Wild Foods- Rakuyo

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.

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!

This especially applies with mushrooms, which I am going to talk about today! Because of all the rain that occurs in late summer and early fall, a lot have cropped up, and so I’ve eaten a lot of rakuyo (落葉) mushrooms.

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Some hard-to-gather rakuyo growing on trees.

I would never have though to eat rakuyo if they hadn’t been given to me by my tea ceremony teacher. They’re a muddy brown color, and the bottom of the mushroom cap is spongy, which usually would indicate something that I wouldn’t want to eat. They also tend to look… well… kind of slimy. But don’t let that turn you off from trying them if they’re ever offered to you!

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They go bad quickly, so you have to find them shortly after they sprout. I’ve never seen them offered for sale, and that could be why- just not a long enough shelf life.

I ate rakuyo quite a few different ways. My favorite was soaked in sweet vinegar, but people also eat them in miso soup, with daikon oroshi, and just generally in substitute for other mushrooms in recipes. They are… slimy… but they have a really good taste, assuming you can make it to your mouth and not drop it from your chopsticks onto the table. Give it a try if you have the chance!

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Wild Foods- Kokuwa

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.

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This is what he brought me! A humongous bowl of these olive-sized green/brown fruits. And when he cut it open:

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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.

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These aren’t quite ripe- when they’re much softer and a darker green, they taste best!

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.

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A kokuwa vine

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!

 

 

 

Summer’s End

Hey all! Summer has flown by. I think it always feels short in Hokkaido, like the cold weather wants to crowd out warmer days. But I and the rest of the dosanko made the best of it, and really enjoyed the time we had. Here’s a few shots of classic Hokkaido summer here in Takinoue, as we start to shift to autumn.

 

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Grilled scallops at an oustide yakiniku party, yum.
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The hydrangeas were especially beautiful this year! I’m still delighted they grow wild.
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Me in a yukata on the way to Takinoue’s summer festival… excuse the messy genkan.
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Sunset from the top of Rainbow Bridge. I was actually chilly when I took this!

 

Right now I’m bundled up, because it actually reached 8C last night (46F).  Yesterday it snowed on Asahidake, the highest mountain in Hokkaido. I expect the leaves to start changing soon, and when they do I’ll be back with some more pictures!

 

Where to Eat- Le Bella at Suehiro Inn

There are a couple of really amazing restaurants to visit in Takinoue, and I’d like to tell you about Le Bella!

Le Bella is the restaurant attached to the Suehiro Inn, very close to the Shibazakura Hill. The inside is really cute and warm, and there’s even a deck that sits overlooking the Shokotsu River. The deck even has standing heaters, to stay warm in the chilly evenings.

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The dining room

 

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The outside deck

They have a party room, which you can reserve for dinner. I have been to Le Bella many times for parties with friends and coworkers!

Le Bella’s food is amazing! While a lot of traditional Japanese food is available, the owner of Le Bella incorporates western cooking into her meals, so you can taste some amazing Japanese-fusion food! The menu changes seasonally, so there’s always what is best at that time of year available. You can even eat deer here!

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Clockwise from the top: Seasonal foods (deer-meat ajillo, avocado and prosciutto salad, bread, asparagus); deer meat katsu- curry; cold soba

Le Bella is typically open for lunch, but is available for dinner upon reservation. Come visit!