TsukuBlog

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

Wild Mulberry (kuwa no mi, 桑の実) Pickers Get Caught Red-Handed !

Wild mulberries ( kuwa no mi) in Tsukuba

Mulberries on a big old mulberry tree in Hanamuro, Tsukuba

 

By Avi Landau

 

We had just emerged from the woods. And though our pant-legs were soaked  from tramping through the rain-wettened grass and foliage for nearly 2 -hours , our brief but intense encounter with Tsukuba`s nature and the good company of fresh and old acquaintance had our spirits soaring high! We sure HAD worked up an appetite, though, since we had hardly taken a break and had been on our feet all morning. That is why the big old mulberry tree (kuwa no ki) standing by the path up ahead, branches heavy-laden with fruit in various stages of ripeness, beckoned enticingly,  like an oasis does to desert travellers.

Looking for the plump, dark purple, or I guess I could say black  mulberries (as oppossed to the white or red ones), because that is their color when they are  ready to be eaten, I plucked them off and passed them out to the excited and impatient kids who were actually vying to scramble up the tree itself in an effort to get at the tempting fruits. While doing this I did not refrain from intermittently popping a few into my own mouth. MMMmmm. Sweet and succulent-   perfect way to end a hike!

Realizing that we had better leave some fruit for the wildlife (though this was a large enough tree with plenty of mulberry to spare), we continued on to Takahashi-San`s house (she was the organizer of the event) for some store-bought refreshment. When we arrived at her studio-annex she could see right away that we had been NOSHING on the way- all our hands and faces were stained a delicate purple ! There is no hiding the fact that one has been eating mulberries!

Someone`s Been Eating Mulberries

Someone`s Been Eating Mulberries

Late May and June are when the fruit of Tsukuba`s mulberry trees (they are not actually berries) are ready to eat. You had better be quick, however, if you want to taste them, or even better, grab a batch of them to take home for use in all kinds of desserts. This is not only because there are other people out there who want them, but also because they are a favorite of small mammals, birds and insects! Remember, if you do carry away some for later, mulberries, high in sugar content, do not keep very long and should be eaten as soon as possible. They can of course be frozen or preserved in liquor for enjoyment throughout the year. Not only tasty, they are also said to be good for you, as they contain plenty of vitamins C and k, as well as iron, potassium, riboflavin and dietary fiber.

A Mulberry Tree In Tsukuba

A mulberry tree in Tsukuba

Whenever I pass by a mulberry, at any time of year, I cannot help but reflect on the history of this tree and its impact on the course of human civilization. It was around Mulberry trees that about 5000 years ago the ancient Chinese conceived of producing silk, and then of weaving fabrics from their strands (though it is possible that inferior forms of silk  had been indepedently developed in Europe and The Middle East). And in order to get more silk, it was necessary to have more and mulberry trees-   specifically their leaves- which are the sole food source for the finicky silk worms (actually catepilars) which spin the precious threads.

Mulberries at various stages of ripeness  in Tsukuba

Silk eventually grew to be such a sought after commodity, that the great East-West -West-East trade route which ran from Europe through Central Asia and China to Japan was named after it- The Silk Road.

Numerous references in The Manyoshu, the earliest anthology of Japanese poetry (compiled in the mid 8th century), and the official court chronicle Nihon Shoki (720 AD) indicate that silk production had already become well established by that time. Until the Meiji Restoration of 1868, however, silk was never worn by the common folk ( it was illegal to do so). Raising the silkworms, and the mulberry leaves on which they fed, however, were a MAJOR part of the lives of Japanese farmers  as the catepillars had to be very carefully and tenderly taken care of (often IN the farmers houses). The importance of the KAIKO in their lives can be seen in the fact that they are the only animal which the Japanese refer to with an honorific, which was O-Kaiko-Sama.

For older Japanese, eating mulberries usually bring back fond memories of childhood, as mulberry trees used to be the MOST familiar of all trees (especially in the silk producing area of Gunma, Tochigi, Saitama and Ibaraki) for people who grew up in the first three-quarters of the 20th century. Mulberry orchards were usually planted around each house and in the days before TV, public swimming pools and Toys R Us, playing with and snacking on mulberry fruit was one of the chief pleasures of summer.

Here is a Haiku, by Takano Sujuu (高野素十, 1893-1976), that I found which captures this nostalgia- KUROKU MATA AKASHI KUWA NO MI NATSUKASHIKI (黒く又赤し桑の実なつかしき) which I translate as – A glimpse of mulberries black and red- mem`ries of childhood flood through my head

After the outbreak of Second World War demand for Japan`s silk plummetted dramatically and it has come to the point where now I doubt if you if could find a single family around here that raises kaiko.

For more about silk production in the Kanto Region, read my article about Tsukuba`s forlorn KOKAGE JINJA SHRINE, which in past ages threw pilgrims from all over Eastern Japan.

http://blog.alientimes.org/2008/03/ancient-custom-hanging-on-by-a-silk-thread/

I think I will do some more hiking in the next few weeks. Not only to enjoy the relative lack of mosquitos buzzing about, but also to be able to enjoy some post-hike wild mulberries while they are still ripe and on the trees!

If you have no confidence in identifying mulberry trees by their leaf shape, bark, etc, try looking for fallen mulberry fruit on the ground (Hanamuro, Tsukuba)

It can be said that the most beautiful depiction in words of what the old mulberry-leaf picking and silk-worm raising days were like here in the Tsukuba area can be found in one of the chapters of Dr. Junichi Saga`s Remembrance of Village Days Past (Ushinawareta Mura no Hibi, 失われた村の日々) – available at Amazon



One Comment

  • Avi Landau says:

    It was of course inevitable that Japan`s silk industry (and subsequently the production of mulberry leaves) would eventually wither away in the face of much cheaper ( and high quality) competition from abroad.
    Silk production finally died out in the Kanto Area in the 1960`s and 1970`s (though silk worms were still being raised by a few Tsukuba families int the late 80`s

    The first great blow to Japan`s silk industry, however, came with the invention of NYLON, a synthetic silk substitute developed by the Dupont company in the mid 1930`s.

    Nylon became easily available to the public in 1940, a time of strong anti-Japanese sentiment
    in the U.S. , the U.K. and other countries.

    Nylon was seen by many at the time as an economic weapon of sorts which would help to bring about the downfall of Japanese military expansionism- which was partially funded by foreign currency earned from the export of silk.

    In fact a rumor arose, or I guess you could say it was a sort of dark joke which took hold of the public`s imagination which insisted that the Name NYLON was really an acronym which stood for: Now You Lose Old Nippon!

    Though even today many believe that this is the true origin of the material`s name, it is NOT!
    Another common misconception is that the name derives from the place names New York (NY) and London (lon), but this is apparently not true either.

    Anyway, keep an eye open for any of the few remaining mulberry trees in your neighborhood!