Enjoy Nashi (梨) – Japan’s Big, Juicy, Apple-Shaped Pears – in all its varieties (September thru November).
By Avi Landau
Walking through the fresh produce section of a Japanese supermarket in autumn can be a dazzling and mouth-watering experience. Chestnuts, grapes, kiwis, peaches, persimmons, figs and apples, all beckoning you to bite into them (after purchasing them, of course). With all this seasonal bounty available, I was interested to find that when I asked my Japanese friends and acquaintances about what fruit best represented autumn in their minds ( a very unscientific survey!), the number one answer was NASHI – which the dictionary will tell you is the Japanese pear.
And I guess that shouldn`t have surprised me. This part of Japan (the Kanto Region) is the country’s main NASHI producer (with Chiba and Ibaraki Prefectures being the number 1 and 2 growers, respectively*). One of the most delicious varieties, AKITSUKI, was even developed right here in Tsukuba (first put on the market in 2001) – and many people I’d asked said they sent these local specialties each autumn to friends living in other parts of Japan.
What would probably surprise YOU, though, would be seeing a Japanese pear for the first time. That’s because NASHI, though taxonomically pears, are not PEAR-SHAPED! They look like big apples. That`s why many prefer to call them apple-pears, in English.
Nashi seeds have been found at the 1st century archaeological site called the Toro Iseki (in what is now Shizuoka Prefecture) – which means that they have been eaten by the inhabitants of this archipelago for at least 2,000 years. These were not the big, juicy and delicious beauties that we can enjoy today, but a small, scrawny and sour, wild ancestor – what is now called the YAMANASHI, which can still be found in the woods (sometimes on two or three hundred year old giant trees!). But the fact that there are thousands of place names in Japan which include the word NASHI in them, attest to how important these fruit must have been.
In the 7th century Nihon Shoki, Japan’s second oldest extant text, nashi are listed as an “emergency food” to be cultivated (along with chestnuts and mulberries) for times when the rice, barley and millet crops were damaged by drought, flood or disease.
In fact many carbonized nashi have been found (along with similarly preserved peaches, walnuts and chestnuts) during excavations of 8th century manor-houses. It is assumed that these were dried and stored so as to be prepared for times of famine.
The 10th century Nihon Engi Shiki gives record of how nashi were sent as gifts to the emperor from the Land of Shinano (now Nagano Prefecture) and the Land of Kai (now the aptly named Yamashi (wild pear) Prefecture.
Meanwhile, the aristocrats of the imperial court also grew to love the nashi blossoms (which bloom in April and are similar to cherry blossoms, though white – and much larger) and have created poems mentioning them, some which are recorded in the 8th century Manyoshu, the earliest extant collection of Japanese waka poems (often using a play on words, since nashi also means “lacking” – so a TSUMA NASHI NO KI means an “I-don`t-have-a-wife tree”).**
Over the centuries the nashi remained small and sour – until the Edo Period (1600-1868) when Japan was mostly cut-off from the world, at peace, and very strictly controlled by the Shogunate and local Daimyo (feudal lords). Along with the culture that thrived during this period – woodblock prints, kabuki, haiku poetry, etc., was a blossoming of the horticultural arts. Thousands of flower and fruit varieties came to created by plant enthusiasts across the country. One plant which was greatly improved was the nashi.
Take, for example, the farmer ABE GENDAYU, from Echigo ( now Niigata), who developed the technique which would allow nashi to grow big, fat and juicy – by supporting the branches with a trellis system. He wrote a book called RIEI ZOIKU HIKAN (梨栄造育秘鑑) which was released in 1782. Using his technique, nashi were grown all around Japan – especially in what are now Niigata, Gunma, Chiba, Kanagawa, Kyoto and Ishikawa Prefectures. Since there were very few sweet things back then, the nashi, which were getting sweeter and sweeter, were prized as “watery treats” (水菓子). Even today the scenery of Ibaraki, Chiba, etc. has been altered by his ideas – with nashi orchards growing low and flat - molded and shaped by the system of trellises.
The first of the major varieties to be developed is the “niju-seiki nashi” (the 20th century pear). It is now famous as a product of Tottori Prefecture, but it was actually first discovered and cultivated in what is now Matsudo in Chiba Prefecture during the Meiji Period (in 1889 to be exact!). Matsudo Kakunosuke, the 13 year old son of a pear-farmer, found a discarded sapling at his relative’s house. He took it home and grew it. Ten years later it bore fruit – something juicier, sweeter, and more tender-fleshed than any nashi anyone had ever tasted (see a monument at the site of the garbage heap Kakunosuke found the sapling at and a fragment of the original tree here).
Since the new variety was discovered and successfully cultivated around the year 1900, an associate professor of the Tokyo Imperial University who was consulted, suggested the name NIJU-SEIKI (20th Century). Parts of the original tree were sent to Tottori Prefecture, where the 20th Century Nashi would become its most representative product. (Check out the English language website for Tottori’s unique Pear Museum!)
Since then, many varieties have been created (there is even a 21st Century Pear – the Niju-isseiki Nashi!), so that now, from mid-August thru October we can enjoy nashi, in different varieties every other week.
The first to ripen (in mid-August) is Kohsui. Then (in September) come Hohsui and Akitsuki (developed in Tsukuba!), followed by (among many others) Niitaka and Nikkori (which you can find in stores through October).
Try as many as you can – and tell me which you like best!
- The major nashi producing prefectures (in order) are: Chiba, Ibaraki, Fukushima, Tochigi, Tottori and Nagano. In Ibaraki the cities that are famous for nashi are : Chikusei, Shimotsuma, Yachio, Ishioka (especially Yasato), Kasumigaura-City, Omitama, and Tsuchiura.
**MOMIJI HA NO NIOI WA SHIGESHI SHIKARE DOMO TSUMANASHI NO KI WO TEORI KAZASAMU (もみじ葉の におひは繁し 然れども 妻梨の木を 手折りかざすむ)
Which I paraphrase as : Alas, all those maple tree grow more and more beautiful as autumn deepens, but I, a man without a wife, will suffice with the branch of a NASHI, which I shall fashion into a decorative-comb to gently place in your hair .