Cross-Cultural Gardens

Cross-Cultural Gardens | Japan and Gardens

(A few years back ; )...Oyasan has a garden in the backyard of the house we rent in the countryside of Niigata, Japan. For two years I have watched our landlord plant and take care of an ever-expanding bounty of fruits and vegetables. He's a traditional man, going for the basics that grace the typical Japanese table: cucumbers, daikon and eggplants (for making pickles), tomatoes, small Japanese squash, edamame (a bean snack, great with beer), watermelon and a myriad of other healthy edibles. Good food to grow and harvest. Good food to eat. I admire his green thumb which contrasts radically with my not-so-green thumb. I tried gardening in the States with mixed results: An eggplant or two, a couple of red but tasteless tomatoes. At one time I attempted to grow brussel sprouts....but they didn't...sprout that is. 

Oyasan is in his late-sixties, very robust– short, round, with a sweaty brow that always needs wiping. Hataraki-mono...a hard worker they say, a great compliment in these parts. In the back of our rented house he has a small factory. He and his wife work from 8:00 to 6:00 every day manufacturing some small auto parts. I never find out exactly what he is making, but day in and day out we can hear the gentle whir, whir, whir of the machinery as it cranks out hundreds of these metal things. Once a week he loads boxes and boxes into his van and delivers them...somewhere. Some things about Oyasan always remain a mystery.

Oyasan's garden is neatly arranged, and I am curious, at first, as to why the whole garden is divided into many raised beds. The beds are neatly arranged in rows with rich, dark earth piled up like fresh burial mounds. He offers me two, but he's not anxious to share the best spots. My little patch spends a good part of the morning in the shade, but it's workable. The mystery of the mounds is later resolved when the rainy season wallops though and the ground saturates. I see the water rise in the backyard, our mounds look like small islands floating in the Sea of Japan. 

I consider my garden. I don't need any cucumbers or squash or watermelon, or beans or tomatoes....it seems that either Oyasan graciously supplies them, or I can easily get this kind of thing at the grocery store. I will plant what I cannot get at the grocery store here in Japan. I pull out my favorite recipe books and read: chicken and pesto, roasted pork with thyme sauce, rosemary bread, cold tomato soup with mint....and then I have it. I will grow herbs!  I scour the local garden stores for seeds or seedlings.  A bit of detective work brings me to a garden center and I find seeds for basil and mint. At another I pounce and purchase the only seed packets of oregano and thyme. Herbs are not well known in the countryside. Dill is not available and I get some from the States. All this goes into my garden, into my mounds and then I wait.

Next to my mint Oyasan has erected an elaborate wire arbor – high enough to walk through and tall enough for his cucumber vines to creep up and over. By late summer this arch is covered in scratchy green leaves and long, thin Japanese cucumbers. They dangle down in abundance waiting to be picked and turned into salty pickles. Come afternoon, though, this beautiful cucumber arch casts unfortunate long shadows over my two little mounds and my garden gets few hours of direct sunlight. Somehow, this is not bad news for the herbs. They take off. Basil, thyme, oregano, mint. I bake fresh, thyme and oregano herb bread. I make tempura with basil. I add mint to every desert and cool salad.

Oyasan watches my garden with curiosity, but asks few questions. He is out there at five in the morning, weeding, fertilizing, hoeing – hatarakimono. I let my garden grow, wild, thrilled by the abundance. The herbs spread, extending the limits of my mounds, roots, leaves, full life, reaching out, happily laying claim to any extra space.  We chat, Oyasan and I, but he says little about what is slowly encroaching on his carefully-tended mounds. But I am concerned as my mint starts to invade his cucumber patch. I apologize to him for its aggressive roots.  He pauses at my apology and looks perplexed, and then finally asks me what is it that I am growing?  What is it, exactly, that is creeping ever so slowly and closely across mound line? Why, herbs, I say. Herbs for cooking. Herbs for soup and bread and meat and all sorts of delicious foods.  Herbs? Ah, not real food his expression seems to say. And then, a look of relief crosses his face as he removes his cap and wipes his sweaty brow.The perplexed expression is replaced with a grin as he says, "All this time I thought you were growing weeds". 

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About the Author

About Us | Couple Photo | Alfan SelectHi from Japan everyone! I'm Karen and I have been living and traveling, (yes, often by bullet train :) for Alfan Select, fun and adventure for over 20 years! You can read more of my personal stories in Japan here.  As a cute couple, one of our new shared stories is about ferreting out the amazing contemporary examples of fine craftsmanship here in Japan.  And these craft artists have amazing stories, too! So, if you like, browse around our site and enjoy reading some.  Cheers! Karen

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