Home to the deepest lake in Japan, Lake Tazawa, Akita is often described as “the land of beautiful water”. Its geographical location and heavy snowfalls provide an abundance of clean water, making Akita an ideal place for certain crops to grow. Although Akita is best-known for rice, here we will focus on a lesser-known local specialty, junsai.
About junsai and its habitat
Junsai (Brasenia or watershield in English) is a kind of perennial water plant that grows in shallow ponds and swamps (80 cm-1 m depth). It has long been a part of the Japanese food culture, and its earliest reference dates back to the Manyoshu, the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry. Junsai is harvested during summer from May to early August, June being the peak-season. The leaves have a close resemblance to lotus leaves, and the buds are coated in a gelatinous substance. It is considered a delicacy in many parts of the country.
Since more than 90 percent of junsai is made up of water, the quality of water is crucial to its existence. It can only grow in fresh, unpolluted water in areas where the natural habitat has not been damaged. Although junsai used to be commonly found across Japan, post-war economic growth and environmental pollution have made them an endangered plant in many prefectures. Akita is one of the few places that has a sustainable cultivation.
Junsai picking in Mitane town
Mitane town in Akita is known as the town of junsai. Situated in the south of of Subari Dam, a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Shirakami mountain range. West of Mt. Boju, Mitane town is blessed with rich sources to draw water from. The water provides plenty of nutrients for the town’s 200-plus junsai ponds. Mitane town is responsible for 90 percent of the domestic market share, making it the largest producer of junsai in Japan. Picking junsai is a delicate task, one that requires much expertise. Farmers paddle across the pond in a narrow, box-shaped boat (one person per boat) to pick junsai, which is all done by hand. During the harvest season, the junsai leaves will almost completely cover the surface of the pond, giving the impression of a green blanket. Perhaps this is why the locals lovingly refer to them as “emeralds of the water”. Indeed, junsai picking is like a kind of treasure hunt, as the buds are hidden beneath the leaves and are not easy to find. Moreover, its jelly-like coating makes it slippery and hard to grab hold of.
How to eat junsai
Junsai’s slimy texture is part of what makes it so interesting to eat. Although best enjoyed fresh, there are a multitude of ways to eat it. Junsai can be added to nabe and soups, marinated in vinegar, made into tempura, served on udon or rice, and so on. It is high in polyphenol and extremely healthy. You can also find vacuum-packed or bottled junsai in stores and supermarkets.
Join the harvest
If you want to experience junsai picking, you can visit Mitanecho during the harvest season (fees are 1,800 yen for adults, 1,000 yen for children). The locals will kindly teach you how to row a boat and select the good buds, and you can even take home the junsai you picked. Junsai are bound to be a culinary adventure for your taste buds, so be sure to give it a try.
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