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November 28, 2007

A Break


Nothing in particular to write about today. We took one of the birds' eggs our a few days ago to hold it up to a light and see if anything was growing inside. We couldn't see anything, but just as I was about to put it back, I thought I felt something move. I held it up to my ear and could hear a distinct "cheep cheep" sound. It hatched two days ago and everything seems to be going well. Somehow the Awii and Klee know just what to do to take care of the baby, and from the brief glimpses we get of it when they come out to eat (although usually they take turns - one of them is always sitting on the eggs and baby) it appears that the baby is growing bigger. Today we couldn't resist so we shooed the parents away from their nest and took the baby out to play for a few seconds. It sounds rude, but it looks a bit like your average little old lady that we see walking down the street here.

Tomoe went to a special village "ladies club" meeting today where they they made oyakai (bread balls with some veggies inside). Tomoe was hoping to learn some good "traditional" techniques, but it turns out that they just use all kind of processed "instant" oyaki powders and lots of sugar to cover up the natural flavors of the veggies that are put inside. This is, of course, because that is how most of the people were raised and taught in the 60s and 70s, when "convenience products" became more available. There are, however, a few older women in the village who still know how to make an oyaki with raw ingredients. Still, some of the neighbors used to using processed, pre-packaged, additive-filled seasonings and what-not, are showing a bit of interest in Tomoe's "revolutionary" methods of pickling and preserving foods over the winter.


Today we take the Pug (our car) to a new friend who lives up in the mountains a bit. He is an ex-race car driver with all the tools and know-how to fix the strange squeaky sound that has been coming from the left front wheel. It turns out that the break-pads were completely bare. I mean COMPLETELY. The sound was from metal on metal. Its a wonder we are still alive. We left the car there and will have to do any commuting by bike until the parts we ordertomorrow come in.

Although we haven't needed the car for the past two weeks, we have a meeting with the mayor tomorrow (to discuss how we can help the township and what support they could give us). I have no doubt that if we did not fear for our lives, we would have driven the Pug to city hall. Now that there is no such option available, we feel fine to ride our bikes the 30 (very scenic) minutes it will take. I am glad the Pug is lame. It woke me up to the obvious fact that we have come to rely too much on driving. I mean, we used to bike 45-50 minutes one way to and from work in Tokyo (not so scenic), and in Hakuba I rode 30 minutes back and forth on much steeper roads. Somehow, having a car makes us lazy. Further proof that cars (even the Pug) are evil by nature.

The photos of the baby bird are not the greatest, but we are reluctant to pull him/her out just for a photo-op. Unfortunately, we planned poorly and built their nest in a way that is very difficult to peek into.

The other photos are just random photos of country life - our neighbor making nozawana tsukemono (pickled regional leafy thing), the hole we dug to store all our daikon (big white radish) over the winter, and a lot of hakusai (Chinese cabbage) drying outside a local farm house.


November 26, 2007

It Started With A Phone Call


A few days ago I received a phone call. I had almost no idea what the guy on the other end was saying in his local dialect. He obviously knew me, and I had obviously met him before, but almost the only thing I could catch was "Sunday.... 10:00". Despite not knowing what I was committing myself to, I agreed and waited eagerly for Sunday, 10:00 when I would find out what fun activity was in store.

We didn't know until yesterday morning, when the phone rang at 9:30, that we were on our way to a soba (buckwheat noodle) party. We had a chance to partake in every part of the soba making, from kneading the dough, to rolling it, and cutting the noodles, and finally eating it. This was followed by a mochi (pounded rice) party, where we helped pound the rice, and finally a village harvest party (see the photo where two men are pounding a blob of rice with two wooden hammers. If you pound the rice enough, it becomes a large sticky mess that is responsible for many choking deaths each new-year season).


This harvest party was similar to the one we attended for our own village a few weeks ago, but different in that the men and women all sat separate, and it lasted much longer - with much more drinking and even a nijikai "second party". Hmmmm... maybe this village is more fun than the one we live in.

The photos on this post are of some of the people we met there.


November 23, 2007

Breaking Records


Does record snowfall for November mean record snowfall for the entire winter season? Last year was a record low, the year before was near-record high. This year, we have already broken records for November with 53cm(20+in) in nearby Nozawa Onsen Village, and about 30cm (12in) here. (more as you move up to the higher altitude villages.)

The jury is still out, but some of us are praying. The only thing that makes me mad is that I did not buy (or make) my cross-country skis early enough...

The black & white photo below is from our kitchen window, overlooking our pond, our garden, the river, and the shrine on the other side (compare with this). The color photo is from our upstairs den, overlooking the neighbors pond and house.


In other news, Awii and Klee (our birds) are very much pregnant. They have laid eggs before but, upon inspection with a light, we always found the eggs to be unfertilized. This time however, we checked a few days ago and saw signs of chick growth. I don't know what we will do with five chicks (if all five eggs hatch), but we are excited to welcome new family members. Maybe we can give the chicks away to somebody that would love them as much as we do...


November 21, 2007

Snow Melting


It was snowing when we woke up this morning, but after a bright sunny afternoon and this evenings rain showers, we are hoping that there may still be a small chance for our crops to grow a bit bigger after the snow melts.Unfortunately, upon digging some of them out of the snow this afternoon, we found that most of the leaves on the daikon broke off under the weight. We never really expected then to grow very big anyway, but we had hoped for another month or so.

Even if we don't get much from our own crops, we are lucky enough to have neighbors who don't like unripened tomatoes. Today we gathered several kilo of green delicious tomatoes that would otherwise have gone into the composter. They aren't so good to eat raw, but Tomoe makes an amazing sauce with hot peppers. I actually prefer it to the "traditional" red style tomato sauce made famous by Italians.

I feel a little guilty that we didn't get much else done today. The house renovations have run out of steam now that it is livable. We have to pick up the pace again though because today we got a call from the editor of Kura magazine about an interview. This is a magazine that Tomoe and I both enjoy reading at the magazine stand when we get a chance. They focus on country living in the Shinshu area and always have amazing photography. We have to make our house presentable before they come.

Saving the Green TomatoesDSC_1437_1.jpg

November 20, 2007

First Taste of Snow Country


Everyone said it wouldn't stick. And yet, a (very clear and sunny) day later, we are planning a rescue mission for the veggies - still covered with a few centimeters of snow. The forecast calls for more tonight as well, though not as much as the 20cm from two nights ago. According to the paper, yesterday's record was 32cm in the nearby Nozawa Onsen Village.

Today we had some errands to run in town, so drove the pug toward Nagano city. It gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling to see how quickly we went from complete white (here) to bare fields (only a few kilometers south). Some people may be a bit pessimistic about our ability to enjoy life in such a harsh region, but the truth is that it is no longer all that harsh. Yes, the snow falls, and yes, we have to shovel it into our pond to make room for the next dump (see photo above), but compared to just a few decades ago, before roads were plowed and people had to get up early every day to stop a path with snowshoes, life here does not seem to be much harsher than life in Tokyo.

That said, we do live in a region of Japan called the gousetsuchitai (heavy snow region), an official name for the more romantic sounding "snow country". Being designated as a gousetsuchitai means that the area receives special subsidies and grants to alleviate some of the hardships - such as grants for snow removal. I did not know until recently that over 50% of Japan is actually an official gousetsuchitai. We, however, live in a tokubetsugousetsuchitai (especially heavy snow region). Of Japan's 47 prefectures, 24 have some portion with the heavy snow region designation. 10 prefectures fall entirely within that designation. Niigata Prefecture is one of those, and Sakae Mura is right on the border of Nigata - in fact, Sakae often considers itself a part of Niigata in spirit. The map (via Wikipedia) below which prefectures are all (red) or partially (yellow) in the heavy snow region category. The other photos shows the actual boundaries of gousetsuchitai and tokubetsugousetsuchitai is from the Japan Ministry of Land Infrastructure, and Transport


Total in Japan Heavy Snow Region (%) Special Heavy Snow Region (%)
Population (1,000s) 126,926 20,449 (16.1) 3,512 (2.8)
Area (km) 377,876 192,019 (50.8) 74,890 (20)
Townships 1,805 546 (30.2) 202 (11.2)


Today we went to buy some snow tires for the pug. Of course, all the main roads were plowed (the length of road plowed in Japan each year is 80,000km - two times the diameter of the earth), and any road that does not get plowed will need more than a few snow-tires to drive on. Still, Tomoe has little experience with snow-driving, and I have a lot of experience getting into accidents in snow and ice. We think that investing in snow tires might be worth it.


November 18, 2007

A Beautiful Sound


I took a walk around the neighborhood this morning and the photos above are what I saw. People getting ready for winter, covering the windows with yukigakoi (boards that keep the weight of the snow from breaking the windows), changing their tires to snow-tires, putting poles around their trees to protect them from the weight of the snow, harvesting their remaining daikon radishes etc.

The pictures below are what I saw from our window around 4pm - just as it was getting dark and the temperature was dropping.


The forecast calls for 30-50cm overnight. I can't wait to get the snowshoes out tomorrow! The only problem is that the snow is VERY wet and heavy. As we walked to the onsen bath tonight, we found that the streets, still retaining heat from the brief spat of sun earlier today, reduced everything to a thick slush. I hope that it gets a bit more "fluffy" later in the winter, but for now I am happy happy happy. As I write this Tomoe and I sit in the living room listening to the regular crash of snow avalanching from the roof. What a wonderful sound!


Portrait Practice


I'm back from a great week at an Outward Bound Japan course for the 8th graders of the American School in japan. The weather at Saiko (near Mt. Fuji) was amazing for the entire week - giving incredible views of Fuji for all the kids who managed to get to the top in their rock-climbing challenge. Sorry I don't have any photos, but as an instructor, I had my hands full just observing the kids and making sure they were safe.

I got home late Friday night in time to meet Saturday morning with a newspaper reporter from Nagoya who wanted to interview us about life as outsiders in such a small town. I spent the rest of the day sleeping off a cold.

Speaking of cold, it is getting colder here, and I am happy to see frost on the ground in the mornings. Tonight we are supposed to have our first snow!!! Cant wait!

The photos here are from the Thatch Roof Volunteer program (kaya-kari) that didn't actually happen a few weeks ago (because of rain). Still, twelve people came to stay at our house and took our tour of the area.

November 09, 2007

Harvest Festival


I'm off instructing a week-long course for Outward Bound Japan. I leave you photos of a recent harvest festival held in our village. Tomoe's mother and niece were in attendance. Her father had to leave the day before for work.


The festival was a lot of fun and we were one of the main attractions. The sign behind the speakers in the photo above say "Welcome to Tsukioka, Kevin & Tomoe". Every area of the village had a separate seating area. We were lucky enough to have sat exaclty where we should have (we had no idea of the order). We later made our rounds greeting the other areas, discovering our big mistake - we brought a large mug to drink from, meaning everyone had to fill it with LOTS of sake and, of course, we had to drink it. (not really theworst mistake anyone could make.)


Two of the bottles of sake were a gift from us. The interesting thing about this is that, when asked, our neighbor told us we should bring sake "in a box". The "in a box" part was stressed. We had no idea what thismeant , but when we visited the local coop, the had prices listed for sake "by the bottle" and "with a box". When we asked them for the "in a box" sake, but the asked our names and used a computer and printer right there at the checkout to print a label for the box with our names on it. Later, at the beginning of thefestival, they read the names of everyone who contributed the five boxes of sake.

After the festival we took her mother and niece out to gather mountain walnuts.


As always, I want to write more, but I have to go to bet, and my time tonight was taken by other things - We spent the night watching Little House on thePrairie DVDs as we broke open our sesame pods in the hopes that they will dry faster, beating the impending snow. We spent two hours and only finished a fifth of the pods.


November 07, 2007



The photo above is not staged. As I finished stripping all the sesame buds from their stalks, I took a step back to watch Tomoe preparing kaki (persimmon) for making booze and vinegar. I almost cried when I saw how rich our life was.

Drying in the sun from left to right:

  • Egoma A type of shiso grown especially for its oils and as a substitute for seame in areas such as where we live where, before modern farming techniques, sesame was not possible to be grown efficiently. We picked this egoma a few days ago from the field of an organic farmer who passed away two weeks ago. His widow was not able to harvest his field, so we joined a friend in helping out.
  • Shibu Kaki (persimmon) This is from a tree in our yard. While this type of persimmon is a bit too bitter to eat as is, it is perfect for drying or making persimmon vinegar or wine. In this case, Tomoe is opting for vinegar and wine. After wiping each persimmon, and taking out any bruises, she cuts them into fifths and simply leaves them in the large bucket you see at her feet. That bucket is now fermenting in our living room. The leaves will be dried and used for tea.
  • Wild Walnuts Tomoe's mother and niece joined us for picking these walnuts from the ground in the forest nearby our home. After a good washing in our pond, we set them out to dry. Neighbors tell us that it will be a few days before they are ready to eat.
  • Scrubby thing I forget the name of this, and Tomoe is sleeping now so I wont know until the morning. This is a cucumber-like vegetable that we have left in our pond to rot. Once the majority of it rots away, only thefibrous "skeleton" remains. This is then used as a body scrubber in the onsen. The onsen is closed on Tuesdays, so we didn't get to use it tonight...
  • Kuro Goma (balck sesame) Another crop from the recently deceased organic farmer. These grow as pods lining long stalks. As the pods dry, the open and a crap-load of sesame seeds fall out. It was too difficult to take only the dry stalks, so we also took green stalks and are hoping that they will dry and open before winter, otherwise we have to open each one by hand and pick the seeds out.

Perhaps the most satisfying thing, is that as our neighbor came by to see what we were up to, she was surprised to see sesame and that Tomoe was making vinegar of the kaki. She admitted that she had never done so, or even knew how. Her 30 year-old daughter had never even seen sesame plants before.

While we thought that there is nothing for us to share with the people who grew up here, we now see that there is much in terms of different perspective that could be valuable. Just the other day Tomoe brought a dish of cooked weeds (that *everyone* throws away) to a local festival and amazed everyone. We collect the radish leaves that our neighbors throw away. We collect their green, discarded tomatoes to make amazing sauce. It seems that everyone is stuck in a somewhat limited mental view of their world. While we have much to lean from them, it feels good to know that we can perhaps share something that they had not thought of as well.


November 05, 2007

Hiking Tour of Japan's Naeba Mountain


In addition to five days of biking, our tour also included a two day hike to the top of Mt Naeba - one of Japan's hyakumeizan, or "famous one-hundred mountains". The hike up was one of the most challenging trails I have come across in Japan in terms of terrain - a seven-hundred meter gain in less than 1.5 km. While it was short enough that, even after a leisurely morning, we reached the summit just in time for sunset, much of it was almost vertical (see google earth map below). It was satisfying to me to see that everyone made it despite admissions that this was the most difficult trek they had ever done.


We arrived at the top just in time for sunset and just before it started to get really cold. Although two of the three customers had originally requested "as much camping as possible" in order to bring the costs down, everyone was happy to take advantage of the reservations we had made at the hut for sudomari (basically using your own sleeping bag, stove and food - no meals or futons included) which is half the price of an all-inclusive stay that includes meals and futons.

After finishing off the 3.5 liters of beer I had snuck up the mountain for congratulatory toasts, we also were lucky enough to be given a half-bottle of sho-chu, as this was the last night the hut would be open this year and the owner wanted to make everything as light as possible for the end-of-season clean up.

Everyone slept well.


The night before I had asked the owner what time sunrise was and was surprised to hear that it was a good forty minutes later than I expected. Just in case I set my alarm for the time that I thought we should get up, and sure enough, the owners idea of "sunrise" is that actual moment that the sun peaks over the mountains in the horizon. My idea of sunrise was the time that the beautiful colors begin to light up the east skyline. Of course, being an almost full moon that night, without a cloud in the sky, we could have pretty much stayed up all night and not even have need for our headlamps.


After waking everyone up and forcing them to join me in the awe I feel shivering at 2100 meters on frozen ground watching the sky change from deep blue to purple to pink and finally, forty minutes later, seeing the sun finally pear out from behind the last mountain range that separated us from the Japan Sea and China.

There were a few other hikers staying at the hut that night, and all of them were right there with us snapping photos of the sunrise. All except one. We later found that he was the photographer who had taken all the amazing photos displayed on the walls of the lodge and, according to him, "today has nothing for someone of my level to take a photo of". It sounds a bit conceited, but it was true. After further conversation, we learned that he had climbed the mountain over 250 times in order to get the 30 or so photos on the wall in the hut, and in his book.

We also learned that he had been wanting to meet me. Yes, you heard it right. He knew of my moving to the area and had wanted to meet me! Me! I feel so important. The meeting was brief, and ended with him giving us two autographed copies of his photo book of Akiyamago and Naeba mountain, and me begging him to teach me a thing or two about photography.


November 01, 2007

Moving Forward


We thought that once the trip is over we would be able to sleep in. Not so. Today, for example, we woke up before the sunrise to go harvest egoma, goma (sesame), and kaki (persimmon) from the field of a recent widow who can't harvest by herself, before Suzuki-san, the director of "furusato kaiki shien center" - the organization that introduced us to Sakae Mura, came to visit and discuss how things are going and our plans for the future.


The other night we sat down to make a list of possible projects that interest us and would be helpful for the community. It is soooo much bigger than we ever imagined. After talking with Suzuki-san today, we are even more aware that there is so much that can be done. We are now overwhelmed at the magnitude of possibilities. Simple bike tours seems like such a waste. We had originally hoped to use the bike tours for something more meaningful in the future, but had no idea that it would be possible so soon.

I have to admit that income is the least of my worries. We are convinced that there is enough demand for people to do something, anything that is more real and rewarding than a bus tour of Kyoto, that we will never have trouble filling our current customer quota. Our big challenge now is figuring out what projects to focus on - or else how to find enough staff to focus on all the projects that need doing.


The photos are of our neighbor harvesting her yakon from the field outside our window, and Tomoe sharpening her kama. Also, the nameko mushrooms that we have grown addicted to. Not a day goes by without a bowl of fresh nameko mushroom soup. Although we have asked our neighbors to teach us how to harvest, so far we are only lucky enough to recieve a portion of their own morning harvest.

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