We’ve spent the last couple of days on the fascinating Snow Country Culture Workshop Autumn Edition, during which time we have learned how to use rice straw to make various rope and storage, harvested daikon radishes, and made mochi in a traditional autumn festival.
The tour started in Yukiguni Ryokan in Tsunan. Tsunan sits on the 37 degree parallel north latitude, which is the same as Athens, Sicily, and San Francisco. You don’t associate those places with the 3+ meters of snow that Tsunan receives every winter. The heavy snows are a result of the cold winter winds coming off the European continent and picking up moisture from the warm Tsushima Current flowing up the western coast of Japan. The clouds formed here rise up as they hit the mountains and drop that moisture as snow. Tsunan sits at the foot of these high mountains so receives more than its fair share of snow each winter. The heavy snow wasn’t always the case though. When the Korean peninsula and Japan were connected the warm current wouldn’t have been a factor, and the Jomon people living around Tsunan probably had a reasonably easy existence. Once the two landmasses split, winter would have become much more snowy. Yet the Jomon people didn’t move but stayed in their settlements. They had to adapt their way of life to the snow. As hunter-gatherers having plants and trees buried under snow for half the year would have been challenging, though animal tracks were easy to spot in the snow. Storing food over winter would have been important to survival.
Storing food was the reason we were here. Our main task on Day 1 was to learn how to make a daikon tsugura. This is a little hut made from the straw left over from the rice harvest. This is buried by the falling snow and keeps white radishes or other vegetables at a stable temperature at the right level of humidity for winter-long storage. This kind of knowledge goes back thousands of years in Snow Country. Our instructor was an 82 year old local who remembers the time when each household was self-sufficient, and when winters were spent around the open hearth making tools and items for the following summer. [He came from a small area of town where most people had the same surname, so everyone went by a nickname, his being the first sound of his name and the first name of his father’s name combined!]
We were given a reminder of how we are losing touch with our food, and the many problems that come with a bad diet. This kind of snow storage goes back to a time where if you wanted to eat vegetables over the winter you had to grow them and store them yourself. It is hard work but ultimately better for you. It also makes you realise why the fresh green of the mountain vegetables in spring is such a great treat in Japan. For many people it was the first fresh food that they would have had for 6 months.
The daikon tsugura is made entirely from rice straw. The modern harvest is done by machine, but the straw for the construction has to be cut by hand. This straw is becoming more of a rare commodity. Our first job was to make long lengths of thick straw bundles bound together with straw ties. It looked simple but you soon realised to do it well was an art. These were joined together and then wound around into a dome shape, with each two layers tied together with straw lashes. The roof/lid was more straw tied together with rope, again made from straw. Nowhere was our instructor’s skill more apparent than making the rope. There are several techniques, each with their own use and meaning. We were (supposed to be) making a two strand, right side twisted rope. The instructor would take a few strands of straw in each hand and seemingly roll them together. A tightly rolled, neat rope appeared as if by magic. Extra strands were added to the ends and a long rope was soon ready for action. What came out of our hands was several strands of crumpled straw, much to our instructor’s amusement.
After about 3 hours, and plenty of help and advice, we had a passable daikon tsugura finished and ready for radishes. That was the end of Day 1, and it was off for a night of relaxing onsen and wonderful ryokan food.
Day 2 saw us pulling on gum boots and heading out to our instructor’s fields. He’d already been up harvesting leeks and was now ready to show us the art of pulling white radishes. There is usually plenty of the radish sticking out of the ground, so a quick pull and they easily come up. Dust the dirt off, cut off the leaves (the inner ones can be pickled though the outer ones are too tough) and they are ready for their winter home in the daikon tsugura. We then got a guided tour of his fields and learned about the famous carrots from Tsunan that spend the winter under the snow. One year the snow came before the carrots were harvested. Come spring the farmers thought it was a waste to leave the carrots and tried to eat them. They found them really sweet and much tastier than their usual carrots, so a new industry was born. Storing food, and even sake in snow has been found to raise the sweetness and improve flavor so this technique is very popular in many parts of Japan now – but Tsunan has bragging rights as the first.
With our haul of several kinds of vegetables it was back to the daikon tsugura. We carried it out to its winter site under a maple tree and laid down a bed of cedar branches. This would keep out the mice who would find it too prickly, keep the radishes off the ground, and also insulate the heat. Back in the day people would put the cedar fronds in their shoes to make them warmer! With the daikon tsugura on top of the cedar, the radishes were laid inside and our job was done.
With our mini harvest in, it was now time for the traditional festival which is a little celebration to the gods of agriculture. The food of choice for this is mochi which is special rice pounded with giant mallets into a sticky mess, and then served with grated freshly harvested radish & soy sauce. Often when making mochi there is someone turning the rice over and each time they do this they add a little water so they don’t stick to it. This makes a slightly weaker kind of mochi. For our harvest festival we used nothing but the giant hammers and no additional water so the result was a very dense sticky rice. Our instructor considers this a far superior mochi! We were also served kenchin stew which is a local speciality consisting of locally harvested vegetables, plants, and mushrooms.
After making the daikon tsugura, harvesting the radishes, and the exertion of making the mochi it was great to sit in the autumn sun surrounded by a great view and listen to stories of days gone by. In this day and age there is so much information right at your fingertips, but listening to an 82 year old local you realise that they have so much wisdom and knowledge of a way of life that we know nothing about, but probably should. One of the aims of the Snow Country Culture Workshops is to keep this wisdom alive.
The same instructor will be leading the next edition of the workshops in February which will be making traditional kanjiki snowshoes and taking them out into the deep snows of Tsunan.