Harvesting of Gassan bamboo shoots begins when the snow-capped peak of Mt. Gassan gradually starts to melt in June. On Mt. Gassan, there are particular places where only locals are allowed to harvest. We traveled together with Mr. Sato to the site and experienced a Gassan bamboo shoot harvest.
“Are you sure you really want to come with me? You can’t come with such an indecisive mind,” confirmed Mr. Sato repeatedly when we asked to cover the harvesting of Gassan bamboo shoots.
We departed his work house at five in the morning. Mr. Sato usually heads for the site before four o’clock. We drove up to the fourth station and rode a motorcycle from the fourth station to the eighth station, where the road is not open to the public yet. From the eighth station, we finally walk up the mountain to the harvesting site. Crossing a snowy gorge following it down the mountain to a stream, then going up again to the mountain ridge and again going down to the stream. It was a laborious repetition of going up and down the mountain.
According to Mr. Sato, no one simply knows when Gassan bamboo shoots started to be affectionately called as it is today and to be used as an ingredient. It is believed that the ingredient had been most frequently used when the Three Mountains of Dewa were at the peak of prosperity during the Edo Period.
The harvesting sites on Mt. Gassan, which have been inherited over the generations, are allocated for each village such as Toge, Tachiyazawa and Higashi-Horikoshi, among others. There is an unwritten rule among the harvesters that no entry into someone’s harvesting site is allowed. Also, each harvester has his own secret site, according to Mr. Sato.
We reached Mr. Sato’s site after around 90-minute walk from the eighth station. In Part 1 of this account, we visited Mr. Sato’s bamboo grove. This site, on the other hand, was a bush with taller bamboos of three to four meters high.
To harvest, we walk sideways up from the bottom of the slope and go up a zigzag way. We bend our body forward and maintain a low posture in order to find the tip of a bamboo shoot that just comes out of the soil.
Mr. Sato instantly caught the sight of tips of bamboo shoots coming out of the ground, but it was far from easy for us. Steadily, though, we managed to find the tips. This harvesting work, in fact, is attended with the danger of concentrating too much. Once going into the bush, you can only see bamboos of two to three meters high surrounding you. Even an experienced harvester can get lost; and all of a sudden, you can find yourself disoriented. Also, since wild bears eat the Gassan bamboo shoots, you may accidently encounter them. In addition, when harvesting a bamboo shoot, you can hurt your eyes with withered bamboos. It is supposedly dangerous for a novice to go into the mountain to harvest bamboo shoots.
Mr. Sato harvests approximately 20 to 40kg of the bamboo shoots at one time. To keep its freshness, he digs a hole in the nearby snowy ground and buries them once he reaches his limit. He continuously harvests the bamboo shoots moving from place to place. After he finishes, Mr. Sato tenderly puts the crop into a fabric rucksack and stuffs it full of bamboo shoots. Lastly, some lumps of snow are placed on top. Because bamboo shoots are vulnerable to drying, they are put into the fabric rucksack. Also, the snow is placed in the carrier to prevent the harvested crop from being steamed by heat from his back while walking. Taking such good care of the shoots demonstrates a great deal of thoughtfulness to retain the freshness of the bamboo shoots for customers.
Once good, real bamboo shoots are enjoyed, a harvester would always ask for them. Mr. Sato reaches his harvesting site straight away disregarding thin bamboo shoots growing wild along the way.
Of all the Gassan bamboo shoots, the one called “Oonuki” in particular looks remarkably good and its taste can never be forgotten once eaten. Its skin and flesh are faintly cream-colored down to the base. No scum can be tasted if eaten raw.
The secret of the flavor seems likely to derive from the growing environment. A reddish color of skin is thought to be ideal, but on the contrary, the color that implies good taste differs from area to area for some reason. Indeed, whatever the color of the skin is, the ones that are cream-colored when peeled are soft and flavorful in general.
On Mt. Gassan, proper snowfall that is good for bamboo shoots continues for about seven months. During that period, they are tenderly covered with snow. The bamboo shoots become dormant while taking sufficient nutrients over these months. In June when snow starts to melt, a drizzle softens the bamboo shoots, which makes them far more flavorful.
When we visited the site, it was a beautiful day. Because the air was dry, the yield was less than usual, said Mr. Sato. Nevertheless, he managed to harvest nearly 20kg over two hours.
On our way back, Mr. Sato walked up and down the snowy path step by step with an almost 30kg-rucksack on his back including his own stuff and returned to the eighth station. There was such a steep slope halfway along that we were out of breath. Of all the bamboo shoot eaters, how many of them would know how hard it is to harvest the Gassan bamboo shoots!
“The bamboo shoots that I got with difficulty are really irreplaceable for money,” Mr. Sato told us. He says he only wants to share the crop with those who understand his toil and who he wants to eat them.
Japanese hyacinths blooming at the sides of the snowy ground. Blue sky seen between the clouds and extensive greenery on the mountains. Ridgelines of the mountains. Comfort of the breeze crossing over the mountains that can be felt when paused for a deep breath. While walking and listening to the sound of melting snow, it makes us feel grateful for a blessing from the mountains.
“Even though it’s hard work every time, I’m tempted to go up again,” smiled Mr. Sato.
Toward the end of the conversations, he put a smile on his face and said “Well, can you go up the mountains again?” I found myself reacting positively to his call even though I knew toil and hard work would await me.