Wordcatcher Tales: Udo no Taiboku

うどの大木 udo no taiboku ‘all hat, no cattle’ – We tried out a new restaurant in Ashikaga the other night, after a long circuit to view the many lovely shidare-zakura ‘weeping cherry trees’ that line a long, curving, landscaped ditch that borders the city’s huge civic center athletic complex.

The seafood restaurant Yanagi-ya [柳屋 ‘willow shop’] turned out to be a haven for Hanshin Tiger and sumo fans in the area. It caught my eye last month when it advertised the sumo wrestler’s special chanko nabe on the first day of the Osaka Grand Sumo Tournament. Unfortunately, the chanko nabe season is over now that the weather has started to get warmer, but the various dishes we ordered were all nicely presented, and tasty to boot. Each glass of sake had the name of a sumo wrestler on it.

At one point, the waitress brought over a complimentary dish of tempura vegetables that looked like celery tops, but tasted less bitter than celery, more like asparagus. She identified it as うど, which my electronic dictionary identified only as ‘an udo (a plant of the ginseng family cultivated for its edible shoots)’. The University of Virginia Library’s Japanese Haiku Topical Dictionary page for spring plants is more helpful.

独活 【うど】 udo, udo [a wild asparagus-like plant, Aralia cordata, sometimes cultivated and noted for its edible young shoots] (late spring).
山独活 【やまうど】 yamaudo, mountain udo [a wild variety, noted for its pungency]
深山独活 【みやまうど】 miyama-udo, high-mountain udo [Aralia glabra, rare]
芽独活 【めうど】 meudo, sprouting udo / udo shoots

The Anime Companion Supplement U offers a different context.

udo うど or 独活 Aralia cordata. The leaves and stalks of this plant are eaten either raw or cooked. The flavor is similar to asparagus. The cultivated type is grown in the dark to blanch it. Wild udo is used in sansai ryôri (mountain vegetable cooking), as the flavor is stronger it must be blanched before it is used in dishes.
Udo salad is one of the foods cherry mentions in the Urusei Yatsura TV series (Episode 36 story 59)
Maho buys udo from Tachikawa in MahoRomatic (ep.3) and pickles it.

Wikipedia includes udo in its surprisingly long list of English words of Japanese origin, defining it as ‘an edible plant found on the slopes of wooded embankments, also known as the Japanese Spikenard’.

Well, “Japanese spikenard” is not likely to be any more intelligible to most English speakers than the term “udo” itself, but here’s a derivative expression that has more familiar English parallels: うどの大木 udo no taiboku lit. ‘huge tree of udo’. (I had expected the pronunciation for 大木 to be daimoku but it seems to be taiboku in all contexts.) The Hoita Kokoro Center in Canada explains its meaning:

Just big man with nothing (lit. A huge udo tree) All bark and no bite or All hat and no cattle in English

Wikipedia explains further.

Despite its size, it is not a woody plant, as demonstrated in the popular saying Udo no taiboku (独活の大木), literally “great wood of udo”, meaning roughly useless as udo has a very soft stem.

1 Comment

Filed under Japan, language, sumo

One response to “Wordcatcher Tales: Udo no Taiboku

  1. Pingback: Wordcatcher Tales: Fuki, Shishiudo | Far Outliers

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