Each household had its own seasoning, and people even took pride in the flavor of their own pickles.
They went after mushrooms in autumn. A culture of Japan, handed down from the days of yore, was quite active in this mountainous community, located near the southernmost end of Iwate Prefecture.
Higashiyama is home to the Geibikei valley, designated a “place of scenic beauty” by the central government, where the Satetsugawa river has cut deep into the limestone in the earth and leaves shine a glorious red in autumn.
Residents used to pick wild plants and mushrooms “for fun.” But a group of people in the community is now trying to grow mountain plants on farms.
The group, which calls itself an “association for the preservation of Michinoku (northeastern Japan) culinary culture,” last year planted Japanese angelica, bracken and “koshiabura” plant on fallow farmland on subsidies obtained from the city government. Harvests are envisaged in the spring of 2016.
The group is the brainchild of Makoto Maeda, the 64-year-old president of a cooperative in Higashiyama, which operates a “Kisetsukan” fresh-from-the-farm outlet outside JR Shibajuku Station.
Wild plants and mushrooms picked by local residents used to fill Kisetsukan’s shelves, along with cakes made of locally produced rice, vegetables and other ingredients.
But things have never been the same since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, triggered by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
Rain sometimes coincided with southerly winds arriving from the direction of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which continued spewing large amounts of radioactive substances from mid- to late March of that year. Afterward, the mountains of Ichinoseki were no longer what they used to be.
'BLESSINGS OF THE MOUNTAINS'
Japanese angelica, bracken, royal fern, bamboo shoots--these “blessings of the mountains” in succession came under shipment bans and voluntarily shipment restraints after radioactive substances were detected in them.
This spring, Kisetsukan only had a meager lineup of products that are not covered by shipment restrictions, such as butterbur, wasabi leaves and “shidoke” plants.
It takes 30 years for radioactive cesium-137, which polluted the mountains, to lose half its mass. If nothing is done to change the situation, that could endanger an entire culture, of which blessings of the mountains have always been a part.
That led Maeda to come up with the idea of growing mountain plants on clean ground so they are safe to eat.
“We can take back our culture as long as we keep eating what we have always eaten,” Maeda said. “We will one day be going into the mountains again to gather wild plants and mushrooms.”
But easier said than done.
Ichinoseki had 76 fresh-from-the-farm outlets, such as Kisetsukan, before the Fukushima nuclear disaster, but 14 of these have since gone out of business.
“Smaller outlets, where elderly men and women used to sell wild plants and mushrooms of their own picking, have nothing any longer to sell and are being driven out of operations,” said Jun Yanada, a forestry official with the city government. “The situation is so awful.”
One industry received a crushing blow--the culturing of shiitake mushrooms on oak tree logs.
Iwate Prefecture formerly was a major producer of log-grown shiitake.
It boasted an output of 201 tons in dried shiitake and 385 tons in raw shiitake in 2010, but both figures plummeted to less than half in 2012, partly because most of the mushrooms used to be grown outdoors under natural environments and partly because radioactive contamination rendered substrate tree logs unusable.
Grains, vegetables, mushrooms and other food products are banned from shipments when their radioactive cesium levels exceed 100 becquerels per kilogram.
But substrate tree logs are banned from use at half that threshold, or 50 becquerels per kg, because cesium levels in shiitake mushrooms rise to double the levels in their substrates.
“Blessings of the mountains have smart ways to collect and amass rare natural nutrients,” said Toru Kikuchi, a forestry official with the Iwate prefectural government. “That is precisely why they represented ‘blessings.’ ”
But that blessing backfired.
Growing shiitake mushrooms on tree logs is laborious. Harvest comes only at the end of two summers after the logs are inoculated with spawn in winter. Even if the cultures were to be restarted next winter, there would be no harvest before the autumn of 2016.
More than 70 percent of log-grown shiitake mushroom producers told a survey by the Ichinoseki city government that they did not want to restart their cultures.
More than three years from the start of the nuclear crisis, shipment bans and voluntary shipment restrictions continue to affect wild plants and mushrooms in 15 prefectures.
The number of log-grown shiitake mushroom producers has plummeted to less than one-fifth and less than one-third the pre-disaster levels, respectively, in Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures.
'SATOYAMA' CULTURE AT RISK
Fukushima Prefecture, a major producer of “konara” oak trees, has provided mushroom substrate logs to all parts of Japan. From generation to generation, Fukushima people have taken care of konara trees in their “satoyama,” or biologically diverse border areas that surround human habitats.
But the nuclear disaster rendered many of the logs unshippable. The output of substrate tree logs now stands at only 6 percent of pre-disaster levels.
Lost sales of trees will mean fewer opportunities to take care of them. A satoyama culture, which people have long preserved, is on the brink of collapsing.
The prefectural government plans to study how far radioactive levels will have reduced when new shoots from the stumps of konara trees cut down have again grown into trees. It takes 20-30 years for new shoots to grow large enough to serve as mushroom substrates.
The time scale is mind-boggling, but nobody can afford to just be idly looking on, said Masaaki Watabe, a forestry official with the Fukushima prefectural government.
“I have nothing to say/ In the face of hometown mountains/ So gratifying/ Are my hometown mountains”--so goes a famous short poem by Takuboku Ishikawa (1886-1912), a native of Iwate Prefecture.
The mountains have always been part of people’s lives. When will things return to the way they used to be?