Tsukuba’s Distinctive Summer Smell
It might hit you while you are out for a stroll or riding in a car with the window rolled down. It might come upon you during the day or even more so at night. It is a thick, damp and sultry smell — for the Japanese it often suggests the erotic– it is the musky perfume of chestnut blossoms (kuri no hana), and in Tsukuba in June there is no avoiding it. This is because Ibaraki Prefecture is the number one chestnut producer in Japan.It seems as if almost every undeveloped lot, if it is not planted with turf grass, has a chestnut grove on it! One reason for this preponderance is that farmers who want to keep their land cultivated for tax purposes (agricultural land is taxed at a different rate) find that kuri batake (chestnut groves) require less maintenance than other potential crops.
The chestnut flowers themselves are just as strange as their smell. They look like feathery, white, pipe-cleaners, which will eventually turn brown and wither before the chestnuts ripen in autumn. Ibaraki’s kuri (栗) are large and extremely tasty. They are eaten in many ways, but most commonly as chestnut rice (kuri gohan).
By the way, chestnut cultivation does not have a very long history in this area as it was always too cold to grow them. My neighbor, who now has a couple of hundred trees, told me that in his grandparent’s day, they would go to mountainous areas in winter to gather the fallen leaves of mountain kuri (yamaguri)which were to be used as fertilizer or for heating. While doing this they would sometimes rake up a chestnut which had been buried away by crows.However, any attempt to introduce the chestnut vairieties cultivated in warmer parts of Japan ended in failure due to frost.
With plenty of perseverence farmers were able to breed the hardy mountain chestnut, which was resistant to this prefecture’s colder climate, eventually making it possible for Ibaraki to become the number one producer of kuri.
Now you will know what it is when it hits your nose. It’s the kuri no hana. And in the future, whenever you catch a whiff of its distinctive scent, one thought will pop into your head — SUMMER IN TSUKUBA.