“The wonderful thing about foraging in Japan is that it’s still a living part of the culture,” says Winifred Bird, our guest on this week’s episode of Deep Dive.
Winifred Bird is the author of “Eating Wild Japan,” a book that goes deep into the foraging culture of Japan and contains essays on foraging, a selection of recipes and a guide to forageable plants. In her essays, Winifred touches on rural culture and decline, the state of Japan’s forests and coastal areas, and the food of the indigenous Ainu people. Winifred joins Deep Dive to discuss Japan’s foraging culture, and the role wild foods play in modern society.
- Winifred’s book, Eating Wild Japan (Winifred Bird, Stone Bridge Press)
- Kris Kosaka’s review, Foraging in Japan: What to eat and where to find it
- J.J. O Donoghue’s article, “Is farming in Japan on its last legs?”
- Japan’s farming population falls below 2 million for first time: survey
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Oscar Boyd 00:09
Hello, and welcome to Deep Dive. From The Japan Times, I’m Oscar Boyd.
Oscar Boyd 00:13
Some of you will know this, some of you may not, but each week The Japan Times publishes reviews of books about Japan. And every now and then one of those reviews catches my eye and becomes the basis for an episode of Deep Dive. In spring last year, I read a review by one of our contributors, Kris Kosaka, that was about foraging in Japan, and a book written by my guest on today’s episode, Winifred Bird. That book is called “Eating Wild Japan” and after reading it, I was curious to talk to Winifred about Japan’s foraged foods. Her book is beautifully written, each page filled with stories about aspects of Japan that don’t often make it into the headlines: the historical role of chestnuts to stave off famine, a restaurant that serves wild bamboo shoots and little else, and the rapid disappearance of uncultivated seaweed across Japan’s coastline. So joining me on today’s episode is Winifred Bird, here to talk about foraging in Japan, and the role wild foods play in modern society.
Oscar Boyd 01:17
Winifred Bird, welcome to Deep Dive, thank you so much for joining me today.
Winifred Bird 01:20
Thank you so much for having me.
Oscar Boyd 01:22
Last year, you put out a really fantastic book. It’s called “Eating Wild Japan,” and it contains essays on foraging, a selection of recipes and a guide to forageable plants here. But it also has so much more. It touches on rural culture and also rural decline, the state of Japan’s forests and coastal areas, and even the food of the indigenous Ainu people. But before we get too far into all of that, how did your foraging adventure begin?
Winifred Bird 01:51
So the wonderful thing about foraging in Japan is that it’s really still a living part of the culture. Wherever you go, it’s something that you’ll come across. Especially if you have an interest in it and you’re in tune to that kind of thing, which I was. I love food and cooking and farming, all that kind of stuff. So I was living in Mie Prefecture for a while, in southern Mie Prefecture in the countryside, and I started to get exposed to traditional food culture. Not so much specifically sansai, as wild mountain vegetables are called in Japanese, but bamboo shoots and things like that, and going out into the mountains with some of my neighbors. And then I moved up to Nagano Prefecture, which has a really snowy climate so foraged foods have traditionally been a really important part of the culture. And that really is still true today. I was living on the outskirts of Matsumoto, kind of in the foothills of the mountains, in a pretty traditional apple growing neighborhood. And, you know, my neighbors, we would have our cherry blossom viewing picnic, and everyone would bring their favorite sansai dish. So I started to really be exposed a lot more to some of those foods, and just got deeper and deeper into it from there.
Oscar Boyd 03:12
Well Nagano has got to be one of my favorite prefectures in Japan. I love it for its mountains. So living on the edge of Matsumoto and trying all these foraged food sounds like quite an idyllic lifestyle, I think. What count as foraged foods, and what are some foraged foods that are commonly eaten?
Winifred Bird 03:30
Sansai, as I mentioned, is the Japanese word that’s most commonly used for what we would call foraged foods, but it’s a more narrow word because it means ‘mountain vegetables,’ whereas in the U.S., where I’m from, when we talk about foraged foods, it could include seaweed — which I actually do include in the book, because from my perspective, it is a foraged food. It’s something that we don’t grow in our garden, we go out into nature, you know, even if it’s urban nature, or even if it’s countryside, like the weedy strip of land next to a road or something like that — you don’t have to be going out into the wilderness to find foraged foods. But anyway, it’s something that we’re not cultivating and growing. Some of the really common ones that people may have come across: bamboo shoots, but not the fat ones, not the mosodake, which are the most common, those are usually cultivated. But the chishima-zasa, or sometimes it’s called nemagaridake, it’s a very slender bamboo shoot that grows wild in northern Japan, so people may have come across that. Fuki is a really common one — it’s a kind of bitter flower bud that comes up very early in the spring and people kind of pulverize it into a paste with miso and sometimes a little sugar or sweetener.
Oscar Boyd 04:48
I’ve had tempurad fuki before and it’s delicious, but it’s got this incredibly, incredibly bitter taste to it.
Winifred Bird 04:55
Yeah, it has a really intense flavor, as do many wild foods, which is one of the wonderful things about them is they have a whole different range of flavors than you’re going to encounter with cultivated foods. Gingko nuts are another one people may have come across. Gingko trees, they’re often planted at temples or as street trees. So sometimes you’ll see, you know, maybe elderly people in fall under these trees collecting the nuts. Various types of fiddleheads, so fern shoots. Ostrich fern is kogomi and Japanese. Warabi is very common, it’s bracken. Zenmai is dried fiddlehead that is eaten in nimono (simmered dishes) quite often.
Oscar Boyd 05:45
Yeah, for a brief period each year I see zenmai appearing in my local supermarket. I’ve tried them a few times in various dishes. And yeah, I think they’re really tasty as well.
Winifred Bird 05:55
That’s interesting. I don’t think I’ve come across many people who are passionate fans of zenmai, so that’s wonderful to hear that you love them so much. Tempura is another place where you’ll often see [foraged foods] in springtime, a couple items of wild vegetables like taranome, is very common. It’s considered a delicacy in spring so in a platter of tempura, you’ll have one or two of those mixed in with other things.
Oscar Boyd 06:31
So foraged foods are pretty common across Japan, yet they do remain completely separated from farmed food. You have this line in the book, which I thought was really well put, which is, ‘before agriculture, wild food was simply food.’ There didn’t used to be this distinction between wild foods and cultivated foods. So could you tell me a bit about how foraged foods relate to the development of agriculture in Japan?
Winifred Bird 06:57
Right, so if you go back to the period before agriculture, or the roots of agriculture, when it was just starting to develop in the Jomon period, which started about 10,000 BCE, That was a period when people mostly hunted and gathered. So today, what we would call foraging, in that context we call gathering, right? It was a wonderful time to do that. The climate was very temperate, there were a lot of deciduous forests, which have a lot of nuts and berries. And in springtime before the leaves on the trees come out, there’s a great diversity of plants that grow on the forest floor, many of which are edible. There were all kinds of animals that lived in those forests that people would hunt. And of course, in Japan, there’s always been abundant coastal foods: fish and shellfish and seaweeds and all of that. So people had an incredibly diverse diet of all of these wild plants and animals. Then the climate changed and rice agriculture came from the mainland — from Korea and China — to Japan. Those technologies arrived and began to spread throughout the Japanese archipelago. As that happened, a couple of different things happen. Where it was possible to grow rice pretty easily, like in the lowlands and in the valleys, the wild foods took on a more minor role in the diet. They would be like an accent or a treat or a side dish, kind of like they are now. But there’s many parts of Japan where it wasn’t possible to grow rice. So while rice was incredibly important — culturally and spiritually and economically — there were just vast areas of mountains where it couldn’t be grown, or it couldn’t be grown very well, especially before hardier varieties of rice were developed. So these were kind of marginal areas, where this transition to primarily cultivated foods didn’t really happen and wild foods remained incredibly important in people’s diets, especially during famines and food shortages.
Oscar Boyd 09:17
So foraged foods at this point were really important in staving off famine for a lot of people?
Winifred Bird 09:21
Yeah, they were a central part of survival and of just of life. It would be a mistake to think of them purely as famine foods. They did have that role, but they were also a steady part of people’s diets. They were celebratory foods as well and they were also survival foods as well. So they have this dual role in Japanese culture that I do talk about a bit in the book. There’s a chapter called ‘Feast and Famine,’ which gets at the point that wild foods have had this two-sided role in Japanese culture.
Oscar Boyd 09:52
And you said that one of the lovely things about Japan is how active foraging culture remains here. So what is the place of foraging in Japan’s Modern food culture? Where does foraging fit in, in 2022?
Winifred Bird 10:03
Well, obviously now that the food system has been globalized and there’s a national highway system, forged foods are not necessary to survival. These days, they are more a way that people connect with the seasons and connect with place. Connect with culture, traditional culture and food culture, community, you know, elders. It’s a way to learn how people have lived in those places, traditionally. Of course in the cities, I think it’s often kind of a novelty or a token way to connect with the seasons, without really going too deep. You can go to a restaurant and get a plate with something that you know is a symbol of spring, and kind of feel like you are connecting with that moment in the progression of seasons.
Oscar Boyd 10:58
So it really is the rural areas of the country then, out towards the mountains, where foraging practices are kept most alive?
Winifred Bird 11:04
Yeah, I mean partly just because these foods are so abundant in those places. But you can do it in the city. You can find wild, edible plants in Tokyo. I guess I would say there’s a lot of weedier, wild edible plants, dandelions and plantains and things like that, that pretty much will grow anywhere, even in the middle of the city. So you can do it to a certain extent there, but there’s a lot of plants that have a certain cultural importance that you will need to stray a little bit further into the mountains or into the rural areas to find.
Oscar Boyd 11:41
After this recording, I’m going to have to go out and start seeing the city in a totally different way, and start picking a few different wild plants all over the place.
Winifred Bird 11:49
Yeah, I hope you do. It’s a great way wherever you are. Before I moved here to Wisconsin, I lived in Illinois, and one of my favorite places to go foraging was on an overgrown railroad line. And it was just a wonderland of wild burdock and black raspberries and things like that. So kind of neglected places, forgotten places — at the margins of development — are often good for foraging.
Oscar Boyd 12:29
We’ll be back after this short break.
Oscar Boyd 12:38
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Oscar Boyd 13:41
One of the things I really enjoyed about your book is that you really did travel the length and breadth of Japan to find and talk to people who are active foragers. And not just foragers of the land but also of the sea as well. Where was the most interesting place for you to visit? And where most greatly helped shape your understanding of foraging culture here?
Winifred Bird 14:00
Well, of course, that’s an impossible question to answer. I loved every place I went. Doing the reporting for this book was a dream come true for me. Partly because people who are passionate foragers are often very interesting people, a little bit, you know, maybe outside the mainstream — even though foraging is kind of part of mainstream culture. People who are really into it are going to be real plant people and really obsessed with cooking and all of these things, which I am also obsessed with. So it was a great way to connect with all of those kinds of oddball characters. But I guess if I had to choose one to talk about, maybe Nishiwaga-machi, in Iwate Prefecture, which is a town way up in the mountains, a very snowy part of Iwate Prefecture with a long winter. So it has a strong sansai culture as a result. And I went there to write about warabi, which is bracken. Bracken grow pretty much anywhere, all around the world, they’re a very strong plant that has existed for 1000s and 1000s of years.
Oscar Boyd 15:14
I think you write in the book that it used to be eaten by the dinosaurs. But once the dinosaurs went extinct, bracken had free roam to colonize all the different corners of the Earth.
Winifred Bird 15:24
Exactly, they proved stronger than the dinosaurs. And here they are still hanging on. The interesting thing about bracken, especially in this town in Nishiwaga-machi, is that they have this dual role. Listeners will probably have come across warabi by eating the shoots in spring, the fiddleheads, maybe on a bowl of soba or something. But there’s also the rhizomes, they’re kind of like the roots, or the underground stems, and they’re very starchy. And people traditionally dug up the rhizomes in fall and pounded them to extract starch, and then kind of purified the starch. And it was used both as a famine food, and a food that poor farmers would eat when their rice and other harvests didn’t go well, which happened all the time in this part of Japan. So it was kind of a regular thing that they would be eating this gluey porridge made out of bracken. But the same starch, or a more purified version of it, was also used to make warabi mochi, which is an extreme delicacy that has existed and been beloved of aristocrats and urban people for hundreds and hundreds of years, going back to gosh, I think it was what the 1500s or something like that, that there’s references to this food. The variations on this same food are both the height of elegance and luxury, and the depths of poverty and starvation. It represents both this special thing that you have to go out and get, you know, in season and in the wilderness, but it also represents the inability to survive through agriculture, and being forced to go back to nature to get your food because you can’t get it through agriculture. So that kind of dichotomy was just really fascinating to me, and it exists very strongly in this one village of Iwate.
Oscar Boyd 17:27
Yeah, I think one of the things you write so nicely about is the store of knowledge that exists in these mountain communities, that comes with being an expert in foraging. And I think one of the interesting ways that this expertise is expressed is through the calendar that you write about that divides the year not just into four seasons, but into 72 microseasons, each of which lasts just five days. So how does this calendar influence the practice of foraging?
Winifred Bird 17:55
Yeah, this calendar that divides the year into 72 seasons, it’s really still a rough approximation of what actually happens in nature, which is this kind of constant, incremental change that we artificially, you know, divide into spring, summer, fall and winter. Whereas if you’re out there, especially if you’re foraging, you become aware that the changes are much more subtle, and you have to be extremely aware and in tune and present in order to pounce on whatever it is that you want to eat.
Oscar Boyd 18:27
Right, because a lot of these foods only exist for three or four days in peak condition before they lose the flavor that people enjoy so much. I think in the book, one example you give of this is wild bamboo shoots, which are sweet and delicious when they’re just about to poke their heads up above the Earth’s surface. But as soon as they hit the light and start to photosynthesize, their flesh becomes incredibly bitter.
Winifred Bird 18:51
Yeah, exactly. And you’re not controlling any of this, in the ways that we do through agriculture to lengthen the season and all the ways we figured out to do that. So you’re, you’re at the mercy in a sense of Mother Nature. And another aspect of that is that the seasons are playing out differently in each locality. So you can be in Kyoto City, and experiencing a different flow of seasons than someone in northern Kyoto Prefecture. And so foraging ties you to your specific local place and what is happening seasonally there as well. Foraging is a really great way to start to train yourself to become much more aware in that way of those more nuanced seasonal changes that have been important to Japanese culture for so long in poetry and music and literature as well.
Oscar Boyd 19:58
You said earlier that some of your favorite places to forage are abandoned places like an old railway line that’s been left to overgrow with plants. And across Japan right now we are seeing a huge amount of rural decline, places that used to have farming communities starting to dwindle and die out. As these areas decline, do you think that this will lead to more opportunities for foraging as more land is returned to a natural state? Or do you think that as fewer people live in these areas, we’re actually going to lose those stores of knowledge we were talking about, that help keep foraging culture alive, and that that actually poses a threat to foraging going forward?
Winifred Bird 20:34
Well first of all, I think it’s definitely a mistake to think of edible wild plants in our western context of an “untouched wilderness.” Oftentimes the places that are most abundant in these plants are places that have had humans interacting with them — not completely farming them or transforming them — but rather, kind of subtly nudging them into a shape that is most beneficial to us, but still somewhat natural. This happens in Japan, it’s what we would call satoyama — the forests, wooded areas surrounding villages that were coppiced and used for many different purposes. And that environment would be full of edible wild plants in the example of satoyama, because it would tend towards a more open and sunnier type of forest, which favors more plants growing on the forest floor. In the United States, many indigenous people burned meadows to keep them open so that they could gather wild grass seeds and other plants that they wanted to be there. People leaving the land, going to cities, is not at all going to lead to more opportunities for foraging, I would say. Of course, there are certain plants you can only get in the deeper mountains and less managed woodlands. But I think that what’s really important for foraging is having a diversity of environments, a diversity of habitats, to have the greatest possible diversity of plants that you can eat throughout the seasons. Also, as you pointed out, the loss of people who are living on the land and who have been doing so for many, many generations, developing that knowledge of that particular landscape, and how to use those plants and how to preserve them, how to interact with them in a way that maintains the resources over the long, long span of time, is just such a tremendous loss, that it isn’t really balanced out by kind of like a bonanza of maybe zenmai harvesting in the new wilderness.
Oscar Boyd 22:56
Is much being done to record and keep a record of this knowledge about foraging?
Winifred Bird 23:01
Sure, I mean, there’s all kinds of books and you know, videos and classes and all these kinds of things. Yes, people care about this and know that it’s happening and want to carry the knowledge on. But I still think that the best way to do it is by living in these places. You know, by being rooted in them from generation to generation. I think I say somewhere in the book that knowledge of this kind can be recorded as kind of general knowledge. But what you need is a very, very place specific knowledge as to what are the plant communities living around you. And how do they develop over the seasons in your particular place, like we talked about, your particular seasons. So you can’t capture all the knowledge in the form of a generalized book or video that you put out to be available to everyone in Japan or the whole world? You know, there’s a lot that’s lost.
Oscar Boyd 24:02
Because everything is so hyper localized and takes place on such short timescales.
Winifred Bird 24:07
Yeah, yeah, I guess that’s, that’s a way to put it. Yeah.
Oscar Boyd 24:11
If you had to recommend seeking out a particular type of wild food in Japan, what would it be?
Winifred Bird 24:15
Like for people to forage themselves or just to try eating?
Oscar Boyd 24:19
I think just to try eating as a first step?
Winifred Bird 24:22
I mean, I know this is a horrible answer but again, I would just say, try to find out what is locally, culturally important in the place that you’re at. So you know, there’s going to be a food that people have been eating in that place and cooking forever, and has some important ties to local culture and history. So I would say try and find out what that is and eat it, rather than anything generic.
Oscar Boyd 24:48
I don’t think that’s a horrible answer at all, I think that’s a very good answer. Your book does provide some hints and tips for how to get into foraging. But where would you recommend that someone begins their foraging journey?
Winifred Bird 25:00
Yeah, again, I would try to find a person in your neighborhood who is into it — and there is going to be someone, everywhere in Japan, you know. It’s probably some old lady or old guy who you might have to, you know, it might take a little while for them to warm up, but try to create a relationship with that person and get them to teach you about what grows right around you. I would say that’s the best place to start. There’s tons of books and other resources but to get that specific, hyper local kind of knowledge, it’s always going to be a human being who is going to be the one to teach it to you.
Oscar Boyd 25:38
Winifred Bird, thank you so much for joining me today. It was a real pleasure talking to you.
Winifred Bird 25:42
Yeah thank you. It was a pleasure.
Oscar Boyd 25:51
That was Winifred Bird and I put a link to her book “Eating Wild Japan” in the show notes. It’s out now through Stone Bridge Press, and it’s beautifully illustrated by Paul Poynter.
Also in The Japan Times this week: On Thursday, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is expected to give a news conference where he will announce an easing of Japan’s border restrictions, which remain the strictest out of all the G7 nations. According to a source familiar with the changes, the government is looking to eliminate the current seven-day quarantine period for nonresident entrants if they can show a negative COVID-19 test and have received their third dose of vaccination against the virus. The government also plans to lift the daily limit on overseas entrants from 3,500 to 5,000 per day. Across Japan, new cases of COVID-19 appear to be on the decline, after reaching a peak of 101,084 cases on February 8th.
That’s it for this week’s episode. You can find a transcript of this episode on The Japan Times website. If you enjoy Deep Dive, please do write us a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Or share this episode with someone you think might enjoy it. We’ll be back next week. But until then, as always, podtsukaresama.