winter fruits


Every year I help my neighbors, who are both in their eighties now, harvest the persimmons from the tree in their yard.  This year there were more persimmons than usual, though they were smaller — I think I must have plucked several hundred from the tree in the course of a couple of hours.  The trick with persimmons is that you want them to tree ripen for as long as possible, but you need to pick them before they get too ripe because if you don’t the birds will come and make a feast of them.  My reward for helping out is always a huge bag of persimmons, and it usually takes me the entire month of December to eat them all.

The type of persimmon that is eaten in Japan is commonly known as a fuyu persimmon (富有柿), though in Japan you drop the fuyu part and simply refer to the fruit as kaki (柿).  Though there are astringent persimmons in Japan as well — usually dried and eaten during the winter months — the fuyu has no astringency whatsoever and can be eaten while the flesh is still hard.  It’s a crispy kind of persimmon, unlike those described by Li-Young Lee in her poem, “Persimmons”:

Mrs. Walker brought a persimmon to class
and cut it up
so everyone could taste
a Chinese apple. Knowing
it wasn’t ripe or sweet, I didn’t eat
but watched the other faces.
In Japanese the word for persimmon — kaki — has its homonym in the word for oyster, which is also pronounced  kaki.  Of course, the words are etymologically unrelated and this can be easily seen when they are written out — the kanji character for the fruit is 柿 (that figure on the left half means ‘tree’) while the kanji for oyster is 牡蠣, though it’s usually spelled out phonetically in katakana as   カキ,  probably because the kanji isn’t that common (and perhaps is a bit tough to write down by hand).
Though there’s no etymological relationship between 柿 and カキ, I was a bit surprised to find that there was no pun involving the obvious homophonic similarities to be found anywhere on the 親父ギャグ500選, a list of the top 500 Japanese “old-man gags.”  Older Japanese men are famous for their groan-inducing wordplay, and there is a wide array of stock puns to choose from.  I think my personal favorite might be ラクダは楽だ — rakuda wa raku da — which can be loosely translated as “The camel is relaxed.”  Though I couldn’t find any oyaji-gyagu that incorporated both persimmons and oysters, I did find one that involves persimmons and painting: 柿の絵を描きたい (kaki no e kakitai) — i.e. “I want to paint a painting of a persimmon.”
All of these bad puns remind me of my seventh-grade science teacher, who was a true master.  My very favorite joke of his was a rather risqué number involving a polar bear and a circle of peas:
What’s the easiest way to catch a polar bear?  You make a hole in the ice, surround the hole with peas, and when the polar bear goes to take a pea, you kick him in the ice hole.

Another reason that I so wish that there was an etymological connection between 柿 and カキ is that I love thinking about oysters as a kind of fruit of the sea (conversely, if one wanted to, one could also think of persimmons as a kind of sweet, orange oyster that hangs from a tree).  Indeed, in French the oyster (l’huître) is in fact classified as belonging to the group of sea creatures that make up les fruits de mer, the glorious harvest of the ocean.

I ate the most glorious raw oysters that I’ve ever eaten (pictured above, at left) at an izakaya in the Tanimachi 4-chome district of Osaka.  It was like eating the most exquisitely delicate flavor of the essence of the sea.  Getting so close to the essence of the sea, however, can have its dangers: raw oysters in Japan are famous for carrying the norovirus, and there are periodic outbreaks across the country.  In her poem “Oyster March,” Kiyoko Ogawa writes about the extreme discomfort that sometimes comes with eating the wrong oyster:

Last night I vomited three times,
my child also threw up thrice.
When you get poisoned by raw oysters
your bowels ache non-stop . . . ugh!
that you feel like scooping them out.

The most recent reference to oysters that I’ve come across is Dicken’s fantastic description of Scrooge as “secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster,” though I’m afraid that the story that’s told in Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter” might more accurately reflect what happened to those poor oysters that made their way onto our dinner plates —

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?”
But answer came there none–
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.


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