Patchwork Yokohama
14. Bamboo Yokohama
by Pencil Louis
          Vince Patchwork was  born  and raised in the Western suburbs
          of Melbourne, which  is  about  as far from farm life as you
          can get. His mother would happily tell anyone that the first
          time he saw  grass, he burst into tears and, from the age of
          four, whenever he  visited a farm, not only was he terrified
          of the cows,  the  pigs,  the sheep and horse, but they were
          equally terrified of him.


          As a teenager, he had once decided to start a garden and had
          dug up a  sizable  square  of  the back lawn. He had planted
          zucchinis, carrots, tomatoes,  potatoes  and  pumpkins,  but
          absolutely nothing came up. Even radishes, which are so easy
          to grow and  need  absolutely  no maintenance, wouldn't grow
          for Vince.

          All  the  same,  something  of  the  very  rural  nature  of
          Australia had seeped  up through the Footscray pavements and
          infected Vince. Once  he  arrived  in Japan, he developed an
          intense interest in Japanese agriculture and its differences
          from Australian agriculture.

          Indeed, this was  one  of  the  reasons Vince had decided to
          move to Yokohama  in  the  first  place. Nozomi had told him
          that it was  very  country. Connie, who had been born in the
          saddle, scoffed at  the very notion. Although Nozomi herself
          lived in a  great  thicket  of bamboo with elegantly layered
          fields climbing up  from  the  house, she was less than five
          minutes from the  No.  41  bus route, just around the corner
          from the nearest  factory  and  even  closer  to a number of
          apartment blocks.

          This, however, was  Vince's  sort  of  country.  It had more
          concrete than grass,  a  24 hour supermarket and bottle shop
          which Carl Lewis  could have run to in less than 30 seconds,
          a sushi shop  and no less than four hair dressers that Vince
          could have hit  with a stone. If he needed to be reminded he
          was in the  country,  all  he  had to do was ring a taxi. He
          went through every  listing  in  the  telephone book and was
          told each time  that  they  didn't serve country residences.
          There was in  fact a taxi service and parking depot over the
          road and even  they wouldn't send a taxi to such an isolated
          area.

          Even where they  had  farms,  they were of a manageable size
          and looked more  like  market  gardens.  In  fact, they grew
          crops that Vince  could  easily  identify with - spinach and
          eggplants and Chinese cabbage.

          Nothing exemplified the  Japanese  countryside  so  much  as
          bamboo, but when  Osamu had told him that bamboo was nothing
          but a pest  and  that it got into the drains and everything,
          Vince had almost  doubled  over  with  laughter. Osamu might
          have been offended,  but had merely assumed that he had made
          a grammatical error in English.

          On his fifteenth  birthday,  Vince Patchwork hadn't received
          any  presents from  his  parents.  He  had  been  handed  an
          envelope which contained  a demand that he uproot and remove
          all the bamboo from the back garden and an ultimatum that he
          do it before  12th.  August, a date some three months to the
          day later. In  return,  he would receive payment by the hour
          and learn the  joys  of earning honest money by the sweat of
          his brow.

          His father assured  him that the hourly rate of 20 cents was
          more than he  himself  had earned in a week at the same age.
          Vince  knew  better   than   to  lecture  his  father  about
          inflation,  but even  Luke  Slattock,  who  worked  for  the
          butcher as a delivery boy, earned three times his own meagre
          stipend while Matt  Harvey  got  two  dollars  an  hour  for
          working in his father's quarry.

          Nevertheless, Vince set  to  work eradicating the bamboo. He
          had thought that  it  would be something like pulling weeds,
          at the most  like  up-rooting  rose bushes or Norfolk pines.
          But no, this was bamboo with the most intricate root network
          of any plant.  It  is  so  intense  that  it holds the earth
          together and it  is little wonder that in Japan, people seek
          refuge in bamboo  groves  during  earthquakes. Indeed, Vince
          was soon to  discover  why  his  father  wanted  the  bamboo
          removed. It was  all  through  the  drainage  system and the
          septic tank. Vince  had  often wondered why their toilet had
          high tides and  low  tides  like the sea. He had just always
          assumed that it  had  something to do with the phases of the
          moon.

          Twenty years later,  Vince  still had the callouses from his
          three month struggle with the bamboo, tackling a job that no
          professional would have  touched.  There were also emotional
          scars, because he  had  ultimately  lost  the fight with the
          bamboo  patch. It  usually  didn't  show,  but  Vince  never
          laughed at anyone's  English  grammar lest they laugh at his
          Japanese grammar. He  did,  however,  find it hilarious that
          bamboo should be as much of a pest in a country where it was
          a native and a national symbol of strength and endurance. In
          so many ways, Japan was more of a bamboo culture than a rice
          culture. It was  used in so many traditional product- tatami
          mats, children's toys  like  tops  and  stilts,  New  Year's
          decorations, garden fences,  ladles. Goodness, they had even
          once  hung their  washing  on  bamboo  poles.  Trucks  still
          prowled the streets with loud speakers chanting in prolonged
          syllables:


          "Take no saotake."

          The recorded message  went on to say that these bamboo poles
          were the same  price  as  20  years ago. Vince made a mental
          note never to  invest  in  bamboo  stocks.  Somewhere in the
          middle of 1992,  bamboo  must  have  gone up in price as the
          message changed. It  now  thanked  all  their  customers for
          their continued support.  This seemed even more unbelievable
          than the first message as in his entire time in Saedocho, he
          had never seen  one person buy so much as a stick of bamboo.
          In fact, he  had  felt so sorry for the poor bamboo man that
          he had tried  to  hail  him  down one day to barter over the
          purchase of a  pole.  Not  only  did  the truck not stop, it
          almost ran Vince  over.  He  was  further  disillusioned  to
          discover that the  bamboo  poles were not made out of bamboo
          anyway, but were plastic imitations.

          Vince actually wondered  if  bamboo  was so widely used as a
          material in Japan  because  it was such a pest. He wasn't in
          the least surprised  to discover that it was actually a food
          as well. Obviously, you couldn't munch into one of the thick
          trunks or even  eat the leaves, but, at certain times of the
          year, new bamboo  trunks began to shoot up, often growing as
          much as a metre and a half in one day. If you managed to get
          the bamboo shoot  or  takenoko  just  as it was breaking the
          surface of the  earth,  it  was  a  tender delicacy. Digging
          these shoots was not only a good way to get a feed, but also
          a way of thinning the bamboo.

          In Ikebe-cho, the  bamboo shoots started at the beginning of
          April and were  available  for  an  entire month. In Kyushu,
          they came up in March, while in Northern Honshu, May was the
          month. Takenoko only  come from the thick-trunked Moso breed
          of bamboo and  the  Hokkaido  climate  is too harsh for this
          genus. Vince was surprised to discover that Mosotake was not
          native to Japan,  but  had  come  from China, originally via
          Okinawa, about 200 years ago when Okinawa had been annexed.

          Osamu was a  takenoko expert. He had been digging them since
          the age of six. The most important skill, he informed Vince,
          was the reading  of  the  true line of the root. It took ten
          years, Osamu explained,  to  look  at a bamboo shoot and see
          the true line  of  the root. However, as Vince was obviously
          very intelligent, he  might  be  able  to  learn to do it in
          seven years. It admittedly did look rather easy, but when it
          came time for  Vince  himself  to cast a critical eye on the
          line of the  takenoko, he discovered that his best instincts
          were all between 70 and 270 degrees out.

          To dig the  takenoko, Isamu used a 130 centimetres long iron
          pole called a  nomi.  It  looked  like a crow bar, but had a
          splayed and sharpened  end about 7 centimetres wide. It is a
          jabbing instrument which  is  operated  with  an  under  arm
          action. Osamu frowned at Vince's first long arcing strokes.

          "You have no  accuracy," he explained, "with long blows. You
          must use short  strong  strokes.  Use  your legs and body as
          well as the  strength in your arms. The nomi shouldn't curve
          upwards."

          Vince soon understood that the general idea was to dig under
          the bamboo shoot  and  sever  the  root  from  below without
          touching the soft  flesh of the takenoko itself. Isamu could
          dig a takenoko  in  30  seconds, but it took Vince something
          more like ten  minutes.  And even then, he had sent the nomi
          straight into the heart of the bamboo shoot flesh five times
          before  he dug  one  correctly.  In  this  time,  Osamu  had
          gathered thirty bamboo  shoots  and  was husking them with a
          long knife.

          One by one,  he  cut  away  the outside leaves of the bamboo
          shoot to reveal  a milky white flesh. Takenoko, he explained
          to Vince, are best cooked immediately after they are dug.

          "But you can  buy  them in the shops, all year round," Vince
          remarked.

          Osamu smiled thinly,  "Those  are  the  preboiled and vacuum
          sealed takenoko. They're  okay,  but  they  don't  have  the
          subtle  flavour of  the  fresh  ones.  Some  people  are  so
          fanatical about having  them  fresh that they don't dig them
          out of the ground at all. They dig around the root and light
          a fire. Then, they eat them straight out of the ground."

          Vince couldn't persuade  Osamu-san  to  even try cooking the
          takenoko in the  ground.  The shoots were taken upstairs and
          chopped into chunky  slices.  During  the  dissection of the
          takenoko, Vince was able to read the whole future history of
          the bamboo trunk.  All  its  future segments and joints were
          already in place.  After  chopping,  the  bamboo shoots were
          boiled for about  twenty minutes with rice husks. These were
          to absorb any  bad  tastes in the takenoko, Osamu explained.
          The shoots vary  in quality. If they are white, they are the
          best. Yellow takenoko is old and green takenoko is inedible.
          Osamu preferred the  bottom of the shoot which is crunchier.
          His teeth were  good  after  all  and  it was the elderly or
          people with poor  teeth that preferred the softer top of the
          shoot.


          The takenoko was  mixed  in  with  gluggy  rice  and aburage
          (deep-fried tofu). It was also sprinkled with sansho, a herb
          that is most  popular  in  its  dried powder form with unagi
          (fresh water eel).  It is also used with takenoko because it
          is ready for  picking  at  the  same time of the year. Osamu
          picked up the  tiny  freshly  picked leaves and clapped them
          between his hands twice to release the flavour.

          Osamu also prepared,  for  the  first  time,  some  takenoko
          sashimi. This is  not  fish  and  not  raw as the name would
          suggest. He explained  that  raw  takenoko was poisonous and
          Vince was later  to discover that the poison was, in fact, a
          type of cyanide  which  was  quickly  cooked  out.  Instead,
          takenoko was cooked for just under a minute and then served.
          It was crunchier  than  the other, but tasted much the same,
          Vince thought.

          For his last  trick,  Osamu took some bamboo shoot husks and
          first scorched them  over  an open gas flame. They were then
          folded into a  triangle  and pickled plum was placed inside.
          They looked like  flat onigiri rice cakes and you sucked the
          flesh of the  umeboshi plum out of one of the three corners.
          He explained that when he was a child it was a special treat
          in April to  suck  on  these and that he could make one last
          for over an  hour.  When  times  were  tough and there was a
          shortage of umeboshi,  they  put the shiso leaves which were
          used in the  pickling  process of the umeboshi. Sashimi, raw
          fish, is usually served with shiso.

          As for the  taste  of  the takenoko themselves, Vince had to
          agree that they  were  a  delicacy  of  the highest order, a
          seasonal food that could only be appreciated in the month of
          April. If Vince  had  ever seriously thought of taking Osamu
          up on his  offer of a seven year takenoko apprenticeship, he
          quickly decided against  it when he saw Osamu's refrigerated
          store room with  humungous  takenoko,  three  times the size
          that he had been digging, earlier that day.