We set out down the narrow country road, the sun bright and warm, the air crisp and clear. The many layers of wool and down that buffer the cold plenty when sprinting between house and studio suddenly felt inadequate. “It’s still cold,” I said. “That’s spring,” she said. “It tricks you.”
On February 4th we entered the first days of spring according to Japan’s ancient lunisolar calendar. But in these early weeks we must still rely on the anticipation of spring to warm us while outside cold winds continue to blow. Here in Kyushu, where spring admittedly does come earlier than in most of Japan, there are some concrete signs emerging. The daffodils and plum trees are blooming and on our walk we found several fat fukinoto. Even the occasional balmy afternoon calls me to slide open the big glass door to let in some fresh air. But then just as quickly I shut it again and light a fire in the hearth to dissipate the chill of night.
A couple of weeks ago on a trip to Tokyo I had diner at one of my all time favorite places, Tempura Iwai. Iwai-san is an earnest and dedicated chef who commands an arresting cypress counter in his own small Ginza restaurant. The main course of tempura is always punctuated with well considered fresh dishes of seasonal ingredients. My annual visit is generally in June so to experience a meal in a different season was deliciously educational. Early on he served a lovely small dish of nanohana and nama-nori that took my breath away. Nama-nori is near and dear to me, one of Sanpuku Nori’s specialty products, imagined by Kawahara-san who a few years ago graciously guided me through a many months long education on nori of the Ariake Sea in Saga for an article in the Art of Eating. I have since enjoyed nama-nori many times at home but always in small portions, served straight with a light dressing. To see it in this new arrangement, entwined with nanohana, was brilliant.
Though we can find nanohana at the markets through much of late winter, in this early spring season we start to find packages of it dotted with yellow blossoms. Nanohana grows wild all around here, in and between dormant rice fields and along the roads’ edges. They’ve already bloomed in many a protected sunny spot bringing the first burst of color to an awakening landscape.
Nama-nori ties us to the taste of winter, when the cold waters and bright sun raise the best nori while nanohana is a harbinger of spring. When brought together, this inspired dish eloquently expresses the current in-between season when we feel in equal measure winter passing but not-yet-gone and spring on its way but not-yet-arrived.