Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Heard an odd sound outside yesterday afternoon, like a small mob of elves sneaking over a field of pink and green marshmallows as quietly as they could while dragging bags full of giggles, hoping to surprise an unsuspecting grandfatherly person who lives in a house on the side of a mountain in an oriental countryside, so I did what any such elderperson would do in similar circumstances: I put my ear to the door, the better to grasp the situation and make counter-surprise preparations, when the bell rang serially just as the door was pulled wide open and the entire living room filled up with squeals as I was engulfed in fresh cold air filled with six arms of three granddaughters who varoomed in through the doorway like a sixlegged yellstorm and whirled around me in the cutest smiling vortex I ever saw, hugging me all over and yelling Bobu-san! and caroming off to bounce around the big room, looking up and down and around to see what had changed and what was still there, while I spun a moment in the vestibule trying to slow my whirl so I could see and walk, talk and so forth. Then we got down to the intense part of the visit, where things happen really fast.

Friday, December 25, 2009


In Japan, the Yule season is symbolized by the "Christmas Cake," whose origin has escaped me (much like the flavor of the traditional Japanese Christmas Cake) mainly for want of interested pursuit, but these frothy strawberried constructions seem to have come a long way since the amazingly bland (not even vanilla!) cakes of the seventies, when the term "Christmas Cake" horrendously also referred to unmarried women 25 years of age (of no value after the 25th)... What a long, frosty distance we have traveled...

But flavorful as these cakes may have become, I can't help but think it's still just image. I also wonder briefly where the tradition came from, but that's way less important than the fact that Japanese women over 25 are now as valuable as any other. Happy holidays, all.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


One afternoon over the weekend I was at home alone working in my upstairs zone of solitude when I heard what sounded like a truck pull up in front of the house and thought it must be a delivery of some kind, so started to get up to go to the door, when I heard a truck door slam and a loud voice talking, so I then thought it must be a couple of the propane guys come to check the tanks or something, but then the voice went around the front of the house instead of out back where the tanks are, then out in front of the deck I heard this loud conversation, no one from the road ever goes there, because there's a chain across the driveway and its just... private, and privacy is pretty much boilerplate around here, so I went downstairs and looked out front to see who was walking around on our property talking so loud about what, maybe someone from the water committee or something, assuming that we're not home because our car wasn't there (Echo was out doing some shopping and yogaing) but when I looked out front there was no one, the voice had moved elsewhere already, out among the firewood and into the garden, so I went to the big kitchen window and looked out at where the voice now was and saw an agile elderly fellow poking his head in among the stacks of firewood and saying something I couldn't hear, no one else around, he was talking to himself, went here and there looking and talking, then he turned and I recognized him, it was Azuma-san, the elderly expert who felled a few worrisome trees for us, climbs giant oaks like a 12 year old but with a chain saw, then stands way up there and trims the mighty tree to a new and more cooperative elegance, in a display of arboreal agility that would even be impressive in a 25-year-old - he's about 80 now - and there he was, poking around among the wood and talking to himself like a solo lumberjack, so I went outside and called his name, said good day, turned out he'd come to ask about our woodstove, was very curious about how much it cost, how it was made, how well it worked and so on, seems he wants to get one for himself. If anybody can make good use of a woodstove, it's Azuma-san. In a fair exchange, he gave me some good tips on my hiratake mushroom growing. Then he roared off in his big truck, on his way to the next big tree.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


As earlier readers of these humble chronicles may recall - if they’re still coming back now and then after all this time - each year in Spring when the leaves open they close off my access to satellite television, leaving me only with standard J-tv, which I don't really watch, apart from quick news and weather, otherwise more like peer at and shake my head in amazement maybe an hour a month, just to see if anything has changed in 30 years.

Then in autumn, when the leaves fall in sufficient quantity they restore my satellite signal, which rises from zero over the days till it hits a nice clear high and I can see the bitter faces of Bull O’Really and friends once again. No doubt many of you share that pleasure year round. You have my sympathies. Yes, once again I can wade in the shallows of Samsara that tv seems to represent so well, compared to the mere "vast wasteland" it was back in the 60s.

I'm so old I remember original US tv back in the 50s, when there were actual plays on live at prime time, like Requiem for a Heavyweight, and individuals of deep integrity like Edward R Murrow, programs like the Firestone Classical Music hour, Hall-of-Fame stuff like The Twilight Zone and so on, back when the tv bigwigs were still trying to learn what people liked and hadn’t yet found the moneyed monsters in the basement.

This year, however, in a new act of mercy I cannot yet fathom, all the leaves have fallen but my signal from the sky remains at zero. Somebody up there is perhaps trying to spare me the rigors of the Dark Sea. All I'd have to do is tweak this or patch that, maybe reconnect a wire or two, to bring the basement back into my life, but at some point I became aware of a growing reluctance to lift a finger to resurrect the creatures that come in the day and the night to devour with their manic hunger all of my life they can get.

I know that may be a bit extreme, but when I go outside, the contrast between that dark window and the broad, bright reality of Pure Land Mountain is profound, rich with a joy that will never fit in a tube.

Friday, December 18, 2009


How have the mighty fallen...

100-dollar Ben (the most frugal of the founding fathers!) was once the go-to guy, the face in demand at every black market in Asia, but has now fallen in value to such an extent that he is not only less desired by back-alley street corner money changers, but has been turned by a Japanese toy company into a soapy parody, a currency bubble bath no less, as a 1000-dollar bill that is nothing but bubbles, popping all over the world...

I remember when a hundred-dollar bill was really worth a hundred real dollars, and reality in general was still pretty common...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


On the train tonight a lovely young woman sat in front of me who appeared to be a Zen archer; she was carrying the long bamboo bow, its full length carefully wrapped in a fabric traditionally dyed a splendid rare orange that bore other bright colors, like the bingata of Okinawa, in a pattern that was also traditional, of anciently stylized flowers, birds and butterflies, the bow reaching from the floor to well above the luggage rack.

Affixed to the bow by a wide leather wrapping was the lady's quiver of arrows, basically a capped tube about half the length of the bow. It too was a gorgeous object, finished in a grayish, elegantly patterned cloth and set with silver fittings. Circled at intervals with bands of smooth gray leather, it had a shiny brown hard-leather cap at the top, held in place by finely braided strips of gray leather.

Seated atop the leather cap was a figure I took at first to be a netsuke of an ancient god or something spiritually similar; I leaned closer for a better look, without being intrusive - this was Zen, after all - and saw that it was a tiny figure of Goofy, wearing baggy blue pants.

The arrow and the target are one.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


"Jeffrey Irish, a 48-year-old American, is the unlikely village chief [soncho] of Tsuchikure, a remote farming hamlet in Japan's southern Kyushu island. The tall, even-tempered Californian got the position because he satisfies the post's main requirements: He hears and sees well.

In Tsuchikure, where the average age is 77 (if you don't count him and his family), that makes Mr. Irish one of only three residents qualified for the job. He spends his days keeping track of the physical and mental decline of the 24 elderly longtime residents of this wilting Japanese village.

Tsuchikure -- a community of modest single-family houses on a hillside about the size of a football field -- is in many ways emblematic of Japan in the 21st century: an advanced economy that must cope with the depopulation of everything outside the urban centers.

It is one of thousands of withering Japanese villages."

Jeff is a contributing editor of the Kyoto Journal.


Yesterday morning when I went out to empty the wood ash onto the fallowing part of the garden, on my way back I grabbed a good couple handfuls of big-leaf spinach and snagged a few large shiitake from the logs, then went inside and for lunch started sauteing some garlic in olive oil while I sliced the shiitake to translucent thinness, then I threw the slices in with the garlic, stirring now and then to softness and even greater translucency while I tore the spinach leaves into mouth-sized pieces, poured some broth into the pan with the garlic and mushrooms, turned the flame high and threw in the spinach, tossed with a spatula till the broth reduced then put it all in a nice local mingei bowl and ate it together with some local rice in another nice local mingei bowl. Boy was that locally delicious.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Each year there is a poll to select the kanji character that best describes the social situation for that year. The selected kanji for 2009, as calligraphed by the chief priest of Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto despite the clouds of scandal over the Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation, is:

Shin (New)

You can sure write that again.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Early Monday morning as I was waiting for the train I saw that the top of the highest mountain was dusted with a little bit of snow, like a holiday plum cake during sugar rationing, but today I notice that there is no plum cake at all, it's just a mountain again. Such are the vagaries of weather these days at the foot of Pure Land Mountain, which should all have been snowed under by now at least once or twice, but it's more like we're heading into Spring, which is unsettling since the body and the spirit are all prepared for what keeps on not coming.

It's like a constant disappointment you're not really aware of but can't spend much time thinking about, because after all there's living to be gotten on with, work to be done, errands to be run, folks stop by. But something isn't quite right, then you're standing there paused in some activity when the non-plum cakeness of the scene suddenly catches your eye and it all comes back, it's December again and you stand there just staring at the big fact hanging there in the air.

But such pauses don't last too long, because in some ways it's quite nice, this December springtime in snow country, where folks now get to do a lot more stuff than just shoveling snow the way they're usually doing about this time, or clearing roofs, hacking at the ice and walking gingerly when not indoors; instead, you see them out harrowing their land, cleaning up the brush, inoculating some mushroom logs, cleaning the rain gutters, trimming the shrubbery, small woodfires at home.

The made-up, blow-dried heads on tv point at the big red suns all over the country on their weather maps and talk about global warming, carbon footprints and suchlike terms they seem so fond of, and they may well be right, the world may be heading for a warm ending in a few years, decades, centuries, millennia, the terms are vague, but it's happened before, we all know about the ice ages and the weather cycles, the highs and lows that went on before history got going, and there very likely are more of those coming down the big pike, but folks around here aren't fretting too much; they're close to the land and the weather, they have a big sense of such things and are used to adapting, though it is a bit disappointing not to have a sky-high sugared plum cake for the holidays.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009


I now have enough inoculated shiitake logs to supply me with those exquisite fresh mushrooms for the foreseeable future, so I decided to try something a bit more difficult, the silvery Japanese mushroom hiratake (a variety of oyster mushroom - Pleurotus ostreatus). Like shiitake, hiratake goes well with just about everything, but it has different subtleties of flavor and texture. It is also a valued as a medicinal mushroom.

I've seen folks try to grow it on tv programs, and it appears to be rather fussy, but I thought I'd give it a try anyway-- I've got some nice rice straw to store the inoculated logs on and under, over there by the new cord of wood out of the wind and sun.

So over the weekend I got some hiratake spawn dowels and on Monday sectioned some 20 cm diameter oak logs I felled a few weeks ago into about 30 cm lengths, then today drilled them all over, inoculated them and stored them on a mat of rice straw over by the firewood, covered them with more rice straw and fallen leaves,and watered the pile with the hose for quite a while.

Will post again when there are results, however it goes...

Further info:

On Japanese mushrooms

International hiratake spawn source+instructions (looks like a slightly different variety than the one I just started)

Detailed info on hiratake as 'gourmet' mushroom

Helpful site on wild mushrooms of Japan

Tuesday, December 08, 2009


Interesting, watching western celebs get interviewed for Japanese tv by reporters who don't speak English or respond to English or its tonal, facial, manual gestures and intimations, but work through an interpreter on the side whom the audience does not see and the celeb does not address, so for the less manic celebs the general PR boilerplate is thereby minimized and the usual dross falls away so you hear only Japanese questions asked, with the celeb's English replies and subtitles edited in for the response, and as all the usual nuancing is no longer of value, the celebs become more neutral, culturally isolated, no longer rely on polemic manipulations etc., so are more personal, open and 'normal,' less guarded, like Michael Moore the other night, he wasn't 'on' the way he always is, thinkingagendathinking, he just chatted, no psychic drumrolls, no showmanship, seemed like a nice concerned guy you might have sat next to in a bar in Flint...

Friday, December 04, 2009


Katz mentions miso, tempeh and kombucha, among many other fermented foods we enjoy here, but not natto...

"Fermentation pre-digests foods, breaking down compound nutrients into more elemental forms and making them more available to us. Minerals in particular become dramatically more bio-available. Fermentation also produces unique micronutrients not found in the original ingredients but rather produced by the fermenting organisms. Some examples of these are anti-carcinogenic isothiocyanates in fermented vegetables, or dipicolinic acid in miso, which draws heavy metals out of our cells, binds with them, and removes them from our bodies. Ferments also detoxify certain foods. But the most profound benefit of fermentation is the live-cultures themselves, not present in all fermented foods but only those not subjected to heat after fermentation. The bacteria in these live-culture ferments replenish and diversify bacteria in our digestive tracts. These bacteria enable us to effectively digest food, assimilate nutrients, and create a competitive situation that helps protect us from pathogenic bacteria. Ferments have numerous benefits to our health."

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


Because I wanted to refinish my deck before winter, am looking to avoid the ubertoxic commercial products and have tried the uberexpensive (and pretty much untereffective) wood treatment products available on the naturo-altermarkets, I've been looking for the traditional Japanese wood treatment known as kakishibu, which is made by naturally processing a certain type of persimmon to obtain the ultimate in shibui (astringency), as I think of it.

You'd think that "traditional" pretty much says it all, but I had no idea. Oozing the usual newbie optimism, I went to the wood treatment section of the nearest farm store, which is pretty traditional, to my mind - they sell handmade tools, baskets, cord and such like - and asked the elder man there (thinking it likely that no one under 40 would have ever heard of kakishibu) if he had any kakishibu.

He instantly acquired that Dealing-with-eccentric-foreigner look and said What? I repeated my question, he said Huh? I mouthed the identical phrase once more, when he began to realize that I was in fact using a Japanese term there, and a deep light began to come forth from long ago, as he shook his head and gave the kind of small laugh you give someone who says Look there's a flying elephant throwing money! And said Nooo, we don't have any kakishibu, without actually saying the Are you out of your mind part.

I also tried at the second-closest, more commercial, but larger and more broadly shelvy farm store. Got the same response, though this elder man had the amazed Foreigner-who-knows-about-unobtainable-traditional-substances look.

Then a few weeks later, when I was up in the woods sectioning a big oak log with an upmountain friend who resides in Kyoto and is the 8th generation of a traditional Kyoto bamboo craft family, during a rest break we naturally got to talking about wood, tradition, craft and bamboo, so I asked him offhandedly if he might know where I might be able to get some... kakishibu? He got a look on his face like I'd asked if he'd ever heard of a thing called 'water,' said Sure, there's a kakishibu store not far from my house.

My subsequent related research led me not only to a traditional kakishibu store in Hyogo Prefecture that deals online (not quite fully yet, it seems), there's also a kakishibu enterprise in the US! It also turns out that kakishibu has many uses.

Fascinating little mind journey, but too late to do the deck this winter, though that pain is eased a great deal by my new knowledge. Kakishibu really is miraculous stuff.

(Plus, there's a heavily bearing wild tree of that same variety of persimmon growing on the edge of the forest, just up the road...)

Tuesday, December 01, 2009


Hmmmm... wonder if I could grow truffles here in Shiga...


Here it is December 1 and there's no snow on the mountains! No frost yet, either! I'm wearing shorts! Most of the leaves have fallen and everything's waiting, but nothing's happening! Skiers are standing on grass, sweating in t-shirts! Ice skaters are swimming instead! Spring flowers are asking questions and birds are singing summer medleys! What is going on? While you figure it out, I'm gonna go lay on the beach.