Monday, August 8, 2016

Maze of Sunshine

August--hot sizzling days and so much summer to choose from! I'm back home again in Indiana now. I returned last Novemeber. This weekend we took it it easy a bit and enjoyed the opening of the Rio Olympics and a day on a farm!

A sunflower maze just reached full bloom at an orchard to the east of Indianapolis called Tuttle Orchards. Mom and I took my brother's little girl out to take up the challenge. It was delightful.

We rode the wooden tractor to all sorts of places ;)

and then got lost in the sunny faces of the huge flowers!

We watched the busy bees collect their pollen

and each chose our favorites to take home.

Then we enjoyed delicious farm food for lunch and an apple slushie and peach smoothie for dessert.

Delicious! Well done Tuttle Orchards! The sandwich was ham, cheese, and peach, and the wrap was chicken and goat cheese with a special dressing--excellent recipes using local ingredients.

We hunted the country landscape for elephants and rhinos on the way home :) And had a good nap to finish off the afternoon :) May the summer be long and our hearts ever hungry for sunshine!


Monday, August 10, 2015

Festival : Dance of the Glowing Giants

I am Matsuri Baka. Festival Obsessed. Nearly every weekend I am soaking up the vibrant energy of another local festival, and if I go a couple of weeks without going, I get an itch that needs the fever and chaos of a matsuri.

July 25, we were able to thoroughly enjoy an exciting nugget of Aichi spirit.

It was a spur of the moment decision. I and a friend leisurely made our way to the Kariya Mando Matsuri (刈谷万燈祭り)in Kariya city, about half an hour outside of Nagoya. This festival's origins are in the mid-Edo period, 1756.

We first made a mistake and went to the wrong station, but a quick train catching finally brought us to the right station, Kariyashi(刈谷市)station on Meitetsu. As soon as we stepped off the train, taiko drums and festival voices tantalized our ears. We followed the sounds through the late evening light until we reached.... the beer stand :D :D

A cold summer drink in hand, we found the center of the activity, in the middle of an intersection. A crowd was gathered around, watching as the members of one of the seven festival teams centered around a festival cart cheered and rallied each other before passing on down the street. Such passion and energy!

As they passed, the drums of the next team started to approach, and then, the lanterns came into view! Huge lanterns! Towering five meters (164 feet) into the evening sky, the first colorful lantern slowly made its way to the center of the intersection--carried on the back of one of the team members. It depicted an ancient hero fighting a dragon in colored paper and bamboo, backlit by a huge inner light. (We later noticed these were powered by huge batteries and they had to regularly change them out throughout the night ^_^ Modern innovation keeps traditions vibrant) Not far behind was the next huge lantern, third was the smaller lantern commanded by the female team, and then last came a bunch of kids with little lanterns shaped like characters or other summer time fun like watermelon.

Once everyone got to the middle and in place, the dancing began. Taiko drums and flutes played the music and then the team members hoisted the lanterns in a slow circular dance, bringing life into the scenes of the old stories they depicted. Beautiful and awesome. Since the lanterns weigh 60 kg (132 pounds), the dancers could only wrangle them for about a minute or two before trading out with another member.

Later all the teams lined up down one main street and then, all danced together at the same time.

We could walk down the street amidst the river of energy and whirling lights, check out out each team as we went by, and sometimes stop at one favorite team for awhile.

As the night grew darker, the lanterns grew even more beautiful and mesmerizing. We thought this one looked like Star Wars.

We stopped for awhile in front of a fascinating dragon vs. demon lantern,

and, at the end of the dancing, there was an announcement... the dragon team had won!

Such euphoria! All the members of all the teams were quite young.... their adrenaline was thick in the air. Such intensity! They reveled in their own exclusively synced spirits for awhile. I wanted to mosh with them!

Finally the lanterns were on the move again--heading back to their own towns and their own town festival centers, where the lanterns are created each year by the townspeople. Every year each town makes new lanterns. It's no wonder they have such pride and excitement.

First a few of the teams gathered in front of the main shrine for a small closing ceremony. We ended up right in the middle of it.

Then it was back to the houses.

But after resting for a bit, we again heard the festival music and sure enough, it seemed the teams's adrenaline just hadn't subsided enough and they were at it again, parading and dancing around the block again. By this time it was about 10:30 at night.

We were exhausted, if they weren't, and so we left their voices in the night behind and caught a late train back to Nagoya.

Please check out the video, but I don' think it really does justice to the lanterns and their bearers. I hope it gives you at least a taste of their magnificence.

Also this is the link to the YouTube version, just it case ;)

This is the official festival site:


Monday, December 22, 2014

A Slow Train To Oranges

On my way to the farm! I have a seishun 18 youth ticket in my pocket and a day of slow local trains ahead--that means combing the beautiful western Japan towns and countryside for all the details a slow train will allow as we pass by. As an Aichi resident, I long for mountains and ocean! 

This time, I'm off to a Mandarin orange farm in Wakayama prefecture. It's a certified organic farm, so I'm hoping to learn a lot! And after about a week and a half on the farm, I'll head to Koyasan and the temples there for a night. I've got lots of warm clothes packed and my Japanese textbooks. Hope the people are nice! Hope it's not too terribly cold! 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Yoro: Reversed Destinies and Gourd Swag

Hipsters, keep this on the DL but gourds had a major heyday back in the 1970s and most people have forgotten them by now, so they are just that ripe shade of vintage irony that has super potential to be uncool, but awesome. Now is your chance! ^_^ The secret Mecca to pilgrim to is a sleepy town in central Japan: Yoro, Gifu prefecture.

A couple of weeks ago, I too made this journey. Me and a friend (August! She's come back to Japan!) both had the time off work, so decided to take a tiny short trip. To find an interesting place that fit our time constraints, August started looking for patches of green on Google maps that were nearby accessible train stations. Using this original trip-planning technique, we found some patches in Gifu prefecture around Yoro station. There were tales of luscious onsens and shimmering waterfalls in those green clumps, so we took a risk with fortune and set our course for the north.  

We got off the small private train line at a station strung with gourds. Gourds everywhere.

We wondered around at some little shops--filled with every kind of painted and carved gourd and gourd souvenirs... still no idea why gourds were a big deal. On the second floor of one of the gift shops was a gourd museum. Of course we dropped the requested hundred yen in the gourd bucket and went it. It was filled with antique gourds (who knew?) from Edo period, and life-size dioramas demonstrating the gourd-growing process. There were also letters from people who had visited. One was in English, from a woman named Kathrine, who, it seems, came to Japan back in the 70's especially to see the gourds in Yoro. She appeared to be an artist of some kind. I wondered if she knew that her letter was still in this dusty museum, and whether she still was interested in gourd arts. 

We made our way to the onsen hotel that we had reserved and enjoyed a luxurious evening of bath
after bath after bath. And this place had extra fun features to enjoy like a Korean sauna that looked like a stone rocket ship, a whirlpool bath, standing sauna boxes, and a mixed bathing area where we wore swim suits.

Later we enjoyed a snack of some omiyage we had bought at a gift shop and some lotus wine, along with an onsen egg (an egg hard boiled in the hot spring water, so that it soaks up the water's minerals). Then later we feasted on a seven-course, all-natural, extremely delicious dinner. Extremely delicious. After dinner we enjoyed the baths again until closing and then played MASH in our room until we fell asleep.

In the morning, we enjoyed another healthy and luxurious breakfast, another bath, and then headed out to find the green patches, extremely relaxed, refreshed, and clean. Walking through the town, we found some big closed shops and everything thing seemed a bit old... we wondered if the town had had its day back around the time that Kathrine visited, and now was just a little worn out.

We asked our favorite old lady at the souvenir shop across from the station about the gourds. Finally, we got the low down. Turns out, gourds have been a Yoro Tradition for 1300 years.... there is a legend about a man and a gourd, and how he became lord of the area.

The Legend: Once there was a man named Genjonai  His father was very sick, to the point of death, but he just wanted a drink of sake. Genjonai went out to find something to heal his father, and exhausted himself in his search, finally collapsing from weariness. But as he lay there on the ground, he smelled the strong scent of sake. Enheartened, he renewed his quest, following the scent, until he reached a small spring, brimming with water, into which he dipped his guard, and rushed back to his father, who drank the water, and jumped up, healed. When Genjonai returned to the spring later to pay his respects to the spirit of the spring, a Bodhisattva appeared to him and commended him for his selfless acts toward his father, and calling him as the lord of the area. The empress of Japan heard tell of this dutiful son and this rejuvenating spring water, and came herself to taste it. She felt the years fall away, making her more youthful and so called it the "spring of youth" and renamed the year Yoro, the Year of Rejuvenation, and gave gifts to people across Japan over eighty years old. Also, she exempted the people of the Yoro area from taxes. Thus Yoro gained its heritage of youthful water, with gourds at the center.

From there we found new respect for the gourd and were excited to quest for the sake spring and the waterfalls that fell above it.

We enjoyed the huge children's park on the way up.

And stopped for a picnic lunch, complimented by special beers from a local brewery.

We found his grave and the spring, and finally, the beautiful waterfall.

We decided to take the chairlift down, and ended up back in the main park.... where we decided to enter a curious and potentially life-changing parcel of land: The Site of Reversible Destiny. Who wouldn't want to get their destiny reversed? Here is an airplane overview of the whole park:

This was an art exhibit built in the 90's, but still available to those in need of a destiny reversal. The park was a jumble of things--a house with rooms and furniture and walls all mixed up and upside down and on top of each other... streets with names like "However Street," "Not to Die Street," "Fight For Your Life Street," and "Bad Cough Street"..... maps from Japan and cities around the world all mixed up together... slabs of rock in the shapes of Japan slapped onto the concave sides of the huge bowl of the exhibit.... very very curious.

After a fresh destiny reversal, we made our way back to the station, which turns out is actually one of the oldest in Japan, being the original station from the Meiji Period. Very lovely when the cherry blossoms bloom, we were told.

From there we made our way back to Aichi, refreshed and redestined and gourded up. And with extra bottles of the local brews for friends.

P.S. You'll remember August from posts from 2011 in Nishio. She went home for about a year and a half and lived in San Francisco, but she recently accepted a job in Gifu city in Gifu prefecture, just north of me in Aichi prefecture, and stayed at our apartment for about three weeks! She's now settling into her new apartment up in Gifu. We expect lots of hiking and camping adventures to come! 

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Holidays on the windy farm by the sea

Slotted goat eyes peering at me as I walk to breakfast, tofu and pumpkin pig feed mixed with my hands, and soy sauce spaghetti are a far cry from a Currier and Ives Christmas. In Japan, an ideal Christmas Day is hard to come by anyway, so this past Christmas, my friend Julie and I went all-out for an unusual and absolute non-Christmas. We made our way to a farm called Doroko Mura, or the Muddy Farm, and the only Chrsitmasy things we did were sing Christmas songs to each other while we worked, Youtube “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” and wear a Santa hat while petting a goat. But somehow, it was the perfect Christmas, and hit at the core of the Christmas Spirit.

It was Julie’s idea. Julie is actually the teacher that replaced me at the conversation school I used to work at when I left last Spring to be an elementary school English teacher. She’s a bit of a free spirit and dresses like a summer camp councilor or Eric Carle’s Mixed-up Chameleon. Her life experiences are a bit of a curious Eric Carle hodge-podge collage, too—sometimes bright and sometimes dark, but together a picture of an interesting piece of fruit or an animal (..or something a bit more poignant). She’s super sturdy and the most down to earth person.

Julie's lust for lust for new experiences and back-breaking hard work brought her to the WWOOF's Japanese Web site. WWOOF stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. It’s an organization that connects people, especially travelers, to farms where they can work in exchange for free room and board. Since our friends were all fragmented and dispersed across Japan and the rest of the globe this Christmas, at Julie’s suggestion, I quickly registered on the WWOOF Web site and soon was all set to join her in some Christmastime farm work.

The point of destination was one of the closest farms to where we live in Tahara city to the east of us on the Atsumi Pennisula. Doronko Mura is an organic farm and cake shop combination. They also run a small cafe and a farm stay experience program on the premises. These people are busy. Little did we know how involved in these different aspects of the Muddy Village we would become (or how much of that fresh, organic cake we would be eating...).

We arrived by bus on Saturday December 22 to freshly fallen rain, and actually to the farmer and Mrs. Farmer of the house out on business. We were welcomed in by the Mrs. Farmer's sister (Emi), and the farmer's mother (Grandma), who was jolly and eager to tell everyone's stories... We learned that this farm was the same location of her and her husband's farm, and so where the farmer, Hiroshi Ogasawara, grew up, raising pigs from the time he was a kid. Also staying on the farm were two resident workers who had recently graduated from university... One, Shin, a Tokyo-ite, was learning the ways of organic farming, and in the middle of a two-year stay.. after meeting him and then later checking out his facebook... it's very curious why he would leave his life in Tokyo, move way out here, and learn organic farming. The other, Ichinisanshiro, was an aspiring writer from the nearby Toyohashi, and had been on the farm for about six months, due to stay on for another half a year. Later we learned the book he was working on was a sort of science fiction... His choice to stay on this farm is curious, too. Emi, the sister, was here for a diet. Don't know exactly how that works out with all the cake-eating, but it is a noble cause. And right off the bat, throughout our chatting we consumed copious amounts of the farm's soft, fluffy chiffon cake and delicious organic coffee ^_^

After getting settled in our room--which included cleaning it, as it apparently hadn't been lived in in years... not since the little girl who's picture was on the wall had left we gathered, we explored our toilet and bathroom, which were both separate from our room, and met the goats just outside. Then we headed out to the field with Shin and Ichinisanshiro. We spent the afternoon tying cabbages,

separating out spinach, and feeding the pigs, goats, dogs, and cats.

Since they don't use fertilizers on the produce, we made friends with some fat caterpillars munching air holes in the leaves. (I couldn't help but get Joni Mitchell stuck in my head: "Hey farmer, farmer, put away your DDT. I don't care about spots on my apples, leave me the birds and the bees please. Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you got till it's gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot" ^_^)

After a hearty dinner (of course, like all our dinners, made with the farm's produce and pork), a couple of college girls arrived for a short work stay, like us. They were on their way back to university from their winter holiday spent volunteering at an assisted living center. We enjoyed talking with them and the the farmer and his wife, and we learned more about the farmer and his wife's perspective on life and their reasons for farming organically. Their two most important points are to respect where our food comes from, and the equality of life; and to respect the never-ending circle life flows in. For example, the phrase ittadakimasu. Before we eat in Japan, we always say this. Literally, it simply means "receive." But it is important to not say it only as an empty habit, but to take a moment to remember the work involved and the life in the food that gives you life. "Receive," but remember where you are receiving it from. With this respect, we can be better stewards of our planet, better members of the circle of life.

The next morning, the girls and Julie and I got up extra early and took a chilly stroll to the ocean. The wind on this farm is so severe. All day and especially at night it blows fiercely. The beach was even more intense. It was quite nice, especially so early in the morning. But we didn't stay much longer than to snap a few pictures, and then hurried back to the warm common room for breakfast, followed, of course by delicious cake and coffee ^_^

And then it was time to start a new day of work. It just so happened that they were working on remodeling their cafe that week. A hippie worker, Ippei-san, who had actually worked to build the place with a bunch of French travelers about ten years before, was back to work on it once again. Julie and I's job was tiling. LOL. Didn't know I was a tiler, did you? We scrubbed the cement floor as smooth and we could, and then started in covering it with the odds-and-ends tiles they had acquired, and cement grout. All the while, we chatted with Ippei about all kinds of things... the spiritual path everyone must find, meditation inside of a steaming pot, the rich rewards of working while traveling... and also listening to his rich singing. We chimed in here and there, but it was more fun just to listen his voice recreate Japanese folk songs, American folk songs, Eastern Indian folk songs, and all the other songs that seemed to go along with the tile and cement and cold, long cabin-esque cafe (and the odd-smelling smoke wafting from Ippei-san's direction ^_^). We were quite proud of our progress on the floor by the end of the day:

The girls left before dinner, so again it was the eight of us eating together. And again we feasted on a bit of cake and coffee. During the day, Ippei-san had invited us to a party with a bunch of people he knew at a nearby cafe. So that evening, off we went to a big, Atsumi Peninsula hippie Christmas party. So tired, but such a great, relaxing night. Yes, that's a girl belly dancing with a candelabra on her head.

In the Christmas gift exchange, I got a hard warmer, very useful on the farm; and Julie got... a box of cake. XD We got three square cake and coffes a day, but, we still ate this cake, too ^_^

The next day, we headed out of our room just as the farmer and his wife were milking the goats. Fresh, warm goat milk ^_^

That day, we continued work in the cafe. By that evening, it looked like it wouldn't be done in time, so Ippei-san called some of his friends up, and the Hippie Brigade headed over and helped us fly through a big portion of the flooring. What great friends.

And then, Christmas came. We originally had planned on leaving Christmas Day, but they told us a group of kids were going to stay Christmas Day and the next two days after, so we should stay if we could. So, we got up early, and wished the ocean a Merry Christmas

and the goats

and then started our last day of solid work. We were back in the cafe again. This time, Julie and I sung as many Christmas carols and Christmas songs as we could remember words to ^_^ Also, for the last half of the morning, Ichinisanshiro was in the cafe working with us. This is when we quite got to know him more. He and Julie practiced kendo while we were waiting for the floor to dry ^_^

And then. The kids came. First cake of the farm stay:

They did not hold back on cutting themselves cake... about the size of your head seemed to be the general rule of thumb. All the kids had stayed on the farm before--for one kid, it was his tenth time! With the kids came two other new characters: Kinpatsu Obaachan and Kurokuro Obaachan, Granny Blondie Head and Granny Curly Top... Julie and I respectively ^_^

From the time the kids came, we didn't do any real work... just played some ridiculous make-believe or chased a chicken in between the kids activities. The farmer's wife really wanted us to speak to them in English, so we tried to have fun with that.. some of the kids were really into it. Hopefully a good experience for them.

We did some farm chores with the kids the first day... I went with Shin and a group of kids to feed the pigs and the other animals. The food we fed the pigs was almost fit for humans: the leftovers from the tofu-making process, called okara, with miso and pumpkin mixed in. Looked great until we mixed in the scraps from the dinner table and around the farm. We had fun mixing it with our hands, well, sort of... so cold! This time we also went over to the chicken house, too, where they also have a couple of emu and a peacock! Wish we could be there the day the Emu decides to lay an egg... sounds delicious. These chickens are free-range of course, and not fed extra hormones, so collectively they only lay a few eggs a day in the winter. It's natural for chickens to lay eggs in the spring and warm months, and not so much in the winter. I didn't know that.

Kinpatsu Obaachan had gone with Ichinisanshiro to the fish shop down the road to collect the fish scraps. That added to the animal feed definitely didn't look appetizing. When we came back, she and her group had already started making dinner (our Christmas dinner). The kids wielding killer butcher knives and going to town on the veggies made my nerves stand on end a bit, but they were all right. Japan really gives kids a lot more responsibility in general that they get in the U.S--that's something that's been extremely evident in daily life at school. Together--the kids and their knives, led by the farmer's wife, Ichinisanshiro, and Shin, and Kinpatsu Obaachan and Kurokuro Obaachan running around throwing out bits of English, we made a Christmas dinner of soy sauce Spaghetti, meat sauce spaghetti, homemade pizza, and rice. All made with Doronko Mura vegetables and pork, or course. Dinner made with love eating it surrounded by ten little happy kids on a farm that cares about the details: this was a very good Christmas ^_^

That night, our last on the farm, the farmer baked sweet potatoes in the wood-burning stove in the kitchen, and after the kids went to bed, we had the chance to talk to them (and Ka-chan the little pooch) more about their farm. Really good to talk to genuine people who really care about what they're talking about--care so much they run a farm themselves, and are passionate about helping people understand this perspective, so host farm stays all the time.

The next day, our last, Julie and I both woke up with the colds that had been chasing us all week in full force. So, while the kids chased a chicken around the farm or something, we walked down to the clinic just next door to the farm. After the nurse checked us out, in came the doctor--an 86-year-old grandma. (!!) Still practicing medicine at 86?? Extremely impressed. Probably such a service to the people out in this bit of farmland, too. We got our medicine and came back to the farm just as the kids were finishing up in the fields. It was time to start making mochi! Mochi is a rice cake, simply rice cooked and beaten over and over until it becomes a sticky rice cake. So delicious!!

We made the mochi from the beginning. We plucked the rice from the plant... this is much easier said than done; some of the kids employed curious methods to de-rice the plants, including taking it outside and smashing it with rocks, etc. Then we cooked it, then smashed it with a hammer.

Soon we had delicious mochi! We also made kinako from scratch. Kinako is a mochi topping made from ground soy beans and sugar. We ground the soy beans ourselves with two mill stones. So cool actually!

This along with some udon noodles was our lunch for the day. We topped the mochi with soy sauce and grated Japanese radish, sweet red beans, ground sesame, and the freshly-ground kinako. Kinako was my favorite ^_^ We stuffed ourselves with as much mochi as possible, as you can see.

From there, we had time to snap a few pictures, and say goodbye to everyone. And then it was off to the bus stop to head back to our cities.

It was definitely a different rhythm of life on the farm. And from that warm-inside-freezing-and-windy-outside farm, with a regular eating and working schedule--but no rush for anything, where we hardly changed what we were wearing the entire five days, surrounded by wonderful and interesting people and tons of fun kids, and wholesome food and cake cake cake.... we both just could not bear the thought of going back alone to our empty apartments. We meant to, but then, I ended up getting on the train and going back to Nishio with Julie ^_^ It was a sort of small culture shock, and our bodies took a bit of time to readjust as well... I woke up the next morning to "Ruuuth! My eye is glued to the piiilloooow!" from Julie... her cold had made a home in her eyes, so we ran around the first half of that day trying to get it taken care of... And the medicine from the grandma doctor made me feel quite high, so I gave it up and worked through my cold the natural way.

But we have returned from our Christmas farm life. It was very informative to understand organic farming from the inside. I want to eat as much local and organic food as I can now. But we are limited. As the farmer's wife said, no, everyone can't have a farm like we do. We just hope that people will think about where their food and the other things they consume comes from, and will consider and respect the Others--people, animals, plants--in the process. For themselves, and for the future of our communities, and Earth.

Thanks Mr. Pig for the food, and thanks Mr. and Mrs. Farmer for the life you live, and thanks little ragamuffin kids for your pudgy bunny smiles ^_^ And thanks cake for the cake ^_^

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