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Country Gentleman: A very special 'forest spirit'

A Japanese pepper plant is seen in the Afan Woodland. (Photo courtesy of the C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust)

In 1983 my younger brother Elwyn brought his wife, son and two daughters from England to spend Christmas and New Year with us here in northern Nagano. My sister-in-law and her little daughter from Vienna were also staying with us so we had a full house. Three grown women and three little girls were competing for attention and bathroom time, so for us guys, it was, shall we say, "wearing." My brother, poor henpecked fellow, could not escape, but I took my nephew James, then aged 8, for a long hike through the snowy forest of Mount Kurohime, on up to where I had set up a tepee, complete with a raised sleeping platform and a fire pit. The snow was 4 meters deep, almost to the top of the tepee, but I had kept the entrance dug clear and made sure that the top was open so that we did not kill ourselves with smoke and carbon monoxide from the fire.

James and I plodded on through the snow on "kanjiki" snowshoes, with me carrying a rucksack of food and drink, shouldering a gun in case I got the chance to shoot a hare for the pot. My Irish setter dog floundered after us, quite happy to do so, because he too needed to get away from all the females. (We also had an Irish setter bitch, definitely the boss when it came to canine law at our house!)

The tepee was well stocked with firewood, charcoal, lamps, fuel, sheepskin mattresses, eiderdown sleeping bags, candles, pots, pans, plates, mugs, an axe and a "nata" tool. We were very cozy. I cooked steaks, potatoes and a steamed jam pudding for that first dinner, and with the dog warming himself at our feet we two lads reveled in naughty songs and boys-only stories.

For James it was a great adventure that he never forgot.

Five years ago he visited Tokyo briefly and told me that he was going to make gin, because he was sure that a gin boom was coming. He asked me if there was anything from a Japanese forest that could enhance a traditional British gin.

"Sure," I said, "try green sansho berries. They will give your gin a zing and will enhance the taste of juniper and other aromatics you add to it."

James and his brother-in-law Barry have just spent 10 days visiting Japan in order to promote this Nicol family gin and to explore the possibilities of having it distilled in Japan. It is a high quality craft gin, admittedly expensive, but to my taste, the very best gin ever, one that actually goes well with Japanese food. James told me that it was his first memories of being in the snowy mountains with his uncle that made him want to do something that would create ties to the Japan that he had come to love.

This gin is selling quite well in Britain and in other places such as Singapore, Dubai and so on. It is also on the market in Japan, but I will not abuse the privilege of being able to write for you good readers by naming it and getting some free advertising. This gin has become an outlet for good old Uncle Nic to write stories about our Nagano woods, local legends, animals, birds, edible wild vegetables and so on for the amusement of overseas gin tipplers. James Nicol, now 45, wants more than ever to forge links to the country world of his native Britain (he now lives in Edinburgh) and the country world of Japan that he came to love as a little boy.

The Nicol family gin also gives him an excuse to come to Japan and share a few tipples and stories with his old uncle. You know something? He never told his mother, sisters or aunts about those naughty songs we sang in that snowy tepee all those years ago. That's manly trust for you!

Cheers James! Cheers Barry! I look forward to your next visit!

("Country Gentleman" is a regular column by author and conservationist C.W. Nicol)

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