TsukuBlog

A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

Japanese Farmers Let Their Daikon Radish Chill Out in the Soil- the Colder, the Sweeter!

Daikon Radish Left To Sweeten In The Soil In Tsukuba

Daikon Radish Left To Sweeten In The Soil In Tsukuba

The first time you saw a Japanese daikon, you were probably quite surprised by its size, especially if you realized that it was a RADISH, and distant relative to the cute little reddish ones we eat in the West. If you live in a big city like Tokyo, after that first encounter, you might not ever  give this veggie much thought again, as it is very cheap, commonly available all-year-round, and an ever present part of the everyday Japanese diet. In other words, mundane.

Futamata Daikon offered to a Do-so-Jin

Futamata Daikon offered to a Do-so-Jin

In Tsukuba, however, where you still cannot get very far without passing a vegetable field of some sort, we find ourselves stopping on occasion, or should I say, being stopped in our tracks, by curious DAIKON ENCOUNTERS, of which there are basically two types. In December or January we might come across one or more two-pronged (futamata) daikon offered to a roadside sacred stone, and then in February or early March we might suddenly notice crazed rows of unharvested Leaning-Tower-Of-Pisa-Like daikons which seem to be trying to WORK THEMSELVES OUT OF THE SOIL. Both are very surprising scenes indeed, which make one give pause, to admire this MOST COMMON OF ALL JAPANESE VEGETABLES, and also think about its role in Japanese culture and history.

Since I have written in detail about the unique way in which Tsukuba’s farmers deal with their FUTAMATA DAIKON, here I will discuss the protruding radishes that you can find in any  of Tsukuba’s daikon fields this week.

Though now daikon are available all year round, traditionally they have been a vegetable considered best enjoyed  in winter. In Tsukuba, after the farmers have harvested their radish crop for market, they leave some behind for their own consumption-often just a single row.

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It you try to store daikon at home you will find that they soon start to dry out. In the old days, to keep them fresh, farmers would store their radishes by BURYING THEM in shallow ditches called MURO (室), after having covered them with straw. These days, it is much more common for the farmers to just LEAVE THEM IN THE FIELD until they are needed.The parts of the radish below the soil line retain all their juiciness this way. Farmers also noticed that the colder it got, the tastier these daikon became, the result of a chemical reaction which occurs within the vegetable to prevent freezing. The same thing is done with HAKUSAI (Chinese cabbage) to keep them fresh, though the cabbages you find left  out in the fields like this look rotten. In fact, if the sad looking outer  leaves are peeled away, you have a beautiful and delicious cabbage.

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Thus, when you see these wayward looking roots bursting out of the ground, you have not found crops left in the field to rot (though some eventually do), but just the farmer’s preferred way of keeping them, and sweetening them up, before eating! In fact, you are hardly seeing any root at all! Unlike the carrot, whose edible orange cone is all root, only about the bottom third of the daikon is the vegetable’s root (it has little stringy roots coming out of it there) while the upper part, which comes to stick out of the soil in early spring, is the stem! In the most popular variety these days, the aokubi (green-necked) daikon, the stem is a clearly distinguishable green.

A form of radish was brought to Japan at least 1200 years ago from China, to where it had come from Europe more than a thousand years earlier still. It was in Japan, however, more than anywhere else in the world, that the radish thrived. Over the centuries. about 200 varieties have developed here, and some of these are of extreme lengths and sizes.

All these varieties developed as the seeds of radishes cultivated in the different soils of the regions of Japan would be exchanged by travellers (especially pilgrims during the Edo period). It was said in the old days that each village’s daikons were different, and when someone tasted a delicious one, they would ask for some seeds to take back to their hometowns. Many of the varieties which can be found today are named after the regions in which they are grown: the SAKURAJIMA DAIKON, from Kagoshima Prefecture, for example, or the NERIMA DAIKON, which was the most popular of the daikon eaten in Edo (old Tokyo) as it was cultivated in what is now Tokyo’s Nerima Ward.

As I have written in the article mentioned above, farmers around Japan who come across two-legged radishes, do not sell them, eat them, or throw them away. This is because they look like human legs! In most of Japan they are offered to the God DAIKOKU-SAMA, while in Ibaraki they are usually left in front of a road-side DO-SO-JIN sacred stone.

Describing the number of ways that the Japanese eat radish would require a separate article, but I’m sure those of you who have been in Japan even for only a few days have had some type of daikon TSUKEMONO (pickles), grated radish (as a condiment), pieces of daikon in your miso soup, or at least smelled the pungent odor of the radish stewed in ODEN during winter at every convenience store.

Furufuki Daikon

Furufuki Daikon

As for me, I prefer the citron flavored furufuki daikon.

No matter where you see it, or how you eat it, next time you encounter DAIKON, please give it the RESPECT IT DESERVES!

You might also see daikon which have been hung out to dry in the sun (quite a sight!). This is part of the TAKUAN (沢庵) making process. Takuan are some of  Japans strongest smelling pickles. Here is a Tsukublog article Ive written about hanging daikon out in the sun:

http://blog.alientimes.org/2010/11/daikon-radish-hung-out-to-dry-mark-the-beginning-of-the-takuan-making-season/

Two-pronged (FUTAMATA) daikon radish left as offerings at a Dosojin Shrine in Konda, Tsukuba



4 Comments

  • Nora says:

    Thank you!!!
    With yours writings we are going into training
    of Cultural Anthropology, isn’t it?))

  • ginni aka Flower Thief says:

    Hello ~ Thanks for always being so much fun! Question- I used the link to scoot over to your ‘Tengooz’ blog to see about those two-legged daikon which end up on ‘roadside shrines.’ Fun stuff to read about (and yummy) – Please Do Tell What These Three Characters Mean!!!:
    > In Tsukuba almost all the dosojin I have found are simple stones with only the characters 道祖神 engraved on them. < Oh, don’t leave me hanging in mid-air! I’m a silly American (remote rugged coastline Northern California) artist with a big heart for All Things Japanese. Seriously. I have a big file of kanji (I’ve even learned a few:the 1st kanji looks like ‘The Way’) which I refer to for my artwork, especially if it’s related at all to matters of ‘spirit,’ nature, buddha-nature, family… neat stuff, you know… E-Mail me if you wish! Your Tsukuba blog has caused me an e-trek to the area for visuals – May I come visit your beautiful area some day? I promise not to steal any 2-legged daikon! Sincerely, ginni

  • Avi Landau says:

    Hi,Nora! Thans for writing. I am not an anthropologist, but influence by traditional Japanese thinking I have found that if we take a close look at EVERYTHING aroung us, especially at the slight changes that occur each week with the flow of the seasons,
    life becomes so much more interesting. It is also exciting to trace the various and multiple origins of different aspects of human culture that we find around us, Dont you think?

    Hello, ginni. Nice to meet you!
    Thank you for writing to me and for appreciating Tsukuba`s special
    beauty. Im also glad to hear that someone shares my enthusiasm for the rustic Japan and that an artist has been inspired by images seen on the blog.

    The 3 Kanji Chararcters which make up the word Do-sojin are

    道, or do- with an extended o vowel (spelled in romaji as dou )
    which can also be pronounced MICHI, or road, path, way, etc

    The second character is 祖, which is pronounced SO and means- ancestor

    and finally the character 神,which can be pronounced as
    SHIN,JIN,KAN,or Ko and when alone is read as KAMI,which means god or gods.

    when combined in the order 道祖神, these kanjis make up the word meaning
    Do-sojin, or Travellers Guardian, Roadside Guardian etc…

    I hope that answers your question. Can you see the characters I have typed with your computer.
    If not, I will send a photo of the characters.

    Hope tp hear from you again, or even see you in Tsukuba

    All the best

    Avi

  • Mamoru Shimizu says:

    Thinly cut and sliced like stick DAIKON is very good for salad during this winter time of year, providing natural digest-stimulating enzyme. DAIKON-MISO-SOUP best taste now!!
    OSHIN,famous woman TV morning drama story from child to elder lady, when she was young and her house was so poor only got DAIKON-MESHI(only DAIKON ) around 1900.
    There is a word DAIKON-ASHI, recently became to be few-used, describing legs for ladies, because many ladies use pantaloons.