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April is the cruellest month in Niigata

April is the cruellest month in Niigata: a cold muddy earth under a sullen leaden sky. No lilacs, as in the poem, but a few daffodils in gardens. No spring rain to stir dull roots, yet some mountain vegetables have made a brave appearance.*

The seasons start later in the high mountains, and right now it's that dreary phase at the end of winter before spring arrives in her party frock: everything is dead and dry and grey. The sky is dull, the earth is an old sepia photograph. Rice farmers have started preparing their rice paddies - ploughing them and clearing away weeds - but they won't start planting for another few weeks.

Uono River

If  you look carefully, though, you'll notice the beauty of the grim landscape. It's a bit post-apocalyptic, but  white snow, skeletal trees and ill-tempered clouds provide beautiful moody scenery.

As far as fishing is concerned, it's simply too cold to catch a lot. You can still have fun, though: practice casting, or gambol in the snow. Or sludge. I'm not going to tell you exactly where we were. The Hero says it's an unspoken agreement amongst Japanese fishing bloggers that you identify the river, but never reveal the exact location of the best fishing spots. Suffice it to mention that it was the Uono River and other smaller rivers along National Route 352.

Food, Niigata-style

Niigata has its own unique soba called hegisoba (へぎそば). It's made from top-quality buckwheat that's mixed with a type of seaweed called funori (フノリ). The latter gives the soba a tinge of green and a firm, chewy texture.

It looks like an enormous amount of noodles in the photo below, but it's served on a zaru, a draining basket made of bamboo, which means you're basically seeing one layer of noodles. Left is udon, made from wheat, and right is soba, made from buckwheat. Our meal included maitake tempura (mushrooms dipped in a light, crisp batter and deep-fried in a very light oil). Maitake (舞茸) means "dancing mushroom". Its scientific name is Grifola frondosa, and it has proven anti-cancer qualities. It also happens to be delicious; as a matter of fact, I'd much rather have maitake than shiitake.

Incredible that there's life in the semi-frozen mud. The plant in the photo below is Petasites japonicus, fuki (フキ) in Japanese, giant butterbur in English. The bud of this plant, called fuki-no-tō, is highly regarded as a sansai or mountain vegetable (in other words, an edible wild plant).


"You're just like my mother!"

As we were driving home from Niigata, we stopped at a parking area.

The Hero turned to me and asked, "Will you drive from here?" Then he added with no further prompting, "You drive OK for a woman, but break softly. And stay in your lane. And don't drive too fast. And watch your following distance. And don't drift off towards the left as you tend to do."

I made manga eyes and smiled sweetly and agreed demurely.

A few kilometers later he said something that almost made me veer off the road. He announced without any warning, "You're just like my mother." Since a Japanese mother is on a pedestal roughly seven leagues above that of a Jewish mother, seen from the perspective of their princelings, this is high praise indeed.

"Why?" I sputtered.

"You're both neat freaks," he explained. "She's always cleaning up, just like you."

Yes, dear heart, we have to do that because you're a force of nature. You get into a clean, empty, immaculate car and ten minutes later it looks like a tornado disaster zone. I couldn't achieve that same effect if I went berserk after overdosing for ten days on espresso, and then injected myself with methamphetamines.

If you really need to ask: I got us to the outskirts of Tokyo safely. I'm too scaredy cat to drive in Tokyo itself. I'm from Africa. I can cope with elephants on the road. I can't cope with mamacharis.

* I'm referring to the poem The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot.

National Route 352 in April

It's cold, it's grey, it's muddy.

The trees are yukigeshō (雪化粧), which means "covered in snow". However, if you analyse the three kanji, it  means snow + change or enchant + adornment or cosmetics. So ... the trees have powdered their noses!

The Hero's grandfather was buried from this temple. He was a prisoner of war in Siberia for a long time, but he eventually returned to Niigata.

Statues in front of the temple, with Yuzawa in the background

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