Life in Japan, food, music, whatever…

Farmlog 2nd~5th May 2010 (“Golden Week”) 15 June, 2010

Just like UK bank holidays, a few days off come up in the same week and there are 45 Km traffic jams all over the country. The weather’s often beautiful at this time too, though, so we joined the rush to get out to our place in Gifu for a long weekend – everyone else must have been going somewhere else and we got there in the same 2 hours or so as usual. 🙂

  • The second day we went for a walk on the narrow road that leads on to a couple of tiny villages above our house. Very nice day out in perfect weather. (More here.)
  • For some reason the wild boar don’t seem to have been round this year, and lots of bamboo shoots have been coming up in the woods behind the house. Freshly-dug shoots have a special aroma which you can keep by boiling them as soon as possible after digging them up. I suppose it stops the cells’ conversion of sugars to starch or something. You need a big pot to boil them whole with the skin still on, for about an hour, with some rice bran to take away a certain astringency. A handful of rice will do instead, and some people put in a couple of dried chillies. Then you can cook them with soy sauce and dried fish flakes, or make a nice spicy Thai salad or Indonesian curry…
  • Fantastic weather – scorching hot in the daytime, but a cool breeze, and cold evenings so you want to light a fire to eat outside, which we did, listening to music from Cape Verde and some old Laotian pop.
  • The wind brought down a snowstorm of cherry blossom from the wild tree behind the house.
  • An old guy from the houses down the road passes by in the early evening. He goes for a daily walk to keep fit, and looks as if his health regime is working OK.
  • Flowers everywhere!
  • Getting the chilli field ready – digging up a row, mixing in some compost and fertilizer then covering it with black plastic mulch to warm up the soil and keep the weeds down a bit. Four rows should do it this year – 16 big red chilli plants from Malaysia, 16 little hot “Ishigaki” chillies from Okinawa (not the usual “island pepper” but something more aromatic that a Thai friend recognized as “prik kariang”), and half a dozen Habaneros, just for yuks…
  • The birds and frogs are getting going, but the evenings are still fairly quiet, compared with the insects’ samba orchestra that will keep us entertained through the Summer. Those insects have a dark side though, and we both got mysterious itchy bites that stayed with us for days. Hmm.
  • Min temp 2°C, max 27°C

Takemi Zakura 30 April, 2010

Filed under: countryside,customs — johnraff @ 2:17 pm
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The "Takemi Zakura"

The mountains of Japan are full of wild cherry trees, at least where they haven’t been replanted for timber. Most of the year they’re hidden away, but in April suddenly there’s blossom everywhere – some beautiful trees you had no idea of.

One such is just above the entrance to a tunnel on the way back to Nagoya from our country house – a big old cherry that has its moment of glory for a week or two every year. We thought it was our private discovery but a couple of years ago some local friends cleared the trees from the area around it, built some stairs, seats, railings etc and made it into a little park, with an annual hanami party, which we went to a couple of weeks ago.

the teahouse is gone...

Apparently this isn’t a wild cherry after all – it has some history. Before that tunnel was built the road used to wind through a pass over some hills above it, right past that tree. There used to be a tea house at the pass, and the cherry was planted outside. It’s now some 300 years old, and the tea house is long gone, but, with a little treatment from a tree doctor, now looks set for a good few years more. From that spot, if it’s a clear day, you can get a beautiful view of Mount Ontake, the holy mountain, so a local politician gave the tree the name Takemi Zakura “mount-viewing cherry” – fair enough, though most people had been calling it the cherry on the pass or something like that…

Check the prices.

It’s still a fairly quiet local type of event, but elsewhere in Gifu there are some famous sakura that attract hundreds of visitors, so maybe ours will be one of those some day. Meanwhile they sell beer and yakitori at more or less cost price just so people will come. Weather was less than perfect this year, but on a sunny day it’s a very nice way to spend an afternoon or evening.


Spring 4 April, 2010

Filed under: city,customs — johnraff @ 2:11 am
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A weeping cherry on a street corner in Nagoya, Japan.This is a weeping cherry on the big crossroads near us, about two weeks ago, already in full bloom. It was a beautiful day, but freezing cold actually with a fierce wind blowing round the buildings. The much-heralded early blooming of the “proper” cherries – the “somei yoshino” – was stopped in its tracks by a cold wave that at last seems to be coming to an end and finally the cherries in the park down the road are completely out. I expect it was full of revellers enjoying hana-mi, but we had to work. Maybe we’ll take a look on Monday if it’s not raining…

Hanami is a sort of Rite of Spring I suppose, and can be a Bacchanale at times. There are people who claim flower-viewing should be accompanied with writing haiku and sipping green tea or something but I have no problem with people getting paralytic under cherry blossom…


Sakushima 19 February, 2010

Filed under: places — johnraff @ 2:50 pm
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Industrial wasteland right to the coast…

Leaving Tokyo on my first shinkansen ride – some time ago – I was stuck to the window eager to see some of the Japanese countryside.

It didn’t happen. 20 or 30 minutes out the buildings still hadn’t stopped, although by then we were going through Yokohama I suppose.The urban sprawl continued all the way to Nagoya by way of Shizuoka, Hamamatsu… Each city merged into the next in a depressing grey continuum, with no green in between at all. In fact a good part of Japan’s population is concentrated into that strip between Tokyo and Nagoya – the Tokai plain which is flat and fertile, while most of the country is mountainous and almost empty, as I found later. In fact it’s possible to be out in beautiful hilly countryside a short 30 minute train ride north from Nagoya.

Isshiki Port

It was however in the opposite direction that we took the car last weekend: to the south, past Nagoya port, one of the biggest in Asia, past the Chita peninsula, past endless factories, warehouses, drab apartment buildings, tatty shopping centres, all of which we had a great view of from our overhead flyover on a perfect clear sunny day, finally arriving at the fishing port of Isshiki in the Mikawa Bay.

Isshiki market

From there it’s a 30 minute boat to the island of Sakushima. The first thing you notice is that the water is crystal clear – you can see right down to the bottom of the harbour! This comes in contrast to the popular beaches on the Chita peninsula like Utsumi, where you might feel as if you’re swimming in chicken soup.

Coming into Sakushima harbour

In fact the water, along with a certain “island feeling”, reminded me of our trip to Okinawa a few years ago. Okinawa’s a bit livelier though; here a good half of the houses are empty, several lodges and restaurants have closed down and even on a sunny Sunday afternoon you can hardly hear a soul.

One of the 88

This was fine for us though, and on a January afternoon we managed to work up a sweat walking around in the sunshine of the warmest day so far this year. We’re surrounded by the sea here so it must never get as cold as Nagoya, still less the mountains of Gifu, and flowers are coming out everywhere in a foretaste of Spring.The largest island in the Mikawa bay, it’s still possible to walk from one end of Sakushima to the other in half an hour or so, but there are a number of temples and shrines to see, not to mention 88 tiny Buddha statues built all over the island about 80 years ago in an imitation of the famous temple cicuit of Shikoku, mostly with offerings of fresh flowers, so obviously someone is visiting them. A beautiful sunset, then back to our minshuku for dinner. Out of the half-dozen or so places open in off-season January ours must have been a popular one as there had been a couple of lively parties in at lunchtime; soon we got an idea why. These waters are full of fish, but a few seagulls must have gone hungry that day as we had about half the contents of the bay on our table. Crab, sashimi, fried fish, oysters in miso, sea-slug… it was all really good and by 8 o’clock we couldn’t move, so had an early night. 8000 yen (say, $90) for bed, dinner and breakfast with more fish and oysters seemed a pretty good deal.

The west end of the island, away from the biggest beach with all the hotels, minshuku, restaurants and coffee shops, is much quieter, and the people seem a bit less used to tourists, though everyone is very friendly. The village is a maze of streets about wide enough for two bicycles, creosoted buildings (to keep out the salt spray) and little vegetable plots, tended by old ladies, who could be someone’s great grandmother. Half the houses seem to be falling down; one has been converted into a restaurant by some young people, maybe from the city over the water, but you can’t help wondering what will happen to the place ten or twenty years down the road…

A short walk back to the minshuku through wooded hills, past more little buddhas, wind rustling the bamboo, kites calling overhead; ducks have taken over the west end of the beach; our minshuku owner says he couldn’t see Nagoya as a place for human beings to live and here it’s hard to believe we’re in the same country, let alone the same prefecture.

EDIT: I’ve added a lot more photos here.


New Year at the farm 19 January, 2010

Filed under: countryside,customs — johnraff @ 2:23 pm
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The weather forecast said a cold front was on its way and sure enough just after midday on the outskirts of town the snow started sprinkling down. We were on our way out to Gifu so that didn’t bode too well for conditions further on, but we had decided to spend a couple of days out at “the farm” for the new year so pressed on… Of course by the time we’d got halfway the road was getting slippy and there was nothing for it but to put those cursed chains on the front tyres. Put on the brakes to pull into a parking area and the car just kept going… that’s how close to the edge things had been. These new-fangled plastic tyre chains are supposed to be easy to put on, but after half an hour of scrabbling about in the freezing slush I still hadn’t got the hook thing at the back properly attached – my fingers had no feeling and it was getting dark and things were looking somewhat hopeless… Finally a friendly passerby gave us a hand and the left chain was on. Back in the car with the heater on full for a few minutes of agony as the blood returned to my fingers, but then the other chain went on much more easily, as I’d sort of got the hang of it.

It’s now dark and an almost full moon is gazing balefully down through a gap in the clouds as we tiptoe gingerly down the road through 10cm or so of snow. Finally make it to the house, turn on the heater, sit in the kotatsu with a cup of tea and it’s all in the past…

New Years Day and it’s still snowing. The postman braves the elements to bring us our small bundle of nengajo – there’ll be more back in Nagoya. Unlike Christmas cards, which should arrive before Christmas, New Year cards are supposed to be read at New Year and the Post Office keep the ones posted in December and go to some trouble to deliver them on the first of January if at all possible.

New Year is really just like Christmas back home in many ways: everything’s closed, all day spent watching the box, eating, drinking… We’ve only got a radio on the farm, but still don’t miss NHK’s big song spectacular which they’ve been plugging for weeks. Something like the Royal Command Performance (do they still have that? ), it’s been slipping in the ratings in recent years. The newspaper is full of adverts for January sales – these used to be after a week or so but now many places start right in on the first, along with “lucky bags”, which can be OK and can be rubbish. Even the shrines are advertising – the best place to have your car blessed to protect it from accidents, the best place to pray for success in exams… They say some 80% of a shrine’s takings are in the first few days of new year, so this is peak time for them. The terrible economy is good for holy business, but the snow and cold probably hasn’t helped.

Throughout our stay we are visited by a huge flock of small birds, flying around in a swarm like migrating swallows. About the size of sparrows, with a crest on their heads – I’m not an ornithologist, but I suppose they’re winter visitors from somewhere further north.

A new beginning… and everything is “hatsu”whatever, ie hatsumode – first visit to a shrine and presumably hatsu-sake, hatsu-tabako…

Happy New Year!


Hana Matsuri 30 December, 2009

Filed under: customs — johnraff @ 1:56 pm
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Yesterday we got a postcard from a village in Toei Cho in the mountains of Aichi prefecture – the same prefecture as Nagoya but a completely different world. That region is known for the Hana matsuri (“flower festival”) held around this time of year and which seems to be a sort of fertility rite to encourage the return of the warm weather (not to be confused with Buddha’s birthday, in April). That postcard was to remind us of our visit in 2004, in case we wanted to go back I suppose. It’s tempting… anyway, here’s a bit from a letter I sent home that year:

This January we went to the Hana Matsuri in a place called ToEiCho a
couple of hours drive from here. It’s still in Aichi Prefecture, but in the
Northeast corner and quite isolated in the mountains. The Hana Matsuri takes
place in a number of villages in the area from late November to sometime in
March, depending on the village. In the 28 years I’ve been here I’ve been to
this festival 3 or 4 times, and it really is quite special. Because the
place is so isolated the ceremonies have been preserved much more completely
than in most other places, it runs continually for about 36 hours, there are
some impressive devil masks worn by the dancers, and the beliefs behind it
are really interesting if you’re an ethnologist. Of course it’s now a
“National Treasure” and well supplied with photographers, not to mention TV
cameras, but it still has a special atmosphere, especially if you pick one
of the smaller villages as we did. At 4 in the morning, freezing cold,
watching two huge devils dancing by the light of a couple of pinewood
torches, Japan feels like a pretty exotic place after all…


Kyoto 4 November, 2009

Filed under: music,places,Uncategorized — johnraff @ 2:57 pm
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Last week there was no farm report because the band went to Kyoto for a gig. We left early but didn’t hit the traffic jams expected on a 1000yen highway Sunday and arrived with several hours in hand, so walked around a bit. I don’t need to tell you about all Kyoto’s fantastically beautiful temples and shrines, but most of the town itself is somewhat unremarkable; the central shopping streets could be anywhere in Japan – not a patch on Paris, for example. The joke runs that while the Americans refrained from obliterating Kyoto in the war, the Japanese did the job for them afterwards.

Even so it’s not an unpleasant town; the North, where our lodging house was, has some fairly quiet tree-lined streets – and lots of bicycles. Every corner seemed to have a bicycle shop of some kind. They must be the best way to get around – Kyoto’s narrow streets, like Tokyo’s, make for some grim traffic jams. Here in Nagoya they made a fresh start after the war with a new grid layout of /wide/ streets, appropriate for an economy heavily dependent on Toyota Motors…

The “live house” where we played, Taku Taku, is a really nice place in a big old wooden building with beautiful warm accoustics. (They do have noise problems though, being right in the middle of a residential area, so it all has to stop at 9:00 on the dot.) Our previous gig there was nearly 30 (yes thirty) years ago! It took them that long to get over it, but finally we were allowed to play again, and this time it went OK I think. During the intervening period they seem to have had some quite famous people playing, so I really wondered what we were doing there, but the audience were great. Sometimes it seems as if Daihachi Ryodan might be more suited to Kansai than Nagoya!


Farmlog 5th October 2009 15 October, 2009

Filed under: countryside,food & drink — johnraff @ 1:09 am
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It’s probably one of those “you know you’ve been in Japan too long when…” things, but there’s a rabbit in the moon. You can see its long floppy ears hanging over the mortar as it pounds mochi. Mochi is glutinous rice cooked then pounded into an even more glutinous lump. It’s supposed to be a New Year treat, but I can’t say I find it too appealing. Maybe that’s the next hurdle? (They have something similar in Ghana called foofoo, made from plantain, yam or, yes, rice.) Anyway, Sunday night was indeed a full moon, and cloudless so there was the rabbit pounding away. This particular Autumn full moon is special: “chu shu no meigetsu” – a harvest moon I suppose – and you’re supposed to eat “imo” or yams, while sipping sake maybe and waxing poetical, and that’s what we did, in a “nabe” (a sort of stew) plus a bottle of white wine. The winter cold is definitely coming on and there was plenty of wood on the fire to hold it at bay for a few hours.

Japan and rice seem so close; both Japanese and foreigners agree on this, and this attachment to rice is common all over the Far East. The word for rice is usually synonymous with a meal and in many countries the rice plant is venerated as a god. However, the “imo” goes back even further, apparently, to before the introduction of wet rice cultivation, and is still held in affection somewhere deep in the Japanese psyche. In the north of the country around this time of year there’s a tradition of “imo ni kai” or “potato party” which is better than it sounds as the imo stewpot usually has other good things in it, and there’ll be some booze too… Actually “imo” covers a variety of potato-like vegetables: “jagaimo” are our familiar potatoes (“Jakarta potatoes”), “satsuma imo” are sweet potatoes, presumably arrived via Kyushu, “yama imo” (“mountain potatoes”) grow wild, are incredibly slimy and disgusting, especially when grated and put on raw fish and therefore much loved by the Japanese (yes, another hurdle coming up), and “sato imo” (“village potato”) are the kind we had in our stew, and used in the imo-ni-kai. These seem to be definitely a kind of yam, smaller than the ones I saw in Africa but with the same broad waxy leaves. They grow well here – you can see those leaves in everybody’s garden once you get a bit out of the city – maybe yams were the staple diet all over this part of the world once, as they still seem to be in some Pacific islands.

The chillies are doing quite well this year as the deer have been kind enough not to break through the 3m net I put round them and eat all the leaves off, and the wet July was followed by lots of sunshine in August and September. Chillies need sun, especially Habaneros, and our small but hot “ishigaki” variety.

Min. temp. 11°C max. 18°C


Farmlog 21st September 2009 23 September, 2009

Filed under: countryside — johnraff @ 2:49 pm
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Yes it’s Autumn for real, all the rice in nearby paddy fields is golden and some has already been harvested, and all kinds of wild nuts and berries are ripening up so the wild population can get through the coming (probably mild) winter. Not quite as cold as last week and dinner under the stars with the Milky Way visible, a bottle of wine and some Spanish guitar music softly accompanying the insect chorus was quite pleasant… (I recommend “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” by Narciso Yepes.)

  • We used to have 5 chestnut trees behind the house, but insects and a typhoon got most of them; we planted another though, and the nuts are ripening now. Last year the monkeys came and ate them, but we got some on Monday – you can cook them with milk and sugar, then mash for a nice dessert, and chestnut rice is good too.
  • higanbana coming up everywhere. A beautiful red flower that blooms exactly at the Buddhist higan period. There’s nothing to be seen through the summer – the leaves only appear briefly in the spring, I don’t know how it manages.
  • On our way back home through the village we passed a folorn tai yaki van. As it was a public holiday he must have thought children visiting from the city might get their grandparents to buy some, but didn’t seem to be doing much business.
  • Min 13°C, max: I don’t know because we left early to get back to Nagoya where Daihachi Ryodan were due to play at a festival, but at 12:00 it was 25°C.

Revisited 8 August, 2009

Filed under: food & drink — johnraff @ 3:07 pm
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“Hey, this place hasn’t changed a bit!” …and it was true – a typical Japanese izakaya with a counter, a couple of small tables and some tatami space at the back. The interior is mainly brownish wood, a bit like an Amsterdam “brown cafe”, with the odd beer poster covering some of the sprayed-on wall stuff, a TV in one corner, a “maneki neko” in another to welcome in customers, and a blackboard with a selection of food to order with your beer.

Typical, that is, of izakaya about thirty years ago, when I used to frequent this place along with other members of Daihachi Ryodan, which I’d just joined. Right in front of a college it was always packed out, but since the students moved out of town things have quietened down a bit, which might be just as well since the owners are now 78 and 80-something, although still amazingly lively. Even more amazingly, the menu on the wall looked just the same as I remembered it, including the prices! (Of course Japan’s just been through a long periiod of deflation, but even so…) Great food too. Fresh broad beans, squid tempura, beef salad… simple but tasty.

I think izakaya like that are a major Japanese contribution to civilisation and at that time there was one on every street corner, but now you really have to search around, especially for a “Mum and Dad” type, privately-owned place. 80% of the eating-out market in Japan is now taken by 10 companies, who are offering something a notch above junk food. Nearly everything is cooked in factories and carried out to the shops in trucks to be microwaved or put in the fryer. They’ve got the technology down so that it doesn’t taste all that terrible, but it’s the same everywhere and the staff are all working to some Manual so there’s no human contact at all. The remaining 20% is shared out between places like Raffles and, what seems to be the current trend, sort of “neo Japanesque” restaurants with modern decor and “international” cuisine.

Another few years and you’ll have to go to the nearby “Showa Village” theme park to find places like our rediscovery, so in the meantime I’d better make a point of getting over there more often!


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