Saturday, April 30, 2011

Friday, April 29, 2011

You Think of Time

A train station — not a station really, just a platform with a little shelter amidst rice fields. Humble. Unpretentious. You sit there waiting for the train with the setting sun sending a column of light onto the darkening mountains. You pass the time watching an old woman making her way along the edge of a field. She has a white plastic bag. Either she's putting something in it or she's sowing something from it. She's far off and moving away into the distance so it's hard to tell. Whatever the case, it seems she's been at it for a long time.

You look up. Something you hadn't noticed before, though you've been coming here most Thursdays for the better part of a year. A piece of wood with some kanji painted on it — the name of the station, followed by 老人会 — Association of the Elderly.

The person kanji — 人 — is so alive, almost as if he or she is running. Toward old age? Away from the association? That's what it looks like to you.

Then you step away and examine the box. It houses what appears to be a clock. But the plastic front is so old and stained and cobwebbed that it's impossible to make out for sure what time it finally stopped.

You wonder how many Associations for the Elderly have come together and disbanded since this particular Elderly Association decided to put up this particular clock at this particular stop.

You wonder if there might not be some little kid somewhere far off in Tokyo, grown old herself now, who remembers coming out to this little station with her grandmother to witness the Tamanoe Elderly Association hang a beautiful new clock.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


Recently, in a somewhat run-down part of town, I was charmed by this character hanging cock-eyed from a dilapidated building:

As a verb, uku (浮く) it means to float; or to become merry; or to feel cut off from those around you. It is the first kanji in ukiyoe (浮世絵) the Edo period color prints popularized by Hiroshige and Hokusai.

Ukiyo itself (浮き世) means "fleeting life" or "this transient world," and so to see this kanji alone brings to mind those associations.

But I am, to tell the truth, cheating a little here, utilizing the selection process of both camera and brain, for there is another kanji in hiding under vines to the right of this one which changes the meaning of the whole, turning it into just a name.

I think I'll hide it from you though — I'd much rather see this kanji floating free, cut off from its mate; ready to fall off its nail and slide down the side of the building and rust among the weeds.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Egg Station

Vending machines are ubiquitous in Japan. Mostly they dispense hot and cold beverages (including beer), or cigarettes, but there are also quite a few that will plop out a five or ten kilogram bag of rice for you in a carry-away plastic bag.

My favorite, however, are the egg vending machines — which I had never seen before coming to this part of the country. Most of them are simple, brightly painted affairs (example here) in which you insert coins, open door, and get bag of eggs.

My latest find was out on the edge of the city near the coast.

Sasaki Eggs

 The stylized kanji on the noren, 卵, reads "egg."

How could you not feel confident buying from such a clean, well-tended place?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Still, It's Just a Tomato

"Tomato in a Tomato"

Kato Mado Update

At least one reader asked to see pictures of the temple itself from yesterday's post, so I went back this afternoon to get a few more shots. Here's the view from just outside the main gate:

You can see the kato mado on either end of the main hall. The temple goes by the name of Shinkoji, or Pure Light Temple, and was originally constructed in the reign of the Emporer Koutoku (645 - 654 CE). The current structure dates from sometime after 1585 when a fire caused by war destroyed the original.

Shinkoji belongs to the Sōtō school of zen which practices shikantaza, a form of zazen often referred to as "just sitting."

In the past, Sōtō zen was derogatorily called "farmer zen" due to its widespread appeal — a term which seems appropriate out here in the "countryside."

I'd also like to happily report that this venerable temple has not yet made it onto Google maps — the English version at least. It's good to know there are still some quiet outposts which have escaped the monster's tentacles.

I'll leave you with a shot of some of the hand-carved scrollwork from the building you can see just peeping out on the left in the picture above.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Kato Mado 火頭窓

The straight line dominates Japanese architecture to such a degree that whenever I see curves or any sign of ornamentation, I'm either immediately repulsed or intrigued.

At one of our local temples I experienced the latter with these kato mado ("flame head windows.") With their scalloped tops and rounded corners they feel more Persian than Japanese.

Indeed, the kato mado came to Japan from China at the end of the Heian period (794 - 1185) reportedly via monks who were escaping a war with the Mongols that toppled the Sung Dynasty. (I'm guessing the monks carried the design in their heads, rather than the actual windows in their hands.) How and when the design reached China itself, or if it was an indigenous creation there, I don't know.

But according to people who study this sort of thing, the really radical aspect of this type of window in Japan was that it overturned the very notion of the window's function. Whereas previously there had been no real distinction between window and door, the kato mado, being an opening in a solid wall, directly focused the viewer's attention either inward from the outside and outward from the inside.

With the introduction of Taoist thinking and practices that came with the monks and their windows, the halls in the temples became more of places for meditation than they had been previously.

I especially like this second example, from one of the temple's outbuildings, with its bowing latticework creating uneven lines:

Monday, April 11, 2011

Still in Hiding

Echosquirrel and I went for second foray into the bamboo forest yesterday, this time to another location a little further, a little deeper in, but once again the shoots proved to be elusive.  Lots more evidence of wild boar, and, I think, humans too —but no take-no-ko. (First hunting failure here.)

We did find some active bee hives, and later some abandoned houses surrounded by beautifully constructed stone walls both being swallowed up by the forest. Oh, and some fuki (butterburr) which became breakfast this morning in an omelet, so the trip certainly wasn't worthless.

On the way back home, we bumped into a Japanese friend in the park and asked her if we were simply too late — but she said, no, there still should be shoots out there. Guess we're just unlucky, and perhaps too close to civilization.

We did go to out favorite ramen shop after the hunt where we were able to get a taste of the shoots in our soup.

But, not entirely satisfied, this morning I went to the market and bought some.

Both varieties are cheap and tasty, though the latter are already gone.

Here they are at home, together. Not sure how the real thing feels sitting next to his processed cousin — not to mention the fake bamboo flooring below.

But I suspect they'll be fine together.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Bamboo Shoots in Hiding

Over the dam and through the woods and straight up the side of the mountain Echosquirrel and I traveled. We picked our way across the ridge top past some stink bush and last year's susuki grass and descended under a small grove of chestnut and out onto a bamboo-covered ravine.

We were in search of take-no-ko, bamboo shoots, edible delicacies which can only be harvested for a very short period in spring. It was a beautiful grove, with nicely spaced trees, their attractive, ringed trunks soaring up to the sky.

We sat listening to the wind rush through the leaves. Occasionally a couple of trunks would knock together. We sipped hot tea and munched on little sandwiches we had brought.

We were both excited. I had only ever harvested bamboo shoots once before and that was on a fluke — I stumbled upon one in the middle of the trail while out hiking back when I used to live in Eastern Japan.

For Echosquirrel it was her first time — and for her to go deep into the woods, some berry or mushroom or herb really should be produced. We had already harvested some sugina earlier in the day (see previous post) so at least we wouldn't go home empty-handed if we couldn't find any bamboo shoots.

Lunch over, we began carefully picking our way down the slope, inspecting the duff for little shoots pushing up through the soil.

That's an old wrapper around the base of a good-sized bamboo in the picture on the left. The young shoots' wrappers are closer to a straw yellow color.

We saw dozens of the wrappers littered across the forest floor. We also saw inoshishi shit. Piles and piles of it.

Inoshishi are the wild boars that live in the forest around here. They're very good at grubbing up roots and tubers and bamboo shoots — and they had done their work on the entire area.

We were late. But that's how it is sometimes.

Back up the steep ridge, resting again, I was reminded of this haiku by Yosa Buson:


fu ling hides underground
puffball doesn't materialize 
(Fu ling is the medicinal mushroom, Poria cocos, resembling a coconut, which grows underground. It's used for insomnia, invigorating the spleen and heart, among other things.) 

Buson went away empty-handed, just like we were to go.

Base of bamboo with runners
Sometimes you find what you're looking for — and in unbelievable numbers too — and sometimes you don't. It depends on timing, and luck, and knowing the terrain, and knowing what other critters are up to and when.

We're going back out this weekend — to an even deeper grove up an even steeper mountain. Check back in here in a couple of days and with any luck I'll have pictures of bamboo shoots in the basket and the pot.

Just need to outwit the boars and other bamboo shoot lovers.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Czech Avante-garde Book Design

We can thank the Czech writer Karel Čapek for bringing the word "robot" into the world. In his 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) a factory makes artificial humans called robots which are so well designed that they can easily be mistaken for people. Ordered to serve their human owners, the robots become disgruntled and rise up against their masters. I won't play spoiler for the ending, but the robots do attempt to discover the secrets of life — if only they knew that humans have been all along looking for just those same answers.

In truth, it was not Karel himself who coined the term "robot," but rather his brother Josef, an artist, illustrator and book designer. (The word robota in Czech literally means labor, or serf labor.)

Josef Čapek fell into designing book covers after World War I, using scrap linoleum instead of printing blocks due to the latter's high price. Since the books that were being printed were not expected to have a large print run, he didn't have to worry that the design cut into the linoleum would hold up.

Čapek had this to say about the usage of the material: "Linoleum panels radically dominate the whole printing area. They divide it and color it at the same time and do so boldly. Linear painting for printing blocks, by contrast, would rather seduce the artist into certain restrictions, more timid, and with a less comprehensive composition."

Čapek also viewed the book along with its cover as an individual organism with a personality all its own. He wanted to give each of his covers an "inner substance" specific to the work.  "It is not the same creating a book cover for an author who writes with light elegance, as for an author whose writing is dark and dense.... The content and character of the book itself...elicit a range of images and associations for the creator of the book cover. It is essential to give these images the most simple, most pragmatic and clearest expression, entirely distinct from associations that are formal, colorful, emotional or dynamic."

Here's the cover for Továrna na Absolutno:

And the charming book summary in both English and Japanese:

The above designs and many others are collected in Čapek's Bookshelf: The Book Design of Josef Čapek, published in 2003 by P・I・E Books.  P・I・E is a Japanese publisher, and though their website does have an English portal, it's not that easy to navigate. My guess is that the book is now out of print, so it may be difficult or impossible to get your hands on. I'm lucky enough to have access to a copy at the local library here in Niihama. I revisit the book from time to time to flip through its bright pages and wonder what the future of the world will really be like.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Fugu Me!

Fuguzaku in bowl on right. Fried oysters left.
Life is full of real danger here. Whether it's waking up to a shifting fault line rattling the framed portrait of the Blue Mushroom Man above my head, choking on hot mochi scooped from the shabu-shabu pot, or getting clipped on my bicycle by a speeding octogenarian in a motorized wheelchair, one must constantly be on guard.

The other day, for my birthday, Echosquirrel brought me to a restaurant here in Niihama which specializes in preparing a local dish made from puffer fish called fuguzaku.

Fugu has the distinction of being perhaps the most dangerous of dangerous eats. Even watchers of the Simpsons know about this fish — its entry into the pop cultural lexicon probably means that I'm in as much danger of dying from consuming it as someone living on the Tex-Mex border is of getting incapacitated from a killer bee sting.

Don't get me wrong, people do die from consuming fugu. But people die or get maimed from doing lots of much dumber and riskier things. Just check out the Darwin awards or watch an episode of Jackass if you're not convinced.

The main danger of fugu comes from a tetrodotoxin contained in the liver and other organs which must be carefully removed by a trained and licensed master. Watching the fervor with which Japanese separate and clean their trash before bringing it to the curb, I'm not too much concerned that the fellow preparing my dish in the back is rocking out to Poetic Assassin with a spliff burning at his elbow.

And fugu has been around a long time. Even way back in the 18th century, the Edo period haiku poet Yosa Buson was well aware of the danger:


blowfish soup? still breathing, waking from sleep

I know the feeling Buson is describing. There have been times when, after having tried a wild-harvested mushroom for the first time, that I've woken in the middle of the night with slight intestinal discomfort, thinking that I had poisoned myself, that I was going to die at a comparatively young age without having said goodbye to anyone or cleaned all of my underwear or anything. And then the sweet relief in the morning when you open your eyes and you're alive and your skin's not blue or green and there are birds chirping outside your window and a fresh pot of coffee is just waiting to be brewed.

Buson's haiku goes a little deeper than that — when the fugu is being prepared and the master has cut the fish's head off it looks as if it comes to life, breathing (video here, about 25 seconds in) breathing a second life into the haiku itself.

Anyway, though we had of course both heard of fugu, we had never heard of this particular dish, so we were curious to know how it was prepared. (You can watch a video of the preparation in Japanese here.) As far as we could tell from the proprietress's description and the subsequent delivery, our "soup" consisted of pieces of the famed fugu meat as well as the skin; also some strong sliced onions both red and white; what looked to be a grated daikon/carrot mix (but which we later found to be a black tea/grated daikon mix), and a liberal sprinkling of green onions; all bathed in a ponzu sauce for a decidedly tart and aggressive dish which we weren't entirely sure warranted the relatively high price tag.

After finishing the sashimi and the fuguzaku and the fried oysters and a bowl of rice each, we were still a little hungry. A quick discussion and it was decided — no second fuguzaku — we'd have another round of the good old American-style oysters instead. 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sartorialist Jr. in Japan

With bread to feed the fish. Ritsuren Park, Takamatsu, Japan

 Cherry blossom viewing. Ritsuren Park, Takamatsu, Japan