Saturday, 29 September 2012

Tsunami Volunteers

March 11, 2011 an earthquake beneath the Pacific Ocean near Fukushima and Miyagi Prefectures did a lot of damage to buildings and roads which is still evident today with blue tarps covering tile roofs and freeways being repaired. Not much later as a result of a rapid change in the elevation of the seafloor a monstrous underwater tsunami wave was created that travelled virtually invisibly towards the shorelines of the nearby prefectures. It encountered the shoreline and began climbing, even over ten meter walls built to prevent tsunami waves. The tsunami did incredible damage with some of the debris reaching North America over a year later. Yet millions of kilograms of garbage are left in the prefectures affected from the homes, automobiles, boats and other structures. Many families are still displaced, living in temporary housing, with others or have moved elsewhere. Many power shovels are sorting through the mountains of debris and countless trucks are hauling debris or dirt. Most of the homes left standing appear to be two story homes. The tsunami travelled a long way inland entering homes about a kilometer away from the ocean and leaving marks on walls a meter high. There were hundreds of aftershocks which are still occurring and Yayoi and I are quite familiar with especially living in Ibaraki-ken (prefecture).
The circumstances we are most familiar with include a professional greenhouse climate controlled cucumber growing operation and a second house on the property that acted as a sacrifice being totally destroyed itself but saving the first home. The wife of the cucumber growing operator suggested that the cucumbers had a much better living environment than the humans living in the home nearby ;) The field where the cucumbers were grown has now been sub-divided into 91 plots which will be used as a community garden providing food for the gardeners with any excess being brought to the "Asadori" or farmer's market (literally morning market) across the driveway.
Our story begins with an email from Miyako-san from Winnipeg who comes from Yamagata-ken (prefecture) just as Yayoi does. She let us know that there was a volunteering opportunity through a church based organization in Japan working on the Asadori Project. Yayoi emailed back and forth with Kodera-sensei until the details had been ironed out. Kodera-sensei is part of an organization MSR+ for Miyagi South Relief and publishes the web page 'M'iyagi 'S'outh 'R'elief+. I am sure donations would be very welcome!
On September 23, 2012 late afternoon Akio Okano took us to the nearby freeway interchange where Kodera-sensei (Wesleyan Church pastor) picked up these two 'hitch hikers'. He had just been to Narita airport where a mother and daughter had just flown in from Fukuoka, Kyushu. We drove north through Ibaraki, Fukushima to a community in southern Miyagi Prefecture called Iwanuma. We arrived at a community centre here at ten pm after about five hours on the road including two Service Area rest stops. Five of us slept here and had an interesting breakfast in the morning with the help of his son Tadashi-kun who appeared with various locally grown vegetables. Afterwards we were taken to the property of the community leader (cucumber grow op). Here was an impressive looking deck, gazebo and metal sheds around a courtyard of soil. The decking and gazebo were in need of wood preservative. The carpenters on site were proud to inform us that the 2 x 4 style lumber came from Canada (Tolko). The structure has been built on faith with the hope that funds will come from Canada after a board meeting of HOPE International Development Agency. Since the weather was rainy we were not able to paint on September 24 and instead we built a couple of benches with left over lumber and a couple of other jobs.
We were joined by other volunteers from Yamagata-ken, Shizuoka-ken. Oka-sensei from Yamagata-ken happens to be the former pastor of the church that Miyako-san from Winnipeg used to go to when she still lived in Japan. Ota-san is a Korean, born in Japan and thanks to ludicrous Japanese government policies has never been given citizenship. He even had trouble finding decent employment and has branched out to do business in other Asian countries. The mother (Mikako-san) and daughter (Hiromi-san) have lived in many places. Mikako-san lived in Bolivia for a period of time. The daughter has only lived in Japan for two years. She is currently in a pre-med program in the USA. There are many other life stories. One of the volunteers lost an elder brother and father in the tsunami.
Later in the afternoon Kodera-sensei took his original four passengers for a tour of the local devastation. This was more than a year after the disaster and was still quite moving. What do you do with tons of garbage? There were at least two new incinerators in operation nearby, but that does not take care of all the garbage or "gomi". After the tour back to the job site for a delicious dinner prepared by the owners of the property.
On September 25, 2012 we were able to begin painting and managed to finish one coat with tea/coffee breaks and a delicious lunch. Our youngest volunteers Tadashi-kun and Hiromi-san as well as probably our oldest volunteer Ota-san (age 69) spent time on top of the gazebo painting.
That evening we enjoyed a most amazing barbecue of fresh vegetables and the most meat I have ever seen (or eaten) in Japan. Tadashi-kun as usual was quick to get involved as the cook. We ate and ate and more packages of assorted meats materialized (how about pig intestine anyone?). I was beginning to think we should have paid for the honour of volunteering considering all the terrific meals our Iwanuma hosts, the Okazaki-sans were feeding us. We were expecting to eat the curry and rice that had been started at the community centre.
Both evenings of the 24th and the 25th up to eight of us piled into Kodera-sensei's Honda wagon and off we went to the public bath in Natori. On the 24th Tadashi-kun and another volunteer also came along in the little mini-pickup driven by Tadashi.
Anyway September 26 we had rice and curry for breakfast. We painted the gazebo structure one more time while the carpenters finished installing the glass sliding doors on the peripheral shed like structures and the electricians began wiring and lighting the place. Very professional looking! We had curry for lunch thanks to the Okazaki-sans. It was very delicious. Have a look at the pictures in Picasa to see the ¥28 (about $0.37) a piece Sanma fish, "totemo oishi", that is very very delicious. At about five pm we took Ota-san and Oka-sensei to the local train station and three of us (Kodera-sensei driving) set off back home to Ibaraki-ken. Again we made two stops at Service Areas, at one of which Yayoi and I ate curry udon (noodles). You can never have too much curry. At about ten pm we got safely back home. Thank you, Kodera-sensei an excellent driver.
Another project that MSR+ is involved in is the use of EM (Effective Microorganisms) to aid in plant growth and neutralize the effects of salt contamination of the soil. But that is another topic.
Kodera-sensei has already published his version of the Asadori Project on his BLOG at Asadori Project BLOG.

Click on Tsunami Volunteers to see photographs on Picasa.


Ome Tokyo Tourism

On September 19, 2012 we left Komatsuka, Ibaraki and took various modes of transportation to go to Tachikawa Eki (train station) and from there a local bus to ask the Immigration Office about our status and the maximum allowable duration of our stay. The date is December 9, 2012 without an extension of my visa. From here we continued on to Kabe Eki in Ome on the edge of Tokyo where Yayoi's brother and sister in law live and who are our Japanese sponsors. We accidentally met Atsuko-san at the bus stop in front of Kabe Eki and went with her to her home where we had a delicious dinner.
For us Ome has been our first port of call when we arrive in Japan and we have never considered it to be a prime tourism area. But this attitude needs to change. Vacation in Japan frequently means a trip to a hot spring resort or Onsen. On September 20, 2012 we took a bus to Ome Eki and then a taxi to Kampo Onsen. It is located on a very scenic stretch of the Tamagawa River. We soaked in the hot water, had a delicious multi-course banquet, soaked again. Next morning we enjoyed a buffet style breakfast with a wide variety of very Japanese and American style foods available.
At one time Ome will have been an independent community apart from Tokyo. There are many old buildings in the areas of Ome remote from the main train stations. The unique aspect of these is the presence of advertising on the walls dating back to the fifties and sixties. Posters for the movie 'Gone with the Wind' and some of the old John Wayne movies can be seen. Instead of large department stores these streets are lined with fascinating small shops specializing in a variety of businesses.
September 21, 2012 after breakfast the four of us were picked up by a friend Kaidoh-san. She is a very competent driver and tour guide.
First she took us to see the second home of one of Japan's best loved authors, Eiji Yoshikawa. He was a very prolific writer including four books that have been translated into English. I have read two of these Taiko and Musashi at least twice. The two other works translated to English are The Heike Story and his autobiography Fragments of a Past. My inability to read Japanese denies me the full enjoyment of many museums in Japan. His second home is situated within a very beautiful garden complex, expressed in multiple photographs on our Picasa web site. His wife operated a restaurant nearby which we visited in the early afternoon.
But first we went to see an art gallery of the artist Kawai Gyokudo who was a resident of Mitake in Ome-shi. He painted a variety of Japanese works dealing with nature and its relationship with people. There were at least four I would have been happy to acquire. Outside was a beautiful raked sand and rock garden rivaling the world famous garden of Ryoanji in Kyoto.
Next we were taken to the Sawanoi Museum of Traditional Japanese Hair Ornaments. Hair ornaments have been used for thousands of years, but they reached an apex in the Genroku era of 1688-1703. The museum is located near the Tamagawa River and a walk down near the river reveals a variety of photogenic scenery which can be viewed on our Picasa web site.
But we were getting hungry even after that delicious buffet breakfast. So off we went to the restaurant formerly operated by the wife of Eiji Yoshikawa. It's name is 'Japanese apricot with red blossoms garden (Ome)'. It served a variety of dishes including "kuri gohan" or rice with chestnuts. Dessert was an interesting firm jelly that was dipped in a plum sauce. The jelly itself is made using a complex process from the roots of the kudzu vine. The name Ome is the Japanese word for plum and usually refers to the green plums that are used in a variety of ways.

Click on Ome Tokyo Tourism to see photographs on Picasa.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Ohuchi Juku Thatched Roof Village

It is still September 15, 2012 and we are still on the move. Our guide was hoping to show us many more sights in the Aizuwakamatsu area, but the light is beginning to fail. We could have stayed overnight, but Japanese farmers must look after things at least twice a day, early morning and evening.
Villages such as this are becoming very rare. Even here a few of the buildings have metal roofs. Probably there has been public financial input to maintain the thatched roofs. I suspect the expertise required is not as common as it once was.
We were fortunate to be able to see this place. It was fascinating the way the street curved as we approached the mountain in the background. Every few steps the view would change. Most of the homes, restaurants and other businesses (tourist town) were closed for the day, but we were able to appreciate the beauty and quiet of the street as the sun was setting.
One of the unique features of this street was that the ubiquitous ditches seen in Japan to drain excess water was being used for more than irrigation. People would dam the water and use the cool deep water to refrigerate vegetables and other items.
I also noticed the absence of television antennae on all of the buildings.
The public address tower seen in one the Picasa photographs is a common feature of rural communities. These towers used to be used to announce the presence of a fire by means of a bell at the top. Today I suspect this tower is used to make announcements to the whole village. And possibly as in our village of Komatsuka at 12 noon and 5 pm music is played to indicate lunch time or the end of the working day for the poor 'peasants' out in the "hatake" or farmer's field.

Click on Ohuchi Juku Thatched Roof Village to see photographs on Picasa.

Kumano Jinja

The next stop of our busy September 15, 2012 schedule was a place Kenji-San kept telling me I would be able to dance. Right, rather wrong, when you have two left feet! Anyway the Kumano Jinja is a Shinto Shrine dating back to the Heien period of about 800 years ago. As with most such wooden structures in Japan there has been replacement of wooden parts that have rotted in this humid climate and frequently buildings such as this are rebuilt to the original specifications or in this case in a smaller format. Even so the main building had a large wooden floor with many gigantic wooden pillars and beams supporting the building.
In front of this building is a large Gingko biloba tree which was probably planted about the same time as the shrine was originally built. That means the tree is about 800 years old.

Click on Kumano Jinja In Nagatoko to see photographs on Picasa.

Awa Soba Restaurant

It is still September 15, 2012 and in typical Japanese fashion we are on a whirlwind tour. As usual Kenji-San and Etsuko-San have brought along food and drink which we enjoyed at a SA (service area) on the drive to Aizu. But in the afternoon the six of us stopped in at a fascinating roadside restaurant. The tables and chairs were made of single pieces of heavy timbers. The tables were cross sections of tree trunks and were probably at least 15cm thick and maintained the asymmetrical shape of the original tree. The supporting structures of the building were a variety of heavy timbers of non-uniform sizes. These timbers are not uniform in diameter and are anything but straight. The more obnoxious the shape the more fun the builder has fitting it into the grand scheme.
But of course we came here to eat. This place specializes in "awa soba". Normally "soba" is buckwheat noodles, but this place makes ten servings of "awa soba" each day. Come early if you want to taste it. "Awa soba" is noodles made from spray millet. Spray millet is one of the favourite foods of birds such as our lovebirds back in Winnipeg.
There happened to be one serving left which Kenji-San ordered. He might as well have ordered something else, because by the time most of his 'friends' had helped themselves to his noodles there was not much left. The rest of us had regular buckwheat noodles, some of us in a 'set' with tempura. "Oishi" delicious!
And trust the "gaikokojin" foreigner to cause trouble. The little old lady thought she had to treat us extra well. She kept bringing out extra treats we had not ordered such as "nashi" apple pear slices, "ringo" apple slices and "tsukemono" or pickles made from "kiuri" or Japanese cucumbers.

Click on Awa Soba Restaurant to see photographs on Picasa.

Aizu Mountain Village

Our third stop on September 15, 2012 was a quaint mountain village after a drive along typical Japanese confusing back country roads. Although now many of the roofs in the village consisted of blue or red metal roofs, not that long ago these were thatched roofs. These roofs are simply to expensive to maintain and replace, requiring a large expanse planted with the specific grass used for thatching. I suspect that since "tatami" or rice straw mats used in special rooms in traditional Japanese homes are also very expensive, they soon will also be 'extinct'.
The "tanbo" or rice fields being on land near the mountains were significantly terraced to permit flat surfaces for water retention. Many fields in the vicinity were also growing white flowered "soba" or buckwheat, which must have triggered a bell as our next stop was going to be a "soba" or buckwheat noodle restaurant.

Click on Aizu Mountain Village to see photographs on Picasa.

Mishima Community Centre

September 15, 2012 our second stop was the local community centre selling crafts of grass weaving and paulownia wood carving. The paulownia tree has quite beautiful purple flowers in spring and is extremely fast growing producing a light weight wood. The tree can be cut down and it will replace itself. Upstairs above the craft store there were numerous people learning the art of grass weaving. It is incredibly painstaking work and I suspect, given the prices, that their labour was worth less than 100¥ an hour.
The Aizu region is renowned for the various crafts taking place, such as the production of lacquer ware. Many properties in this area (Kitakata) have specialized buildings called kura that are used to protect and store valuable items.

Kiyoshi Saito Art Gallery

On September 15, 2012 we were up at 5am and on the road to meet up with Kenji-San and Etsuko-San. The three girls got in Shigeko-san's car and the boys piled into Kenji-san's car and the gossip began as we drove through the mountains to Aizuwakamatsu in Fukushima-ken (prefecture). Our first stop was at Yanaizu, Okuaizu. We parked overlooking the Tadami River and across from the Enzo-ji Tera or temple. Kenji-San is determined to keep two of us in Japan and told us we have to come to the same site for January 7, which is when the Hadaka "matsuri" or festival takes place.
We went into the Kiyosho Saito art gallery across the parking lot. The artist is famous for his woodblock prints which are unique in their use of the specific wood grains to produce varied effects in his prints.

Click on Yanaizu Okuaizu to see photographs on Picasa.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Renkon Dinner

We have met many nice people in this country, but my favourite person is still the one who cooked a delicious "renkon" or lotus rhizome (root) dinner on the evening of September 10, 2012. In the Kasumi grocery store on the way home on the 9th Shigeko-San pointed out to Yayoi that the "renkon" was a little cheaper than previously so Yayoi immediately rushed over to get some.
The "natto" is fermented soy beans, the "gohan" is the white rice, the "ocha" is the green tea. In the plate the round vegetable with holes is "renkon", the other vegetable is "nasu" or eggplant and the meat is salted "sake" or salmon.

Click on Renkon Dinner to see photographs on Picasa.

Inekari or Harvesting Rice

On September 8, 2012 Yayoi and I got out our cameras, hopped in the K-truck and drove out to the "tanbo" or rice field. Okano-san had already taken his larger truck with a special rice collection box on the back. At the field a man was driving a harvester around the field which was still quite muddy. His wife was walking ahead of him cutting clumps of rice plants that the machine would miss. Later she fed these errant clumps to the harvester. We managed to fill the truck box twice on one and a half fields. This raw rice or "kome" almost filled a tall dryer in the machine shed, so the rest of the harvest was left for later. The rice dryer was turned on and left running overnight.
On September 10, 2012 I joined Okano-san in the machine shed and he got the rice husking and bagging machine working. The husked rice was fed into the bagging machine. When this reached a certain level I pulled a lever and rice would empty into paper bags until the electronic balance measured 30kg. At this point the flow of rice was automatically stopped. Okano-san checked the quality of the rice, tied the bag shut and I placed them on a stack. I am still a little sore today.
Thirty years ago the rice would have been cut by hand over a period of a few months, dried in bundles on special frames and then threshed to extract the grains.

Click on tanbo to see earlier BLOG of spring planting.

Click on Rice Harvest to see photographs on Picasa.

Jomon Okadaira Shell Mound

On September 9, 2012 we hopped in the car with Shigeko-San and drove to see a Jomon pottery museum near Kasumigaura (lake). We were met at the museum by Shigeko-san's mother who is unusually "genki" or healthy for someone in excess of eighty years. She enlisted the aid of another person in the museum to guide as through the exhibits. The Jomon people are noted for their distinctive pottery much of which as impressions of rope on the surface. The pottery was fired possibly in open fires, but was quite advanced compared to the rest of the world at the time. The pieces being exhibited are in fact reproductions, an art that Shigeko-san's mother is quite adept at. The originals had gone to the University of Tokyo for a special exhibition.
The Jomon people existed as the dominant people in Japan for thousands of years until about two thousand years ago when another group of people migrated here from Asia. These new immigrants brought iron tools and rice culture with them and began the Yayoi era. At some time prior to the Yayoi era a large part of Ibaraki-ken where we live was actually part of the Pacific Ocean. The elevated plateaus such as the one we are living on were dry land and inhabited by the Jomon people.
My understanding is that one of the staple foods of the Jomon was "kuri" or chestnuts. The Okadaira shell mounds demonstrate that the Jomon people in this area ate a lot of shell fish of varying sizes and species as well. The shells were discarded over the edge of the cliffs. Over time these mounds were covered by soil and today are being excavated in an effort to understand more about these people.
Shigeko-san's mother led us on a tour around the grounds to see the dig site and a recreation of a Jomon home. The home was constructed of large timbers and roofed as well as walled with a thick layer of straw. The interior is excavated earth which is mounded around the home to aid in keeping it dry. I suspect that this home is built more intelligently than the Japanese homes of today in the sense that it is probably cooler (and probably just as warm) thanks to large duplicate vents at the peak.
After the tour we drove to a nearby C.C. (country club or golf course) and had curry udon lunch after visiting a Buddhist "tera" or temple nearby. After lunch we went to see Shigeko-san's mother's home where Shigeko-san grew up. From here three of us walked in the hot sunny afternoon to Kasumigaura where children used to swim when Shigeko-san was young. After ice cream sticks to cool off we drove back home, stopping for a few groceries on the way.

Click on Jomon Okadaira Shell Mound to see photographs on Picasa.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Matsuri Tsukuba

I am using this August 26, 2012 festival as an excuse to describe the graciousness and hospitality of the people we live near and some who show up to visit once a week. No one here owes us anything. No one is obligated to us in any way. Yet Kenji-san in Tsukuba contacts our Okano's and suggests they drive the two of us to his place picking up his sister Etsuko-san on the way. So Shigeko-san quietly backs out the car, Akio-san hops in the passenger seat and we get in the back and away we go. Did I mention Shigeko-san getting a new car? A sweet Toyota Aqua hybrid car that is substantially smaller and wiser than a Prius. Five of us get to Tsukuba, have a brief introductory view of the Matsuri from just outside Kenji-san's mansion (condo) building and then go up to his fifth floor mansion for a royal dinner. Kenji-san has also invited his long time American friend John Delp.
John has been in Japan for fifty years, has run a travel agency and is now teaching English Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. He survived the Kobe earthquake of 1995 and the March 2011 earthquake. In 1995 he was not in Kobe at the time, but had to use any means possible to get back with some emergency supplies walking the last stretch of thirty kilometers to get home to his family. John provided some graphic descriptions of the real life problems people face after such an earthquake. What do you do when you live on the fortieth floor of a building and the water is not running anymore?
Anyway John has been here for fifty years and still has not learned to appreciate Japanese food. Our dinner included a variety of dishes including a delicious potato salad made by our chef Kenji-san.
After dinner we went back outside to enjoy the matsuri which would be wrapping up at 9pm. The neputa floats circled the area directly in front of the mansion building so we had an excellent view. These floats were nowhere near the four story neputa we saw housed in a museum near Hirosaki, Aomori-ken. They cannot be any taller here as they have to maneuver beneath overhead walkways and even now they had to be tilted to get under. John had seen one that was not tilted and the whole top was torn off causing electric bulbs beneath to literally explode. Later a few people used a fireman's ladder to perform acrobatic tricks atop the ladder commemorating the days when bamboo ladder were used in fights against real fires.
It was a good evening and a pleasant drive home thanks to our Komatsuka hosts, the Okano's, Kenji-san and his sister Etsuko-san and Kenji's long time friend John.

Click on Matsuri Tsukuba to see photographs on Picasa.

Naritasan Shinshoji Temple

On August 23, 2012 at about 1130am some lady came running across the yard to our door. It was Noriko Fukuda with Toshiji waiting on the street with the car. When they were sure that they had the correct Okano's (every other family in Komatsuka has the surname of Okano), Toshiji drove their car onto the yard. We were very surprised.
We had been doing a bit of translation work for them and now they had come to say thank you. They took us to Narita to have lunch and then we went to the "tera" or temple complex named above. We had always thought that Narita's only 'claim to fame' was the international airport. We would land go through immigration and off we would go to Tokyo. The Naritasan temple is quite a beautiful set of buildings with a "Koen" or park next to the temple complex. A retired person could live close to this and spend many a pleasant hour relaxing here. The temple is very well maintained as a result of the hundreds if not thousands of sponsors listed on stone plaques on retaining walls around the complex.
After spending some time here the Fukuda's drove us to Edosaki where we did a bit of grocery shopping and then they drove us back home with our groceries.

Click on Naritasan Shinshoji Tera to see photographs on Picasa.