All Photos this Post by Toshiji Tomori
I skirted the gray block wall along our driveway and rounded the corner onto the street in front of our house. I could barely make out the figures in the dim light of the lone streetlight, and only the flash of Tomori-san’s camera illuminated the ropes pounding on the pavement. “Tokanya, waradepo yomochi kutte, buttatake!” (Tokanya, straw gun, eat mochi in the nighttime, shoot!)
A car came up fast behind me and I yelled, “Car!” and stepped aside quickly as the driver did not show signs of slowing. “Car…Car!” The figures scattered, but took up their cries right after,“Tokanya, waradepo yomochi kutte, buttatake!” Thwak. The crack of the “straw gun” on the pavement wakes up the sleeping winter bugs and kills them (metaphorically). After the rice harvest, in the late autumn we make “straw guns” called waradepo for Tokanya, an ancient farming rite to send off the rice field god to the mountains. Our friends come over to help us pound mochi and we eat in the garden at torch light.
Normally celebrated the 10th day in the 10th month in the lunar year, it should have been held the day before (November 15), but Tadaaki kindly agreed to wait a day so that I could participate. My JAL flight now gets into Haneda airport too late to get home to Saitama, so I spent the night at the airport hotel and hopped the train in the morning. Feeling a bit discombobulated, I set to unpacking with uncharacteristic haste (usually my bags hang around the tatami room for a couple weeks as I slowly chip away at them). This time I was determined to wipe the traces of my third and last overseas trip this fall and reenter life in Japan without the typically bumpy transition period.
But the publisher discussions and book contract were both in limbo, so I too felt “in between.” When I got home that morning, I asked Tadaaki if there was anything I could do to help. He shook his head and told me, “It’s under control. Yoshie is coming at 4:00 and the rest of the people are coming around 5.” So I went back in the house to unpack.
My editor friend Kim Schuefftan showed up at 4, then disappeared. I went upstairs for a while only to come down and find a strange girl in the kitchen. Not Yoshie. Tadaaki has a fairly loose style to his events and gives little instruction to his helpers. I never did learn the girl’s name, but she did bumble about in our kitchen. Yoshie eventually showed up with another friend in tow, and at one point all three girls were stirring and skimming the soup together. I never have understood why it takes so many people to do one task here. I guess it is the sense of comradery and also the feeling that if one is not working, one is being lazy or warui to the group.
Warui is roughly translated as “bad.” The usage is fairly common, however, since this is a completely Japanese cultural concept. If someone does something for you, your response will often be warukatta, ne. Oh I was so bad to have received this from you…oh it was so bad of me to put you out for cooking this for me. My mother-in-law uses it a lot. Me, not so much. Bad American wife, I guess.
And I suppose as the “wife,” I should have been the one feeling badly for not helping, but already the plan was out of my control, careening along without direction. Tadaaki tends to whoosh in, give a few minimal cooking commands and then spin back off to the eggs, chickens, or deliveries. I am the opposite, completely controlling in the kitchen and not one to let people go willy-nilly. When I make the kenchinjiru, I like to slice the vegetables myself because I want them all to be the right size and thickness to cook at the same pace. Good enough is not where I look to end up. Each ingredient deserves to shine, so the finished dish should not be messed up by unwitting mistakes of well-meaning, yet untutored assistants. But if the cooks at Chez Panisse could let me blunder about in their kitchen, I suppose I should be more forgiving (and flexible). Though I do relax the “rules” when it comes to little kids—but then I’m just serving ourselves and not a crowd of thirty or forty hungry adults.
It used to be that the countrywomen all spoke the same language of food and knew how to prepare the same dishes. Today that is not true, as most young women do not learn to cook from their mothers, and there are few farming families passing along traditions. Mothers (and even grandmothers) work, so supermarket prepared foods regularly appear on the table; and convenience store foods are eaten in the car on the way home or in transit to study school. After all, there is no mess in the kitchen if one eats in the car or re-heats in the microwave. At a recent Japanese food event in Napa, there was much talk of seasonality and local foods in Japan…but the reality is much more bleak. Though I suppose those convenience store bento meals are better balanced than MacDonald’s and actually look like real meals, as long as you don’t mind inferior ingredients, MSG, and preservatives. Did I mention that I’m not a fan of convenience store or prepared foods? But then our kitchen is never pristine, so that’s the trade off.
Tokanya, manju stealing at Jugoya and even mochi making at New Year have all virtually died out in Japan. Our family never gave up on mochi pounding in the garden at New Year, but it wasn’t until recently that Tadaaki revived Tokanya and Jugoya in our house. Having home businesses, trying to grow food for the family, and bringing up three small homeschooled sons stretched both Tadaaki and me to the thinnest point where sometimes I wondered when we would break. Yet somehow when I did not have energy, Tadaaki did and visa versa. So we survived those years. Unfortunately, mushroom hunting and wild berry gathering in the mountains did not. Though somehow we managed to keep river trips and fishing expeditions alive in the summer. I guess it was the cool water in the impossibly sweltering summers that pushed me to get on board these excursions. In contrast, climbing up the mountain with little babies did not seem as appealing (or practical).
But all of this takes energy. And as I look around me, I realize that most (though not all) of our friends who are trying to live off the land or revive dying country customs are all transplants from the city (me included). I suppose we do not have the weight of generations past pulling us down a bit and I suppose we bring some naïve energy to the equation. But then I look at Tadaaki and Suka-san, carrying on the farming life, college degrees in hand. A new generation of farmers who choose the land, because the land chose them. They both live and breathe farming in a way that we transplants will never be able to, yet we transplants also bring a fresh wind to the area, and so our partnerships have a spirit of dynamism backed by mutual support and respect.
And as I stood there on the street that night of Tokanya, I thought about how the old customs clash with the new. About the cars zooming down our old neighborhood street no longer lined with old farmhouses—now razed for large prefab versions that the younger couples favor. And about Tadaaki leading the kids and friends as they banged their “straw guns” on the pavement—as if they owned the street and the cars were the intruders. And I thought about the shishimai dancers who had come to celebrate the sending off of the rice harvest gods and that we can do this because we do it together. We fight the fight to keep those traditions alive because that is the heart of Japan and without them there is no life.
Kenchinjiru (Country Soup with Vegetables): Traditionally, this was a vegetarian soup made with root vegetables, tofu, konnyaku, and perhaps dried shiitake for depth of flavor. But we often make a broth from our Christmas duck carcasses for the kenchinjiru we make at New Year…because we have them. In this case, add some sliced ginger and a few generous stalks of Japanese negi (substitute thick spring onions or thin leeks) to the fresh duck bones (I use the term “fresh” loosely because actually we freeze the raw carcasses whole in Ziploc bags). Alternatively, I like to make a stock from the cooked bones of roasted chickens that I stuffed with garden thyme branches and Mochizuki-san’s lemons, quartered. Our chickens are so sublime that I add nothing but water along with the thyme sprigs and drippings off the cutting board. I tried to cook the soup all night but the gas alarm company called my mother-in-law in the middle of the night and she crept upstairs to wake my husband. He has now nixed the overnight cook method. This deeply flavorful chicken soup makes an unforgettable ramen broth for homemade ramen; also I see it as a base for a mochi-less kenchinjiru. For a vegetarian broth, I would add a generous piece or two of konbu kelp to a large pot of cold water and bring it almost to a boil before removing the kelp and then proceed to make the root vegetable soup.
To prepare: scrub equal amounts of carrots, gobo (burdock root), and daikon with a rough brush (tawashi). Slice into thin rounds, half rounds or quarters depending on thickness of the roots. The vegetables should be fairly uniform in thickness and size, as you will be cooking them together and eating the soup with chopsticks. Peel and slice the same amount of taro root (satoimo) as you did for each of the other vegetables. Keep the daikon and taro each in separate bowls. Cut horizontally through a block or two of best quality soft tofu (in Japan use momendofu), then crosswise into 6 x 4 pieces (thus creating a dice). Slice usuage into ¼” strips (Tadaaki cuts them again horizontally to make pieces, I prefer them a little long and dangly). If the usuage is not fresh, pour hot water over to take off any unpleasant odors—or maybe just skip it.
Film organic canola oil in large soup pot, and sauté sliced carrots and gobo for a few minutes before adding the sliced daikon. Stir and sauté a minute or so longer, then add hot homemade broth (duck, chicken or konbu kelp). Throw in the sliced taro and bring to a boil and cook until the vegetables are getting soft, but not falling apart. Slide in the tofu, usuage and konnyaku (see below), and simmer a few minutes more until heated through. Season with organic soy sauce to taste and serve with a bowl of white rice on the side if there is no mochi in the soup. Pass shichimi togarashi (7-spice powder) for those who like a little extra kick.
Optional konnyaku: Fill a large pot half way with water, toss in a small handful of salt and bring to a boil. While the water is heating, tear the konnyaku into 1½” round misshapen blobs (a little bigger than bite-sized). If using mochi, slice konnakyu instead into thin strips (1½” x ¼”). Boil konnyaku pieces for 15 minutes in salted water, drain, and reserve.
Optional mochi: drop pieces of hot mochi into soup and eat immediately.