcome respite.

We were eager to check out the farm and cafe for ourselves as they catered our most fantastic-lunch of macrobiotic foods. (Some of the photos here come from that meal.) Started just over ten years ago by Deco Nakajima, a renowned macrobiotic chef, and her husband, Everett Brown, a photojournalist, Brown's Field offers plenty of food for thought (literally and figuratively) by giving visitors and the surrounding community a chance to explore ways of living sustainably. While much of the food served in the cafe originates from their own organic fields, the Brown's also help bolster the local economy by purchasing other items from nearby farms and businesses. Events, WWOOF opportunities, and workshops covering everything from detoxification to rice planting to cooking help draw people in and the friendly atmosphere (and great food!) keeps them coming back for more.

Sitting under the generous eaves of the bakehouse we munched on a soft, soft loaf of bread (nearly rivaling the one I found at a recent Slow Business event), and admired the wild feel of nearby herb garden. Inside, shelves were loaded not only with baked goods (there's a hearty looking sweet bread that I still think of fondly), but with locally made ceramics, jams, textiles, and glassworks. I'll confess to also eyeballing bags of plump pea pods. Delicious looking enough to make me forget both the recent meal I'd had as well as my own garden row full, they made me eager to see the Rice Terrace Cafe where we could see more of what was growing.

Up the road from the bakehouse past an orchard or two and more rice fields we found a cozy cafe with a wide veranda. Aptly named for its view over a rice field - recently planted by hand - the Rice Terrace Cafe offers a comfortable space to settle in with friends for a good chat or even alone with a favorite book. Guests are encouraged to stretch their legs with a wander over to visit the ducks who help weed and fertilize the rice field, greet one of the many friendly cats, or visit a nearby hammock to soak up the country air. Watch out though, for the male goat who brooks no trespassers within the radius of his rope. The resulting spill of hot chicory-enhanced coffee will be deeply disappointing.

We hope to head back for another WWOOF experience and sample more of that tasty fare we enjoyed at lunch. (Rumor has it there's a waiting list, so we'll have to sign up soon.) I'd love to learn more about the permaculture techniques they implement there, as well as get a cooking lesson or two, too!

Hoping to visit?
Brown's Field and Nakadaki Art Village are well worth the two hour train ride from Tokyo, especially if a whole weekend can be dedicated to it. (Nakadaki offers concerts and a farmers market one weekend a month, which would perhaps be a perfect - albeit busy - time to go.) It worked for us as a day trip, but it would be nice to be able to spend a little more time exploring.

Nearest station: Choujyamachi on the Soutoubu Line

More specific directions on how to get there by bike or on foot are available, too.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Mulberries In Season

While walking along a rural road in Chiba (an agricultural area just south of Tokyo as full of rice fields and farms as this city is of sidewalks and train tracks) we discovered much to our delight that the mulberry trees were in full fruit. An already delightful afternoon stroll turned even better (and a wee bit purple around the fingertips) as we joined this little snail in an afternoon snack.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Comploo: A Gardener's Dream

I adore compost. It's my personal cure-all for whatever ails in my garden. The bucket on the counter turns into all that my plants need to grow well to feed my household. Vegetable and fruit castoffs return to the bucket to return to the bin and then to the garden again. Tea bags, yard waste, garden leavings, and kitchen scraps all go in and come out as plant-scrumptious humus. (The kind eaten indirectly rather than the other garlic-laden delight.)

One of my greatest challenges here in Japan is gardening without it. I'm accustomed to turning a pile as well as digging into it when I need some of that lovely black gold to put in a pot or add to a bed. I've got permission to build one, and I'm in the process of choosing a site. Meanwhile, I bury it in spots around the garden as I can and hope for the best.

That said, Bakoko's little creation - The Comploo - is something near to a dream come true for me. Taking advantage of the heat produced during the composting process, the Comploo is a sweet little building that I can easily imagine tucked somewhere near my garden as a perfect spot to take a bit of a break between work rounds. Or a cozy place on a rainy afternoon where I could see the garden, plot new plantings, or just bask in the glow of all those vegetables I adore. Heated by food, garden, and yard scraps composting merrily away in bins that round the edges when I'm done plotting, viewing, and basking I'll just open a bin to scoop some of that wonderful stuff out.

Perfect especially for a community garden, park or a cafe growing the majority of it's food out the back door, the Comploo creates a space for gathering that takes advantage of plant materials in place. Talk about a great way to warm people up to the idea of their own composting after touring the vegetable patch to see what's in season!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Slow Business Event Serves Up Area Flavors

Just north of our apartment on the west side of Tokyo is a beautiful old Japanese farmhouse or kominka. It's long low profile sits back from the road behind a burnt wood fence, a smattering of trees - Japanese maples, zelkovas, and even a cherry or two - with a small kitchen garden just outside the front door. Built by early settlers here (similar to the farmers I work with) it is currently rented to a very community-minded family. On weekdays, the house is open to and used by senior groups for various activities, and on weekends small events or concerts fill the courtyard with happy sounds and feet. It seems to have become a little pocket of community here in the burbs.

We first found it last fall after being handed a flyer while at the Earth Day Market. It advertised a small harvest festival promising live music, good food, and fun. That's all we needed to mark our calendars and head on over. We found a treasure chest of fascinating growers, producers, and craftsmen and women all doing amazing things at this intimate (yet public) event.

This time was no different. Organized by Slow Business - a group that takes its cue from Slow Food and features businesses focusing on locally made, hand-crafted items - this event featured a similar mix that again made for great atmosphere. Serenaded by a rotating schedule of musicians as we strolled among vendors offering everything from baked goods to naturally-dyed handmade textiles to organic rice and tea, we snacked on fresh roasted spring vegetables and sipped sweet sake. Big enough to offer an interesting selection of items to eat, drink, and learn about the festival remained small enough that it was easy (even in very poor Japanese) to chat with growers and producers about their work and passion while children played tag among the tables. Diners seated inside enjoyed a seasonal meal of fish, miso, rice, and vegetables in the massive tatami room overlooking the courtyard and where an ikebana demonstration also took place.

Perhaps what I liked best about this event was that while it was about commerce (slow business or not, trade is essential in order to be able to continue honing your craft) it was also about building community and the pleasure of work. The men and women present, whether farmers, body workers, brewers, bakers, or musicians were passionate and enthusiastic about their creations and eager to engage with customers about it.

A Few Favorites

Who can resist organically grown green tea served up by the grower? Not me, that's for sure. I should be saving it for a present to take home, but I'm enjoying every last leaf, I confess.

Beautifully crafted tenugui made with natural dyes such as zelkova, kaki, and onion skin, Fukuoka-san's original designs based on nature and tradition are a feast for the eyes.

A La Main de Mariko
Considering how tasty the sample cookies were I'm still glad I came home with a loaf of Mariko's brown rice sourdough. Chewy and soft we couldn't bear to toast it (a rarity in our house), and a field trip to the shop in Kodaira may soon be on the calendar.

Four kinds of rice, rock salt, non-toxic mosquito coils and honey were just some of the offerings at this table. While not locally grown or produced, the source for these products is part of their appeal. Yukkuri Mura is an intentional community based around the farming methods of Masonobu Fukuouka, a seminal figure in Japanese and world agriculture. A field trip here may also soon be on the calendar to see Fukuouka's methods in real time. Meanwhile, we're enjoying the tasty rice!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Satoimo in a Cup or The Tambo Gets a New Friend

While on our walk in Yanaka we stopped to say hello to a cat. We'd chosen a street at random to walk down, and a friendly cat emerged from a doorway. Hikari, the cat, shared the front stoop with a shallow bowl containing a bit of water and what looked like satoimo (taro root). Hikari's owner (innkeeper and stained glass artist) confirmed my hunch. When I asked why they were in water, he explained he was sprouting them. Moments later, he handed me one carefully wrapped in plastic with instructions on how to sprout it myself. And so the window farm grows.

Since then, I've kept it on my windowsill with my mini-tambo (rice field) where it's been happily growing ever since. Satoimo is a regular feature in a number of Japanese dishes like houtou udon, and we've grown come to enjoy it in our ad-hoc versions. It can be rather slimy, but if it's not cooked too long it's more than palatable. It's quite a healthy food, and is even rumored to have anti-aging properties. A long-time staple food in Asian cuisine that comes in many different varieties, even the greens are edible.

I'm considering putting it out in the garden or trying it in a container, but I'm (unbelievably) starting to run out of space in both places. I may just grow it in a pot and eat the greens. Regardless, it's a lovely addition to the nouka (no-ka) no mado (window farm).

Monday, June 7, 2010

Goma Ai Shingiku - Sesame and Chrysanthemum Greens

Last week I had the pleasure of helping some friends work in their parents garden not too far away. Tucked behind the house, the garden sits on a former house lot. When it came up for sale about five years ago, my friend's father jumped at the chance. Open land in Tokyo can be hard to find and expensive, but for a retired professional looking for a little spot to till in the city it was an opportunity to good to pass up.

Now, it is a garden to envy. As we came through the gate rose, lily, and peony blooms greeted us with great shouts of color while rows of vegetables stood tidily at attention on the sunny center stage. Small fruit trees along with one of the biggest sansho trees I've seen yet stood quietly here and there. Near waist-high sweet corn, bushy young potato plants, cherry tomatoes, eggplants, and beans were preparing their summer fruits, while a handful of still quite luscious looking winter vegetables like komatsuna, mizuna, and kabu held one last row.

The three of us spent a few hours weeding and tidying, and doing a bit of harvesting. One parent has recently fallen ill, hence the need for regular visits to help tend it. (Both parents are in their eighties but one would never know to look at them.) Just like it does when I pass through the gates at the farm, all sounds and feelings of the city were left behind. I heard only the scrape of the hoe as one friend cultivated, and another friend as she moved down the row next to me as we tied and clipped the spry young tomato plants.

One vegetable - edible chrysanthemum or shungiku in Japanese - looked beautifully vibrant, but remained something of a mystery to me. I'd grown it as a winter green in my garden, but I'd not really known what to do with it. (It's is, by the way, one of those super-nutritious-easy-to-grow greens.) I'd just thrown it in salad as usual, but my sense was that there was great potential in those frilly leaved stems. And, my hunch was right!

My friend's mother, a wonderful woman I enjoyed spending time with who also happens to be a fantastic cook, trimmed off a handful of stems on the spot when she heard I'd only eaten them in salad. Promising to make Goma Ai Shungiku (Sesame Seed Mixed with Chrysanthemum), she bustled back into the house while we finished up outside.

Let's just say this dish opened a new window of flavor for my tastebuds. Sweet, salty, and tenderly crunchy stems and leaves dusted with sesame seeds came to the table, and I fell in love. I managed to not eat the entire bowl, but I did come away with a bundle of my own and her recipe.

Goma Ai Shungiku
1 bunch of chrysanthemum greens, stems and leaves
2 teaspoons sesame seeds
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar

Bring a pot of water to a good rolling boil on the stove. Plop the chrysanthemum greens (whole) into the water, and boil for not more than a minute. Drain as much excess water as possible out, then cut the greens into bite size or smaller pieces. Plop drained greens in a small mixing bowl. Sprinkle the sesame seeds, soy sauce and sugar over the top, stir. Eat.

As usual, I've got a bundle of these. The amount of sesame, sugar and soy sauce is going to vary according to the amount of greens. My bundle was quite small as we're voracious salad eaters, and green things simply get gobbled up. (The top photo is the bundle before cooking, and the second photo shows the completed dish with ingredients.) The greens cook down quite a bit, so before making it for a party do a test run. Or just add small amounts and keep taste-testing as you go along. (Isn't that what we all do anyway?) It can be served hot, room temperature, or cold. I've now had it all three ways, and it's lovely.

End up with your own stories to tell about this dish? Fill me in!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Wild and Domesticated Vegetables

Last weekend while out exploring we ran across two very different groups selling wonderful but also very different kinds of vegetables. (Yasai Otaku apparently have an innate ability to find vegetables in a 20 kilometer radius at all times.) While the domesticated variety are beloved here - eggplants, sweet potatoes, and squash to name but a few - there are a wilder sort that capture the hearts and taste buds of the Japanese each spring. Finding both on this little excursion was quite the treat!

Near Koenji Station we randomly chose to walk down one of the many small lanes full of shops, restaurants, and curiosities. One storefront on a corner caught my eye for its display of great looking vegetables - carrots, onions, cabbage, and potatoes, to name a few - and what looked like a steady stream of customers. While I eyeballed the kabu one friend asked after the beautiful bottles of carrot juice displayed on a back shelf, and another cased out the fresh brown eggs on offer. Appropriately named the Farm Market, the store is a cooperative effort between eleven farmers from the Izu Hanto area. Open every Saturday the prices were very reasonable, and we're looking forward to heading back again. (One of the farmers can also be found at the United Nations University Farmer's Market, too!)

A little further on we almost missed some lively ladies selling sansai (mountain vegetables) on a side street. Gathered around boxes full of a lovely assortment of greens and pickled vegetables these four ladies were worth the detour in themselves. Highly entertaining and enthusiastic purveyors of these Japanese wild food favorites, they offered tastings as well as cooking instructions. Vegetables on offer included some I'd met before while travelling with One Life Japan - fuki, warui, and warabi - but a number of others were new - shidokina, koshi abura, and miogadake - and very tempting. We came home with some new and old, along with a container of fuki no tou miso - a pesto like mix of fuki and miso that is simply delectable. This little entrepreneurial group also takes orders, and you can pick up a form when you stop by for a visit!

Going? Good! Grab a shopping bag, put on your walking shoes, and then remember to say hello for me. Meanwhile, here's what you need to know:

Farm Market Saturday Store
Station: Koenji on the Chuo Line, North Exit.
About a 15 minute walk from the station, but leave extra time for exploring the by-ways of this funky little area of Tokyo.

Saturday Sansai Market
Station: Asagaya on the Chuo Line, North Exit.
About a 15 minute walk from Asagaya, but again give yourself plenty of time to check out the area.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Tambo Moves to Bigger Pot

I've been tracking the progress of my little tambo (rice field) from purchase through seed-sprouting to potting up in a little plastic cup. Inspired almost as much as I was by my rice planting trip last year with One Life Japan, I even managed to write a haiku about it for the Blogathon.

Recently, the tambo moved to its next stage. Roots visibly filled the cup (check out the photo below!) and it consumed water almost as fast as I poured it in. After Shee-chan and I transplanted hers just before planting the sweet potatoes (giving me a much needed demonstration and translation) I was ready.

First, I filled the larger pot with a pre-measured bag of dirt. (The kit comes with absolutely everything pre-prepared except for the water.) To this I added water until the dirt was absolutely saturated and the water stood about two or three centimeters above the soil line. This, of course, mimics the rice field when it's ready for planting. The height of the water helps support the leggy stems as well as keeping competing weeds down.

The rice seedlings are then tipped out as a whole, and gently separated into one or two stem bunches(see photo below). The original rice grain or seed is still visible where the green leaves emerge and the roots descend. (If you look closely at the photo above the grain is just visible next to my thumbnail.) The clumps are inserted into the soil to a depth of roughly two or three centimeters so they stand (relatively) straight by themselves.

The whole process, with the exception of filling the pot, almost exactly mimicked the process of planting a real rice field by hand. From the slight tearing sound as the seedlings were separated to the near oily feel of the soil under my fingers, I could have been out planting next to a mountain river once again. Instead, I was crouched on my balcony in the late afternoon in Tokyo. And now my rice field sits greenly and peacefully on my window sill soaking up the June sunshine and growing, growing.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Glimpsing Japan in the Streets of Yanaka

Written originally as part of the 2010 Blogathon, this post first appeared on Dana Dugan's blog, Chick with a View.

Urban hiking in Tokyo (a.k.a. sight-seeing) is one of the delights of living in this megalopolis. We've cruised about the city by bicycle and loved it, but a great benefit of roaming on foot is that smaller details become apparent. A few weeks ago we made our way over to Yanaka for a day's trek, and found ourselves lost in a maze of old lanes filled with the kind of tiny details that make for a spectacular adventure. Once an edge of old Tokyo now nearly lost in the urban mesh of train lines and high rises, Yanaka is a hidden gem where old Japan can still be caught in a sight, sound or a taste.

Getting off the Yamanote Line at Nishi-Nippori via the south exit we turned to the left and began a steep ascent on a small road just behind the station. On our right a stone wall loomed as we huffed and puffed our way up this narrow track. A small handful of houses balanced on the corner as the road bent to the right, and it was immediately clear that we were on the once famous ridge.

Already distracted by the views that can just be glimpsed between lovely old wooden homes with beautiful impromptu gardens, we could have missed the entrance to Suwa Shrine. Fine old wooden buildings with ornate carvings sit in the cool shade of huge gingko trees. Incredibly quiet despite it's proximity to the train station below, we spent a fair amount of time exploring the small grounds and soaking up the atmosphere. It was easy to see where Kasamatsu got his inspiration.

Just a little bit beyond Suwa Shrine (and adjacent Joki-ji with its row of Buddhas) is the famous Fuji Viewing Street - Fujimizaka - where on a clear day Mount Fuji can still be seen in all his fantastic glory. Before high rise development began filling the skyline here, residents of the area enjoyed seeing the mountain's distinct shape on the horizon regularly. Even though we knew our chances might be slim this time of year, we took a peek. Just as he did on our hike in the mountains near Kawaguchiko, Fuji-san proved elusive.

While it might be easy to miss the entrance to Yofuku-ji, the two beastly fellows guarding the gate are not. Menacing, large, and red they watch over the small but delightful temple and gardens behind. A cemetery along this side of the ridge runs from Suwa Shrine all the way to the main road. It could be an interesting alternative route, but following the ridge line road might be more ideal, especially for a first time visitor.

After perusing the gardens, we returned to the road. Accosted by butterflies loitering around the many sidewalk gardens while trying to lure some of the areas cat population over for a little pet, we carried on until arriving at a junction with the main road. Here, we turned left into Kyoo-ji temple to admire its fine wooden gate and grounds briefly before heading back to the main road.

If we continued left out of the temple gate and down the hill, we would have come to Nippori Station. Instead, we turned to the right to visit Yanaka Ginza. Heading down the signature steps (be sure to keep to the right at the Y in the street) we could see a bustling little shopping area below us. Full of small cafes, street side beer sellers, and some of the tastiest fried things an urban trekker could desire (I recommend the kaboucha doughnuts at a little shop on the left side. They didn't allow pictures, but hopefully the photo of the half eaten doughnut here is enough to go on.) Sweet little shops full of souvenirs of all kinds, jewelry, ceramics, and other delights large and small make for a wonderful window shopping experience or for finding that perfect gift to take home.

After eating close to our fill of fried treats, pondering an afternoon beer, and admiring the cat themed street decorations, we made our way back up the steps to the main road. Passing by (with some difficulty) more shops and restaurants with enticing window displays, we entered Yanaka Cemetery. A tall metal fence marking one edge of the cemetery lines the right side of the street. Just as we crested the hill and began descending the other side a small road branched off to the right with another steep path adjacent that led directly up into the cemetery proper.

Like the Suwa Shrine, Yanaka Cemetery proved to be somehow removed from the heat and bustle of the city and nearby station. Massive old cherries shade the walkway and are breathtaking in themselves, and it's easy to presume they must make a spectacular display in early Spring. Huge gingkos and zelkovas dot the grounds among family gravesites in various states of upkeep. The sotoba (wooden namplates at each gravesite) rattled in the wind while here and there families visited the graves of loved ones.

We took a slight detour to the left to Tenno-ji, which is home to the Yanaka Buddha. A smaller version of the Kamakura Buddha, the bronze figures sits peacefully in the temple garden surrounded by Japanese maples. As we admired the statue a high rise apartment building filled the background reminding us how close the modern city remained. (See photo at the beginning of this post.)

Returning to the main road outside the temple, we turned left to continue exploring the cemetery then right until the T-junction where we went left again and finally right on Sansikazaka Street. Zig-zagging our way along we passed a fascinating mix of old and new homes and more amazing street gardens. Temples absolutely line the street here in a way that is reminiscent of a visit to Kyoto. There, like Yanaka, temples abound and it seems as though every other building or set of buildings is a holy place. Impossible to explore each and every one, we look forward to heading back to visit some of these other spots, too.

As we descended the hill of Sansikazaka Street, we turned into Zensho-en. A simple garden near the main hall was under repair, but tucked around the back and almost out of sight is the Yanaka Kanon. Twenty-feet high and covered in gold leaf the Kanon stands majestically on the slope of the ridge looking toward the setting sun and Fuji-san. We paused here for a small snack and to rest in the quiet of the courtyard.

A little further down the slope we stopped in at Daien-ji temple to admire the twin halls serving the Shinto and Buddhist communities both. Ornate wooden carvings of dragons and phoenixes roiled overhead, and surprisingly we found ourselves nearly alone in the garden savoring the atmosphere.

Just as we were perhaps feeling a bit overwhelmed by temples, we found Isetatsu. One of Tokyo's oldest paper shops the shelves inside held absolutely exquisite samples of fine handmade patterned papers that were just breathtaking. Finding it impossible to choose - iris versus wisteria versus peony - we ducked out of the tiny shop just as a tour group of senior citizens made their way inside. The plan is to return on a weekday when it isn't so busy and choose a few pieces to frame.

Isetatsu's back door popped us out on a small side street, which we headed down to see what we might. A stunning series of roses greeted us at the first corner, and we stopped to gaze at the yellow and red color combination. Turning up this first road to the left we carried on back up a slight slope. Street gardens abounded - some even including vegetables! - and we caught sight of an old stone wall still in place.

Coming to another T-junction we turned right and began our descent along another narrow road. Walled on both sides - one a temple grounds and the other a retaining wall of sorts - but well shaded we spotted Nennekkoya. A cat cafe and shop it is the cat lovers heaven. Cat cups, pins, sake, plates, bowls, kimono-wearing statues, T-shirts, and bags are but a few of the items available. Hungry patrons ordered tasty looking dishes with rice shaped like a cat face (adorable despite a somewhat awkward sounding description) and snacked away with a cat at their side.

Reluctantly putting our shoes back on we went back out to the street, and turned right to carry on down the hill. Here we entered what felt like another time, and our stroll here quickly became a highlight of the whole trip. Narrow lanes full of flowering trees, plants, and shrubs of all sorts, shapes, sizes and colors drew us in like a magnet and made every side street look irresistably appealing. Reasonably priced antique stores selling everything from old kimonos to fine porcelain, artisan shops, a long-term guest house with a friendly resident cat, not to mention a handy hardware store kept us occupied for more than an hour.

Finally pulling ourselves away, we walked on until we crossed Shinobazu Dori and found the Nezu Shrine. Standing in a park-like setting are a main hall and impressive gate house, both of which are elaborately painted. We sat for a bit next to the koi pond watching families, couples, and individuals wandering by and enjoying the day like us. After visiting the main hall, we walked the rows of tori gates, again reminiscent of Kyoto and the Fushimi Inari Shrine, and made a mental note to come a bit earlier next year to see the azaela's in all their glory. The hillside is filled to the brim with azaela bushes, which had just finished blooming during our visit. It must be quite the show to see when they're in their prime.

Pleasantly tired from a long day of walking and touring, we made our way back to Shinobazu Dori where we turned right and headed for Nezu Station and a train home.

If you go
  • Start: Nishi-Nippori Station on the Yamanote Line.
  • Finish: Nezu Station on the Tokyo Metro Chiyoda Line.
  • Advice: Good walking shoes and a bottle of water to keep you hydrated. Sunscreen, of course, and a camera with a fully charged battery. I took so many photos that I ended up resorting to the cell phone camera.
  • Best time of year: Spring is delightful, of course, but late fall and early winter are best for seeing Mount Fuji.