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Foraging and the Japanese 'sansai' tradition

by Takehiko 'Riko' Hashimoto, 05 June2020

As supermarket shelves were stripped empty with the outbreak of COVID-19 coronavirus, we have been reminded how precarious our food supply really is in our modern lives. It is therefore heartening to see that this has led to a growing interest in self-sufficient living, even among those who have never grown their own veggies before. During most of human history, self-sufficiency has been the norm, and famine resulted when people could not gather or produce enough food. It is only since the 20th century with industrialisation and globalisation, the number of people living in cities and working in “day jobs” dramatically increased, bringing with it a consumer lifestyle—and the loss of self-sufficiency.

Many cultures around the world have a custom of foraging for wild edible plants, especially in challenging environments where agriculture did not always produce an abundance of food. In the Japanese countryside, gathering ‘sansai’ or wild vegetables is an important tradition. As winter gives way to spring, many Japanese roam the forests and fields to collect a huge range of edible plants, as new shoots burst forth from ground that may have been mantled by snow only a week ago. For the countryfolk, sansai gathering also represents an important social activity that brings people together after spending much of the long winter indoors. The heat and humidity of Japanese summer brings luxuriant growth, and more opportunities for sansai gathering. As the landscape takes on brilliant autumnal hues, the countryfolks once again head outdoors to gather wild fruits, nuts, root vegetables and mushrooms—including chestnuts, walnuts, persimmons, wild yam and shimeji.

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