By Avi Landau
In Tsukuba, early on September mornings, you are very likely to see farmers who are walking, on bicycle, or emerging from pickup trucks, carrying metal TONGS. And though the weather is JUST RIGHT for it, these early risers ARE NOT, as you might assume, heading out to get a BARBECUE going. Wearing boots and gloves, and almost always with a plastic basket at their side, they will proceed to use these forceps ( which are usually for moving burning charcoal), for gathering in one of Ibaraki Prefectures most important and delicious crops- chestnuts ( KURI).
The reason the farmers need all this protective gear for harvesting chestnuts, is that these fruit come encased in what look uncannily like spiny SEA URCHINS (uni),with hundreds (?) of sharp needles jutting forbiddingly out of them. Tsukuba residents, in particular those living in the older neighborhoods, have to learn to keep an eye out for these dangerous burrs which lay scattered on the ground ALL YEAR ROUND, especially if they have small children or dogs ( if a toddler stumbles and falls face first onto a chestnut case you have a serious injury, and when your dog starts limping during a walk, the first possible cause that comes to mind in my neighborhood is that he/she has stepped on one).
In autumn, we have to be DOUBLY alert, as not only are there more than the usual amount of spiny casings on the ground , but there are also chestnuts continually falling from the trees, often onto sidewalks! I know one case of an elementary school child who had to be rushed to the hospital after getting a chestnut on the head- OUCH !
Though the varieties of chestnut grown in Ibaraki today (my neighbors grow the KUNIMI ( 国見) variety, while a variety called TSUKUBA is the most commonly grown type in the country) were only introduced to these parts in the 20th century, archaeologists have shown that Japan`s prehistoric inhabitants, usually thought of as hunter- gatherers, not only ate lots of KURI but in fact CULTIVATED their trees! Excavations in Aomori Prefecture (the Sannaiyaman Iseki), and Fukui Prefecture (Torihama Kaizuka) have revealed how thousands of years before rice agriculture was introduced to the Japanese Islands, villagers had cleared the forest around them, leaving only chestnut and walnut trees, creating forests of these these trees, which appear to have been carefully managed. Chestnuts, which are highly nutritious, seem to have been the staple food of these early residents of Japan. One cant help but feeling the connection with this distant past when hiking in the woods with Japanese families- there is so much excitement over finding and picking up wild chestnuts and acorns!
Even after rice, barley and millet became major food products , chestnuts remained important as a crop, not only for use in a variety of different dishes and sweets, but also as an EMERGENCY FOOD to fall back on in times of famine. There are many references to this fact in classical Japanese texts, including the Nihon Shoki ( 720 AD).
Over the centuries, chestnut trees, especially those which bear SHIBAGURI (wild chestnuts) were allowed to grow in Japan`s satoyama (carefully managed woods on hills above villages), as the trees were widely used not only for food but also for timber (making roofing, and other boards for housing, etc). By the end of the 19th century, these trees came to be extremely common.
Then came the railroads, which first started to run in Japan in 1872. After the first line was successfully established between Shimbashi and Yokohama, railway lines were laid down all across the country, in what was a major effort in industrialization which lasted about 60 years (though of course railways continue to be developed and extended today). During the period between 1910 and 1930, 90 percent of the all the rail tracks were put down using the wood of chestnut. Because of this, by the mid 30`s, not much of this timber remained standing. Thanks to concrete,however, the wild chestnut and other varieties were able to make a huge comeback.
For more on KURI, read my :
Enjoy some KURI this autumn ( in one of the many ways the Japanese prepare it, especially KURI GOHAN, chestnut rice) and REMEMBER- look out for those spiky burrs- down below or overhead!