Since the beginning of their time on earth, humans have been accumulating knowledge about the plants around them. Through trial and error, people gradually discerned which plants and combinations were delicious, which were deadly, which made them sick or cured their ills, and so on. This occurred in every civilization around the world. Many of these remedies were once thought to be ‘magical’ - they became known in English as ‘witches brews’ or ‘old wives tales’ - however, modern science is slowly catching up, confirming and explaining their validity.
In England, where I grew up, there developed a tradition called ‘folklore medicine’ or ‘traditional remedies’. Some of these old remedies used vegetables, some of them herbs and some, just things you can now find in any kitchen. I remember that as a child I was told to eat a prune if I had constipation, or to put vinegar on a wasp sting; if I grazed or cut myself my French governess advised me to lick the wound or cover it with freshly picked plantain leaves.
Japan, where I now live, has a lot of traditional remedies, some of which are based on plants and trees native to Japan, such as the biwa tree or the dokudami plant. Others of the medicinal plants and vegetables in Japan came from elsewhere. Of these, most were brought from China, certainly by Buddhist monks from the 7th Century onwards and, most probably, earlier.
By the 6th Century, it is likely that Chinese medicine had already been introduced to Japan via Korea: when a Japanese invasion of Korea in 593AD brought back reports of effective Chinese healing methods, the Empress Suiko sent emissaries to China to study kampo. Around this time, plants now widely used in Japanese cuisine, such as ume, sesame and shiso, were brought to Japan from China
In the Nara period (710-794AD) herbalism spread throughout Japan hand-in-hand with Buddhism. A monk named Ganjin came from China to Nara to teach Buddhism. He was not only a great monk but also had an extensive knowledge of medicine and herbs. The early-converted Buddhist monks taught common people the compassion of the Buddha whilst at the same time administering medicinal herbs, and so knowledge of herbs spread throughout Japan along with Buddhism and the plants themselves.
In the Heian Period (794-1192AD), the herbal book called ‘Shinnou-honzou kyo’(*1) was translated. This book became the basis of present-day Japanese kampo medicine. It included Chinese herbal remedies, and 730 items were listed that have healing properties. These included plants, trees, minerals, and animal products as well. The book showed the items classified into three types, a system unique to kampo medicine. They were named Upper class, Middle class and Lower class:-
‘Upper class’ corresponds to heaven. These items nurture and rejuvenate life and can be taken over a long time. These include ginger, liquorice, lemon balm, bancha and green tea.
‘Middle class’ corresponds to man. These are tonics, preventatives or aphrodisiacs and should not be taken too often. They need a rest time and include ginseng, sage, kuzu root, dokudami and yomogi.
‘Lower class’ corresponds to earth. Their utility of this group is purely for treating disease and they should not be taken for prolonged periods, for they have side effects. Such herbs include yarrow, St. Johns wort, gingko, angelica and valerian root.
Around this time the first official investigation of folklore medicinal herbs, native to Japan took place and in 918AD a medicinal book ‘Honzo Wamyou'(*2) was written. In this book Chinese herbs are matched with their corresponding Japanese herb. If there was not an exact match the Chinese herb was listed against a Japanese one with similar medical properties ? a decision that has led to some confusion in subsequently defining the exactly corresponding herbs between China and Japan.
Later, as trade between China and Japan flourished, the movement of plants and herbs continued apace. At the end of the 12th Century a monk named Eisai brought back from China the seeds of the tea plant. He had learned that green tea was effective for health and he introduced it to Japan as a medicine, not as a beverage, and cultivated it in Kyoto. It was he that also brought hakka mint to Japan. Hakka, like gennoshoko, is very effective for stomach complaints and people would carry small pills of mint in little ornately carved belt-pouches known as netsuke.
The 8th Shogun Yoshimune, who lived from 1684 to 1751, encouraged cultivation of medicinal herbs as part of a policy promoting self-sufficiency in farm produce all over Japan. Part of his policy was that herb gardens should be built all over the country and about thirty herb gardens were made at this time. In some of those gardens both imported Chinese and domestic herbs were grown. Yoshimune also appointed herbalists and botanists to investigate medicinal herbs in the provinces and to collect the seeds so that they could spread the cultivation of different plants throughout the country.
During the past ten or twenty years there has been renewed interest all over the world in herbs and traditional remedies. Many European herbs such as basil, chamomile and rosemary have recently become familiar in Japan, as have more tropical Asian herbs such as coriander and lemon grass. As a teacher of herbs, I was surprised by the intense interest, but I was also concerned: Are we in Japan forgetting the herbs that grow locally, naturally, around us wherever we live in this country? Are they still being used?
Since I started living in Ohara, in the Kyoto countryside, many of the elderly locals are curious to see me working hard in my garden. We live on a small country lane, and few cars pass through as it leads only through some rice paddies to a narrow mountain trail. However, the village cemetery is at the end of this lane and frequently little old ladies, dressed in their native farmers’ dress, pass by carrying a small bunch of flowers for their family grave. They often ask me what I am doing as I am working in my garden even in the rain or on a blustery winter’s day. Then I start explaining to them about the herbs. They often tell me about the medicinal herbs they collected when they were young: they used to make remedies with such herbs as yomogi, gennoshoko, dokudami, yukinoshita, shiso and biwa leaves. All these herbs grow naturally in the surrounding fields and also appear wild in my garden. The old ladies love to teach me about these herbs and are surprised when they find out that I try to use their advice.
The person I really depend on for knowledge about Japanese wild edible plants and herbs is Mr. Nakahigashi. I see him almost every Sunday at the weekly market in Ohara. He owns a small restaurant in Kyoto, which specializes in serving dishes of wild edible plants, and can be seen every morning in his little red sports car speeding up the road to collect wild plants in the local forests and fields. He has a wealth of knowledge and is a walking encyclopedia on Japanese plants. If I happen to bump into him, I always ask him about the plants he is looking for and gathering that day. He always patiently answers my questions and we chat about the names of similar plants in Europe.
Following are notes on some of the herbs I have come to use frequently at home:
Dokudami and gennoshoko, I let grow wild in my garden. I pick them on a hot dry day in summer and dry them for tea in a dark shady place.
Yomogi, I pick the fresh new leaves in early spring and lightly boil them. I then liquidize and freeze the mixture, ready to put in cakes and bread. Yomogi has many useful properties: it is an excellent nerve tonic, and fights infection, hay fever and allergies. I also dry the leaves for use in insect repellant bags. Yomogi leaves can be put in the bath, to help relieve eczema and rheumatism. (I also put dried biwa leaves in the bath, as they are very good for bronchial and skin complaints.)
Every year I put some kampo herbs into shochu and crystal sugar to make liqueurs. I use quince for coughs and honeysuckle flowers for food poisoning. I also make umeshu with ume and lemon balm; this combination is good for headaches, general fatigue and relieves an upset stomach.
Other herbs such as yukinoshita (creeping sailor), shiso, yomogi and fukinoto (butterbur) I cook when we are having tempura for dinner; all of them are delicious and have healing properties
In July and August I make gallons and gallons of shiso juice and put it in the freezer, so that we have a supply in winter. Ohara has a lot of shiso and is famous for pickles shibazuke. The seeds of both red and green shiso are carried by the birds and the wind, and so in May little seedlings of shiso appear in the most unexpected places. I pick them up and transplant them into my vegetable garden. I make a lot of shiso juice as it is good for hay fever, asthma and allergies. It is also good as a mood stabilizer. I dry it as a tea too and mix it with other herbs, as it has warming properties that increase perspiration and so is good for nausea, coughs and influenza.
Every year our family welcomes the New Year with otoso - eight herbs steeped in sake. Drinking this in ceremonial fashion first thing on New Year’s Day is supposed to protect from sickness for the year ahead as well as invite peace within the household. Folklore dictates that if just one member of the family drinks otoso, everyone in the family will be free of illness; if the entire family drinks it, the whole village will remain free from illness for the year. If that’s true we should never forget the old tradition of drinking otoso, first thing on New Year’s Day!
More recipes and tips for using herbs, particularly Japanese wild herbs, in cooking, remedies and household products, are available in my new book published in Japanese by Kateigaho in spring 2007.
*1 神農本草経 *2 本草和名