The coming of spring in northern Hokkaido is foretold by a steady progression of signs. First the snowpack settles and hardens. Then the deer and other herbivores start ranging wider in search of food. Then the bear wake up and start ranging after the deer and whatever else they can find. Then the bamboo grass starts poking out here and there. Soon after that, the first edible wild plants follow. And right on their heels, around mid-May, come the elderly.
Yes, it’s that time of year when all animals start going outside more, including old people, droves of them. And I’m not talking about just walking around town. I mean they head way out into the forest and range about in the bush for hours on end, gathering up all the edible plants they can find.
It’s a practice of self-sustainment they no doubt have been doing since they were children, in the days before supermarkets, convenience stores and even refrigerators. To survive the winter, you had to preserve your fall harvest. Pickling, fermentation, and cold storage were some of the basic ways people did that. But as the temperatures rose and the snows melted by late April, even if you had stock left, storage became a problem. Yet, as any gardener who lives in this area knows, the first harvestable home-grown vegetables usually aren’t ready until late June at the earliest. That leaves about two months of the year where the only fresh greens available are those picked from nature’s garden. And 24-hour Seico Mart or not, the old timers aren’t about to let it go to waste.
This mindset, I believe, bears some significance in relation to Japan’s fame for longevity. After all, when the topic comes up in conversation, what Japanese eat tends to take all the glory. Yet I think equally as important to consider is how they obtain what they eat. Because when they are not preparing and eating food, about the only thing elderly people are doing in my town during the growing season is working to obtain it.
To illustrate this, I recall for you a fine day, four years ago or so, in the middle of May. I was on my way back to town hall after finishing classes at the junior high school. Along the way, I happened to pass by the house of an adult English conversation student. She worked a number of different jobs and often couldn’t make it to class. So, as is customary when you pass a friend’s house in many small towns in Hokkaido, I decided to stop by to say hello and chat for a few minutes.
On this day when I came by, there was a car with its engine running parked out front, and giant crates of wild vegetables stacked by the porch.
“Someone’s been busy,” I thought, as I approached the door to ring the bell.
No sooner than I had rung when the door swung open and a spry old lady hopped out over the threshold. She couldn’t have been taller than five feet and looked up at me with dark, twinkling eyes peering out through a giant wrinkly smile.
“Oh, well, good afternoon,” she chirped.
“Good afternoon, ma’am,” I replied.
“Sure is a nice day today isn’t it?” she offered politely gesturing up to the puffy cumulous clouds and the bright blue sky. I should mention that I had no idea who this old lady was. But it is an unavoidable problem of being the only foreigner in a town that everyone knows you, regardless of wheather you have ever met them before or not. The only thing you can do is be gracious that they do know you, and speak as considerately as you can.
“Yes, ma’am. It’s a fine day.”
“Are you getting used to life here in the country yet?” she asked, turning back to smile at me again.
“Yes, indeed I am,” I answered enthusiastically. “I really love living here.”
“Well, I’m very glad to hear it,” she said sincerely. “I’m off dear,” she called back to the doorway, in which my friend was now standing. “I have to get home and start cooking dinner.” It was only three in the afternoon.
My friend and I walked with her to the curb, her back was bowed, I now realized, but her gate was long and sure. She waved at us, said goodbye, and then hopped in her car and sped away.
“Goodbye!” we called back in unison. Then my friend started laughing.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Oh, she just amazes me.”
“Who is she?”
“She’s my aunt.”
“Oh really? Does she live in town?”
“Yes, yes. And today she came to bring me some vegetables,” she said and gestured to all the crates sitting by the porch.
I was genuinely incredulous. “She picked all this?! Wow! That’s amazing. Aren’t these wild mountain vegetables?”
“Yes, they are!” she replied, thrilled that I recognized as much. “Do you like wild vegetables?” No one asks such a question with crates of wild vegetables around unless they are planning on sharing some of the bounty.
“Very much, yes,” I said, trying to feign ignorance at any forthcoming offer.
“How about wild garlic?”
“I love wild garlic!” My ability to feign failed me. But my friend was tickled to see my excitement.
“Here,” she said, handing me a plastic grocery bag stuffed with the vegetable and continuing to laugh.
“All this?! But what about you?” It was as close as I could get to the obligatory offer of refusal.
“Oh, don’t worry,” she assured me with a wave of her hand. “I have lots more bags of it inside.”
“Lot’s more bags?!” I exclaimed. My friend’s mirth magnified. “Where did she get all this wild garlic?”
“She spent all day picking it on the cliff face of Ohata mountain.”
Now, I don’t know about you. But I don’t normally associate the image of cliffs with that of little old ladies picking vegetables. Yet, unless my ears had just deceived me, that’s what my friend had just said. Granted, this particular cliff face wasn’t a sheer granite slab that one would scale with ropes and carabineers. However, it was a steep enough section of the aforesaid mountain that a large fence had been built all around it to prevent children, and little old ladies, from going beyond the summit parking lot and tumbling to their deaths into the forest and stream below. It was a place full of wild sticker bushes, wasps, spiders and ticks, and perhaps the last place I would imagine going hunting for wild vegetables (which perhaps explains why there was so many vegetables to be picked).
“You mean to tell me that your aunt, that five foot nothing old lady, skirted the fence on Ohata mountain and was wandering around all day long on the cliff?!”
“Yes!” my friend replied, wild with laughter.
“And now she’s going home, not to take a nap, mind you, but to cook for the rest of the day?!”
“Yes!” She was holding her sides now.
“You do realize that her back is slightly bowed?” I asked logically, mimicking her aunt’s walk in grand fashion.
She was holding herself up with a hand on the doorjamb now, but still managed between laughs, “When you’re lower to the ground, it makes it easier to keep your balance, especially on a cliff.”
I was laughing too now. But managed to ask, “How old is your aunt?”
I thought my friend was going to bust a rib after she said this. And I’m not sure if I was laughing more at the image of her aunt, or of the contagiousness of my friend’s happiness. Either way, it took a fair amount of time before we settled down enough to talk about anything else. Somehow we did, though, and eventually said our goodbyes as well. Yet as I took my bag of veggies home to give my wife, I found myself in deep reflection.
The episode had been a profound revelation into the way of life for people in my town. It also directly confronted my notion of what it means to be old. I was shocked to say the least. Since then, I’ve had countless other experiences that have only reinforced the opinion I formed on this day, that old people here are incredible. Perhaps someday I’ll write a book, The Incredible Feats of the Northern Hokkaido Elderly. In the meantime, I’ll be wishing that when I’m 85, I can be healthy enough to scour cliffs for wild vegetables. And therein, I think, lies the secret.