Journalist and translator Winifred Bird, 41, lived nearly a decade in the countryside of Mie and Nagano prefectures, growing organic rice and vegetables while learning the traditions of Japanese foraging. Her new book, “Eating Wild Japan,” out March 30 from Stone Bridge Press, is a botanist’s guide to edible plants, a cookbook, a collection of insightful essays about Japanese food culture, and a memoir about life in rural Japan.

Eating Wild Japan, by Winifred Bird
Illustrated by Paul Poynter
264 pages

Any reader with an interest in finding edible plants in the wild can use Bird’s work as a practical guide to foraging across Japan, with an assortment of recipes and a comprehensive glossary providing harvest details and specific geographical availability for various plants. Informative line-drawings by Paul Poynter, an illustrator based in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, complement Bird’s text, giving the book a field guild quality. But even if you’re not quite ready to trade in your shopping cart for hiking boots, Bird prods the reader to consider the philosophical underpinnings of foraging as a comprehensive way of relating to the world.

Speaking from her home in northwestern Illinois, where she has lived since leaving Japan in 2014, Bird says, “after returning to the United States, I really wanted to share this side of Japan that I fell in love with. Living so close to the land was such an eye-opening experience. It’s so different how the countryside is organized there; how people use land and relate to it in rural areas; and the small Japanese communities that have been farming and living in a certain place for hundreds, even thousands, of years. The level of history and culture that has developed is so fascinating.”

The book is organized by specific foraged foods, from warabi (bracken) to takenoko (bamboo shoots), and Bird weaves the historical and cultural backgrounds of each item throughout the text. In the chapter on horse chestnuts, Bird writes that they are “poison nuggets” of nature unless processed properly. Yet, they are also hailed as a historically critical dietary staple that staved off starvation for the Japanese people over centuries.

“It seems a sad tendency of the American mindset to blithely overlook the role of certain ordinary objects in shaping our collective path,” Bird writes. “We fill our history books with benevolent kings and heroic generals, forgetting that the plough and the mosquito explain much more. So it was for me and horse chestnuts.”

Essays throughout the book spring from a single source of culinary inspiration, yet expand into thoughtful musings that connect politics with history, food with culture. To Bird, it’s natural to make these connections.

“Everything is seamlessly connected to food,” she says. “As an environmental writer when I was in Japan, I often wanted to do better in showing the connections, to be free to write about food, culture, history, economy and the environment as one topic, because I don’t think you can separate them. You can’t understand each of them fully without talking about all of them as one.

“What we eat is incredibly important in determining how we use the land and how we connect to the land and nature. Whether we focus on wild or cultivated foods determines our attitudes toward nature, and our attitudes determine how we use the land. The physical country that is Japan is equally as important as the political concept of Japan. I’ve long felt that it’s a neglected perspective.”

Even as a city girl growing up in San Francisco, Bird had always been attracted to food and farming. After graduating from Amherst College with a degree in political science, she traveled the Pacific Northwest and worked on farms for hands-on experience. Along the way, she met her first husband, a Japanese man studying log house construction and beam craftsmanship on a farm in Vancouver. In 2004, the couple moved to Japan, where Bird’s husband’s family had farmed for generations in Mie Prefecture.

Illustrator Paul Poynter | COURTESY OF PAUL POYNTER
Illustrator Paul Poynter | COURTESY OF PAUL POYNTER

As a memoir, her book shows the more intimate side of Japan’s food culture: neighbors generously share their time, knowledge of plants and where to find them, as well as their surplus seasonal vegetables; restaurants celebrate their love of bamboo in everything from the menu to the decor. There’s even a chapter on ocean foraging, or the search for “wildcrafted seaweed” in Shikoku, a once prevalent tradition that is slowly disappearing. Perhaps most importantly, Bird shows a crucial part of Japanese food culture is its connection to the seasons.

“The tradition of eating wild foods is still very strong in Japan, in cities as well as rural areas,” Bird says. “One of the strongest ways that people can feel connected to the seasons is through various seasonally limited foods. … (Foraging) is a way of life where people are connected strongly to a certain place, season after season, investing in and protecting that area, a reciprocal relationship that has developed over a long period of time.”

In all, “Eating Wild Japan” satiates the mind, providing a detailed exploration of Japan’s intricate, ever important food culture.

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