Zakuro (pomegranates) in Japanese Culture- and on Tsukuba`s trees in this season
By Avi Landau
I was surprised when I first noticed that they grew commonly in the gardens of Tsukuba’s newer, as well as its older neighborhoods. They were often on branches which had grown out over their houses’ fences , dangling seductively, just over the heads of anyone who happened to be walking along the sidewalk. I had always associated them with the Middle-East (they are listed in the bible as one of the seven species of the Land of Israel), or the Caucasus (where they were originally cultivated), and I had fond memories from many years earlier of staining my face and clothes while very unskillfully partaking of their sour yet sweet and very RED seeds.
I’m talking about pomegranates (zakuro, in Japanese), the large, leathery-skinned, red berries which have been cultivated in Europe and the Near East since ancient times. When the fruit’s casing is cracked open (a tricky thing to do well) the seeds are chewed softly and then spit out.
Pomegranates are a major feature in the food culture of Persia, Armenia, Turkey and Greece, and their juice is drunk in many other countries (there was a big zakuro juice boom in Japan about 4 years ago, as it was promoted for its beauty enhancing and female hormone balancing properties).
Experts claim that the pomegranate had made its way to China by the 3rd century, and there are records of its having appeared in Japan by the 8th. By now, the zakuro has become common in the gardens of private homes in Japan. It is mostly considered to be an ornamental tree, but its fruit is sometimes eaten (though much less frequently than one would expect), turned into juice or liquor, or even used as medicine (for stopping diarrhea, getting rid of parasites, or gargling).
Most people that I have talked to in Tsukuba about these beautiful fruits have told me that even if they had them growing in their gardens they would have only nibbled on them once or twice, since they were difficult to eat and usually too sour for their taste. Home-made Zakuro-Shu (pomegranate seeds soaked in liquor) seems to be, far and away, the most common way of dealing with home grown zakuro (and is surely my favorite way of enjoying them myself!). This lack of interest is good news for any lover of this fruit, because it means that friends, neighbors, or even strangers might give you a bag-full if you hint that you might like some.
Though the zakuro is not a major player in the Japanese culinary world, it does have special cultural significance, especially in connection with KISHIBOJIN (sometimes called Kishimojin or kariteimo), a popular Goddess of childbirth and motherhood who can usually be seen, in sculpture or painting, holding a pomegranate in her right hand. The reason for this is quite simple — zakuro are bursting with an abundance of juicy seeds — making it a perfect symbol of fertility. Pomegranate images also can be found adorning the many famous temples dedicated to this Goddess, who started out on the long cultural journey to Japan as the Hindu Goddess Hariti. Her story is one of learning to empathize with the suffering of others. Here is basically how it goes:
Hariti (Kishibojin) was originally a selfish and heartless (to say the least) woman, who would feed her own numerous children the flesh of other children whom she had abducted and slaughtered (SHE also lived on human flesh). To show her the error of her ways, the Buddha kidnapped one of HER children, keeping him hidden away. This threw Hariti into a state of frenzied anxiety, and she scoured the globe, in vain for her precious son. This experience led her to an awareness of the terrible suffering which she had been inflicting for so long upon countless parents. She became a fervent adherent of Buddhist doctrines, and eventually became revered herself as a protector of children, mothers and marital bliss.
There are numerous temples in Japan famous for the worship of Kishibojin. These almost always feature statues of her holding a zakuro. Besides it being a symbol of fertility, some say that the bloody red seeds of the pomegranate represent a replacement for the human flesh on which she and her children once lived.
The most famous of these temples in Tokyo are in Meguro, Zoshigaya and Iriya (this last Kishiboji Temple hosts the famous annual morning glory market). Closer to home, in Tsukuba’s Hojo district , I was introduced to a small and secluded, hill-top shrine dedicated to the Goddess (her Shinto manifestation – Suiten) by local artist and musician Thomas Mayers (it is a favorite spot of his). I had almost discovered the place myself once, but the Japanese friend who was driving me was frightened off by the creepy Jizo signboards posted at the foot of the hill. Possibly the most interesting feature of this too little known spot is the large natural rock used as the washing basin (chozuya). There is also an old and mostly faded painting (on a wooden tablet) of Kishibojin and her children.
A Japanese language encyclopedia I consulted stated that there were different attitudes towards zakuro, as connected with Kishibojin, depending on the region. Ibaraki was used as an example for an area which has a very positive image. The article said that in Ibaraki children are set to play under pomegranate trees, as it will keep them healthy, especially emotionally (I have been asking around but I have found no one to confirm this story).
In contrast, the entry said that in Tottori Prefecture the zakuro is avoided because it looks like blood, and, I quote, likes to hear the sick moan.
For much more about Kishibojin, and plenty of pictures see www.onmarkproductions.com/html/kariteimo
And for those interested, here is a song which Thomas and I co-wrote. Its called Babylon,and was recorded by the Tsukuba based band- The Tengooz: