Exploring the Delicacies of Japan's Mountain Vegetables

Sansai - Literally translating to "mountain vegetables" in Japanese, it refers to edible plants growing naturally in mountainous and riverside areas. These unique delicacies, cherished for their distinctive flavors and scents, are often unknown to travelers due to their limited availability in both time and place. These wild plants have been essential to Japanese cuisine since ancient times, serving as both a dietary staple and a valuable food source during emergencies. With over 300 species found throughout Japan, mountain vegetables are perennial herbs that grow without human intervention, surviving underground for over a year and sprouting new shoots annually. 

Characterized by their bitterness and rich aroma, they contain bitter compounds known as plant alkaloids, which are believed to have detoxifying effects and are eagerly awaited by the Japanese every spring. While these rare delicacies are not easily found in urban areas, they are sometimes sold at roadside stands in rural areas. However, most locals know the locations of wild harvest sites in their respective regions. People venture out to collect mountain vegetables in spring, but the timing and locations are often kept secret, similar to the mushroom hunting culture in Europe. Local experts guide the harvesting process, ensuring safe and sustainable collection practices. In Hokkaido, you can enjoy spring mountain vegetables from April to June.

Here are some popular varieties:

  • Gyoja ninniku (monk garlic): Named for the monks who consumed it, it resembles garlic in smell. Also known as "Ainu negi" due to its popularity among the indigenous Ainu people, it grows in pristine mountain areas.

  • Warabi (bracken fern): Found in sunny, well-drained areas, its coiled heads are distinctive. Rich in antioxidants and fiber, it requires blanching to remove its bitter taste before cooking.

  • Yomogi (Japanese mugwort): A herb used in traditional Japanese cuisine, it often grows by roadsides, making it easy to find. Rich in vitamins A and E, it adds a beautiful green color to sweets.

  • Udo (mountain asparagus): Grows on sunny mountain slopes, its harvest is challenging but exciting. Its distinctive flavor and crunchy texture make it a delightful spring ingredient, often used in tempura or dressed with vinegar miso.

  • Tarano me (fir tree shoots): Refers to the shoots growing at the tips of fir trees. Found along mountain roads and areas with few large trees, caution is needed during harvest due to the sharp thorns protecting the trees. Enjoying them fresh in tempura is a luxurious treat.

  • Takenoko (bamboo shoots): In Hokkaido, it refers to the shoots of the Chishima bamboo, rather than the larger bamboo commonly found in mainland Japan. Harvested when just emerging from the ground, it requires careful preparation before being used in salads or simmered dishes.

  • Fuki (butterbur): A familiar plant seen along roadsides, its large leaves are its distinctive feature, with the edible part being the stems. Traditional harvesting involves leaving the central stems intact while removing only the outer ones, allowing the plant to regenerate for the following year. Fiber-rich fuki is enjoyed blanched and seasoned in kinpira or simmered dishes.

If you're staying at Yoichi Holiday during spring, we offer guided mountain vegetable picking experiences. (Contact us for details) 


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