Seaweed for the emperor
Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, March 17, 2009
It’s good to be the king.
- Mel Brooks, History of the World, Part I
Perquisites naturally accrue to the kingfish alpha males squatting atop the greasy pole of success—emperors and kings traditionally received tribute, China’s Mao Zedong had a parade of young virgins brought from the countryside for his delectation (reportedly eight in the same bed at the same time) and Kim Jong-il seems to have lived out a frat boy’s dream of despotism, indulging in multiple love affairs, a passion for motorcycles, and a taste for Hennessey VSOP cognac at US$ 630 a bottle.
And then Bill Clinton had Monica Lewinsky.
The same is true in Japan, too, though licentiousness is no longer a factor, if it ever was. The shogun and the tenno (emperor) received tributes of rice, and the tenno still does. But today’s tenno has another advantage in addition to being able to partake at will from the nation’s granaries: He receives free seaweed!
Well, wakame, to be precise, or to put it another way, Undaria pinnatifida. Every Japanese eats wakame, which is most often used in miso soup or tofu salads, and sometimes as a side dish or garnish. It’s rich in calcium, iodine, thiamine and niacin. It’s also said to burn fatty tissue and have a high nutritient-to-calorie ratio, which makes it a favorite of health food folk.
I bring this up because the Imperial Household just got its annual wakame shipment this week from the Munakata Taisha, a Shinto shrine in Munakata, Fukuoka. Jinoshima, an island in the Tsushima Strait that is adminstratively part of the city, produces the seaweed for the dining tables of Japan. A special shrine committee that includes local maritime industry cooperatives conducts a special harvest of 30 kilograms every year at the end of February and selects six kilograms for shipment to Tokyo.
The wakame is dried on boards and then sent to the Munakata shrine. The photo shows the shrine priests and the miko (shrine maidens) cutting it into sheets measuring 25 centimeters long by 20 centimeters wide. They then insert six sheets into a package, which are in turn put into about 15 bags that will contain a total of 1.5 kilograms of the delicacy. The bags are placed into a box of Japanese cedar, and four boxes will be shipped in all.
Come on now, you don’t send the man food wrapped in tin foil!
Interestingly, this tradition for the Munakata shrine isn’t as old as one might think. They’ve been shipping the seaweed since 1963, and this year is only the 47th time they’ve made the offering. Just as interesting, it seems that even Shinto shrines keep an eye on PR for the mass media. Here’s the statement the chief priest made to the press:
This year again, we were able to harvest excellent quality wakame of a deep green color with the strong aroma of the sea.
Ah, but the story doesn’t end there. The shrine doesn’t just send someone down to the post office to ship the stuff off to Tokyo—they take it to the Fukuoka Airport and hold a special ceremony to hand over the boxes to the flight attendants. And we’re in luck, because here’s the local RKB-TV report of that ceremony on video!
The only part of the narration that already hasn’t been covered is the explanation that the passengers on the same plane will each receive a commemorative ornament of a fugu (blowfish) on which has been written the character 福, or good fortune.
Ain’t that always the way? The top dog gets the pick of the wakame crop, and everyone else gets a cheap blowfish figurine.
The video says that the airline will deliver the seaweed to the Imperial Household Agency. Heck, if I were the tenno, I’d tell the agency to have those stewardesses deliver it in person to the palace and have them stay for lunch.
You just know Mao and Kim would have!
Afterwords: Here’s shocking news for wakame lovers everywhere–people outside of Northeast Asia don’t care for it very much. In fact, New Zealanders consider it a weed that’s clogging up the Wellington harbor, and it’s been nominated as one of the world’s 100 worst invasive species.