Sunday, April 30, 2006


This afternoon we were walking through the upper forest to get the last of the gettable taranome when we saw two elder sansai (lit: mountain vegetable) gatherers ahead of us on the forest path, looked like real experts even from a distance, they both had bags full of stuff. One of them was bending down the branches of a tall slender silvery tree so the other could pick off some buds. When we got up to where they were we asked what they were harvesting.

Sansai gatherers don't really like to share their secrets with stranger sansai gatherers, which is understandable, but we were clearly such rank amateurs that one of them took a pro-sansai gatherer's pity on us (while the other kept on gathering) and explained that this was a koshiabura tree (Acanthopanax sciadophylloides Franch. et Savat), that the buds were delicious as tempura, that the slightly opened leaf clusters were delicious boiled and served with a touch of bonito shavings and soy sauce, and that a side dish of koshiabura would cost a fortune in an exclusive restaurant. They also explained how to recognize the tree among all the others that looked sort of like it. (We didn't tell him that we've been seeking the koshiabura bush in vain for a couple of years now and had begun to think it must be extremely rare.)

So after thanking them and going our separate ways we went off looking for more of the tree, found quite a few just at the right stage and filled our bag with the pungent buds and leaves (sort of a mild celery/butterbur combo fragrance). When we got home, for lunch we had some of the larger leaf clusters boiled and topped with bonito shavings and soy sauce. Delicious mild flavor, with a unique and delightful semi-crunchy mouthfeel, sort of a cross between broccoli and spinach.

After lunch we looked at the book we'd gotten our only image from, compared it with what we'd gathered and seen: the stem in the photo was much darker and speckled, unlike the actual item, which moreover wasn't undergrowth, as we'd assumed from the picture, but a tall slender tree.

Once you get to know them, trees are more instructive than books about trees.

Thursday, April 27, 2006


Yes, you read that right, and it will make 'sense' if you read on. Somehow it seems that this could only happen in Japan, for reasons so deep I could never touch bottom, but I'm willing to go down a fathom or two.

As elsewhere, television in Japan exerts a disturbing hold on the national mind, but here in the Land of Wa that ominous grip is often augmented by a cuteness that can approach the pathological. Make sense yet?

I earlier posted here on the frequent inscrutability (to my vestigially Western mind) of Japanese tv commercials, as exemplified by a big no-collateral loan company's madly popular hundreds-of-times-a-day spot featuring a big-eyed white chihuahua. That commercial and its many sequels made the white chihuahua the Elvis of pets in this country, the slightly hairy handfuls fetching up to 6000 dollars at the peak of big-loan-company chihuahuamania. Everybody wanted one of the cute little dears.

Well it turns out that the charming little critters' company will do nasty things to get its money back (surprise, surprise!). The endearingly fronted loan firm was caught using quite a bit more than chihuahuas on its deadbeats. Everybody in Japan knows that fast, no-collateral loans have been part of the underworld's flock of golden geese for centuries, if not millennia, but the tiny white dog on the hypnoscreen somehow eclipsed all that history of gore and anguish.

Then to the shock of all white-chihuahua owners the appalling fact re-emerged, right there in the adoring eyes of their pets and the gaze of their neighbors, and the price of aggressive loan-collector chihuahuas is plunging, as is their popularity. How embarrassing now, that formerly dear chihuahua you bought so expensively when the truth was also true.

The tube can be a cruel master. But at least it makes for bizarre headlines.


Another of the many things I love about Japan is the quality of the faces on the old folks, who wear their faces unashamed right out there in the open, a whole life for all to see and so take part in, vicariously read the future and the past-- especially out here in the countryside, where the old ways prevail yet. (In the city it's increasingly popular, even among the young, to buy a new face at the sign of a wrinkle.)

Folks live a long time here, in good part because the now older folks have always lived and eaten simply: not in the sense of incomplexity, as that would imply in the West, but in the sense of sufficiency, as (at least traditionally) applies here in Japan, where form is as important as flavor, where one eats with the eyes perhaps more than with the tongue. That continuous modicum shows in the elder faces and moods. How sad it must be to be angry at your own face and how it ages, rather than proud of how it has adjusted to a life in its entirety thus far, the life that it now stands for.

There are the smiling elder men farmers coming up the mountain, and the beautiful elder women, especially the lady that comes up the mountain to gather sacred tree branches for certain holidays of the year; they are not embarrassed by their own character, by the memories on their faces of all the smiles they have smiled, that make it easier to smile all the more, and that inspire a smile on the faces of those who meet them. That's what faces are, that's what they are for; they're not a blank slate to be bought at a clinic, they're a record of a life, a poem of experience.

If you want yours erased, perhaps it isn't worth reading.

Mick just posted Twilight of the Trolley on The Blog Brothers, sent me right back there...

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


"Is it really possible for one man to single-handedly obliterate the world's most robust economy?"

As the possibility looms, look for Japan to edge closer to China and an Asian Union...


While scanning Google news this morning I came across this newspaper headline: Avoiding Milk During Pregnancy Linked to Lower Birth Weight, with deeper down a few dozen more headlines on the subject, including these:

Milk's a must for mums-to-be
Avoiding milk 'leads to smaller babies'
Drinking too little milk 'can harm unborn baby'
Pregnant women 'need to drink milk'
Milk 'essential in pregnancy'
More Reasons For Pregnant Mothers To Drink Milk
Study: Pregnant Women Must Drink Plenty of Milk
Pregnant women who drink less milk risk low birth weight babies
Limiting milk can hamper Babies’ Growth

Only one headline had gotten the elemental fact of the matter right: Vit D linked to baby birth weight. Simply that. Seems more and more like the dead-tree media, under threat from bloggers and the internet in general, are increasingly resorting to scary tabloid-type headlines, much as the dairy industry is resorting to recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH).

Vitamin D intake was the key point to the story, not milk. So why all the emphasis on milk? In Canada (where the study was done), milk is fortified with vitamin D, but there are plenty of other sources of that vitamin, none mentioned in these articles. Milk of any kind is fundamentally an unnatural food for adults, to say nothing of cow's milk for pregnant humans and their babies...

So I wondered why all the scare headlines: why all this obvious pushing of milk on a trusting (?) audience? How unbiased was this study, anyway? So I went to the study itself and waaay at the very bottom was this statement: "Funding sources for our study included the Dairy Farmers of Canada..."


Oddly, in all this deeply heartfelt journalistic concern for mothers and their infants, none of the news articles mentioned a study on, say, bi-weekly shots of rBGH, or the use of other hormones and antibiotics to keep cows alive and producing, not a word on Monsanto (which means 'Sacred Mountain,' ironically), sewage sludge in cow feed, or all the many other detrimental aspects of milk; nor did they refer to non-organic milk. Let alone the famous Milk Letter.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


Before I started my new life off with the Berkeley landfill and the Alameda Flea Market, I used to shave with a safety razor and canned foam or an electric razor like everybody else, but one of the guys who used to sell near us at Alameda specialized in old straight razors, brushes and strops, so I bought and tried, and never had a better (or more attentive) shave.

I've since returned to using a simple safety razor - didn't want to have a straight razor anywhere around when the kurious kids were growing - but I've stuck with the brush and soapmug (a beautiful pottery item I got in Okinawa), not only because mug and brush afford a better shave while being cheaper and less wasteful on many levels, but because an elder deserves a touch of the finest in luxury now and then.

Here's a superb essay on the ritual of shaving, details on how to get the perfect shave, a source of the finest in shaving equipment and a throughgoing shaveblog to go with it.

Enjoy the morning mirror.

Monday, April 24, 2006


Today I observed the first of the Springtime bird parties around here, when the birds really go wild. The party starts when the farmers flood and harrow their paddies, one by one down the mountainside. Today it was the paddy across the road.

Hearing all the avian commotion, I left breakfast and stepped out on the deck to behold a couple dozen hawks, wings wide, swarming the air directly over the paddy, doing their lazy lacework just above the farmer as he harrowed slowly back and forth with his small tractor. Now and then a hawk would swoop down and snatch a grub or a frog from the freshly turned mud that had lain fallow for eight months.

Over in the far trees some egrets were watching from the sidelines, waiting for the farmer to leave. Darkly prominent at the scene were a bunch of crows, who weren't dining at the moment (since they don't wade); their only interest was in harassing any hawks that weren't just sitting on the paddy banks watching with sharp beaks and talons at the ready.

When the farmer finally left, the egrets stepped in and slowly stalked the fresh buffet, selecting breakfast while the hawks kept gliding, swooping and grabbing at the sky-colored water, the crows now and then selecting a particular airborne hawk and closely following him around from above as he scanned the water, then at just the right moment swooping down and mussing up the hawk's hair.

When the hawks had had their fill and glided off into the rest of the air, the crows' fun was done so they left too, leaving the paddy mirror to the slow-motion egrets who, now having the serendipitous banquet all to themselves, took their long-legged graceful time until the entire paddy had been thoroughly enjoyed.

Tomorrow morning comes the next party, one venue lower.

Sunday, April 23, 2006


Seems this evening we have a new uguisu (warbler) auditioning in the neighborhood, who doesn't know the local warble. He sits in the top of the highest tree around and tries his level best: "Twee-- no..." "Twiddle-fwee-- no, that's not it..." "Tweedle-de-twee-- how did that start again, was it higher? Fweeeedee!-- no; maybe lower: Da-fwaa-- no; how about this then, this is it: Twiddle de-deedle fwee-- no, lemme think...." I keep waiting to hear: "Next!"

You've got to give him credit, though; he keeps trying, despite what sounds a lot like warbler snickers from the trees around, but he just doesn't know the Shiga mountainside medley. He must be from far away, maybe around Tokyo somewhere, if they still have warblers there.

His brief and awkward attempts are of no effect, except perhaps on me, but what use is that? No female warblers are fluttering toward the inept wannabe heartthrob in the treetop, nor are any male warblers hotwinging it out of his undefined territory. In fact, the manic warbler is having an avid go at his own riff on the local classic just a few trees away, and a traditional warbling of considerable technique can be heard in the trees on the west side of the garden.

The alien warbler seems to be taking no pointers from these sources, though; he keeps going at the songbook on his own, with sour results. But without a willingness to learn from the locals, he's out of luck in this birdland.

After 20 minutes or so of butchering the classics he seems to realize this, and takes off heading in the general direction of Tokyo. If he can make it there, he can't make it anywhere else.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Evening breeze
uses words like
cherry blossom petals


This morning we went back to our newly discovered top-secret taranome cache, comprising an amazing couple dozen trees, to harvest some more buds. We're letting the buds open and branch out a bit before we take them (the secrecy affords us that luxury) because that's when they're best. So we got a lunchful this time, with many more buds remaining; we should be dining on those delicacies for the next couple of weeks.

Most of the trees are so tall I had to bring my extendable pruning saw/shears to get the high buds, you just can't pull that hard (to bend the branch down) on those thorns, even with sturdy American made leather work gloves on (I bought a couple years supply of those on my last visit to the States). I've never seen taranome that tall, because those in more public places (i. e., just about everywhere) are stripped completely, so thoroughly harvested that they don't grow much beyond a meter or two high before they give up the ghost from sun starvation.

These trees are 5 meters and more and still growing, since no one knows where they are but us, and we'll leave the key buds on so they can keep growing. There are also a lot of new little ones coming up around them. The taranome in this grove are smart and have picked an ideal place to raise their families, surrounded as they are by thorny grabber bushes, which snag you more the more you struggle. But now that we know where those are (learning that was quite an education; the high ones snatch your hat up into the air, and then your hair; some of them grow low to the ground and grab your pants, wrap around your ankles) (I'm pulling one of those thorns out of my pantsleg as I type this) we've mapped a way through.

On our way back we began to harvest warabi (fiddlehead fern), which we eat right away in various fashions, pickle, or freeze to cook with our rice through the summer. Harvesting those is a very meditative exercise, their perfect dun color making them so difficult to see that you really have to concentrate, keeping only that image in your mind and not thinking of anything else, or you'll miss them. It's just one level above the state of Mu (nothingness) sought in Buddhist meditation. You have to hold to the State of Warabi constantly as you look for them. I started out looking for and at various other harvestables and couldn't find any warabi at all; on the way back home over the same ground I emptied my mind of all but warabiness and found a bag full. Like walking through life every day, seeing all, beholding nothing...


Local politics around here haven't changed much in half a century (since the Edo period, it could be argued), and the LDP's time in power has exceeded that of any single-party rule in the world since the demise of the PRN in Mexico; Koizumi is even now selecting his successor. So this is interesting:

"Japan has some very big decisions to make. The revolutionary wealth system is not just a technical or economic phenomenon, but social and cultural as well. It is civilizational change.

The technology is the easy part, which Japan has mastered. The hard part is to make consonant changes in institutions and social structure to bring it all into sync. This is where Japan, with its notorious social and cultural rigidity, has fallen down — even though it has mastered the technology. Everything from the lifetime employment of the 'salaryman' to the subjugated role of women has slowed it down while others — especially China — speed on ahead.

Japan's main challenge is how to loosen up. They are doing it. But can they do it in time?"

Revolutionary Wealth
An Interview with Alvin Toffler

Friday, April 21, 2006


My brother Mick, keeper of what's left of the family photo archives, has just posted on The Blog Brothers a foto I've never seen, of him and I (and a friend) at around the respective ages of 6 and 8, together with a little vignette of kidlife in the heavy NY winters of the 1940s. Upon seeing the photo, Echo said I look exactly like our daughter Kasumi when she was that age. I'm 65 now, and love Kasumi dearly, but at the age of 8 I'd have been devastated to hear that I looked like any girl whatsoever.

Thursday, April 20, 2006


Out in the dark last night I heard some monkeys arguing (they never argue quietly, like humans can; they don't care who hears) in the trees south of us, sounded like a fight over who gets to sleep where, which caused me to keep in mind that we might be seeing some monkeys in the garden in the morning.

I was up early today, and was upstairs checking my email when Echo, standing at the big kitchen window, yelled out: "Monkey in the garden!" I ran downstairs and out the door from the kitchen to the deck and there beheld, sitting quietly on his haunches and eyeing my new beans while nibbling leaves from a decorative bush not ten feet from me, a solo teenage monkey who looked like he hadn't been able to sleep where he wanted last night, and was not in a good mood.

Slowly chewing a wad of leaves, he looked at me with the saucy simian teenage equivalent of "We got a problem here, pop?" I responded with the crotchety human equivalent of "Yes, we do, young fellow!" (All subsequent exchanges are rendered in their relative equivalents, except where indicated.) "And that problem is...?" "This is my garden! that's the problem! Now make tracks!" "Your garden? YOUR garden? This whole damn mountain belongs to my gang!" Chew... chew...

As this brief and pointless exchange indicates, diplomacy and negotiation do not work with monkeys (let alone teenage monkeys), who know nothing of money, having no need for it since they are firmly convinced that everything is already theirs. So I threw the mutually understood equivalent that is a rock.

He shot off as only a teenager can do, stopped in the far corner of the garden about a hundredth of a second later and stared insouciance at me while provocatively fondling my blueberries. I said another rock. I still have a pretty good arm and coulda been a contender, but I burned up all my sizzle on snowballs back in NY, so the simian punk wasn't all that impressed until I spoke again and more precisely. He got the message in ricochet, and ran onto the property of my upmountain neighbor, who has no problems with monkeys because he has a lawn.

To a monkey, especially a teenager, a lawn is like social studies class to a human teen, a place of like, total boredom that's like, way irrelevant. I knew he wouldn't be able to stand it there for long, nothing to steal, nothing to eat, nothing to swing from, so I just stood there, tapping my foot and hefting my next word, until he did his equivalent of the resigned teenage massive shrug with dramatic sigh and ambled off into the forest that should damn well be his proper calling, what is this world coming to.

He must have told the others about the social studies, because not one member of the gang has come by since.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006


This morning while having breakfast I watched one of the few Japanese tv shows I watch, wherein a 'celebrity' walks/travels leisurely through a locality of Japan in search of some unrenowned natural beauty or special craft, a secret local vegetable, cooking style, fermenting technique or other art. The celeb walks into the field or kitchen, workshop or brewhouse where folks are busy, and there surprises interesting people relevant to the subject, which means that almost always the celeb winds up talking to an elder.

This morning it was an elder in Yamagata who handcrafts zaru (roughly, 'strainer') for a living, in this case made of copper wire, plain wire and bamboo - for straining noodles, rice, tempura - all kinds and sizes of strainers, the fellow had been making them all his life, weaving them in his simple village shop where all his zaru were displayed for sale on walls and ceiling.

There is a natural delight in seeing an elder speak proudly from such a length of experience. He was in his 80s and how he could laugh, sitting there before his well-worn work board with coils of copper wire and his own beautifully crafted wares gleaming all around him, badges of his pride, as he recounted clear memories of learning it all 50, 60, 70 years ago, in another world...

It is good for all to see a lifetime of dedication being respected, the elder passing on his knowledge, the tenor of his life and labor, the learning in his hands and the value of it, of doing it, expressing it and living it thus: you can make a living with your hands and take pride in it and be happy, laugh heartily after 80 years - and here it was being recorded for posterity, on tv; he was a celebrity now...

Then the crew wandered on down the road to a grandma who showed the celeb how she made a special natto (fermented soybeans) dish using fermented rice, and later when it was ready to eat, the woman's whole family and their famous visitor sat around the table and enjoyed a bowl of it together.

Then a further meandering down the road with an elder persimmon farmer, conversing about life till at last they stood in the farmer's persimmon orchard and talked about the history, beauty, savor and secrets of a life spent working with trees.

This is one of the many small ways in which respect for elders is nurtured in Japan. And though that respect is fading a bit due to the increasing isolation of elders from youngers through loss of the nuclear family and the call of the big city with its small, elderless apartments, that respect is never very far away; even tv producers recognize the wisdom that is there to be shared and passed on, that there is a market for it, because elders are interesting (to say nothing of inspiring and photogenic), there is respect for what they know, and because soon Japan will have the greatest proportion of elders in the world. Then perhaps we'll see wisdom come into its own, for the first time in history.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


Yesterday was surprisingly sunny even though I wasn't in the office, so in the morning I took advantage of that remarkable coincidence to transplant a bunch of potted beans and peas so the crows will have something to steal while I'm in the office. These days they just look darkly at my yucky garlic and covered radishes while swearing in Crow. A small band of monkeys also passed quietly through our garden around breakfast time (I didn’t hear a thing) and chewed off only the more select shiitake buds; we later saw them ambling well-fattened down the road ahead of us, a lot of young acrobatic mouths to feed in springtime.

As the whole area sprouts, the deer are already disdaining my spinach, so we may get more spinach than we expected. But we're finding more and more wild greens this year, so up to a point who needs a garden while Eden is around. On yesterday's afternoon walk in the northern neighborhood, to a seldom-visited but venerable temple where the ancient weeping cherry trees cascade in bloom like scented pink waterfalls, we found a mountain stream full of beautiful wild watercress, green bunches of which we pulled up by the roots and put in a big tub of water on the deck where it can keep growing. I have to go back there again and look for wild horseradish. Speaking of roots, that long afternoon walk also means that I still have five bags of ginger to plant when the weather and I get around to it. It's hard to get two eccentrics like me and the weather together.

Monday, April 17, 2006


More wisdom is always good, but it looks like we're going to need it...

"By such metrics as median age or proportion of total population above the age of, virtually every developed society today is more elderly than practically any human society ever surveyed before the year 1950 — and every single currently developed society is slated to experience considerable further population aging in the decades immediately ahead. In all of the affluent OECD societies, the proportion of what is customarily called the 'retirement age population' (65 years of age or older) will steadily swell, with the most rapid expansion occurring among those aged 80 or more."

Growing Old the Hard Way: China, Russia, India

By Nicholas Eberstadt, American Enterprise Institute

via Arts & Letters Daily

Sunday, April 16, 2006


Out yesterday on one of our Spring walks in a newly discovered and beautiful park above the Lake, one of our paths led us beside an entire bank covered with the vegetative stalks - as the scientists call them - of tsukushi (horsetail; Equisetum arvense), right at their point of culinary perfection, just before the new pine cone-like tips begin to open and issue spores, when the tips begin to turn brown from the top down and become inedible. They're harvestable in that ideal state for about a day. Time was a'wastin'. (The moreso because we'd missed them around our place, owing to our focused hunt for taranome; by the time we noticed the tsukushi, they'd all turned brown.) It was raining, but we threw down our umbrellas, got out our harvesting bags and went to work.

When you're surrounded by countless short-term delicacies to be had for free, it's hard to call it quits; so we picked along the whole hillside till we had a big bag full of the slender, fragile, oddly beautiful goodies. On the way home we stopped at some friends' houses and gave them each a good handful, much to their delight. Some people pickle them; our upmountain neighbor candies them every year. We had a horsetail omelet for breakfast this morning.

The basic horsetail Japanese recipe is to remove the stiff brown (and charmingly labeled) ‘hakama’ (before removal on right in photo; after on left) sauté very briefly in sesame oil, add soy sauce, some brown sugar, optional mirin (rice wine) (or white wine) and cook very briefly in resulting sauce. Or, after the sesame oil part, stir in an egg or two for an omelet.

Here’s another good horsetail recipe.

Friday, April 14, 2006


I suspect that for many reasons, from Iraq to New Orleans, and particularly given the size of the recent immigration marches, that there will be a massive and welcome turnover in the US House and Senate come November (barring Diebold). Change in Texas would be especially gratifying. Here's what you can do to help Take Back Texas.


Nothing like gazing upon your own well-stacked cord of firewood turning golden in the morning sun to get a person feeling contented, and then in that contentment set that person thinking about contentment itself and how it gets here and where it goes and what it is exactly, what is it made of, is it part of me or is it more like a transitory shaft of sunlight moving across a patch of still earth? Firewood serves in so many ways...

I've always loved the mystery in that Tao Te Ching phrase that each time I read it shimmers with the gleam of truth that cannot be pinned down, that coruscates in the mind's eye: "There is no disaster greater than not being content."

Content? Why content? Mere contentment? What does contentment have to do with disaster? Lao Tzu knew that contentment is the beginning of all that is worthy, the seed and germ of every happiness, its absence accordingly the tiny breach that in time massively ruptures into every disaster, like the pinhole in the dam, like the lost horseshoe nail.

Contentment is the beating heart of every joy, because it is egoless; contentment is the deep you, the genuine you, the universal you, feeling at home where you are in particular; there is no self in contentment, which centers all worthy matters. All purely self-centered matters, in contrast, are perturbed, and palpitate with discontent (insert the seven cardinal sins here for starters); they never know contentment, for they chase it, they do not contain it.

And where contentment is wanting, deception is essential, falsehood opportune, theft advantageous, violence whimsy and death irrelevant. No one knew this better than the Chinese of Lao Tzu's day, who had seen it all for millennia, from murder and rapine to plague and famine, and knew the silent dry seed of the whirlwind that begins with the end of contentment...

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


We weren't going to be beat this year like last year, this is a dog-eat-dog business here in Japan, the hunting of mountain vegetable delicacies like the reclusive tara-no-me (Aralia elata), which is very fussy as to where it grows and prefers as much privacy as it can get. To look at the plant you'd never suspect that it's the holy grail of Japanese wild vegetable delicacies. It has a starkly vicious appearance that is well reflected in its folk name in English, 'devil's walking stick.' Even the monkeys and deer leave it alone. Understandably.

Shooting straight up for sometimes three meters or more if left to grow unharvested, its entire surface is covered with hard sharp spines up to an inch long. It grows from its branchtips, where each spring the scarlet-tinted jade buds emerge, which is what you harvest if you can get to them before everybody else does.

As newbies to this business for the last ten years, on our walks we'd come across tara-no-me that had already been harvested: missed again, wait another whole year. But on our eclectic rambles we also found some secret places where few or no one looks, right in our own neighborhood, and we marked them for this year's search.

So we'd been keeping an eagle eye on our tara-no-me hunting grounds in several places around here and knew the time was approaching; then this morning when I saw a local elderly sansai (mountain vegetable) expert gent walking along the road and looking upward into the roadside undergrowth and carrying a long stick that had a hook on the end, I knew today was the day. Immediately we set out in our offroad shoes, with stout gloves and a bag.

The first of our secret trees had died since last year; it had been overharvested, too visible from the road, not so secret after all. Then we pioneered in to one of our really secret tara-no-me places and there were the tall thorny beauties shooting up over three meters, multibranched, a big fat bud at the end of each branch. I'd grab the branches with my thick leather work gloves on (even so, some of the thorns would get through to ouch level) and bend them slowly down, walking my hands outward, till Echo could reach and snap off the bud. There's nothing quite like that snap. We left the very top buds on, so the trees could continue their life's work.

Every secret place we went, we were the first ones there (I guess we're pros now), so we got a goodly bag full of fragrant buds, some to have as tempura with rice tonight, some to give to unfortunate tara-no-me-less friends in the city (they could buy the precious delicacies - packaged like jewels, one or two to a package - at caviar prices in the supermarket, but fresh wild tastes - well, fresh and wild), the rest to save for later when there are no tara-no-me to be had anywhere at any price.

No, I'm not telling you where. But if you stop by we'll give you a couple so you can have a banquet too.


Tuesday, April 11, 2006


I remember well the rush-hour subways of Tokyo back in the early 70s when Japan was just hitting its stride and there were seemed like 10 million commuters and maybe 20 trains, so at rush hour (i. e., all day long) the stations needed white-gloved pushers to coax, pack, squeeze and pry people onto the trains, me among them - boarders would stand back and take a run at the open doors to get the leverage they needed to get on in the face of an obstinate crowd - then we'd all sardine intimately together for whatever distance beneath or around the city. Subway posters would say things like "Leave your sweater at the office" (so we can fit more people on the trains). I got used to occasionally being pressed chest-to-chest with lovely female passengers, though far more often it was elderly smoker guys.

That was a long time ago, so it was kind of nostalgic this morning when I boarded my usual train and couldn't get a seat, which is unusual at my rural stop, and had to fall back on my old Tokyo rush-hour mobbing skills. By the next couple of stops, the train was full to bursting with high school student chatter and squeals, today must be some first-day-back kind of day when every student has to show up, and they all took this train. Plus it was raining hard, so everybody had sharp umbrellas, slick raincoats and edgy school backpacks (and people now, especially the young ones, are generally larger than they were back then). Of course all the regulars were getting on as well, so by the time we'd traveled halfway to Kyoto we were in desperate need of pushers, but they don't have those anymore.

There was only the voice of the conductor (trapped in the driver's cabin) over the loudspeakers, pleading "Please move in and make room" as the doors whooshed open and those already on board scrambled to stay on while frantic commuters mingled with the boarding students slowly pushed and squeezed their way in before they could be cut off by the closing doors, not wanting to miss this only train all day that goes all the way to Osaka.

To accommodate, people just had to breathe out in unison; there were the familiar gasps and swoons and screeches and ouches and oofs as the crowd unified, blending together just like in the old times, but the young ones not as experienced, the windows steaming up and faces pressing against the doors, limbs unmovable until the next station, when everybody would topple together as the train stopped, then all was ramped up again as the few that were able to got off and even more got on; so it went, the pressure increasing by degrees until it was 1972 again for the good distance to Kyoto, when the train emptied to the modern normal level of intensity and all was space and light once more.

Squeezed a lot of fond memories out of me.

Just posted The Empress of Penny Candy on The Blog Brothers...

Monday, April 10, 2006

Out on the lake
boats among the blossoms
on my plum tree

Sunday, April 09, 2006


On certain Spring mornings after laborious days, with a free-ranging day ahead I love to wallow in that insensible syrup brought on by the body's labors of yesterday, that sweetness one of the blends of heaven and earth in this world; you can sense the heaven in it as you lie there in warm thickness barely able to move it is so pleasurable, thoughtshadows ebbing and flowing on the tides of Morpheus, he is an ancient god and I know why as well as the Greeks did, he is also a drug and I know that why too, though I live all that knowledge in absentia as I lie there drugged with the finest of nature's many innate medicaments, each to its time, yet that does away with time, for time and ecstasy are unrelated things, I nearly realize as I slip back into timelessness, the cool and fragrant morning breeze wafting over my face whence soon issues a long string of large and flowery Zs that slowly fill the air with lambent peace...

Saturday, April 08, 2006


Walking around the corner of the house early this morning into the full gold of sunlight I was caused to stop in my tracks, close my eyes and breathe deeply as in spontaneous meditation, mind emptied of thought and filled with a clear sense of nirvana here and now. I had walked all unexpecting into the heaven of fragrance shared by the Myrtle bush, every gleaming purple facet hinting at the beauty that bears us to each morning. When I came back to this world, it was new.

Friday, April 07, 2006


Thursday, April 06, 2006


I was chatting for quite a while with 5-year-old Kaya on the phone last night, now that she's old enough to be able to chat at length without just listening at the phone like at a keyhole, the way her 2-year-old twin sisters (Mitsuki and Miasa) still do.

Talking about her typical day in school and swimming class, and how the twins are always fighting but she never is, Kaya spoke so intelligently that in her physical absence I was lulled into forgetting that her mind is still only 5 years old.

As I kept asking her when she was coming to visit us again (as I do every time we call her) and pointing out that Echo and I are the only ones staying in this big old house, that we have lots of room and the frogs are singing, so she could come and stay anytime, she said that she was very busy these days (the frenzied modern 5-year-old lifestyle), then suggested brightly: "Why don’t you and Echo just have some more babies so you'll have somebody to play with when I'm not there?” I didn't know what to say to that, so I just listened at the phone like at a keyhole.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


Last night I stepped out onto the deck in the whisper of new Spring rain and heard, in the rainfilling rice paddy across the road, the first two or three fresh-from-the-mud frogs of the year singing in top form - their voices clearly invigorated by their long sleep - about how amazing it was to be out here in the dark of the larger world once again, so rich in water above and below, just as it was last time they were here together in this very same place of long tradition, wasn’t it a delight their songs went, recounting once more the ever-astonishing adventure of having spent another dark instant of winter under the soil, which had clearly only recently been tilled, though they didn’t remember a thing about that; yet they’d all survived to gather here once more and sing the ancient tales to one another in calls and responses, just as their forefrogs had done all the way back to the beginning of everything there ever was and ever would be, as it has long been told. They sang on even as I was later falling asleep and lost track of the lyrics. No doubt they went on all night and exhausted themselves, for the morning was all sunlight and only the manic warbler was singing. But there's no keeping that kind of spirit down; I went out there tonight and they were at it again, in even greater numbers and louder than ever, singing once again the epic tales they never tire of.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006


Whenever I dive into a stack of US government forms, such as for taxes or passports or military records, I get the same feeling I get regarding my luggage when I land at Kennedy Airport. It's basically an adversarial relationship from the get-go. But in this case, I'm the presumed would-be sneaking, lowdown crook looking to steal the goods. Which goods, however, were mine to begin with. Odd how things get turned around like that when you're dealing with the government your forebears established to protect your interests.

This basic attitude, directed equally toward each and every citizen (excepting those with accountants) is well reflected in the phrasing right at the top of the transcendantly titled "Statement of Claimant or Other Person" (who else is left?), one sheet among the many that comprise the small-town phonebook-sized packet of Social Security forms I as an expat have to fill out so as to get my own money back (I really don't expect much more, in terms of actual value), to which Agency I and my employers faithfully paid in full, all aboveboard, for a sufficient number of years: "I fully understand that a felony crime equals any crime punishable by a sentence of death or imprisonment..." Anybody else here on death row check the wrong box?

Every other form in the phone book as well, in one way or another, demonstrates this seriously distrustful attitude of the government toward me trying to steal my hard-earned cash: "...commits a crime punishable by under Federal law by fine, imprisonment or both." Well, nice to see you, too.

In Japan, though the government/resident attitude isn't exactly hail-fellow-well-met (especially at Immigration), I was never threatened with death on my pension forms.

Monday, April 03, 2006


We took the expressway, the faster to escape the mind-numbing clutches of the shadowy fingers that reached out for me as I raced away: "If 'Yes,' attach a copy of schedule C (or F) and SE and Form 2555 of your United States Income Tax Return filed for each year [!!!] of the work period shown in item 1."

Already my mind was clearing as I anticipated the calming and nurturing environs I would find in the small, temple-rich town of Hikone across the Lake. One of those temples is Ryotanji. I had ever been to that particular temple, though I've spent a lot of time in the town of the famed castle.

We were going to Ryotanji because we'd read an announcement about the Daruma festival that was going on there, which sounded interesting. I wasn't expecting much more than the general peaceful bustle and non-right-in-your-face spiritual ambience of the average temple festival, which qualities are always welcome in modern life - maybe with some unique cultural/aesthetic/historical aspects thrown in as mindgravy - but as it turned out, Ryotanji was a sleeper; it knocked my socks off.

Tucked away among the hills at the edge of Hikone, Ryotanji was originally built in 734; it later became the family temple of the Ii clan, (who were given what is now Shiga Prefecture when they wound up on the winning (Tokugawa) side in the Battle of Sekigahara, which led to a unified Japan). Ryotanji carries that historic, spiritual and aesthetic tradition in every surface of its ancient presence.

From the brief brochure: "The teachings [at Ryotanji, Zenrenzai sect] specialize in the subject of landscape gardening, and many students who have studied here have gone on to be so called 'Gardening Priests,' establishing gardens in many temples throughout Japan." And what gardens; if you're in the vicinity, go there.

Not to mention the buildings themselves, or all the as-yet eyeless Darumas to purchase, take home, paint one eye in and promise the other in return for good fortune; or the images on the wooden doors, painted by Kyoroku Morikawa, a renowned student of Basho. Another great thing is that even on a Sunday, and even though it was a festival, there was almost no one there. Shockingly unlike the typical Japan Sunday event, when everyone goes wherever you're going. You could just sit there for hours on the temple veranda in the silence of the sun and the fragrance of incense, listening to the chanting, sipping your green tea, surrounded by masterpieces of every kind...

Now that's social security.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Crow sits atop
the telephone pole
listening to my Stan Getz

Saturday, April 01, 2006


With all the fresh-from-dreams bravado and apparent clarity of cranium that come with morning tea and Spring sunshine, this morning I dove headfirst and unprotected into the US Social Security fill-out jamboree I received from the Osaka Consulate, e. g., "QUESTIONNAIRE ABOUT EMPLOYMENT OR SELF-EMPLOYMENT OUTSIDE THE UNITED STATES," "STATEMENT OF CLAIMANT OR OTHER PERSON" and so forth...

There in the steadily darkening depths of bureaucratic ambilocution I came across one syntactic black hole after another, like the absence of ancient ruins of organized thought, that drew me on and on...

I know it doesn't pay to gaze intently upon certain objects, like the sun and governmental forms, but one can't help try to make sense of things...

Searching fruitlessly for some specific answers at the online SSA website, I came across this ominous statement (that would be more ominous if I had been working in the US): "I worked without authorization from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). What proof of my earnings do I need to give Social Security?"

So I decide to put it all off till I'm a bit more governmentally minded, whenever that might be, and go instead to obtain some mercy at the Daruma Festival at Ryotanji temple across the Lake. It's a beautiful day, and I have a lot of genuine existence forms I have to fill out.