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Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2008

IN BLOOM

Shibugaki (Persimmon)


The retreat of my disciple Kyorai is in the suburbs of Kyoto, among the bamboo thickets of Shimo Saga, not far from either Mount Arashiyama or the OigawaRiver. It is an ideal place for meditation, for it is hushed in silence. Such is the laziness of my friend, Kyorai, that his windows are covered with tall grass growing rank in the garden, and his roofs are buried under the branches of overgrown persimmon trees.

By Matsuo Basho (1644-94), quoted in "The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches," translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa (Penguin)

One morning Kyorai woke after a great storm to find that the fruit from 40 persimmon trees in his garden had fallen during the night, so he called his poetic retreat Rakushisha, or The House of Fallen Persimmons. You can still visit his cottage near Kyoto. These small, deciduous trees (Diospyros kaki) are native to China. Here, you will find two main types of persimmons: amagaki, or sweet persimmons, and shibugaki, or astringent persimmons. The sweet ones are shaped like a beef tomato and can be eaten while the fruit is still crisp. But the astringent ones, pictured above, are impossible to eat until they are overripe and the flesh has turned to jelly. This is due to high levels of tannin in the fruit. It can be removed, however, by peeling and rubbing with alcohol, or by stringing up the fruit for a few weeks and exposing it to sunshine and frost. These strings of fruit are a picturesque sign of autumn in the country. The resulting semi-dried fruit, known as hoshigaki, is very tasty and is one of the traditional New Year treats. U.S. Cmdr. Mathew Parry, who led the Black Ships that shook the Shogunate to the core in 1853, took the first Japanese persimmon trees to America in 1855. Since then, they have become a popular crop, outshining the modest fruit of the native American tree (D. virginiana).



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