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Friday, July 04, 2014

Momo: The Peach in Japan

Today I was given a peach from a box of them—a present from another company— passed around in the office this morning. It prompted me to look up the Japanese Wikipedia article on peaches. The following is some of what I found.

Peaches in Japan.
A peach in Japan

Peach in Japanese is momo 桃, a word that is said to maybe derive from the phrase mami 真実 or “true fruit,” or from moemi 燃実 or “burning fruit” in reference to its flame-like coloring, or perhaps from the word “one hundred,” 百, one pronunciation of which being “momo,” in reference to the peach tree being highly fructiferous.

The peach is believed to have originated in the highlands at the upper reaches of the Yellow River in north-west China. Peaches reached Europe via the Silk Road in about the 4th century BC. However, archaeological evidence shows that the peach was introduced to Japan over 150 centuries before that. The oldest peach stone found in Japan was unearthed at the Ikiriki remains in Taramicho, Nagasaki prefecture, dating from the early Jomon era (i.e. over 16,000 years old). Archaeological finds dating from since the late Yayoi era show increasingly bigger peach stones, indicating that agricultural varieties of peach were being imported from China.

Peaches in Japan were used not only for food, but had a place in religious rituals as well, having been found buried together with ikuji (amulets consisting of spear-head-shaped slivers of wood) and other ritual objects.

Bitten peach in Japan.
Peach with a bite
Peaches were highly prized in the Heian to Kamakura eras, but are not believed to have been very sweet, but rather used more for medicinal or ornamental purposes.

Peaches became much more popular in the Edo era, and became available throughout the whole of Japan. And in the following Meiji era, the very sweet suimitsutoh peach from Shanghai was imported and further boosted the popularity of peaches in Japan. Nearly all peaches cultivated in Japan today are descended from the suimitsutoh variety.

The peach, or momo, is a not uncommon theme in Japanese culture. Perhaps the most well-known reference is in the story of Momo-taro (“Peach Taro”) who in one story was a little boy who popped out of a peach that an old childless woman fetched as it floated down the river. Momotaro then went on to fight evil with a band of animal comrades. A variant of the tale is that Momotaro was the offspring of an old couple who were magically restored to youth upon eating a peach, and who celebrated their rejuvenation in a nightlong session during which Momotaro was conceived. Whichever variant, the peach is closely associated with fecundity.

Peach pit in Japan.
The last of the peach.
The peach is also the topic of a Japanese tongue-twister:
李も桃も桃のうち (momomomomomomomonouchi) or (“A peach and a peach are both kinds of peaches”). Although, strictly speaking, the first kind of “momo” referred to here, written as 李, is not a peach but a Prunus salicina: a kind of plum.

Peaches are a popular summer gift in Japan, and the average gift box of about six peaches will set you back between 3,000 and 6,000 yen—a price you might balk at, but that starts to make sense once you’ve worked your sweet, juicy, messy way to the pit。

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