Wednesday, March 12, 2014

8. 桃始笑: "Peach Trees Begin to Bloom"

(BGM: "Nagori Yuki" by Iruka)

 Shichijuni-kou (72 Seasons) Calendar Listing
仲春, Chushun: "Mid-spring"
Season No. 3: 啓蟄, Keichitsu: 
"Hibernating Insects Awaken" 

Glorious peach blossoms after a gentle rain (Oshiba Island, Higashi Hiroshima).
Climate No. 8:  桃始笑:
Momo Hajimete Saku:
" Peach Trees Begin to Bloom" 
(March 10-14)

To untrained eyes (such as my own), the blossoms of the Prunus persica (aka Amygdalus persica) can be easily confused with any of the hundreds of species of plum or cherry. Telling them apart can even be a hard call for the local Japanese gardener! I asked one last week if we had any peach trees in our town. He led me across the parking lot to a camellia. (No harm done. His heart was in the right place).

Some people say that looking at the color or petal count of a prunus flower can help one distinguish a peach from a cherry blossom, but these methods are unreliable. Both flowers come in varying shades and combinations of pink and white. Regarding petal count, some species of cherry, such as the yaezakura have far more than 5 petals. The Fugenzo cherry pictured below has nearly forty petals!

Fugenzo Cherry (a type of yaezakura) with Little Green Guest (Toride, Ibaraki, 2010)
After hours of informal research on the Internet, I came up with my own checklist for telling the difference between peach and cherry blossoms:

1) Timing: Peach trees typically bloom in early March (between the plums of February and the cherries of April, with mountain and October cherries being the exceptions).
2) Shape: Peach petals are rounded without the classic v-shaped notch that cherry blossoms have.
3) Size: Peach blossoms are typically larger than either plum or cherry.
4) Placement on the Branch: Peach blossoms share the same branch. Plum blossoms each have their own twigs stemming from a parent branch. Cherries bloom in clusters off of branches, twigs, even trunks!

I'm hoping this helps. I know it's still confusing. But a little confusion can be a good thing, sometimes. So lets enjoy some more, shall we?

"A little girl under a peach tree,
  Whose blossoms fall into the entrails
   Of the earth."  -Matsuo Basho

"Dude Under Sakura With Girlie Umbrella In the Final Snows of Winter" (c) Gen, 2011, all rights reserved.

Taste of the Season: 海藻, Kaisou, Sea Vegetables

An appealing sea salad stuck fast to its rock, waiting to be picked! (Takehara, Hiroshima)
Along spring seashores, a different kind of beauty blooms, pushed and pulled in a sensuous dance with the rhythm of wave and tide. While the air and seawater are still chilly, kaiso (sea vegetables) are at their most delicious. This time of year, you can see people combing the calm, waveless beaches of Hiroshima with heavy plastic bags full of wet, rubbery seaweed.

Certain stretches of preserved natural beach along the Seto Inland Sea are blessed with a cornucopia of crystalline dulses, springy translucent sea lettuces and twisted green wakame. They sparkle and glint like emeralds on the shore in the spring sun, flowing like a mermaid's hair in the hissing foamy surf. These sea vegetables inspire a meal of delight with their plump texture and flavors that run from nutty to floral. Precious gifts from the sea, kaiso have been a primary source of calcium, iodine and other minerals since the Nara period (AD 710 to 794) and beyond.

On March 10th, I was given some beautiful food gifts by a close friend: hand-picked wakame from shores just minutes away from home, and some green onions from his coworker's garden. The square strip of dried kombu (kelp) is from my host brother, whose family runs their own seaweed harvesting operation in Hakodate, Hokkaido.

My friend's timing couldn't have been better, for I always make wakame  & green onion soup to commemorate the sweet compassion I received during the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami that struck eastern Japan on that chilly afternoon, March 11, 2011.

A Soup For Remembrance: 

(More about my story can be found here at my Travellerspoint site). To make a long story short, I was at my place of work, 2 hours by public transit away from home when the quake hit at 2:47p.m. Since all trains in the greater Kanto had ceased operation, I wasn't able to get home that night. The cell phone services all across Kanto were also down, so I couldn't get through to see if my husband or any of my friends were okay. All I could do was just wait for the aftershocks to subside and try not to fear the worst.

Competition for resources is high in the metropolis, even without the added strain of a natural disaster. But within two hours of the quake, the locals of Motoyawata had already hoarded up all the food, water and supplies at every available shop and convenience store. Our pickings for something nutritious were slim.

To remedy this situation, since 8 of us were stranded there, the cooks at our workplace volunteered to stay overtime and whip up for us a beautiful hot meal of the only food they had left in the kitchen: wakame chive soup and chicken nuggets.

Recently picked wakame from Hiroshima and dried kombu from Hokkaido.
I can't tell you how moved I was to have a hot meal at a time when I thought that my whole world had literally been shaken apart. Since that day, I've made it a habit to make wakame chive soup on 3/11, to commemorate the event and to remind myself how times of tragedy can bring out the best in people.

I found a decent recipe here for a simple, nourishing clear-broth wakame soup (omitting the sake). Following the directions, I dropped the spindly, stinky-sweet wakame into a bath of ice cold tap water; it didn't take much time to reconstitute. The leaves unfolded and expanded in the water just minutes after coming into contact with it, blooming like spring flowers. I was struck by the soft color combination of muted olive greens and whites, light and translucent like the sea that borne it. I could almost taste the chlorophyll, it looked so wholesome!

I placed a piece of Hokkaido kombu  in a pot of cold water and heated it to boiling, turning down the heat when it completely unfolded. The jet-black seaweed magically brightened up into a rich shade of jade green. I threw in a sliced fresh shiitake, a big spoonful of soy sauce, a dash of bamboo salt, and tossed in the plump wakame that I'd already cut into 2-inch lengths. Cooking the seaweed for only one minute, I turned off the heat and topped off my soup with a generous handful of chopped savory green onions.

The taste was almost identical to the calming, healing soup our generous coworkers prepared for us that night. Many of us who were there during that terrible time still remember the sheer horror of the event. Of course being human, I remember the hardship, though my plight was nothing compared to those farther up north who lost everything. But more than that, I choose to remember the care, compassion and humanity that I witnessed left and right, as entire legions of heroes came out of the woodwork to help everyone pull through. As my friend Kristin says: "Small acts, big impacts."

Even after 3 years, we pray for the victims of the quake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, who still have to go without adequate shelter, work, peace of mind or sleep. We pray for the people of abandoned villages to be able to return to their homeland, and for families to be reunited. We keep praying for the recovery of our sickened land and sea (I say "we" because Japan is my home, too).

But prayer isn't enough, especially when entities and companies with the power to help, keep turning a blind eye to these problems now too big to hide. It is my hope that the guilty parties be held accountable, that the government give much more assistance to its loyal constituents, and for the environment to heal despite our greed, carelessness and ignorance. I can only hope that the current leaders of Japan share in this wish enough to do something about it. Imagine how all the money Japan is spending on foreign military operations could help with domestic restoration and housing! Restoring freedom of speech by lifting the media blackout on information concerning Fukushima would be a step in the right direction. Progress begins with the free flow of ideas, after all.

I'm sure the Imperial couple would agree.  Much more still needs to be done to help ease the suffering. Spring is the season of changes. Perhaps this year we'll be luckier.

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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