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
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
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
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 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
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
"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
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
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
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
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,
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.