Skip to main content


Showing posts from May, 2010

Details of the Sweet Potato Planting

The sweet potatoes are in ! We arrived on an unusually cloudy and cool morning for late May to find Takashi-san setting out the slips on the rows. Spaced about two feet or 60 centimeters apart, these little slips (bundle pictured above) will grow into some impressively massive tubers by fall (see photo for below for a sample of last years harvest) that will be made into everything from tempura to frilly desserts to mochi. (As well as my favorite sweet potato stew recipe !) Autum is also when carts selling roasted sweet potatoes appear. Hot coals carefully tended in the back roast the potatoes, which are simply sold whole as a warm tasty snack for those slightly chilly days marking the turn of the season. The slips at first glance appear only to be stems with leaves at one end. A closer examination shows small nodules along its length where roots will form. These will turn into sweet potatoes , of course, but as the plant grows and stretches into the

Sweet Potato Planting

Spring is a busy time of year, as any gardener will attest. We've been up to our eyeballs at the farm getting crops in, weeding, tying tomatoes and eggplants, planting companion plants, weeding, preparing fields, weeding, not to mention harvesting...oh, and weeding. Today the sweet potatoes go in, which will be my second year planting them. Last year at this time, I'd never even seen a sweet potato slip before much less planted them. Preparing the field was one of the first jobs I was allowed to do alone, and I took great pains to make sure I did everything just right. I wanted to remember everything Takashi-san had told me, and I wanted the farmers to feel like they could rely on me. I felt the same while planting the slips. I wanted to remember everything Takashi-san said, do it just right, and be efficient. It was a perfect, perfect spring day with so much sunshine that the slips looked quite tired in the field by the time I finished. We set up a watering system, which to

A Little More Straw Bale Reading for the Nightstand

At the same time that I was talking with Toby about the building of Square One , I was also speaking with Kyle Holzheuter, a PhD student at Nihon Daigaku researching straw bale in Japan. Since meeting Kyle at Toby and Maiko's this past summer, he has very kindly shared his time and thoughts with me about straw bale in general as well as offered pointers on its construction. Kyle also offered a recommended reading list, which as Toby mentioned in an email reflects Kyle's perspective as a builder. Some titles appear in Toby's list , too, which only serves perhaps to recommend them more strongly. Check out Kyle's blog for more information and to see what straw bale adventures he is currently having, and don't forget to see how the final coat of plaster is going up at Square One, too! *Denotes cross-listed titles. *Design of Straw Bale Buildings: The State of the Art by Bruce King, 2006. Building with Straw by Gernot Minke, 2001. Building with Straw Bale: A P

Straw Bale: Recommended Reading

Toby alluded in our first interview to a long list of books, websites, and workshops that guided the thinking behind the building of Square One. Here he graciously shares his list of favorites, along with a few notes about how they came in handy. The Straw Bale House by Athena and Bill Steen and David Bainbridge and Eisenberg, 1994. These two books (including the one listed below) by the Steen's provided the original inspiration to build with straw bale. As we started planning for the final lime plaster this year, it was interesting and fun to be in direct contact with Bill to get his feedback and suggestions. The Beauty of Straw Bale Homes by Athena and Bill Steen, 2001. A House of Straw: A Natural Building Odyssey by Carolyn Roberts, 2002. Looking back now, this book probably prepared me more for the challenges and stress that came with building our own house. Carolyn's project was quite different than ours, but reading about an owner/builder and all the hoops she jump

The View from Square One

Toby and Maiko's home seems to be as much about community building as about home building. The day we spent working on the house a good feeling of learning and cooperation pervaded the site, and after reading their blog it clearly infuses every beam and bale. From the house blessing ceremony to working on the logs side by side with their team of experts, Square One is now an integral part of an ever-expanding web of people. The Weymiller's home has also been a long time in the making. Trying to live their ideas as much as possible, Square One is an example of how living a sustainable, eco-friendly lifestyle does not mean deprivation. It beautifully illustrates the viability of alternative building materials and the real potential they hold for our future. In this last part of our interview, Toby reflects on the project, the process, and what it means to live sustainably. PH: One thing that really struck me while reading your blog is the amount of community invo

Straw Bale in Japan

Japan has a long tradition of natural building that I've touched on briefly before , but in today's modern age such practices are now challenging to put into action. The permit process can be arduous (to say the least), and acquiring the straw can be expensive. (Toby and Maiko's free straw from their neighbor across the way is quite the exception to the rule, and a direct benefit of living in Hokkaido. Much of the southern part of Japan is subject to typhoons shortly after the rice harvest. The ensuing strong winds and heavy rains make field drying of the straw nearly impossible.) The straw must then be bailed to spec and stored over the winter - two more pieces of the puzzle that shaped up to become Square One - until the following summer's build dates. Finding an architect familiar with straw bale to help navigate the permit and design process, an experienced natural builder, and a builder willing to work on such a "crazy" idea are others. Y

Bale by Bale: The Making of Square One

Last summer while traveling in Hokkaido I had the chance to attend a straw bale home building workshop . It was one of a series Toby and Maiko Weymiller offered to give interested folks an opportunity to learn about straw bale, and to get their new home, Square One , built. A variety of people from far and wide came to lend a hand, and we found the same feeling pervading the work site that we found last spring on a roof in Nagano-ken . This time that sense of yui (group fellowship and learning) raised the walls of a family's new home. When we left for our camping trip the first floor walls were nearly done and Square One was well on its way. Now Toby, Maiko, and Bomber ( their most adorable cat) are enjoying their first spring in their new home. I asked Toby to share some thoughts on the project and the process. Following is our conversation broken into three parts: Sum and Substance of Square One where we discuss what motivated Toby and Maiko to choose stra

Mado no Tambo: Window Rice Field Haiku

Day Twenty-four of the Blogathon is a group blogging day. (Our previous group blogging day was a post swap.) Our theme this time? Haiku , of course! So, after some pondering, I decided to write about my little tambo . I love this tambo almost as much as I love going to the farm to work with the farmers. Watching the seeds sprout and then grow their first leaves has been so much for this vegetable geek that I wrote two haikus! Mado no Tambo Leaves stretch up and up Stirred by water and light Spring in a small cup. Mado no Tambo II Window tambo grows, Green leaves and roots run wild there. Time for a new pot.

Purslane: More Solution than Problem

The other day while removing the plastic row covers from the sweet corn field I noticed purslane growing among the stalks. As an edible weed it, like dandelions , inspires mixed feelings. Some don't mind it, some see it only as a nuisance, and others harvest it like mad. I would say I fall somewhere in between. I don't really mind it, but it can get to be a bit overwhelming in the garden. And even then I sometimes leave it to act as a living mulch. This year I've given in and am using the farmers recommended plastic mulch . Incredibly strong winds and heavy rains can quickly erode valuable topsoil here, not to mention the somewhat long hot, dry spells that come as the spring turns into summer. Purslane doesn't ask for much - hence, it's now naturalized state - so it isn't using valuable nutrients that other garden crops might need. The seeds are viable in the soil for about five years, so it's also bound to rebound even after a heavy harvest. It's so

Popcorn Seedlings Up!

As a self-confessed vegetable geek , my excitement (and little dance) at the sight of my popcorn seedlings will be most understandable. Popcorn is easily one of my favorite foods. It's also a little bit difficult to get here in Japan. I don't believe in microwave popcorn - too much other stuff in there plus the assorted health issues even with the organic types - to the same degree that I believe the air popper a prime example of human folly. I've grown my own at home in Michigan, and loved it. Our last year there I grew three different varieties - an heirloom from Project Grow , a strawberry cob from Seed Savers Exchange , and Tom Thumb from Johnny's - which blended beautifully on the cob. This year I'm growing Dakota Black Popcorn from Seeds of Change , which should produce lovely dark kernels. As always, fingers crossed that all goes well...

Something Stinks: Cow Manure as Alternative Energy Source

My initial reaction to the New York Times article about cow manure as an alternative energy source for large data centers is mixed. While I love the idea of looking for sources of alternative energy, I am suspicious that this idea of biogas generators will really only benefit large operations. Small dairy farmers may find it difficult to nigh on impossible to pay for another huge chunk of machinery that runs (based on 2004 prices from a Wisconsin Biogas Initiative Presentation ) $738/per cow. Meaning that if I'm a small dairy farmer with say, 200 cows, it's going to cost me $147,600 for the machinery. Good grief. For an industry already in trouble and with a decreasing number of farms, this does not seem like a very practical answer unless you build your own . Here's what I see that I don't like. 1. Large buildings taking up enormous amounts of fertile growing space. Farmers already have trouble keeping a farm going that is nearly buckling under the weight of loan

Yuzu in Bloom

The other day at the farm I smelled something. Everything is in some state of bloom at the moment, so finding the source was a bit challenging. And then I noticed it. The yuzu bush - just over 180 cm tall - next to the greenhouse was chock full of blossoms. Small white flowers that pack a punch even before they turn into those tangy yellow citrus with a flavor unique to Japan caught not only my attention but also that of a roaming bee. I like to think this little guy is helping make the next batch of marmalade . Apparently, the farmers and I aren't the only ones out working on these sunny days!

Back Alley Dining in Tokyo, circa 1980

As part of the 2010 Blogathon participants do a post swap. Dana Dugan, who blogs at Chick with a View , and I traded posts about traveling in Japan. Here Dana remembers a night of exotic dining in Tokyo. My post about a recent walking tour of the Yanaka area of Tokyo can be found at her blog. Enjoy! I have never played Go; an ancient board game invented in China but considered the national game of Japan. But once when in Tokyo, I had dinner with a man, known to me as Ito-San, who was the head of foreign relations for the game, and the director of the biggest Go parlor in the world. Or so I was told. I was in my early 20s, and on the tail end of a six-month long round-the-world trip. I was traveling alone and along the way I would meet various people who’d invite me to visit them, or stay with them. In China, I met a guy named Murph. We were on the same tour. In the early days of China’s borders being opened at last, being on a tour was the only way a foreigner could

Wild Times at the UN University Night Market

Living in one of the world's major cities the options for a Saturday night are endless. Everything from a super high-end restaurant in Omotesando to karaoke around the corner from our apartment to bowling: truly, the world is our oyster here. Yet, for a vegetable geek like me my wild plans for this Saturday didn't include a fancy meal or busting out a personal best of Journey's Don't Stop Believin'. Instead, I opted to spend my evening checking out the wares at the United Nations University Night Farmer's Market . Many of the same vendors we met during our first visit were on hand with their tasty wares from all parts of Japan greeting visitors with samples of jams and beautiful displays of assorted spring vegetables. A live band played for stall cruisers like us and those settled in at impromptu cafe tables with food dished up a small handful of organic and whole food vendors. We'd already eaten, but after sampling the Nagano Purple and Py

Sidewalk as Eden: The Gardens of Yanaka

We decided to do a little urban hiking on Sunday, and struck out to an area of Tokyo called Yanaka. A ridge once marking the edge of Edo Period Tokyo, Yanaka now sits in the midst of the urban sprawl. Famous then as a place to come and watch snow fall or for viewing Fuji ( still possible but just barely with continued high-rise development ) Yanaka still offers glimpses and flavors of an older Tokyo. Narrow streets dotted with old wooden-sided houses, restaurants, shops, temples and shrines are all there for the wanderer to discover. I'll describe the hike at more length in a later post, but I will share what I found to be one of the best parts of the hike: the gardens. Blooms and greenery spilled forth with abandon from flowerpots large and small, hanging and standing, plastic bags, old Styrofoam containers, and defunct miso pots. Vines clambered up buildings and burst through gaps in garden walls. Branches of ancient geraniums blushed pink with petals next to potte

Yasai Otaku

That, I would say, sums me up. R coined the phrase (yasai is the Japanese word for vegetables, and otaku means geek) when he came home and opened the vegetable drawer of our refrigerator. When we left home this afternoon it was essentially empty, and we were lamenting the fact that since the garden is in transition at the moment there isn't much to harvest. Now, as you can see it's full near to bursting with some kale, beet greens, arugula, and two heads of lettuce from the garden, along with a bag each of spinach and komatsuna from one of the nearby vegetable stands . On top of all of this (literally) is a hefty bundle of kabu in the lower left corner of the closer photograph (white turnips) that have a purple tinge to them. They look too delicious to pass by, right?

Green Leaves in the Tambo

My tambo may not be nestled riverside in the mountains and it may not be big (ok, it's miniscule), but I adore it. I think this might be one of the most interesting things I've done yet. The little sprouts are getting taller everyday and are as green as grass. (Well, they are grass, but that's besides the point.) I need to wait until they have two or three leaves total before moving them to the next stage - a larger pot - and their continued progress. I can't wait to eat my four ounces of rice!

Hiking Mitsutoge

( Fourth in a series about do-it-yourself eco-tourism!) Yamanashi Prefecture and the Fuji Five Lakes Area are prime hiking ground. Mount Fuji is there for the taking (or viewing from other hikes if it's not open), and the nearby hills and mountains are covered with trails for any skill level. (Some hikes are even guided !) The Hike Perfect weather - blue skies with warm temperatures - was predicted for our second day, so we decided to head out for a hike. Our hostel provided us with a simple map for a hike that would take us the better part of a day, and to a number of great Fuji viewing sites. We were hopeful to get some great photos based on the weather forecast and clear views. (Hopeful is the key word.) Hardy souls that we are we started from the bottom of the ropeway (cable car) and walked to the top. After getting slightly lost, a kindly older gentlemen set us on the right course - stick to the path to the right and then grab the trail as it heads almmo