By Avi Landau
One of the benefits (and great autumn pleasures) of living in the Japanese countryside is being able to pick as many akebi as you like – for free (they can cost a pretty penny at Tokyo department stores). Akebi grow on coniferous vines which flower in spring and bear fruit in fall. When ripe and ready for pickin’, they look like reddish-purple mangos which have been slit open with a blade. This opening reveals the almost translucent, white flesh that contains its seeds. It is this part that can be eaten right there under the tree. You twist the fruit off the vine, pull it open at the slit and slip the white jelly-like center into your mouth. Chew softly to enjoy its unique sweetness and texture, and then spit out the pits.
The skin of the akebi can also be eaten. In Tono, Iwate Prefecture, I once had akebi skin boiled with sugar, a delicious local dish. There are several ways the skin is eaten around Japan, with the most common probably being frying with miso.
This year, the akebi (a web search has revealed that the English name for this fruit is chocolate vine, if that means anything to you) are smaller than usual, but just as tasty. You can find them if you venture into Tsukuba’s fast disappearing woods.
By the way there are two different sets of characters which can be used to write akebi. There is 通草, and 木通, though it is usually written in hiragana as あけび.