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An Auspicious Day

Filed in: spring

The first day of spring and foraging

Foraging season in Japan begins with fukinoto

With the warmth of the wood stove at my back, I gaze out the window. Below me the broad roofs of Hanako’s studio to the right and my mother-in-law Kuniko’s house to the left stretch like the wings of the cheeky ravens that often perch upon their peaks. The layered ridge lines of mountains ripple in the distance. A brilliant sun shines crisp and bright. Its low rays pierce through a gap in the trees and ignite a burning desire for spring. I’m ready to molt, to wear looser fabrics, to feel the sun and air on my skin. Those days are still distant but I sense spring is stirring at unseen depths. And today just might be the day I long for each year as winter wanes. The day that foraging begins in Japan.

We take off down the narrow lane that snakes from our hilltop to the valley of Mirukashi proper below. It winds through thickets of bamboo, past ume orchards, and around mikan groves. We park beside an imposing storehouse clad in faded blue corrugated panels that match the color of the sky. We leap from the car anxious to find this jewel we seek and slide down the path, wary of hidden hollows that could quickly twist an ankle. Between the steep embankment above and a stagnant stream below, bracken ferns that grow tall and broad in summer have collapsed into a cascading tangled canopy. Drawing back a clump of desiccated fronds, I find an emerald trumpet of delicate leaves cradling a cluster of quilted button like buds. This is fukinoto, the first tangible indicator that spring is indeed is on the rise.

Fukinoto are the early flower of the common butterbur weed. They are the first of a string of sansai, wild vegetables that we forage throughout spring in the hills of Japan. They are the green of new beginnings, the only sign of life in a still barren, brown landscape. Though we officially entered the new year just over a month ago, for me, the start of a new revolution around the sun begins here with this first sign of renewal and awakening. I raise the dirty, wet stem to my nose and drink in the earthy, pungent aroma of spring breaking from winter.

Fukinoto are compelling. Their bright green flesh flashes from under cover like sparking gems. There is a primal euphoria when foraging. To gather something edible in the wild must tap into an ancient notion of survival. It is the promise of other day, of continued life. We find only a couple of handfuls. Many are still so small and we take cautious steps so as not to trample them. We’ll let them grow. It’s just as well for even as the sun shines brightly, our layers of wool and down barely assuage the pleading grasp of late winter and my fingertips already ache from prying buds out of the cold, damp soil. But it matters just a little less right now, for we have found the first fukinoto and thus we have found the covenant of spring, a season that promises to usher in warmth and ease and abundance.

fukonoto tempura

To cook and to eat in Japan asks one to be highly attuned to the natural world. Japanese cuisine is codified seasonally in a canon that divides the four major seasons into dozens of micro seasons. Every five or six days new ingredients, grains, fish, and vegetables, come into season and we celebrate their return. This agrarian almanac, tied to Japan’s ancient lunisolar calendar, dictates menus all the way from the finest high-end restaurants to our own table here in Mirukashi. It is written in this almanac, and thus in the Japanese identity, that fukinoto is the first flavor of spring. But we hardly need such a manual living in the hills of rural Japan. Here appetites are whet by the length of the day, the height of the sun in the sky, the temperature of the air and a myriad of other imperceptible shifts from day to day throughout the seasons. The palate must become attuned to the subtle shifts in environment.

Today is February fourth, and in reviewing old photographs I’ve discovered that year after year, without thought of the date on the calendar, I’ve felt this familiar stirring, this sense of knowing and set off on the first annual hunt for fukinoto on this very same day. February fourth is an auspicious day on the agricultural calendar, a day that opens the season known as risshun. It is the season of fukinoto, a season that celebrates if not the arrival, at least the coming of spring.

In a farming town like Karatsu, agrarian rhythms still reign. We have small supermarkets with the predictable dispiriting array of long suffering produce trucked in from far reaches of the earth. But I prefer the village markets where it’s quickly revealed what’s in season. In these markets what the farmer, diver, fisherman, or forager deliver are the freshest and only ingredients available. Over the years I’ve learned our local seasonal canon. The shopkeeper, with his direct line to the farmers, keeps me apprised of their triumphs and trials and I leave his store with both a bag of produce and the story of my community. Preparing meals with what we can procure from the hills or the markets encourages us to take stock of the current state of local affairs, of where we stand in this fluid and ever fleeting moment called now.

In February the world outside my window feels bleak and I’ve grown tired of pale winter vegetables. The vibrant green of the fukinoto bud is a welcome shade at the table. In these early days of foraging they are tight and petit and rare so I deep fry them slightly battered in their entirety. We eat them piping hot with a drizzle of lemon and a sprinkle of sea salt. Fukinoto plow through unyielding soil and the taste of that trial is lodged in their cells. Tempura locks in fukinoto’s subtle umami and within a crisp bite. Under of deep-fried batter they are velvety smooth with a bitterness that defines spring. On other nights I’ll mix the chopped blanched buds with sweet white miso and walnuts for a sublime umami-rich, bitter-sweet appetizer. Nothing pairs more beautifully with a dry sake. A fire still blazes in the wood stove, and flurries still occasionally fall. But with a dab of this fukimiso on the tongue and a sip of sake to follow, time slows just a little as we savor the promise of spring.

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  1. Alana VanDerwerker says:

    On 4 February in Maine, the deep cold lessened its grip today and I walked in light clothing but tall rubber boots to breathe in relaxation. It will be cold again soon. The wood fire remains my friend, but the lichens smell rich, fecund.. I have no place to forage for wild budding growth yet, but your description calls forth the blessings of unfurling ferns to come in a couple moths. Thank you for placing my spirit in calm rumination of Japanese rural ways.

    • Prairie Stuart-Wolff says:

      Alana, yes in colder climes you must wait a bit longer. But when the time comes the thrill is the same, isn’t it?

  2. Yuriko Hashimoto says:

    Fukinotou is the emerald green gem in the garden, but the season is very short.
    Even if I was in Japan at that season, I often forget about
    that buds.
    However if the buds grows a little and the stem height is about 6 inches, it will be deliciously eaten as tempura.
    Today is a little bit warm, but all those days were sub zero days in NY,
    But my heart is warmed by this article. Thank you!

    • Prairie Stuart-Wolff says:

      Hashimoto san, I could never forget about Fukinoto! I love sansai and they are the first, most exquisite little buds. Spring is coming even if it’s doesn’t seem so…

  3. Roxane Beth Johnson says:

    Lovely, lovely writing throughout. I am enjoying reading through your posts even though Japanese food is not quite my thing (yet). However, I studied Japanese literature as an undergrad for 2 years. Your writing reminds me of the quiet words of Kawabata & even Sei Shonagon (though, she was very whimsical, no?). Looking forward to more.

    • Prairie Stuart-Wolff says:

      Roxane, Like Kawabata – I’m honored! Thank you so much for your kind, kind words. I love that you studied Japanese literature. I often feel I must read more of the classics and you have inspired me to do so, thank you.

  4. […] The short fukinoto season is drawing to a close and I visit the bank behind the blue storage house to see what remains. Unlike the shy buds we exalted two weeks ago, they now gape open with yellow tinged petals spread wide. The clusters of buds once demurely hidden protrude like a fat robin’s chest. Standing here with Kuniko a few years back, I turned to leave thinking they had all gone by and were no good. No, no, they’re still good, she insisted, wading into a thicket of tangled branches. We’ll use the best ones for tempura and then we’ll simmer the rest with soy and make tsukudani. Tsukudani, an intensely flavored condiment to eat with rice, is an excellent way to preserve an abundance of something and an equally good solution for ingredients that are beyond their prime. While I lazily searched for any tight buds that I might deep-fry one last time, Kuniko picked every last fukinoto she could find, emerging with her bag full and heavy. […]

  5. […] It’s the umpteenth year I’ve written about fukinoto and it’s the one ingredient I may never stop talking about. No matter if everyone else loses interest, I won’t. I just adore these buds that breach from dormant earth tugging spring along behind. […]

  6. […] stretch from February to May, following the micro seasons of sansai, wild mountain edibles, from fukinoto (butterbur buds) to tsukushi (horsetail) to warabi (bracken ferns) to takenoko (bamboo shoots) and […]

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If Kuniko, my mother-in-law, were to write the story of her life it might read more as a menu than a memoir. 

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