Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Vegetable Otaku at Koenji's Awadori Festival

Sunday evening we biked to Koenji to catch the Awadori Dance Festival. Reported to be Tokyo's third largest festival (behind the Sumida River Fireworks Festival and the Asakusa Samba Carnival), the streets of this little area filled to the brim with viewers, dancers, and musicians alike. The air literally vibrated with drumbeats and the chants of the dancers. Spectators fanned themselves almost perfectly with the beat, and cheered the 188 troupes on as they made their way along the route.

And to serve them, of course, food stalls selling grilled meat, whole fish on a stick, beer, hot dogs, etc., were in abundance. It seemed every shop whether a hair dresser, a clothing store, or actual izakaya had a grill with an bucket of iced beverages on their stoop. And every stall had customers munching, drinking, or pondering their purchase while the drums beat on through the streets.

My favorite snack find of the evening? As a self-confessed yasai otaku it could only be the chilled cucumbers sold with a nice miso dipping sauce. Served straight up or on a stick and slightly crushed to enhance the flavor-catching surface I was utterly delighted to see fresh, in-season vegetables served up on this hot evening.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Potted Kale: Refugee from the Heat

This spring I grew a bundle of kale plants on our window sill and planted them in the garden. Various bits of nature (aphids, cabbage worms, and my own learning curve) conspired to bring about their early demise. These things also taught me in concert that kale might be better as a winter crop, and so I'm plotting to plant some with the mizuna, komatsuna, and other winter greens I'll put in once this heat wave breaks.

That said, a seedling or two never made it to the garden. I ran out of room there, and had two that still needed a home. Essentially nonexistent here except for the ornamental variety, I couldn't bear the thought of throwing these precious seedlings away. So, I potted them up. One went in with my morning glory vines, and the other got a pot of its own.

The seedling at the base of the morning glory vines did alright until the heat started in earnest. Not even regular watering paired with the smattering of shade provided by the vines could keep it going. However, the seedling planted in a pot of its own found a better fate. Knowing it would despise the intense heat characteristic of our western facing balcony in the afternoon, I put the pot in a slightly shady corner.

Tucked behind a larger container holding bergamont, parsley, and tsuru murasaki it spent a fairly peaceful summer. An aphid attack early on robbed it of almost all the leaves, but as the heat and sunshine increased the aphids decreased and finally disappeared. While it hasn't grown exponentially, it has grown well and I'm pleased as punch to see it with me still.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Furano's Jam Farm and Grandma Lambert was Right

Ok, it's not really a jam farm, per say, but it's one of the things I will most remember Kyohsai Farm for as time goes along. And the slightly sick feeling from trying almost all 38 different kinds of jam they have on offer. As a jammer I really had no choice but to eat my way around the shop. My favorite spouse bravely shared in this endeavor, and we sampled everything from the standard strawberry and raspberry to crazy vegetable jams like potato, carrot and tomato. My favorite? Beet, of course! Second favorite? Ginger honey.

The farm itself started in 1974 with a move from Tokyo, and the Jam Kitchen and Ice Cream Terrace opened in 1986, and based on the amount of jostling there was for position at the samples I'd say it's a resounding success. According to their poster the fruit and vegetables used are organically grown, which makes them extra tasty. (Unfortunately for me, I couldn't find any of the fields where they are grown.) It is possible to watch the jam being made, but I confess after sampling and shopping I simply sat down to my ice cream with jam. (Yes, my Grandma Lambert was right. If you eat too much, you'll get a tummy ache.)

We did manage to make our way to the beautiful flower plantings with great views of the surrounding valley and mountains. Surrounded by color we sat our over-jammed selves down to soak in the sight of where we hiked and camped, and ponder the next leg of our bike ride.

Other than the beet jam, I'd recommend checking out the jam making classes. I'll attempt to sign up for one of these if we make it there again. I'd like to see what such a class is like as well as see if the process differs at all from my own attempts.

If you're biking up from Furano proper, I'd recommend stopping at the Kita No Kuni Kara Recycle House. Based on a long-running television series ("From the North Country"), the former filming location is funky and fun. One of a series of buildings made from recycled bits the Recycled House takes center stage for it's clever use of an old bus, ski lift chairs, and a myriad of other crazy parts. Inspiring and a welcome break on the long slow uphill to the farm.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Vegetable Bike Touring in Higashikawa, Hokkaido

After hiking in Daistetsuzan National Park we spent some time with the Weymiller's at Square One. Their beautiful straw bale home is located in Green Village, an eco-suburb of Higashikawa, with sweeping views over rice fields heavy with grain to the mountains of Daisetsuzan.

Part of our daily routine was to hop on the mamachari's (bicycles) and hit the highways and by-ways. Before it meets the mountains the land is quite flat, and the roads follow a fairly basic grid pattern between farms and tiny clustered communities. Meandering about on these took us past onion - tamanegi as well as negi (round, flat onions and the long green onions)- farms as well as fields of soy beans, squash, potatoes, rice, and hay.

As I suspected (and fervently hoped) some farms sold their wares directly to the public. The stalls ranged from a simple roadside tent to a sturdy little hut. Sometimes the farmer was there to chat about the vegetables, and sometimes (again, just like Tokyo) a moneybox with a friendly thank-you note was all there was.

One of our first discoveries that turned into a daily stop was Farm Sugiyama. About three kilometers from Square One the stall offered an array of vegetables and herbs tidily arranged in baskets. Labels in Japanese and English named the vegetables, and additional information about each crop was also given in Japanese. Some things appeared each day - eggplant and tomatoes large and small - while others were a bit more rare - watermelon, muskmelon, and sweet corn. All were incredibly delicious and ridiculously reasonable in price. I know how much work and effort goes into growing, and so it often feels absurd to me to only pay 100 yen for a bag of luscious tomatoes or 300 yen for a perfectly ripe melon. I will confess that I've been known to slip in a few extra coins now and again as thanks for the shared bounty. (I know. The adjoining photograph is a bit of shameless marketing, but I was just so darn happy.)

Another daily stop was the little farm stand in Higashikawa itself. Set up at Michikusakan, a.k.a. Michinoeki, the farmers did a brisk trade with folks stopping in for ice cream (made with milk from nearby Biei) and to peruse the sweet little shop proffering local wares. Here I bought a ginormous bag of shitake mushrooms, a lovely bundle of broccoli shoots, gave serious thought to muskmelon, and admired a tomato remarkably similar to my Black Zebras. Their sweet corn (tokibi in Hokkaido) looked good, but a group of older women snapped up the last of it the day I was there. Disappointing, but a sure sign that it must be good stuff.

Right on the main road that runs from Asahikawa to Higashikawa (and subsequently on to Asahidake and Daisetsuzan National Park) is Food Studio. A family-run operation Food Studio offers a nice and quite reasonably priced little lunch set in addition to selling fresh vegetables grown in a greenhouse across the driveway. Self-described as "not exactly organic" I still recommend a stop for a snack and a look around. Keeping that land in production and farming a viable option for the family is pivotal for our food future. (I know that's somewhat controversial, but I'd be happy to talk about it.)

Just around the corner from Food Studio (Head back toward Higashikawa on the main road and turn to the left at the first street sign that says Kita 11 chome.) is another little gem in the world of local vegetables. All that indicates its existence is a little sign at the next right, but what a pleasure. One look down the road though, and the tent with the steady stream of customers is a vegetable lovers delight. Super long beans, regular green beans, cherry tomatoes and their larger counterparts, squash of all sizes, gourds, goya, sweet and hot peppers, and the usual tokibi (sweet corn) filled the table with their tasty goodness. Grown just around the corner (in Hokkaido that means about half a kilometer or so away) these vegetables are also not organic. Disappointing, but I'd say it's good for her that I showed an interest and good to help keep the family farming.

The final spot I visited for vegetables was a funky little farm where you could pick your own tomatoes. (The photo of the sunflower growing in the sink comes from there.) An eclectic mix of antiques, antiquated junk, and rummage sale materials joined an assortment of vegetables on the table. I could never find anyone around to talk to about picking some tomatoes, so I can't say too much about this one. It's worth a ride-by even if your bike basket is already full!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Tokyo Nashi Orchard Fruit Ready for Munching

Despite the intense heat that is August in Tokyo, it seems like there is loads happening on the gardening and growing front. I've not finished writing about our trip to Hokkaido camping and cruising local foods there, but it seems all around me here something needs to be planted, harvested, or readied for the next round of growing. Again, I'm learning that vegetables wait for no one!

And the same seems to be true of fruit. The nearby nashi (Japanese pear) orchard that I photographed in blossom this spring has set an abundance of fruit. I can almost taste those fat orbs now with their crisp apple-like flesh and subtly sweet flavor that refreshes like no other. I'm hoping to experiment with some nashi jam or butter this year to see what happens. Perhaps I'll even mix it with some of my balcony peppers for a sweet-hot something or other....Oh, the possibilities!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Hot Harvest from the Balcony Garden

The balcony harvest up to now has mostly been a couple goya from the green curtain, and a few sprigs of parsley, basil, and bergamont. The tsuru murasaki is also doing surprisingly well in it's container (thanks to Cafe Hatake!), and we've been enjoying that in salads with the herbs, too.

Adding a bit of color and spice (quite literally) to this bevy of treats are the two togarashi (hot pepper) plants. (You'll remember them as home to a praying mantis that munched on my aphids.) I came home from our trip to Hokkaido to find these lovelies waiting for me, and as we prepare to head out for a biking trip (our first!) a handful of others are ripening nicely.

I set them to dry for a week or so, and then pop them in a jar I keep in our kitchen. On a whim I'll throw them in our houtou udon, oden, or other dishes for a bit of spice and fun. If the tomato plants are still standing at the farm when I return, I'll try them in a bit of salsa, too! (Recipe recommendations welcome, by the way.)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tambo Update

It's been some time since I've written about my little tambo. My last post about it covered it's move to a bigger pot on the window sill. Since then it's grown by absolute leaps and bounds. Over vacation I moved it to the farm to join Shee-chan's tambo for safe-keeping.

When I left it was simply a big pot of grass sitting in a bucket of water. Now, it's a big pot of grass with actual rice grains!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Squash Crop Update

While the popcorn harvest dries in the kitchen I've been out working in the garden to tidy things up and get ready for winter crops. And as I mentioned it's been a bit of a difficult year for me. Aphids jumped all over my zucchini and kole crops, so there wasn't much to reap there. The garlic harvest was also rather lackluster for any number of possible reasons, and for some time I've been more than a little concerned about the squash. Yellowing leaves along with blossom and fruit drop had me worried that yet another crop was about to simply contribute to the compost heap.

The popcorn has lifted my spirits, and much to my pleasure at least six squash - some Chirimen and some Shishigatani - are nestled under the leaves and growing steadily. I took a few photos the other day while weeding (nothing like a vacation for the weeds to move right in!) and like any proud parent I'm showing them off. Now, fingers are crossed that they make it all the way to harvest without mishap!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Lasagna Bed in Place

Right after constructing the compost bin on Sunday I also put together my first lasagna bed in the Tokyo garden. This past year I felt things in the garden were a bit lackluster. I know I keep saying that, but something is nagging at me about the whole set-up. My hunch is that I'm not quite tending to my soil the way I should.

We farm and grow here year round. Summer vegetables give way to winter vegetables give way to spring to summer again. It's a lovely thing to have all those winter greens to eat, but I feel my soil isn't getting a chance to rejuvenate properly. In Michigan I'd top the beds up with a good dose of horse manure (I've been saying what I'm really missing these days is a horse's ass...), straw, chicken coop leavings, a bit more straw, and head inside for a hot cup of tea and homemade bread from our friends at Ambry Farms.

Since the soil is getting worked so heavily and my supply of straw and manure is limited, I've decided to take things into my own hands a bit. The weeds cleared out from the edge, paths, and rows (yes, things got a bit out of hand over vacation in more ways than one) along with some corn husks and leaves replaced the straw, and the cow manure I purchased the other day made up for the horse's ass. A good thick layer of newspaper on the bottom, then thick poop, thick straw, poop, straw, and a topper of poop. I'd like to add a bit of woodash or its equivalent, but I'm not sure where to find that.

I'm trying to decide between two ideas for this space. The first has me letting it stew for about a month and then planting garlic cloves. The second has me letting it stew until spring and planting a nice bed of seedlings of some sort or another. We'll see what happens. (Suggestions welcome.)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Compost Bin in Place

We finally built a compost bin. It's not a fancy affair by any means, but I think it will nicely do the job. Made of chicken wire and a few poles it sits in the back corner of the garden space. I filled it almost immediately with the tomato plants (a mishap during our Hokkaido vacation meant they didn't get picked and so the plants got the signal to stop producing fruits - nothing a good cry couldn't help with), chopped up corn stalks, squash vine trimmings, and a few random weeds. I topped it all off with some bits from our last couple meals - banana peels, egg shells, coffee grounds, and some squash innards - with a good watering to get things rolling. Come Spring I imagine I'll have a nice little bundle of hummus (not the kind eaten with tabouleh and pita, unfortunately) to start spreading around.

(Apologies for the quality of the photo. Taken a little before noon the heat and light were a bit intense, as you can tell by the look on my face.)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Popcorn Harvest

Vegetables wait for no one. This is a lesson I learn every year, every season, and every crop. The vegetable does not care if I have a blog post or article to write, daily household chores to do, an appointment to keep, a phone call home to make, or in my most recent lesson - a flight to Hokkaido to catch to visit friends and hike for a week. Working with the weather, the soil, and their own biological clock, they do what they must most single-mindedly.

At home in Michigan my popcorn crops stay on the stalk until perhaps late September or October. There they dry in the long summer days with an occasional dousing by storms and showers. I also watered quite religiously there while here I barely water at all. Our hose reached the garden and a rain barrel made daily watering a breeze. Here, the spigot is on the other side of the farm, and I must circumnavigate the eggplant field with its sometimes floppy sorghum border, blueberry bushes, the tomato and bean fields as well as a double row of magnificent sunflowers that rings the farm. Not so arduous, but with the heat and an army of mosquitoes, weeding and harvesting, I lacked the gumption more often than not.

At this moment my theory is that the long, hot dry days characteristic of the weeks after the rainy season perhaps sped the ripening and drying process. I don't know Dakota Black well, so it may be something with the variety, too. Regardless, my umeboshi were replaced by long dark cobs of Dakota Black the morning our plane took off.

Most of the cobs are a deep rich black, but two are variegated with specks of purple and lavender and one is nearly all white. Perhaps cross-pollination occurred - most likely with the Takashi's corn - or I wonder if heirloom seeds sometimes simply produce an occasional rogue fruit. I mean, why not? Humans do.

My other great surprise that morning? Well, there are two. A successful harvest at last (if drying goes well) from the garden is much-needed for my gardening morale. My zucchini trials and some trouble with the Brandywines brought me down a bit, I have to say. This harvest means a great deal. The second? Spying a fat Shishigatani squash happily growing while husking the corn!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Daisetsuzan Vista

Since I've offered up two posts on the little landscapes and everyday gardens of Daisetsuzan, I thought I ought to share a bit of the larger landscapes we walked through, too. Three of our six days there wrapped us in fog and rain, so we savored our three sunny ones. Those wet days undoubtedly had a beauty of their own, but my camera wasn't interested in capturing much of it.

Like the birds, dragonflies, butterflies and just about everything else we sprang into action when the clouds finally lifted and the sun came out. We covered as much ground as we could while drying out, and tried to make up for lost camera time. Here are a few favorites that don't do the park justice by any means, but perhaps offer an essence of what we discovered.

(For infinitely better photos and great information on hiking there check out our friend Ryan's website. You'll be donning hiking shoes in minutes flat!)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Daisetsuzan's Everyday Gardens

As I mentioned earlier, while I love the sweeping vistas Daisetsuzan affords it's the little things that capture my heart the most. Clustered together in a hole in a rock this moss and tiny evergreen simply made me laugh out loud with joy. Again and again I saw plants growing in what appeared to be the most barren of lunar landscapes or in the tiniest of spaces. They reminded me of the everyday gardens I see here in Tokyo: little spots of life and color where it might be least expected and where it brings the greatest pleasure.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Daisetsuzan Large and Small

Note: I've been on vacation for the past two weeks in Hokkaido, Japan. Back home now in Tokyo, I'll be writing up some of our adventures there in and about Square One with the Weymiller's, as well as sharing some of our time spent in Daisetsuzan National Park. Oh, to be back near those mountains again!

Last summer we took our first trip to Hokkaido and Daisetsuzan National Park. Three weeks exploring, meeting new people, and eating great food drew us back like a magnet. Not to mention the beauty of the park made my first real back-country camping experience an unforgettable joy.

This year our friend Ryan, an experienced guide whose photographs bring us back here when we are down south, recommended we venture to the southern part of the park. With mountain huts about a day's hike apart a tent would not be necessary, and we could settle in to really explore the area.

Long hikes through varied terrain and vegetation in all kinds of weather reminded me of a different kind of beauty than the human landscapes I spend my time working in and admiring. The sight of a ripening cabbage field or bees working the blossoms of my goya plant give me a wordless sense of pleasure and satisfaction. The wildness of places like Daisetsuzan gives me similar joy, but with a different flavor. Perhaps it is because I am not at the center in any way. I clamber over large rocks to a peak to see mountains and valleys so full of life that I can hardly imagine it. The varying shades of green alone take my breath away. Every step and every turn are a wonder.

Yet, while I love the sweeping mountain views and volcanic valleys burping clouds of sulphur and steam, I perhaps adore even more the little landscapes. Colorful mushrooms bursting up along the trail, tiny clusters of plants growing in the most unlikely of places, or blades of grass bending with drops of an earlier rainfall brought me to a full stop on the trail. Wildflowers dancing with color on foggy hillsides, butterflies sunning themselves on a rock after a rain, or armadas of dragonflies flying overhead on cool winds had me watching in wonder and gratitude for hours.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Sip, Pucker, Release: Serving up the Ume Hachimitsu

I find it impossible to resist seasonal fruit and interesting sounding recipes. Batches of blueberry jam - one recipe which resulted in a spread that tastes just like my mother's blueberry pie - as well as pesto and tomato sauce are just a few recent examples. Even though in many ways it's not necessary to do these things, I find great satisfaction of filling our shelves and freezer with homemade goodness.

So, near the end of ume season I spotted a recipe for Ume Hachimitsu. A non-alcoholic version of umeshu made with equal parts ume, vinegar, and honey it sounded delightful and interesting. And, since I was setting the umeboshi to dry I thought I'd better do the same for the ume hachimitsu plums, too.

Still green as they were not graced with the company of red shiso leaves and still a bit hard as they didn't have salt massaging them for weeks on end, the hachimitsu plums resemble little green brains. (It's not an attractive metaphor, but it is accurate.) I'm not entirely sure what I'll use them for, but I plan to start asking around to see what I can find. I'll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, the hachimitsu is the drink of the summer. On its own it is tremendously sour and causes the face to pucker uncontrollably with that hint of honey sweetness at the end thankfully releasing the tension. The vinegar gives it a bit of a spicy swing, to boot, and on my first sip-pucker-release I was hooked. We mix it with cold sparkling water for a wonderfully cooling beverage, and once even a bit of ginger sake slipped in, too. Lovely.

Next year? Without a doubt. Only one batch? Very doubtful. I'll be lining our kitchen with this little brew.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Compost Tea

A little more than half-way through the season (give or take) the balcony plants could use a bit of a snack. When I potted them up this spring I set them in a mix of compost, potting soil, and composted-dried cow manure. (And as I mentioned for the green curtain, if I had to do it over again I would add a nice dose of calcium for added strength.) They've grown along merrily enough, but to keep them feeling flush with green and hearty in the face of the summer heat and wind I whipped up a batch of compost tea.

A favorite garden beverage it's easy to make. My recipe, as always, is a bit fast and loose. I take a large container, fill it with a few inches of compost, fill it with water to the near brim, and leave it to steep like sun tea. In Michigan, I used compost straight from the bin for that season, but in Tokyo I simply threw some from the bag in a jar, added a bit of leftover cow manure, and filled it with water. No cover so it could breathe and bubble to its heart's content for about a week.

This morning while watering I added a bit to the watering jug, and filled that the rest of the way with water. I carried on with that process until I got down to the sludge. Once there, I added a bit of fresh material, refilled the jar with water, and have left it to sit again.

The mix is not so strong as to burn the plants, but it should give them a nice lift. I'd like to experiment with different combinations and hope to eventually move to a larger container so I can feed all of my plants on the same day. Or, now that I think about it, I could just get more than one jar...

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Side Effects of Umeboshi

After fishing the umeboshi and shiso leaves out of their container just over a liter of brine was left behind. The umetsu or ume vinegar is a lovely red color, and promises to make some tasty pickled daikon as the season goes. I also think it would be a nifty addition to our salads in place of the vinegar we use now.

I shared a small bottle with my sushi-sensei (along with some Brandywines!) in thanks for sharing his recipe. To my surprise, he and some friends poured it into a glass and took tiny sips. Puckering their lips and shaking their heads in what I eventually realized was approval, they pronounced it delicious. I'm looking forward to hearing how he used it.

Umeboshi Drying Update

The umeboshi are nearly done drying. Our apartment smells a bit like a pickled plum, but I confess to taking great delight in that aroma. I can hardly keep from turning the little plums, and stop by their baskets on a regular basis (it's less than six feet from where I sit typing which makes it even harder to resist) to watch their progress. Crystallized salt dots the outside and their texture has moved from damp and soft to pleasantly leathery and soft. The shiso leaves are also crisping up nicely, and should make a nice addition to rice dishes in the near future.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Nifty Mulching Idea Spotted

Closer to the tracks even than the new community garden we recently visited, this little garden caught my attention for its mulching technique. Weeds are a problem in every garden (even edibles like purslane can get out of hand) and how to contend with them is a question with infinite answers.

One of my favorite answers, of course, is mulch. I've experimented a bit with living mulches in containers as well as my garden, as well as using straw or leaves. Most recently, I've tried out black plastic mulch with good results but mixed feelings. It certainly keeps down the weeds and controls erosion, but I am sometimes concerned, specifically in the case of my garlic, that it does too good of a job retaining moisture. (There was more to my garlic than the mulch, but I'm trying to think through each angle. More on that later.) Not to mention as well that plastic is plastic, and so its manufacture and disposal are less than ideal in my book.

Enter this garden. Directly below the plants the gardener uses black plastic mulch, but the paths are covered with woven straw mats. The black plastic mulch would warm the soil for the young eggplants as well as control weeds, and the woven straw mats manage weeds as well as erosion. The first time I saw it the mats were new. Two months later the mats are clearly weathered and a bit worn, but defenitely holding their own.

The mats are compostable. Sturdy enough to last it seems through a season of walking, weather, and whatever else, the mats could be pitched into the compost pile when the time comes. I don't know how long they last, but undoubtedly they'd be a great addition to a compost heap. It may also be possible, depending on how the garden runs, to leave them in place and simply put fresh ones on top. The lower layer would continue to break down adding nutrients to the soil, but might get in the way of a rototiller or other tilling mechanism.

The mats are water-permeable. Water can most likely get through to the soil below, which means these mats might also be good under the plants themselves. Yet, they are impermeable enough that weeds don't have an opportunity to pop up. In many ways, this (like straw or leaves) makes them an ideal mulching material.

The mats are locally available. Available at stores like J-Mart, my local hardware store, and probably our local tatami mat shop, too, they don't require any special shipping. Ok, they would be a challenge to haul in my bike basket, but not impossible.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Umeboshi Set to Dry

I put the umeboshi and the accompanying shiso leaves out to dry today at long last. They turned a beautiful pink color after sitting in their ruby red brine. The outside feels lighter and dryer since I set them out this morning, and I'm curious to see how they continue to change as they progress.

I simply fished them out of the jar by hand as I wasn't sure how delicate they were, and then placed them on their baskets. I only did up one kilogram of ume, and the baskets are jam-packed with these little wrinkled fellows. Not all of the shiso leaves would fit, so they have to wait until I can get to the store to pick up another. I don't imagine that the leaves will require quite as much time as the heavier, denser plums, but I could be wrong. We shall see.

Now, on to the hachimitsu!