|“I wonder if you know what this is?” It was a large branch covered with purple-white cocoons; the sort of cocoons from which Godzillas hatch. “This is akebi,” the woman said. “Are those cocoons?”
“No, they’re only berries.”
“They look as if they’ve got huge grubs inside,” I observed. “What do you do with them?”
“Oh, they’re just for decoration. When I was a child we used to eat them. But not any more, no, not any more. We used to call this plant the Princess of the Mountains. Fancy eating something with a name like that.”
The plump woman laughed, then laid the branch down, and her lacquered head bobbed, as hard as a mummy case.
Japan is home to some vigorous climbing plants, but one of the most unusual is the Akebi vine (Akebia quinata), which bears strange fruit in autumn. This rambling, semi-evergreen plant has pretty, palmate leaves with five, long-stalked leaflets. It produces clusters of small flowers in spring. The purple-brown color and spicy, vanillalike scent of these flowers accounts for its English name of Chocolate vine. Unusually, chocolate vines produce male and female flowers on the same raceme. The young fruits are green, turning patchy, violet-gray as they ripen. Eventually the shell splits, revealing a translucent white pulp which contains small, dark seeds. Like many foreigners living in Japan, I was curious to taste this traditional fruit, and bought a nice plump specimen from my local greengrocer. But I have to admit it was disappointing — just a touch of sweetness and a mouthful of seeds! Of course, in the days before sugar was widely available, anything sweet was a great treat, so country children would enjoy eating akebi fruit. As for its old name, Princess of the Mountains, I suspect this refers to its flowers rather than its fruit!