Friday, February 28, 2014

5. 霞始靆, "Mist Hangs Over the Land"

(BGM:  Nanohana Ressha by Kikuchi Madoka)

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

Raindrops Cling to Narcissus (Hiroshima Prefecture)
 Climate No. 5: 霞始靆, Kasumi Wa Hajimete Tanabiku: 
Mist Hangs Over the Land (February 24-28)

"It is spring!
  A hill without a name
   In thin haze."   -Matsuo Basho

Stepping outside to face this morning's sun, I found that the the distant mountains had blended in with the horizon, glazed over with a gossamer whitish haze. It wasn't cedar pollen, pollution or smoke messing with my eyes. Nor was it yellow sand blowing in from China creating the illusion that the mountains were floating over the hills. The warm, moist air of morning had wrapped us all in a wispy gauze of spring mist the Japanese call kasumi  (霞).

Kasumi  can roll in thick or thin. However it comes, this bewitching spring mist can bring some serious silhouettes to an early spring landscape.

As the warmth of the sun gradually teased more moisture out of the ground and nearby river, things started to get a little steamy at my place of work. Condensation on the walls and windows usually meant cold rain was pouring down outside. But this time, the air had no winter sting!

As much as I want this heat wave to stick around, however, I realize that it's now the time of sankanshion (三寒四温), where we get three cold days for every four not-so-cold days. Sure the repetition of extremes takes a hard toll on the body. But if it means no longer having to buy boxes of kairo hand warmer packs, it's all good!

Tradition of the Season: 野焼き, Noyaki, Controlled Burning

Noyaki Sunset, Ohmi Hachiman, Shiga Prefecture (C) Oppa, 2011, All Rights Reserved
I remember how I used to panic whenever I saw thick black smoke billowing from the fields of Ibaraki every February. I kept thinking I should call the fire brigade! 

House On Fire? (Tsukubamirai City, Ibaraki, 2009)
One day my former boss (who also just happened to be my organic rice supplier) informed me with a giggle that farmers in Japan burn their fields every spring to control pests, kill off weeds and return nutrients to tired soil before early summer planting. In certain parts of the country, whole communities make a day's festival out of noyaki  (possibly to shorten coughing time), with neighbors helping each other start and corral the flames.

Burning grasses in the river bed (Takehara, Hiroshima)
From February to April, entire mountainsides go up in an inferno of hellfire, charring the landscape jet black and littering nearby village roofs with snow-like ash. Nobody complains, however, as the burning off of lifeless matter remains a time-honored form of spiritual purification in both Buddhist and Shinto rituals, bringing luck and protection from divine forces. The burning of the fields is a joyous occasion, a time to celebrate! Some notable noyaki  festivals include Akiyoshidai in Yamaguchi Prefecture, the Dai Himonjiyaki/Noyaki Festival on the slopes of Kyushu's active Mt. Aso volcano and the burning of Mt. Ogi in Beppu City, Oita Prefecture.

Whenever I drive by a smoking noyaki in progress, I quickly roll down the car window to grab a whiff. The warm, musty smoke from the burning of old leaves and underbrush reminds me of the salmon smokehouses that dot the riverbanks of my Alaskan homeland. In Japan, noyaki  is a traditional symbol of seasonal change, cleansing both land and mind. Since noyaki  is an essential element of Japanese organic farming, as my former boss once pointed out, the practice doesn't seem to be a tradition that will 'burn out' anytime soon, despite global concern for rising CO2 levels. (Sorry, Readers. I couldn't resist).

Taste of the Season: 菜の花, 菜花 Nanohana, Nabana, Rapeseed

Nanohana Field (Kusatsu, Shiga Prefecture)

Spring Wave (Tsukubamirai City, Ibaraki)
While on my first grocery shopping trip in Japan, I was frustrated by the utter lack of things made from corn. In the States, corn is virtually inescapable, as the film Food, Inc. so effectively brings to light. It's in our breads, our meats, our drinks, even in our medicines! Raised on Mexicali and Tex-Mex food, I was nearly destroyed when I found only frozen nan bread in the market freezer where corn tortillas should be. Surely with all the corn Japan imports from the US, corn oil would be the standard cooking fat of choice, right?

Nope. The cheapest and most plentiful oil here is canola, made from rapeseed (Brassica napus). Mustering up the courage to try something new, I decided to give canola oil a whirl in my Sapporo dorm kitchen. As I savored the crispy golden crust of a simple egg fried sunny side up, I marveled at how the oil cooked up clean without leaving any annoying corn odor on my hair or clothing! It also made my Asian food taste worlds better than the heavy slop I always turned out on my stove back in the States. My corn oil days were gone forever!

While driving down a monotonous suburban Japanese highway, the sudden flash of neon-yellow nanohana in full bloom can be so shocking in the brown dead of winter that one needs to be careful not to run off the road! Their fragrance is almost sickeningly sweet, like a cross between honeysuckle and dandelion. Despite their heavy scent, the flowers, leaves and stems of the nanohana are eaten as a vegetable in Japan, usually mixed into rice or steamed as a side green. The taste is mellow and creamy, like spinach but with a natural buttery aftertaste that smooths out any trace of bitterness.

Nanohana can easily be purchased in supermarkets and mom & pop groceries. But in my experience, most aunties plodding around their fields will be more than happy to pluck for you a few stems if you express interest in trying it out. Just a quick steam or flash-boil and sprinkle with a teeny bit of salt is all it takes for a pleasant addition to your spring repertoire! 

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

No comments:

Post a Comment