Soooo…I spent some time in Yakushima. It was a completely magnificent experience, and so the fact that I’m simply posting about food feels very superficial and degrading to what it means to me personally – but I’m going to do it anyway.
I spent one full day with a lovely woman, Yoko, and her young son – we decided to drive around the circumference of the island and stop wherever we wanted to on our way. After a few small errands and a sightseeing stop at Torohki-no-taki, a beautiful waterfall which drops directly into the ocean (which is a rare type of waterfall, if you didn’t know), we stopped at the Yakushima Botanical Park.
Well…I’ll have to talk about the plants another time…but for one thing, it was my first first time seeing hedges of aloe plants. My eyes nearly popped out of my head, coming from the cold Canadian clime as I do. After our tour through the park, we went back into the entrance and looked over the various souvenirs in the shop. Yoko pointed out the aloe and asked if I wanted to try some. I didn’t understand her. That was happening constantly throughout Yakushima, but the locals there, especially Yoko, gave me a fantastic crash course in Japanese and were shockingly patient and kind. It was really heartwarming and surprising, given everything I’d read about the wide berth Japanese give to tourists and also observing some culture clashes firsthand between Western tourists and local businesspeople/officials/bus drivers. Screw normality – it’s great to be different, even if you have to wait a long time between payouts.
Anyway, I turned around from investigating some shellfish whistles (Yoko’s son kindly gave me a demonstration of their sound and volume!) to see Yoko with a couple of plates in hand, with strange, nearly translucent chunks of (food?) and toothpicks on them…
We sat down and enjoyed the delicacy. It had the resistance of a pomegranate sarcotesta (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarcotesta) – minus the seed of course – with an extremely subtle flavour similar to the scent of fresh morning dew. It was served with a drop of mild soy sauce which set it off nicely. Can you guess what it was?
Yes, it was aloe. They were selling aloe leaves in the shop which were about two feet long and 2 inches in diameter at the base.
A different day, I went to a barbeque in the back of a nearby izakaya with Yoko and her son. The family that runs the restaurant had invited us both over, after Yoko and I met there and managed to have an extended conversation covering everything from the 2011 tsunami and Fukushima disaster to stripping nude with strangers in a mixed gender open-air sea-side onsen. Somewhere between those two variables, we were also conversing with the husband and wife as they went about their business and waited for us to leave or new customers to come in…
Have you tried sake? He asked. Sure, I’ve tried sake. Have you tried shochu? What? I was a bit tired, I had heard of shochu before. He pulled this from beneath the bar:
He took out two gigantic clear beer steins and gave Yoko and I each one on the house despite her protests and my deer-in-the-headlights shock. For a minute I thought he’d filled the whole thing up with shochu…but no, he’d mixed us each a chuuhai – a shochu highball. I took a sip, and another. This was the purest tasting drink I have ever tasted. I am not exaggerating. While I hiked in Yakushima I stopped at mountain streams and drank the water from them – the water was incredibly delicious – if not the best than certainly very close to the best spring water I’ve ever tasted. This chuuhai put the water to shame. My only way to explain its taste to you is that as I drank it, I thought of this scene from Revelation 22:1: “And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.” – Webster’s Bible. You can call me sacrilegious if you want to, but until you’ve tasted this you really have no moral right to. Water that cleanses the soul, heals physical and spiritual damage, and imparts eternal life should taste like this.
He explained that this kind of shochu is made entirely of local Yakushima ingredients – the water, sweet potatoes, EVERYTHING – and other “Yakushima shochu” brands contain imported ingredients and are inferior.
So there you are. You heard it from me first – the fountain of youth is on Yakushima. Get it while you can 😉
P.S. There are various kinds of shochu – this particular type is imo shochu (sweet potato whiskey). If you’re really curious you can read about shochu varieties here: http://www.nymtc.com/Shochu/Wholesale-Shochu-List-by-Categories.html#.U5QZ6PmSzeY