Sunday, February 23, 2014

4. 土脉潤起, "Soil Becomes Moist"

(BGM:  "春よ、来い Haruyo Koi , Longing for Spring" by Yumi Matsutouya)

Shichijuni-kou (72 Seasons) Calendar Listing
初春, Shoshun: "Early Spring"
Season No. 2: 雨水, Usui: "Rain Water" 

The sunlight shines on my mountain earlier now, its soft pink and orange glow warming me with my morning coffee. Glancing at my weather app, however, I see rain in the weekly forecast with day temperatures peaking over 10C. It looks like the snows of winter will be replaced by the chilly yet nourishing rains of spring. We're ready for them! The earth is thirsty! Last year from Hokuriku to Chugoku, we had no shortage of February rain. Will this year be the same?

"Sweeping In the Rain" (Kenrokuen Garden, Ishikawa Prefecture, February 2013)

 Climate No. 4: 土脉潤起, Tsuchi no Shou Uruoi Okoru: 
"Soil Becomes Moist" (February 19-23)

The morning mirror shows my hair kinky and curly from humidity that rolled in with the warm air currents overnight. Rain that fell days before still remains stored here and there in tiny puddles around our driveway. The ground is saturated.

The kids will have to wait a little longer...

Sprouts and critters sleeping below no longer have an excuse to remain hidden underground. I can almost hear everyone stirring around with the same excitement of stagehands rustling behind a velvet curtain, scrambling as they prepare the set for the opening act. The tension is nothing short of delicious! Haruyo koi! Hayaku koi!  ("Come, springtime! Hurry!")

Taste of the Season: 蓬, Yomogi, Mugwort

"Spring rain- 
  Mugwort spreading out
    Among the roadside grass" -Matsuo Basho

In my peripheral vision, I spot a small carpet of mixed greens next to the street gutter and what do I behold?

Chinese Mugwort (Artemisia princeps)

Mugwort! Mugwort! Spring has sprung!!

Has Gen gone bonkers? Possibly. But I really LOVE this herb! Back in the day, I used to dry silvery green bundles of wild Artemisia alaskana ("Alaska wormwood") and add sachets of it to my bathwater for its stimulating fragrance and medicinal properties. I was delighted to learn that the artemisia found in Japan and Korea is just as cherished for its many uses.

Growing in thick patches along highways and hillsides, this common herb is still highly coveted as both a healing agent and a flavoring for sweets. Drugstores and kampo (Chinese herbal medicine) shops across Japan still carry yomogi  tea, bath salts, moxibustion cones and skin salves. Its comforting menthol and camphor-like zing improves circulation, soothes cracked, chilled skin and helps to open congested sinuses.

A huge bath sachet full of locally-grown mugwort (Yujin no Yu Hot Springs, Onomichi, Hiroshima)

But my favorite way of enjoying yomogi  is in a chewy, delicately sweetened kusamochi  (草もち)rice cake. Fresh young yomogi  leaves are finely blended into a puree and mixed with sticky mochi rice. While still hot, this rice mixture is then pounded into a soft dough and stuffed with anko (sweet bean paste). The yomogi makes the lips and tongue hum and tingle with a green menthol freshness while adding a peppery zip to the flavor of the rice. The effect is pure magic.

Kusamochi  filled with anko (sweet bean paste).

Flower of the Season: 椿, Tsubaki, Camellia 

Also called the Rose of Winter, the tsubaki (Camellia japonica) comes into full bloom this time of year, adding welcome splashes of bright red and pink to hedges, yards and roadsides across Japan.

Tsubaki (Camellia japonica) in Takehara, Hiroshima

A relative to the tea plant Camellia sinensis, tsubaki is particularly famous in Japan for its use in hair care products. Tsubaki oil has been used for centuries as a natural hair conditioner. I personally use it in summer when the high humidity turns my do into a fro. It's very light and leaves no residue when patted onto towel dried hair as a leave-in conditioner. The branches and stems of Camellia japonica have also been used throughout the ages in woodwork and dyeing.

A tsubaki  near the Tone River (Moriya, Ibaraki)

I used to always confuse the tsubaki with its autumnal cousin, sazanka (Camellia sasanqua), until my dear friend Mr. Wada helped make it clear to me:

"If the petals scatter on the ground, leaving the stamen still on the tree, it's a sazanka. If the entire flower falls off at once, then it's a tsubaki."

A sazanka's petals scatter on the ground (Hikone, Shiga).

A tsubaki  blossom drops off the bush as a whole flower.
I had no idea that people from different cultures could hold prejudices against flowers until I came to Japan. One time in Ibaraki Prefecture, I asked a coworker about the tsubaki. She said she didn't like the flower at all because it creeps her out. I couldn't for the life of me understand how a lovely, innocent flower could have such a negative effect on a person!

"When the tsubaki  blossom plops to the ground, it's like the thud of a person falling dead," she said. (Gosh, I hope she never has to see a real corpse, I thought to myself). Where on earth did she get such an idea? Did she just have a vivid imagination? Sure the rose-like blossoms of the tsubaki were drop-dead gorgeous, but literally?

The idea that the camellia symbolizes death goes back to the days of the samurai, who apparently would see piles of camellia blossoms on the ground and have flashbacks of battlefields strewn with the bloodied, bodiless heads of their fellow warriors.

Despite this gruesome tale, the tsubaki  is everywhere in Japan. The prejudice that still exists despite the flower's beauty and importance to society is another example of how an idea, no matter how off-the-wall, can become a tradition, religion or even a fact if left unchallenged.

Taste of the Season: 春キャベツ, Haru Kyabetsu, Spring Cabbage

Exactly a year ago this week, when Hubby and I were facing some serious hard times, a dear friend who owns a farm in Aichi Prefecture sent us a lifesaving care package of fresh produce, including her family's famous spring cabbage. We had never tasted cabbage so sweet! Maybe it was the extra love and care involved that gave the vegetable that extra something special. But oh, how we savored them!

Farm-fresh spring cabbage from Aichi, sent with love!
Spring Beauties!

We didn't have any trouble figuring out how to enjoy these soccer ball-sized beauties! One cabbage alone provided us with a week's worth of meal options! Here are just ten of the many ways we came up with to savor spring cabbage:

1) as a simple salad, shredded fine and drizzled with sesame dressing
2) roughly chopped and stir-fried along with carrots, onions and yakisoba noodles
3) lightly boiled and used as a wrapper for fried onion and ketchup rice: instant stuffed cabbage rolls!
4) roughly torn and slipped inside an egg sandwich
5) stirred into a warming cabbage and onion soup
6) roughly cut and eaten as a roadsnack
7) finely shredded and stir-fried in sesame oil, topped with a sprinkling of salt and 2 tbs of roasted sesame seeds, served alongside rice
8) cut and thrown into a pot of instant Sapporo Ichiban ramen noodles with carrots and green onions
9) Cole slaw salad!
10) Finely chopped and steamed with egg and onion in a mellow Korean gerranchim (souffle)

This may sound cheesy, but the crisp, juicy sweet taste of spring cabbage always reminds me of the love of friends. Friends from all over the globe, some we've known for years and new friends we've yet to meet, pulled together to help keep us alive and thriving in Japan. Friends fill the heart with hope and strength to get through even the toughest winters of life, making springtime all the sweeter when it finally rolls around.

My dear friends, you know who you are. We are still in your debt and we'll never forget the unselfish care you showed us in our darkest hour. This blog is dedicated to you, with love and gratitude.

-Gen (and Hubby).

Copyright 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author.

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