This is a story about vegetables in April. However, to tell it properly, my readers will have to let me back up to one frigid morning in late December, when the snow was still light and fluffy, and the fall harvest of vegetables was still overflowing in our pantry. In greatest abundance were kabocha, potatoes, and giant white daikon radishes, the sweet kind grown in the cool months of late summer that taste so good when graded and mixed with soy sauce. All were organic, hand-grown in our own backyard, and extremely delicious.
We were leaving soon to travel back to Honshu and visit the in-laws for the holidays and were in a dilemma about what to do with all our produce. We couldn’t very well take bushels of them back with us on the plane. And we couldn’t very well leave them in the house, as one day without anyone running the heater and the temperature would plummet well below freezing.
It’s a rather unusual situation when the warmest place in the house is the inside of your refrigerator. And, we certainly tried to stuff as many vegetables as possible in every nook and cranny of it. But since the refrigerator we were provided by the board of education was only slightly bigger than a hotel mini bar, this strategy did little to alleviate our problem. And so with only 30 minutes before we had to catch a bus, the fate of a vast majority of our perishables remained uncertain.
You may well be wondering why we left such an important decision to the last minute. But, fascinating as it may be, I will spare you the logic of our procrastination. Besides, we decided at last to ask Mr. Matsuno to keep our vegetables at his home. Mr. Matsuno, or “Papa-san,” as he insisted we call him, is like an adopted father to us in this little town, far away from both our real families. His eyelids, swollen and droopy from years of overwork and sleep deprivation, hang down over his eyes like two over-sized winter futons and give him the appearance of complete emotional indifference. When he does smile, whether it be from mirth or the sudden onset of novel intellectual activity, it is usually coincided by a flash or glimmer that somehow manages to shoot out through his long dark lashes. Otherwise, it is only by lifting his brow to the greatest degree that he can expose his eyeballs in any outwardly perceptible manner, a feat that only occurs in moments of greatest surprise. His personality is hitherto unique among all people that I have encountered. We jokingly like to refer to it as inconsiderately kind, which is another way of saying that he has an incredible capacity to give you things that you don’t need or want whatsoever. But his actions, though often trying, always conveyed the most genuine and heartfelt love for us. So what could we do but find him endearing.
It just so happened on that December morning of our departure, Mr. Matsuno was to come and give us a ride to the bus station. Thus, we figured why not further take advantage of his generosity by asking him to take our vegetables too, after all they were already neatly packed in separate boxes and could be easily loaded into his car. Problem solved, or so we believed.
He arrived in his usual fashion, 20 minutes early, and without ringing the doorbell or even knocking, he opened the front door and came right in.
“Boasen! Good morning!” He yelled. “Are you ready yet?” But before I could even go and greet him, he had already taken off his shoes and burst into the living room.
It was only our fifth month living here, and we were still getting used to the familiarity of country folk. To my wife especially, who comes from the greater Tokyo metropolitan area, the only people who come into one’s home without ringing the bell, nor knocking, and without an invitation are either immediate family or thieves. Needless to say, insisting we call him, “Papa,” was psychologically to his to his advantage.
“Papa-san, do you think you might be able to keep our vegetables at your house for us while we’re away?”
“Vegetables? Why sure. Of course I could.” Then one of those glimmers shot from his eyes. I could almost see the hamster wheel spinning above his head. “Did you put as much as you could in the refrigerator?” he asked slyly.
“Yes, we did. But our fridge is so small. There’s no way we can fit all this in our fridge.” We gestured to our boxes of produce in the pantry and his eyes opened the tiniest of fractions. But his smile remained.
“I can take these vegetables of course,” he said. “But do you know what people here do with extra vegetables like this?”
We shook our heads in dread, which he mistakenly interpreted as “no.”
“They bury them in the snow!” He proclaimed.
God help us and our vegetables, I thought.
“Snow is a natural refrigerator,” he continued. “And it will keep these vegetables fresh far better than I can by keeping them at my house.”
My wife and I exchanged looks. If five months with Mr. Matsuno had taught us anything it was that, while the fundamental basis for his assertations might be true, the reasoning or methodology behind them was often based on little or even no first-hand experience. Our skepticism deepened when he began piling our neatly organized vegetables haphazardly into one big cardboard box, all the while muttering, “Natural refrigerator … This is how we do it in the north country.”
He hauled the big box outside and set it down next to a giant snow bank behind our garage. Then he grabbed our snow shovel, one I always keep handy by the front door, and proceeded to carve out a big hole in the snow. Our nervousness would have been perceptible to a blind person, but not to Mr. Matsuno.
“Papa-san, this seems like a lot of work,” I ventured. “Perhaps you don’t have space at home? We can just ask Ms. Tsujii or the Ueharas.”
“Oh, no, no,” he retorted, waving away the suggestion with his hand. “I have plenty of space. This way is just better.” He resumed digging. “This is part of our culture here, using nature’s refrigerator.” He made one last ‘heave-ho’ and then took our vegetables, box and all, and tossed it into the hole. It clearly wasn’t big enough for the box.
He paused, seemingly dumbfounded. Clearly he hadn’t anticipated this shortcoming. Yet his brow remained unfurrowed and his eyes shut.
“I’ll take it back out and help you dig the hole bigger, Papa-san,” I offered and started as if to pick up the box.
However, wanting to maintain his command of the situation he quickly came to his senses. “No, no. It’s OK,” he said boldly, with that gleam back in his eye, and he jammed the shovel into the snow around the box and began piling it on top. When at last he got the whole thing buried to about 10 centimeters of depth, he gave the surface a few good whacks with the snow shovel and declared, “There you go! A natural refrigerator!”
I didn’t really believe my vegetables had a fat chance in hell of surviving stored in this manner. But Mr. Matsuno was adamant that they would be alright. And who was I, some wet-behind-the-ears foreigner, to tell him that the method he proclaims all the people in this area use to store their vegetables was ludicrous. The last thing anyone wants to do is offend a person that does so much in the name of your well being. So we swallowed our complaints, said thank you very much, and graciously accepted his ride to the bus station. And true to form, there he politely waited with us until the bus came, we got on board, and were safely away.
When we returned in January, the first thing I thought about doing was digging up our vegetables. But Mr. Matsuno intervened. “Unless you really need them, leaving them alone is best,” he assured us. Reluctantly, I accepted this advice, seeing as the snowpack was now twice what it was when we buried the vegetables. Moreover, since we didn’t even precisely mark the location, it was going to be quite the chore to uncover them. So, there they sat… until the first of April.
Low on vegetables and craving our homegrown goods, we swore that our efforts would not be thwarted this time. Temperatures had occasionally warmed above freezing in the past week, so the snow was now settled and hard. And with only a vague notion of where they were buried, I was forced to dig a hole four times the area of the box in order to ensure I didn’t miss it.
But at last, I uncovered a dark, wet, slimy corner of cardboard. It was an ominous sign. Using my gloved hands now, I fervently scraped away the brittle icy snow. The entire box was soaked. I was almost scared to look inside. Gingerly I peeled up one flap of the lid. It tore off, limp and dripping in my hand.
To put it simply, there was nothing in the box that looked like vegetables. Instead there was a pile of decomposing, rotted goop.
Naturally we were dismayed at the failure of our “natural refrigerator.” Mr. Matsuno too was shocked when we told him the news after he burst in on us a day or two later, for his eyes jumped right out from under his futons. However, not once did he offer an apology. Not once did he say that he was wrong, or that he didn’t know what he was doing. He just said, “That’s too bad,” his head hanging low.
Then he slowly lifted it up and all at once that glimmer sparkled threateningly in his eyes. “I got a hankerin’ for ramen. I haven’t had any ramen since I can’t remember when. Come with me and eat some ramen.” He wasn’t asking. He was ordering. And despite his 65 years, he was grinning like a schoolboy. What could we do but say yes.