Saturday, 30 June 2012

Hydrangea and Friends

Every season of the year has its unique selection of flowers. Hydrangeas are special here as they are very healthy growing as much as two meters in height and having a much wider variety of colours as well as species. There are those that are similar to ones seen in Winnipeg, Manitoba, but here there is another variety that resembles the flower heads of a high bush cranberry. A showy ring of sterile flowers surrounds a central core of smaller fertile florets which usually have a different colour.
In Manitoba we have white, pink and blue hydrangea with the latter two colours supposedly based on soil pH. In Japan there maybe some influence of soil pH especially when one sees varying shades on one bush, but there are definite colour varieties here independent of pH.
Other flowers are included for variety such as the bottle brush bush. I have seen a "wild" tree which appears to be of the legume family which has a much smaller pink version of the bottle brush flower.
The plants draped over the concrete wall are quite common at this time of the year. The flowers close up at night and love sunshine.
The two photographs of white, pink and rose coloured blossoms were short lived flowers in spring, but all three colours occur on the same bush.
The long tassel like flowers are found on the "kuri" or chestnut tree. This tree begins developing chestnuts at three years and has a life expectancy of about twelve years due to inherent disease.

Click on Hydrangea And Friends to see photographs on Picasa.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Wanted Farmers

What happened to the three generation families? We are living in an unused house in the rural village of Komatsuka in Ibaraki prefecture. It was formerly lived in by the owners parents. Husband and wife are living in the house adjacent to ours and their sons have gone off to the big city to complete university and make lives for themselves most likely away from the farm.
There are no bylaws preventing multiple houses from being built on one property. We have seen evidence of this in rural as well as urban areas. There appear to be multiple instances of this occurring here and there are many unused homes here. Some probably belonged to families whose kids left home and meanwhile the parents passed on. Now the kids show up in the village on weekends to maintain the family home.
When working out on the hatake (farm) you realize that the average age is in excess of 60. Hopefully some of the young people will come back. True a lot of the farming here is really more like community gardening, where a significant proportion of the produce feeds one's own family and the neighbours. There is a lot of unused farm land in existence as well. I suspect Japan could easily feed itself and many of its neighbouring countries. There appears to be a fanatical obsession with eating fresh food in season. More food could be stored or preserved.
Anyway it appears that farmers are needed. Farming includes many benefits such as long hours, exercise, fresh air including cold, rain and heat, frustration with crop failures, low pay and no boss. Farmers are required to be physically fit, intelligent as it is a constant battle of wits with weeds, insects and furry creatures believing they can share. I don't recall our host farmer ever being sick. They must possess an all encompassing skill set as they are their own "go to people". Farming should be the most respected of all professions.

Train Station Food

In Canada I would shudder at the concept of taking someone out for dinner at an airport or other public transportation hub. In Japan we have been treated to first class meals in a train station environment. One prime example occurred in Osaka, a city that prides itself on its cuisine. Due to the stimulating influence of commuter traffic frequently some of the best shopping and food is available near train stations.
On one of our recent trips to Tokyo we decided to have lunch in a small restaurant at Ueno train station. At first glance it appeared to be busy and full, but the short line up at the ordering counter appeared to be progressing so we entered and had our orders taken promptly while the host efficiently reserved a couple of spots for us. I tend to be a very slow eater, enjoying every slurp of my noodles. Meanwhile I analyzed the situation around us and realized that I was cutting into their profit margins. Most people ordered promptly and ate quickly and then left leaving room for the next clients. It appeared to be a ten minute turn around time.
At Kanda train station we sat in a restaurant and I observed many "salary men" in dark pants and white shirts and ties going for lunch. They would enter small narrow restaurants in small groups sitting in a row at a counter most likely eating (slurping) noodles such as udon, soba or ramen. I suspect that if I had entered one of these places five minutes prior to the working crowd I would have inconvenienced someone.
Restaurant owners in Japan obviously pride themselves on serving delicious meals. We seldom encounter so so (ma ma) food and if we do it tends to be a larger family type restaurant.
And did I mention the pasta Viking (buffet) place our nephew Naoki took us to in Ome last weekend. I ate much tooooo much. You had to be careful not to get run over especially when announcements were made regarding the latest dish that had just come out. Oishi (delicious)!

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Pampered Fruit

What are those bags doing under that vine? It is a grape vine and the bags protect the growing grapes from flying predators such as birds and insects. I have seen school children on TV helping grape farmers by dipping immature grape bunches into a hand held cup of growth hormone. Cherry orchards are entirely enclosed in reverse bird cage. Netting is used to protect blue berry orchards from our avian "friends".
Orchards are usually pruned to expedite the handling and harvesting of the fruit. This frequently means that the trees are not allowed to grow more than about two meters in height and branches are splayed horizontally to permit easy access to the fruit.
We have eaten fresh cherries recently, but I shudder when I hear how expensive they are. Cherries are sometimes packed as though they are chocolates.

Japanese Foods in Season

Seasonal foods are preferred by Japanese people. Crops can be grown earlier in some warmer areas and these can then be shipped across the country. Colder areas harvest the same crops later and can ship these to warmer areas.
Did I mention we have already eaten fresh corn on the cob? Doesn't that suika (watermelon) look good? What is that other fruit? It is called a biwa which is a loquat. It is delicious. It has a nice firm texture and tastes like a combination of different fruits such as apple, peach and others.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Race Against Time

Agriculture in Japan is a continual race against time. There are a number of factors which appear to create this situation. It is an extremely fertile country. If a mountain forest is cut down it will quickly regenerate. Some of the logs and stumps I have seen have incredibly wide growth rings indicating rapid growth per season. But apparently it is bamboo in all it's varieties that farmers have been at war with for eons. The giant bamboo in our neighbourhood produces new shoots (takenoko) in spring which shoot up more than ten meters in a season. As the shoots appear the previous years bamboo leaves turn yellow, then beige and fall in spring. The bamboo is a very useful plant for structural and other purposes, but if ignored will turn the farm (hatake) into a bamboo forest.
In winter the weed I call creeping Charlie with its spindly stalks and purple flowers covers whole fields in the winter in Ibaraki ken. Although not a large weed unless controlled it will inundate the winter crops. At first I thought this was the farmer's worst enemy, but along comes spring and an army of weeds arises from last year's seeds. Never let your weeds flower! Roots are bad enough. There is never enough time to control all of these weeds. Japan has many plants such as the kudzu vine (legume plant) and knotweed which apparently have enough competition from other plants in Japan that houses are still visible here. Fools have transported these to North America where they cannot be controlled and homes are being swallowed up.
I saw them in the garage and wondered why they were not being used? Creeping Charlie is nothing, when spring comes, out come the brush whackers. These are much like a heavy duty weed whacker in North America, but they have a variety of cutters that appear to be similar to circular saw blades. Always check your ankles after using these! Every self respecting male in the rural scene has at least one of these. It skips over the ground in wide sweeping arcs in front of you cutting everything except woody materials down to near ground level. Let's not worry about the plants, they will grow back. In areas where these are not used, I am not sure whether I would be able to walk across the vine entangled 'pasture'. I suspect that if one stood still for an hour near a kudzu vine, it would have you secured in its clutches.
Agricultural plants need to be fostered to enable them to keep ahead of the weeds. How can farmers stand the frustration? In central Canada there is one growing season, but here it is continuous with no respite. Weeds are a minor nuisance, you should see the hosts of insects that come alive in spring to devour everything before harvest or so it seems.
The rows of cabbage and broccoli were carefully weeded and later when evidence of worms was seen on the outer cabbage leaves, hours were spent plucking these off and destroying them. This was a colossal waste of time. The broccoli and cabbage crops are a total write off. I propose that netting to prevent the cabbage butterflies from laying eggs might have prevented the catastrophe. Anyway I am not the expert and poisons are being avoided as much as possible. I was hoping the plants would grow faster than the worms could eat them, but the worms quickly migrated from the outer leaves to the cabbage and broccoli heads. The snow peas had already been planted when we arrived in early March and grew slowly until the last few weeks when they flowered and produced delicious flat pods. But almost immediately at this stage I noticed that leaf miners were burrowing their way through the leaves. As a result the snow pea season was much shorter than I would have liked. The potatoes everywhere in the village flowered nicely and looked very healthy and then along came a blight and decimated most of the plants. Let's hope the potatoes had enough time to grow underground.
Currently the many chestnut trees in the neighbourhood are flowering long feathery yellowish tassels. At this stage the chestnut trees can be recognized half a kilometer away. These trees were introduced to North America and brought disease with them that the North American chestnuts had no immunity to. In Japan the trees become ill, but tend to survive long enough to be productive.
Because so many areas of productive farmland in Japan hardly ever freeze, particularly on the eastern coastline crops can be produced almost year round providing fresh vegetables for the country. The western coast and northern parts of Honshu and especially Hokkaido have snowy cold winters. This provides opportunity and competition for other areas to provide food. So besides battling weeds and insects, farmers are also competing with each other to produce crops quickly and bring them to market quickly.
I suspect that this battle against time has been one of the strongest influences promoting the use of plastic ground covers and greenhouse plastic tunnels covering rows of plants to retain heat and speed growth. Full size greenhouses are seen everywhere in Japan and are used to start seedlings such as rice as well as grow crops to maturity. Strawberries grown commercially are usually grown in greenhouses covering hectares of land. Japanese television is documenting how farmers are migrating to factory style hydroponic greenhouses to grow plants such as lettuce. What happens next?

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Bride in Japanese Venice

Up to a maximum of five weddings can be reserved at the site of the Iris Matsuri (festival) in Itako, Ibaraki prefecture. One man leads the procession providing a very slow tempo. He will also be handling the paddle propelling the Venice canal style boat. He is followed by two men carrying the dowry (currently merely an empty box). Next comes the father of the bride followed by the bride's mother carrying an umbrella for herself and the bride. The group is deposited in one of the boats and then slowly make their way down the canal to wherever the groom and his party are waiting for the actual wedding. The first procession depicted is in some respects quite accurate in that the bride in fact is not native to the area and is being transported into the area to join the groom who in fact does live in the area.
This weekend is usually the best weekend for weddings and today the maximum allowance of five weddings was booked in anticipation of the last dry weekend before the rainy season. Well it rained and the bridal parties were plastic wrapped detracting somewhat from the photogenic properties of the event.

Click on Wedding Processions to see photographs on Picasa.

Prelude to a Wedding

June 9, 2012 three of us drove to Itako, Ibaraki Prefecture in a pouring rain to see an Iris Matsuri or festival. I would have hesitated to venture out, but Yayoi says Japanese people cannot afford to cancel events just because of a little rain. It is a beautiful location with thousands of irises located in a wet area next to a canal connecting Kasumigaura (lake) with the Pacific Ocean. The canal is used as a tourist waterway with Venice style boats the transportation. At one time in many parts of Ibaraki prefecture there were basically two means of transportation, boats and our inherent bipedal mechanism. The iris pond is criss crossed with walkways and in areas not filled in with irises water lilies are blooming. The festival occurs over a number of weekends as the irises bloom and the garden is being used for a very traditional style wedding procession for those brides fortunate enough to be able to obtain the services provided.

Click on Iris Garden to see photographs on Picasa.

Outdoor Venues

Today, on this rainy Saturday, June 9, 2012 our host Shigeko Okano took Yayoi and I to a neighbouring community to see an Iris Festival or 'Matsuri'. Inevitably these events have numerous booths set up to sell edible items and in this case plants as well, especially irises.
Some things I just can't resist. As the ladies wandered off to the ladies room I set off for the 'ika' booth. This is a squid which is roasted as you watch and is basted with a special sauce. I paid for it and went to the little boys room. Afterwards I eventually spotted two people, one of whom I know cannot resist a yellow cylinder of which only the outer layer of kernels is edible. Yes, corn on the cob is already available here. They were nice enough to order another cob for me. In the same booth, I spotted another hard to resist item. This was wrapped in a traditional 'omiyagi' style and consisted of 'mochi manju' or special pounded rice in a small bun shape with azuki bean paste inside and either amber or black sesame seeds stuck to the outer surface. Well, one for us and one for the Okano's. The wrapper as seen in the photograph is a prelude to the next two blogs.


Doors, Closets and Chairs

The photograph is real. The doorways in the house we are living in are barely higher than I am tall. I am about 173cm or 5ft 8in. It is not unusual in some traditional buildings, as for example a teahouse to have a doorway half that height. I suspect these are designed to teach humility by forcing a bow as you pass through them.
Speaking of measurements my shoe size in Canada is a size 9, whatever that means. At least in Japan they have had the brains to adopt the metric system exclusively, and my shoe size is 27cm. Just a warning to anyone coming here long term with a larger shoe size than this, that 27cm is the largest commonly found shoe. Occasionally you can see 28cm, but anything larger would be a special item.
I was beginning to think that Japanese people had never invented a closet for storing clothing. But in the Kabukicho BLOG, I neglected to mention that huge closets were found in the bedrooms. Any traditional home, that is one having a tatami mat room will have substantial storage spaces for the futon bedding, but not a clothes closet.
Chairs are not traditional Japanese furniture. For whatever reason when the Japanese adopted the chair they somehow frequently get the measurements wrong from a western perspective. I remember about ten years ago entering a coffee shop with Yayoi and eldest brother and almost collapsing into my chair as it was so close to the ground. At least the table matched the chairs. Yayoi and I are currently using a couple of chairs like this in our family room. They are about 30cm off the floor. Lucky that neither of us has long legs.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Family Get Together

Yayoi and I were quite excited to be going to the Keio Plaza Hotel on June 2, 2012 to celebrate with second brother on his receiving a prestigious award last autumn. This celebration was organized by university colleagues. Then after almost everyone who was wearing a red corsage of the about seventy people in attendance (ninety percent male) had given a speech before the buffet dinner as well as in competition with the lunch time hubbub, we were able to take taxis to the Tokyo Garden Palace Hotel. The only disappointment was that eldest brother's wife was unable to attend as she had slipped in the bathtub the night before and her long cut on the head prevented her from coming. She cried. Yayoi's siblings are all 76 years old or older.
At this hotel second brother's son and eldest brother's grandson were able to join us for a super private dinner in the hotel restaurant. Later these two young men went their respective ways and the rest of us stayed the night allowing time for evening and morning conversation. Then at checkout time we went to Tokyo station to send sister and husband off to Narita Airport from where they would fly back to Vancouver the next day. Eldest brother was sent off back to Yamagata by Shinkansen (bullet train). Yayoi and I said our farewells and headed back to Ibaraki prefecture where hundreds of little aster flower plants waited to be planted.





It is never easy finding one's way around Japan. Even a small train station such as Kanda had me totally confused every time I exited it. Streets run off in a minimum of three directions on each side of the tracks. June 1, 2012 we got off at Shinjuku station and proceeded to look for the Urban Hotel where we were meeting Yayoi's sister and husband. Of course we had to ask for help a few times including the ever helpful Koban (small police station) police. Finally we saw the Urban up the street. Since we were meeting Yayoi's sister here, the front desk upgraded Yayoi and I to a tenth floor suite (only 2 rooms on this floor) at no extra charge. Unbelievable! This suite was equivalent in size to many Canadian bungalow main floors. It had 3 bedrooms, a bath, a cleanup room including full laundry setup, a full kitchen, dining room, ladies powder room, office area and toilet. There were no tatami rooms, but it did have a standard Japanese entry way or "genkan" to leave one's shoes.
At the entrance to the hotel was a freestanding chart of rates including the three hour rate. Hmmmm? If you turned to the right as you left the hotel you were soon in an area of clubs, bars and people on street not in the best condition, for example, drug induced. If you turned to the left at the hotel you found yourself in an upscale shopping area, although probably not as upscale as that found on the other side of the tracks at Shinjuku station.
We found a quiet treed walkway which meandered along behind the businesses to the right of the hotel. At least two homeless people were napping here and one area obviously reserved as the night time quarters of someone.
The next day the two sisters and husbands got in a taxi and headed off to the Keio Plaza Hotel on the other side of the tracks where we would be celebrating the award Yayoi's brother Tsutomu received late last year, organized by his university colleagues. I suspect had we stayed the night there we could have paid three to four times the Urban Hotel rates.
Anyway the photographs are a contrast between a small businessman's hotel room where the bathroom sink hangs over the bath and the beds almost touch each other with the large suite we were embarrassed to have at the Urban Hotel.