Tuesday, June 24, 2014

28. 乃東枯: "The Self-heal Withers"

(BGM: "Kawa No Nagare No Youni" by Misora Hibari)

 Shichijuni-kou (72 Seasons) Calendar Listing
 仲夏, Chuuka: "Mid-summer"
Season No. 10: 夏至, Geshi: 
"Summer Solstice" 

The longest day of the year has come. The sun might be at its highest point in the noontime sky, but we can't see it for the mist and rain. The moisture hanging all around us like a gauze net is offset by the sweet, woodsy dryness of burning incense and mosquito coils. It's the perfect time to go temple-hopping; the mist adds a mental coolness that accentuates the peaceful ambiance of these Buddhist retreats.

Climate No. 28: 乃東枯
Natsukarekusa Karuru
"The Self-heal Withers"
(June 21 -June 25) 

Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris subsp. asiatica) on its way out (Otake, Hiroshima).
Mentioned twice in the Shichijuni-kou calendar, the self-heal plant (Prunella vulgaris) has been used for centuries by indiginous cultures worldwide as an anti-inflammatory and a source of food. While driving down a dangerous one-lane mountain trail smack on the border between Yamaguchi and Hiroshima prefectures, I noticed this patch of self-heal and couldn't believe the timing. Had I known at the time it was edible as a salad green, I would've plucked a few to munch on the road. But it would have been bitter and unpalatable, for self-heal tastes best in spring. Ah, maybe next year. ;-)

Yet as I ponder this reminder of inevitable death and withering in a season of vibrancy and life, I am reminded of my own mortality. No matter what the season, some things must fade. People go away. Situations change. I can appreciate the dousing of freezing-cold reality in this hot season of flaring passions and creation. Many organisms are mating all around me (like butterflies and stinkbugs), while others are falling back into eternity, to be reborn as living energy for still more life that feeds on it. It's hard to feel remorse when looking at life as a neverending cycle.

I have a feeling that the self-heal plant will be aptly named to me from now on because of this revelation. ;-) Nature is quite the teacher, isn't it?

Event Of The Season: 鵜飼, Ukai, Cormorant Fishing

A painting celebrating the ukai tradition in Uji, Kyoto.
"Exciting to see
   But soon after
    Comes sadness, 
      The cormorant boats."   
              -Matsuo Basho

Two dolls greet customers-to-be at an ukai kiosk in Arashiyama, Kyoto.
The Hubby and I always seem lucky in stumbling upon these cormorant fishing towns during our travels. We never plan on going to places where this occurs, but already, without following an itinerary, we've been to four of the thirteen "ukai capitals" of Japan -all completely by chance.

Hard work requires comfortable shoes (Arashiyama, Kyoto).
Cormorant fishing (Jpn: ukai 鵜飼) involves an expert ukai fisherman wearing a water reed apron (traditional raingear), who catches fish using pelagic cormorants (Jpn: u 鵜 pronounced /ooh/) on tethers. The boat is navigated out to the middle of the river where sweetfish (Jpn: ayu 鮎) tend to gather. By the light of a torch basket held near the bow of the boat, the cormorants catch fish in their beaks, are immediately hoisted up into the boat by the tether around their neck and forced to cough up the booty. These birds are taken from the wild and trained in this art, registered and carefully looked after, according to this website.

A poster advertising ukai under the Kintaikyo Bridge in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi.
The average tour costs from 1500 yen on up. From what we've seen on the shore, tourists file into a tatami-floored boat where they're seranaded with recordings of Meiji-era koto music and are played a multilingual description of the event about to take place. (Higher-end establishments provide a live description by a travel guide or an emcee).

A royal send-off (Arashiyama, Kyoto).
After about twenty minutes of waiting, or when all preparations have been made and the sky is dark enough, the boats are rowed out into the middle of the river and lined up while the fishermen, in separate boats, situate themselves into position. There, the fishermen set their torches alight and release the lanky, hungry cormorants from their basket cages and sit them along the ledge of the boat. On cue, the birds jump into the water and chaotically flap and dip in a jumbled frenzy, fishing as they sail back and forth in full view of the tourist boats. 

Ukai fishing in Arashiyama, Kyoto.
Realizing that people pay a pretty penny to see ukai up close, we always feel thankful when we're lucky enough to catch a free glimpse of this rare cultural spectacle. But much like Basho stated in his poem, once the boats are in sight, we feel a little somber; the idea of birds being choked and forbidden to eat their catch is a little hard for us to swallow, let alone the birds.

Still, if I come across ukai again in my travels, I just might fork out the dough to see the show up close. Some hotels and tourist establishments offer dinner cruises where guests can eat their freshly-caught fish. Even though ayu is my absolute favorite fish on the planet, I'm not sure I could swallow it, knowing it spent time in another creature's body. Even though the Emperor, himself, eats cormorant-caught sweetfish several times a year, I'd still feel guilty and be tempted to chuck it back to the bird who caught it. (But that's just moi).

Taste Of The Season: 鮎, Ayu, Sweetfish

Fresh-caught sweetfish grilled over hot coals for the Amano River Firefly Festival (Maibara, Shiga)
In Japan, there are many flavors that easily conjure up memories of summer: fuzzy peaches dripping with honey-sweet nectar, tomatoes oozing with tart, seedy goodness and sherbet-like watermelon just to name a few.

But for me, it's this small, unpretentious little river fish, silvery with yellow fins and full of white flaky goodness. Ayu (Plecoglossus altivelis) is just oily enough to go down easy, yet dry enough to make you feel like you're enjoying something healthy. When properly cooked, you can eat the entire fish, from below the gills to the tail. The bones in the lower body, when fried, become as brittle and crispy as potato chips (and are just as delicious, if not moreso).

Scrumptious sweetfish sits atop a bed of fresh-cut soba noodles (Awa, Tokushima)
I've had ayu simmered, boiled, stewed, even served sashimi-style. Each method of preparation helped me enjoy this incredibly versatile relative of the smelt family in a new, fresh light.

But hands-down, my favorite way of savoring this aquatic delicacy is shio-yaki style: skewered, rubbed with salt and grilled over hot coals to brown, bubbly perfection. This is perhaps the most popular way to eat ayu in Japan (and rightfully so), often featured in yatai food stalls at festivals, truck stops and riverside campgrounds all around the country.

A sweetfish vendor on Castle Road in Hikone, Shiga.
Come to me, my sweetfish!

Pure, unadulterated, crispy YUM!
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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