Spring in Japan starts in the depth of winter. At least around where I live, they say that February is the coldest month. It’s a temperate zone so we don’t have to shovel snow off the roofs, but nights hover around freezing or just under, and the days don’t get much warmer than 40 F, if we’re that lucky.
But right in the coldest month, the plum trees bloom and a hazy pink shades hillsides that were brown or a dormant green before. The air is still freezing but the faint smell of the plum blossoms almost fools you into thinking of sunny, warm meadows. No matter how cold it is, we roll down all the windows when we drive by a big orchard in bloom.
The plums are just a tease—it’s cold for weeks longer—but soon the peaches bloom in their vibrant pink, mountain spring vegetables like tsukushi and taranome poke out of the ground, and our strawberry growing friends start talking about the end of the strawberry season. And suddenly take (tah-keh) no ko, bamboo shoots, show up on food trays and in the grocery stores and you think “Is it really that time already?”
But not this year! We haven’t heard a whisper about take no ko, but we went up to the bamboo forest yesterday and dug our first shoots. We beat the Joneses, we beat the grocery stores, and I hope to hear some comment from our customers about the surprising turn of the seasons when we serve it as a side on our lunch sets soon.
If you have a bamboo forest nearby, here’s how to dig your own. First, you need a pickaxe, or better, a takekuwa (bamboo hoe). In English we think of a hoe as something to turn dirt; in Japanese it means pretty much anything attached to a stick at something near 90 degrees that’s obviously not a rake. So the 3-pronged pick is a hoe, the crowbar for bamboo is a hoe, and everything in between is too. Check out this Google search for the range of tools falling under that category.
The takekuwa looks like half of a pickaxe but with a chisel for the head.
Then you’ll need some gloves. If you’re Japanese you’ll probably have ‘guntei’, or the white woven cotton gloves that actually do an OK job against dirt but get soaked by a bad weather report. If you’re smart you will have somehow gotten a pair of LL or XXLL leather gloves to fit your foreigner hands, and these you will use to sweep ground cover from the bamboo forest floor while feeling for bumps that feel like a shoot about to stick out—as they say, if it’s still underground it’s take no ko; if it’s above, it’s already take. Many will disagree with me here and say that you’re really supposed to shuffle along with your feet to feel for the shoots, and I’d invite those people to try to shuffle up or down our mountain…
When you find the little shoot sticking out, you’ll use your crowbar of incredible power to somehow cut through the ground, which is not so much dirt as it is a carpet of bamboo roots, without hitting or otherwise breaking the shoot. When you get enough ground cleared away, a powerful stroke or four will separate the soft shoot from the incredibly tough roots, and if you’re really skillful, your shoot will come away unbroken. The pictures show that I failed at this most of the time.