Would you like to pick chestnuts on Saturday?
Our host, Yoshimi, asked us this question when we first met. She said we would be helping a few old ladies in a village. We said yes as we had nothing planned for the few days that we were in the Kyoto countryside.
Ominous grey clouds covered the sky on the morning of the chestnut hunting. Yoshimi got behind the wheel as we climbed into the van, together with two guests from Germany. As we rode along the winding road to the village, Yoshimi started telling us more about what we were going to do. But AB’s nervous looks distracted me. Our 72-year-old host was constantly gliding close to the edge of the road where the other side was a steep drop down the mountain.
The smiley image of the village mascot, Tochimaru the chestnut, welcomed us when we arrived at Koya 古屋. Some 30 people had gathered outside a plain-looking traditional Japanese building. Some had come from the nearby villages and Ayabe, and others from as far as Kyoto city.
I caught a brief glimpse of the elderly ladies that we were here to help. Hair tucked inside white hats, the three of them wore neat aprons over their everyday attire. They smiled at the excited strangers who had descended upon their tiny village.
Soon someone was giving instructions to the volunteers. I felt disorientated as they were in Japanese. After taking a red mesh bag and gloves, we climbed onto the back of a small truck, four people a side. It dropped us off at the edge of a forest before turning around to fetch the other volunteers. I later learned that this is the Kyoto Tamba Kogen Quasi-National Park (京都丹波高原国定公園).
We walked in a line through the pristine forest, careful to not slip on moss-covered rocks. After crossing the Yura river, we arrived amidst century-old trees. Everything gleamed in the morning drizzle. I took a deep breath of the fresh air redolent of damp earth and fallen leaves.Everyone started to disperse within the designated area. Some climbed upslope, others stayed along the stream. The hunting had begun. Our goal: Fill the red bags with as many tochinoki (Japanese horse-chestnuts, 栃の木, aesculus turbinata) as possible.
Growing up in Singapore might have dulled some of my instincts in the wild. My eyes struggled to detect the fallen fruits camouflaged amidst the dead leaves. My hands felt clumsy in the gloves and my feet uncertain in the borrowed boots.
The drizzle soon progressed into rain. I was both envious of and amused at the little girl who was well protected in a makeshift bubblewrap coat.
There were several hundred tochi trees in the forest, with the oldest said to be 1,000 years old. Time passed imperceptibly amongst these ancient creatures.
I don’t think I would make a good chestnut hunter. My final haul was half that of the little girl’s. But her father may have contributed to her load. Anyway, what’s more important was the collective effort. In one hour, we amassed almost 100 kilograms of chestnuts.
Back at the village hall, everyone had peeled off their wet coats and shoes and knelt or sat on the tatami ground. AB and I were wet to the skin and manoeuvred a swift change in Yoshimi’s van before re-joining the group.
A circle had formed around a gentleman in a suit seated behind a low table. It was Keiji Yamada, the governor of Kyoto. AB and I wondered why a senior government official would grace such a low-key event. We soon learned that this was the first harvest of the year to help the village’s grannies.
Koya was, and still is, of special significance in the Kyoto prefecture. It is the smallest village with only four households. Like several other villages in the region, it faces the problem of depopulation. Former residents moved away or died, leaving behind abandoned houses and unoccupied farmland.
Aged between 85 and 91, the three chestnut grannies spent all their lives in Koya. One of their sons, Kazuyasu Watanabe, had left before returning to Koya with his wife some years back.
As the self-appointed village head, Watanabe champions its long-standing chestnut tradition. Every year he ropes in a few hundred volunteers. Tasks include collecting fruit, setting up measures to protect the trees from deers, and scraping the snow blocking the only road to Koya.
The bounty from the Kyoto Tamba Kogen park is used to make traditional Japanese sweets and cakes. All year round, the grannies clean and process the Japanese horse-chestnuts. Their wrinkled hands transform the wild fruit into tasty snacks, including the moichi (glutinous rice flour cakes) that we ate at lunch.
When it was time for Governor Yamada to leave, there was much fanfare and enthusiastic waving. The villagers and volunteers were delighted that he had made time out of his busy schedule to support this humble initiative.
I’m glad that we participated in this community activity. It was inspiring to see how the villagers continue to be active at their ripe old age. It was also insightful to learn about the challenges faced by diminishing villages.
P.S. We visited Koya in 2015. The villagers are still continuing their chestnut enterprise with help from volunteers. If you would like to visit the Koya grannies and learn more, you can contact the Satoyama Guesthouse. I only found out about Satoyama Guesthouse and their guided tours after our trip. We had stayed with Yoshimi at Ayabe Yoshimizu.