Hokkaido and the rest of Japan has a culture of foraging and consuming the edible, not typically commercially-available, wild plants (known as sansai) that grow lushly all over the island. There’s an abundance of food, if you know where to look and can discern between various plants.
I think I’ve had an interest in wild plants and animals since a really young age. However, for the most part I grew up in the city, despite frequent visits to see family in more rural parts of the States. Really, it was when I came to Hokkaido that I started to really get outside, and learn more about my surroundings. During the time I’ve been here, I’ve been lead into the woods, besides rivers, and even just to street shoulders to learn about plants that I’ve doubtless seen hundreds of times, but never paid attention to.
Before I go any further, though, I need to warn you- I’m not an expert. Every time I’ve picked and eaten any of these plants, it’s been with someone who has much more experience than me in finding and identifying them, and I’ve been cautioned and shown lookalike (inedible and sometimes poisonous) plants many times. Sometimes, parts of a plant can be eaten while other parts can’t and are dangerous. So be careful, and go with someone experienced if this piques your interest!
Anyway! The most recent new plant I’ve learned of is kokuwa, also known as zarunashi (this translates as “monkey pear”). I’ve actually seen these laying on the ground and always figured they were some ornamental plant, and basically ignored them. So, when I heard a lumberjack friend telling me excitedly that he had cut down a tree with kokuwa vines and was able to get a lot of the fruits, I didn’t make the connection between that and the little green bulbs I’d seen before. He told me they were like tiny kiwis, and once he saw how interested I was, promised to bring me some the next day.
This is what he brought me! A humongous bowl of these olive-sized green/brown fruits. And when he cut it open:
Sure enough, it looks like a kiwi! The softer ones were easy to squeeze out from their skin, and when I ate some they definitely had a kiwi taste.
This was the first time I’d ever seen or eaten this, so I did some research. Outside of Japan these go by the names hardy kiwi, grape kiwi, artic kiwi, baby kiwi, and others. They grow in Hokkaido where normal kiwis won’t, because they’re pretty tough and resistant to cold, and are actually related to the common kiwi fruit. But they’re kind of a super-kiwi; they grow extremely fast and aggressively, and will kill trees that the vines attach to. People like to make jams and alcohol of them- my lumberjack friend actually made a big jar of kokuwa-shu.
They have a lot of vitamin C, and you can actually eat the whole thing, though my friend doesn’t enjoy eating them that way. I liked it either way, and eventually moved to just eating the whole thing because it’s easier.
So! Here’s just one of many experiences I’ve had with overlooked plants in Hokkaido. I’ll bring some more soon!