Japan's 72 Microseasons - #66
"Wheat Sprouts Under The Snow"
January 1 - 5
Yuki watarite mugi izuru
”Wheat sprouts under the snow”
As the New Year begins for those of us on Western calendars, a bit of natural poetic imagery is happening under white blankets of snow in Japan. Wheat—one of the world’s most important crops and a hearty, adaptable plant—is already sprouting new buds and preparing to grow. When things get warmer, it’ll be ready.
A winter annual plant, wheat seeds are sown in autumn after being harvested in the summer. They bud and build up through the colder months, even under snow, and by the time spring rolls around they grow upwards with what seems like surprising speed. Because their green shoots can be spotted even during the winter chill of the New Years holidays, wheat is also sometimes called toshikoshi-gusa (年越草), “welcoming the new year plant.”
On a related note: the Japanese for winter annual plants in general is etsunensō, which would sound to the ear like a totally different word, but a quick look at the kanji characters reveals a similar meaning: 越年草. The first two are swapped, but with small differences in nuance and usage, 年越 and 越年 both carry an interpretation of “ringing out the old year and welcoming the new.”1
It’s one type of wheat, buckwheat, that’s the main ingredient of a traditional New Years Eve dish, eaten as the years are swapping. Appropriately, it’s called toshikoshi soba. The reason symbolism behind the dish is tied to this kō: namely, the heartiness of wheat to grow and thrive through the harsh, dark winter. It’s also said that eating toshikoshi soba on New Year’s Eve (or Ōmisoka/大晦日, as it’s called in Japanese) allows you to cleanly cut off any lingering burdens or bad feelings from the prior year, since soba is easy to cut through when you bite it.2
Also made from wheat are udon noodles, and since 2009 the Sanuki Udon Promotional Council have been doing their best to spark up a new tradition of eating Kagawa-style sanuki udon at the start of the year. Matching the naming convention of toshikoshi soba, they call it nen-ake udon (年明けうどん). The white noodles are thick and chewy, topped with something red (such as kamaboko fish cake, spicy mentaiko cod roe, or red carrots)—white and red being a lucky and celebratory set of colors in Japan.
Running ad campaigns and even sponsoring an annual competition, the idea has been catching on more and more nationwide in recent years, but it remains to be seen if there’s space in the weeks around the New Year for another noodle custom.
On returning from a bit of holiday rest and holiday foods, wheat farmers go out to the fields and clear away the snow to look for rows of green and see if things are on track. This is also the time when they’ll carry out an agricultural practice unique to Japanese wheat farming called mugi-fumi (麦踏み), which literally means “stepping on wheat.” The process? More or less what you’d imagine: you go out and walk on top of the plants.3
It would seem counterproductive to tread on the small, fresh shoots of your yearly staple crop in the middle of winter, but there’s a number of benefits. As groundwater freezes (and thus expands), it tends to push soil up and away from plant roots, but that would only require stepping around the plants, right? Well, stepping directly on them also encourages the growth of offshoots and forces the plant to grow outward rather than upward. This keeps them out of the wind for longer while also increasing the amount of surface area and eventual crop yield. Taller stalks would accomplish similar, but Japan’s harvest season also coincides with its stormy season, so shorter is sturdier.
Of course, walking all over the young wheat plants isn’t the only way to encourage their growth. Another, perhaps gentler, tradition is to praise them. Called mugi-home (麦褒め), this custom happens on the 20th day of the new lunar year4 and starts with a mugi-based meal of dumplings, porridge, and the like. Once the farming family has eaten their fill of last year’s wheat, they go out to the field and very directly, and vocally, encourage it. Walking around the rows of young wheat, they’ll say things like “this year’s wheat is doing great.” It’s a mix of hopeful proclamation and practice in gratitude, and there’s certainly no harm in letting the fledgling plants know their efforts and perseverance are appreciated.
Nearly half the world’s population eat wheat in some form. It’s the most widely grown crop in terms of land dedicated to it, and it is traded globally more than every other crop combined. Alongside rice and corn, wheat is one of the three cereal grains that form a part of the staple diet for nearly all living people for dozens of centuries. Humble but hearty, simple yet endlessly adapted, remixed, and reinvented in new recipes by successive generations and cultures. Pretty impressive for a little grass, and well worth a bit of praise, I think.
If you’ve got space in your belly after all the holiday food, here’s a few items that perfectly fit this time of year.
● Seasonal seafood
Ise ebi, 伊勢海老, spiny lobster
● Seasonal vegetable
yurine, 百合根, lily bulbs
● Seasonal flower
rōbai, ロウバイ, wintersweet
There’s a Japanese kotowaza saying that goes Higan sugite no baka koyashi (彼岸過ぎての馬鹿肥やし), or: “Foolishly fertilizing wheat after Higan’s over.” It means to try and put effort into something too late rather than do it correctly from the start. Wheat is a simple plant, but it rewards careful, consistent care. It’s a saying that’s often applied to parenting—that is, there’s no use in showering children in attention and love when they’re already grown if you haven’t put in the work from the start. Ideally, you nurture them with full focus at the beginning and gradually let them grow on their own.
This need not only apply to child-rearing. Anything that you’re looking to start up will be best served through small, consistent efforts. If you have anything growing under the snow, any seeds you’ve sown in the waning months of last year, remember to give it a little focus every day rather than to try and forcefully overdo it down the road. And also say thank you to your plants for doing a good job this winter.
See you next kō~
Keep up with the seasons
However, the former (toshikoshi/年越) is more strongly tied to the New Years season, whereas the latter (etsunen/越年) is more generally used to talk about winter overall
Toshikoshi soba is far from the only traditional New Years food packed with symbolism: the first three days are the new year are for eating Osechi, which are stacked bento boxes stuffed with precooked foods that all have various auspicious meanings (many based on wordplay)
However, none of them are made of wheat and thus outside the scope of this newsletter
Of course, larger modern farms use mechanized rollers to do this rather than carefully walk up and down the rows of their many acres
Early February by the modern calendar