Friday, May 9, 2014

19. 蛙始鳴: "Frogs Begin To Sing"

(BGM: "Hanasaku Tabiji" by Yuko Hara)

Shichijuni-kou (72 Seasons) Calendar Listing
 初夏 Shoka: "Early Summer"
Season No. 7: 立夏, Rikka: 
"The Start Of Summer" 

The daytime air is warm continuously, now. Heaters and fuzzy blankets are stowed away, no longer needed. But the rainy season is still a week off and the lack of moisture makes early summer life dry and comfortable. By the sea, a cool morning fog hangs over the waters, fading for awhile in the heat of day, only to reappear like a ghost in the evening. In mountain country, the night air is sweet with the intoxicating mix of cedar, pine and cypress, sharp and cooling in the nose like a whiff of mint ice cream. And everywhere in Japan, the evening air is filled with song.

Climate No.19. 蛙始鳴
Kaeru Hajimete Naku:
"Frogs Begin To Sing"
(May 5 -May 9)

A friendly face (Nagahama, Shiga).
I had my first encounter with the amagaeru (雨蛙, Japanese tree frog, Hyla japonica) when I lived in southern Ibaraki. My apartment was a mere forty steps away from a series of rice paddies. One night, while walking home from work, I was alarmed by the deafening chirp emanating from these flat fields of muddy water. Stopping at a brightly-lit vending machine for a bottle of unsweetened green tea, I saw three tiny, exquisite green frogs clinging to the glowing clear plastic like rubber figurines. I caught one in my hand and as it desperately prodded my fingers with its nose for an opening through which to escape, I fell instantly in love with the little creature. Cupping my hands, I carefully carried him home, let him hop into a clean tupperware container, and returned to the paddy to collect more, easily scooping them off the muddy paddy ledge in the glowing moonlight.

"Cling" (Tone, Ibaraki)
My heart pounding from the thrill of possibly being caught and branded a "strange foreigner," I scurried home with my box of frogs, set it on my kitchen table and turned off the apartment lights. Sure enough, within five minutes of silent darkness, they began to sing that same ear-piercing yet endearing melody. Satisfied with my discovery, yet concerned the noise might upset my neighbors (as Japanese apartment walls are uninsulated and rather thin), I snuck back out to the paddy and quickly released the frogs where I found them, wondering what they were going to say to their other froggy friends.

A very patient amagaeru (Japanese tree frog) hanging out with my pet turtle Shippo-chan.
Throughout the year, I would catch the occasional amagaeru and let him enjoy the insects and plants around my apartment for an hour or two, before releasing them back into the paddy. They swiftly became my favorite animal.

The Experiment: Raising Tree Frogs From Tadpole To Adult

A juvenile amagaeru I raised from a tadpole in my living room. :-) (June 2005, Tone, Ibaraki)

A flowershop owner friend of mine knew I loved tree frogs and presented me with a paper cup containing 6 tadpoles! What on earth was I to do with them? She told me to just put them in a bowl of clean tapwater with a few floating plants (which she kindly provided for free). For food, I was to feed them live mosquitos. But that idea didn't sound appealing to me at all.

Fortunately, a co-worker told me that her kids successfully raise tadpoles on a no-frills diet of boiled, mashed spinach. All I had to do was drop a few pinches of spinach pulp into the water whenever the critters looked hungry. Only after a few weeks of feeding them, their legs had sprouted and they started crawling on their own out of the water and onto the sides of the bowl. At this point, I supplied them with any winged thing that entered my apartment. As soon as their tails shrank up and disappeared, I set them free, placing them on a paddy ledge and grinning from ear to ear. I couldn't have been a prouder surrogate froggy mom!

Frog Heaven! Ancient stone-edged, terraced ricefields in Takashima, Shiga.
 In Japan's rice country, the dry, earthy landscape transforms virtually overnight into a world of watery mirrors as the paddies are systematically flooded and planted. The frogs are a welcome, integral link in the paddies' ecosystem, keeping the mud supple and fertilized. Their tadpoles eat algae that would otherwise rob the young seedlings of precious nutrients and growing space, while the adults feast on harmful winged insects. The nightly chorus of a rice paddy exploding in song is a prayer for a good year's crop.

It's always a boon whenever I spot these precious water babies. To me, they're the perfect example of flexibility and resilience as they move effortlessly between the worlds of land and water. May I be just as fluid in my own life.

"An old pond; 
  The frog jumps in.
       'Plop!'"         -Matsuo Basho

Taste of the Season: サザエ, Sazae, Horned Turban (Turbo Snail)

A delectable Turbo cornutus (horned turban) grilled to perfection at Namiki Cafe (Kure, Hiroshima).
All along the beaches of the Seto Inland Sea, elderly men with long metal picks and net sacks can be seen surveying stinky, slippery tidepools and rocky outcrops at low tide. Their prize: the tasty sazae (horned turban), large sea snails with elegant spiral shells that measure over 3 inches wide. Scooting slowly on their "stomach feet," the snails scrape off and eat algae and seaweed clinging to rocks along the intertidal zone.  

Hunting sea snails on the beach (Akitsu, Higashi Hiroshima).
Sazae taste like the sensuous lovechild of a clam and an oyster, but with a pleasing springy texture reminiscent of boiled octopus. A common gastropod found all over Japan, their cone-shaped, gnarly shells dot the light orange beaches, some hollowed out from a hungry heron or octopus. In Japan, sazae are most commonly enjoyed by humans raw and sliced as sashimi, or cooked in their shells (tsuboyaki).

Two wrasses swim in a tank full of ill-fated sazae (turbo snails).
Since they're a plentiful, inexpensive delicacy where we live, the Hubby and I treated ourselves to one sazae each, served tsuboyaki-style. The chef at the Namiki Cafe yanked a helpless snail out of the aquarium beside our table, poured o-sake (Japanese rice wine) inside the shell, and replaced the operculum (the snail's natural shield cover) over the hole. He then set it on a sizzling BBQ and within a few minutes, served it to us juicy and bubbling!

When he finished serving us our sazae, the chef jumped off the patio onto the sandy beach and began retrieving a few snails that escaped the tank the night before.  "I have to do this every day. They're smart," he said. "They know the sea is nearby."

It made us think twice about our meal, but only for a moment. With a bamboo skewer, we dislodged the operculum and pulled out the curled, twisted balloon of cooked flesh. The chef said we could eat the whole thing, intestines and all. It was only a biteful, but a pleasant experience soon to be repeated.

Ah, summer! 

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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