Saw my old friend Smokin Joe Matsumoto the other day after a winter’s hiatus. Like the old bear he is, the scent of a Japanese spring had teased him from his lair and back to his plot of earth beside our waterway, the Semba River. I’m guessing those endless tempura lunches and hot pot dinners all through the long cold months had expended his supply of homegrown vegetables and there was nothing for it but to go break the soil for a new planting.
For the record, Smokin Joe is not only a damn good cook, he is a man of indeterminable age and boundless wisdom, AND he has a right arm that could kill a watermelon thief with an eggplant at 50 paces. Like the grasshopper in the Aesop’s fable, he is also a prodigious and pragmatic food producer—a ‘celery man’ in a nation of ‘salarymen’—working for his garden, not a company, reaping the bounty for himself, not his boss.
Now spring has passed and the warmer temperatures mix with rain to unleash green fury on our neighborhood. Not so long ago I awoke to cherry blossoms outside my window; now it’s Day of the Triffids; creeper, weeds and bamboo swallow the old and derelict houses and will do so until distant relatives of their deceased (or institutionalised) owners can fight back with hand saws and weed cutters. This does not bother the tadpoles—there will always be broken flower pots and abandoned bathtubs filled with rainwater for swimming lessons. After, the paddy snakes will decide the quick and dead.
Early evening when the western sky is still bright enough to see by and the bats are skirting and diving over the Semba River is when the kitchen gardeners are most active. Up and down the river they muddle about in their small plots of land, tossing buckets attached to ropes into the current to top up their bathtub water tanks for the long, hot days ahead, then maybe puff thoughtfully on a cigarette, like my mate Smokin Joe, or put a sly beer down the hatch before bundling their bounty onto a bicycle and peddling home to more beer and baseball on TV. These constant gardeners are the last hold-outs in the war against the Machines, the construction companies and their excavators, and the real estate agents so keen to turn productive earth into pavement-for-profit—parking lots, that is.
Last year Smokin Joe was robbed by watermelon thieves. They came in the night and rolled off his best. Another day he noticed soil missing and filed a report with police. The cops call in occasionally to say they’re “still working on it” and together Smokin and I try to imagine the headlines when they solve this big one: “Soil Gang Foiled” or “Cops Hit Pay Dirt” or “Quiet Earth Found.”
When the harvesting begins, the bounty reaches everyone. My neighbours, the affable Funabiki barbers, brought me a string of giant onions yesterday and last week a bag of eggplant and capsicums was left swinging from my door by an anonymous friend. Sometimes the old woman who feeds the grey heron on the Semba also feeds me—with a great dirty daikon from her veggie patch.
Smokin Joe, by his very nature, is a generous man, proffering bags and baskets of vegetables as the seasons progress: strawberries in May, capsicum and broad beans in June, sweet peas and cherry tomatoes in July, corn in August and the culinary calendar rolls on until December arrives and Smokin goes into hibernation with a crate of sake and enough cooking oil to see him through the winter. In the meantime I look forward to June. June means cucumber: cucumber for breakfast, cucumber for lunch, cucumber for dinner. There’s nothing like a chilled cucumber with salted kelp served with a bottle of Kirin lager at the end of a hot June day.
Smokin Joe would agree.
What is the essence of a traditional Japanese neighbourhood? Writing from my home in Himeji, a castle town in western Honshu, Seaweed Salad Days distills, ferments, presents!