Chawanmushi with kinome and preserved sakura buds
Summer has felt slow to arrive, but that’s just my impatience speaking. Finally the first warm night of the year arrived on the eve of May. I opened the window to listen the humming crickets and felt the nighttime air on my skin void of chill for the first time. With the balm comes an early summer symphony. Walks around the neighborhood take us past terraced rice fields flooded in preparation for planting. The guttural call of mating frogs reverberates throughout the valley and the air vibrates with the buzz of busy insects. Above us crows gather in spades and holler at each other all day long.
These days I’ve been feeling particularly grateful for this rural life. I can head out the door and walk for miles in any direction enjoying clean air and sunshine without a thought of running into someone. Instead of scanning the horizon for people, we watch our step because snakes like this early summer sun as much as we do and one just might napping on the very path we tread. On a recent long walk I saw only one person, a woman of at least 70 clambering halfway up a steep hillside plucking late season warabi. Holding the hem of her shirt in her fist she made a sling that bulged with bracken ferns. I hope to be her at that age, a resourceful spirit climbing the hills to gather the abundant resources of a generous earth. It makes for a strong constitution and hopefully a good long life. For that woman on that hillside that afternoon there may as well have been no pandemic. And for that matter, for us as well as we travel country roads listening to the frogs throwing their voices across the freshly flooded paddies and rejoice in the forgotten but familiar sounds of summer returning.
Here in the hills we have far fewer of the cultural amenities of the world’s great cities, the thrall of a constantly evolving cultural landscape, the cult of the new and the thrill of the next hip thing. But we have our own ever changing landscape, one ruled by natural forces far more beautiful and convincing than the mind could ever muster. Though a pandemic instills an extra urgency and immediacy, in the countryside this acute awareness of the temporal nature of life is our constant companion.
We wake every day to new sights and sounds and smells, to the thrill of fleeting wonders and delights. These days I have been throwing myself into this small piece of land that feels like a kingdom to me. I’m finding trees and shrubs I planted years ago forgotten in shady corners and bringing them out into the light. Recently a kabosu tree desperate for more sun caught my eye. As I set my shovel to the ground to loosen the tree’s roots for quick transplant I saw there beside my foot very recognizable sapling. It was a minuscule sansho tree, a delicate twig bearing four fronds as long as the stem is tall, growing from a seed that took flight and then took root. I cast the shovel aside, gathered it up and found a pot to plant it in. The wee twig of tree now grows just outside my door in a planter I found behind the house.
I fell in love with sansho on my first day in Japan, long before I knew I would come to call this place home. For years I have been dreaming of a little sansho orchard. I’ll tend the transplanted shoot until it’s big enough to hold its own. Then I’ll plant it near my other sansho tree which I visit often in this season. I make my way down to gather a few fragrant fronds. The days are growing longer and two doves coo in the evening air. Back in the kitchen I slap them between two palms to release the fragrance before laying them atop a steamed chawanmushi egg custard alongside preserved sakura buds.The mosquitoes haven’t yet arrived in droves and it’s warm enough to eat outside. Summer’s eve is the sweetest.