Monday, May 31, 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 field more of these nodules will also anchor the plant to the soil. The plants require little to grow except a somewhat sandy medium, plenty of sunlight, and regular watering as they mature. No additional compost is needed to get a good hearty crop, which makes it easy to understand the historic popularity of growing this tuber.

Laid parallel to the hilled rows Takashi-san prepared earlier in the week, the slip is pushed gently down into the soil in a bow shape. This ensures that the nodules are spread somewhat evenly along the row, but not too deeply that their growth will be inhibited. The leaves, of course, remain above ground happily awaiting sunshine and water. Come autumn the entire field will be overrun with green leafy vines that nourish those tasty tubers and self-mulch the area, as well. (I'm drooling already at the thought.)

Sunday, May 30, 2010

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 took a little tinkering to get it just right. (The year before they'd watered the whole field by hand.) Surprisingly, sweet potatoes only need water to happily grow. No additional manure or compost. Another reason to adore vegetables!

I'll be posting photos of the day's activities a bit later to share the process. I'm looking forward to getting my hands dirty this morning!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

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 Practical Guide for the UK and Ireland by Barbara Jones, 2010. (Revised and updated, paperback.)

More Straw Bale Building: A Complete Guide to Designing and Building with Straw by Chris Magwood and Peter Mack, 2005.

Serious Straw Bale: A Home Construction Guide for All Climates by Paul Lacinski and Michael Bergeron, 2000.

*The Straw Bale House by Bill and Athena Steen and David Bainbridge, 1994.

Small Strawbale: Natural Homes, Projects and Designs by Bill and Athena Steen and Wayne Bingham, 2005.

*Strawbale Home Plans by Wayne Bingham and Colleen Smith, 2007.

The Hand Sculpted House: A Practical and Philosophical Guide to Building a Cob Cottage by Ianto Evans, Michael G. Smith, and Deanne Bednar, 2002.

A Pattern Language: Towns, Building, Construction by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein, 1977.

Friday, May 28, 2010

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 jumped through during the process was very helpful as we started jumping through hoops of our own.

Building with Awareness: The Construction of a Hybrid Home DVD and Guidebook by Ted Owens, 2006.
We watched this DVD maybe a dozen times and glanced through the guidebook regularly, as well. I purchased this shortly after reading the Steen books, and it was very useful during the entire process. It was also the first place I saw Stefan Bell, although I didn't know he was in Hokkaido until nearly two years later.

Design of Straw Bale Buildings: The State of the Art by Bruce King, 2006.
An invaluable resource that was referenced MANY times during the planning and building process. One of the authors in this book is Kelly Lerner, and she provided a lot of helpful information during the planning process. We went to one of her workshops in Winthrop, Washington, as well.

House Thinking: A Room-by-Room Look at How We Live by Winnifred Gallagher, 2006.
This book was extremely valuable during the design and layout phase of Square One. It was good to see what rooms we love, why we love them so much, and then plan accordingly. A great book that I'm glad I stumbled upon...after reading the next one in the list!

The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions by Winnifred Gallagher, 2007.
I read this book as we were thinking of moving back to Hokkaido from Seattle. It helped us make that big decision to settle in Higashikawa. A wonderful read that also influenced the layout of Square One.

Strawbale Home Plans by Wayne Bingham and Colleen Smith, 2007.
We referenced this book often during the planning process as we were figuring out what type of house we wanted Square One to become.

The Natural Plaster Book: Earth, Lime, and Gypsum Plasters for Natural Homes (Natural Building Series) by Cedar Rose Guelberth, Dan Chiras, and Deanne Bednar, 2002.
A late purchase, but over these last couple of months it has proven to be incredibly valuable as we prepare for the final coat on the outside of our walls to protect them from the nasty wind driven rain for decades to come.

Earthbag Building: The Tools, Tricks, and Techniques (Natural Building Series) by Kaki Hunter
I met Kaki and her husband, Doni, at an SEI "Natural Building" workshop in Colorado. Their speciality is earthbag building, which also involves plastering and natural building as a whole. We've referenced their book many times during this whole process. We're giving serious thought to using Earthbags for our carport/storage shed.

The Great Neighborhood Book: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Placemaking by Jay Walljasper and Project for Public Spaces, 2007.
A book we purchased a long time ago and are still working our way through. It focuses on community and neighborhood building, which is something we are very much looking forward to spending more time on once we truly get settled. The community concept of Green Village, where Square One is located, was integral to our decision to build in this very sustainable location.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

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 involvement that occurred, and the community connections constantly that were made. Did you expect or even suspect how much it would come to be about community? What do you think makes a project like this attractive to people and draws them together?

TW: Was I surprised? Not really. Why? Because we had participated in workshops in North America and found similar responses. People are attracted to projects like this for many reasons, but the majority come because they are interested in the concept.

What is the concept? For some, it's straw bale itself. Others are interested in the eco-friendly aspect of the work, while some are drawn to the hands-on, do-it-yourself aspect of this kind of work. To keep them all coming back, we tried to make sure everyone was getting what they expected. For most participants, that was an education. Others came because they are friends or family and wanted to help. A few people were neighbors that, I believe, wanted to get our new relationship off to a nice start.

We really needed to get our house built in small windows of nice weather, but we also tried our best to make the workshops as enjoyable and educational as possible. The potlucks were great for this as were a few other after-workshop events.

PH: How would you describe the community reaction to the house?

TW: The reaction has been very positive. We haven't had an offical house warming yet, so all the uwasa (rumors) we hear are just about what the house looks like from the outside. So far, it's all been positive about how beautiful it is. Aesthetics were very important to us, but not the most important thing; however, having it turn out so beautiful was a big, big plus for us!!

The owls* weren't planned, but were a pleasant surprise and great for the kids in the area. Because of them, our house is a favorite stop of many neighborhood children. I think we get more kids walking or driving by with their parents because of them. ;)

*Toby and Maiko's builders carved three owls for Square One. One sits in the eaves above their deck, and the other two are on the front corners of their property greeting guests and passersby. The word fuko in Japanese means happiness, and so the owl, fukuoru is a cultural symbol of happiness and family. Known also as kotan koro kamui or village guardian by the Ainu, the native people of Hokkaido, they also offer a sense of protection and safety.

PH: Looking back, what is an unexpected benefit of the project?

TW: I think the most unexpected benefits will roll in as we get more settled. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any unexpected benefits except for the reaction and traffic from the blog. I am always impressed with the power of the internet, but wasn't personnally touched by it until now. Some of the workshop participants found out about us from the blog. One even came from as far away as Osaka. We've also received interest - blog followers and fans - from far away places. Frederica from Italy even did a college project on our house.

PH: I have to say that one of the things I found inspiring is how upbeat you both always sounded even when hinting at tension and stress. How did you do that? Was it really important to the two of you to always keep a positive outlook?

TW: Yes, there were some really stressful times and Square One was not built without tears...mostly mine. Because of the traffic on the blog and my desire to keep my family in the loop as much as possible, I really focused on getting a post out every day no matter what my state of mind was. Putting words down helped keep me positive as there were some seriously difficult times during the build. Instead of writing about the negative stuff, I chose to keep it positive and get the house built with as little stress and tension as possible.

Some of the posts did show stress, and I think it is important to remember that building a house is challenging and you need to be prepared. Those who read the whole blog though, will see that all the positive stuff far outweighs any negatives. In other words the rewards were very, very worth the stressful times. :)

I remember one evening I was particularly upset and went for a walk to clear my head. I walked for about an hour before returning home much more positive and focused. I think I even did a blog post right after that walk. Getting fresh air, going for a walk and clearing the head is always good medicine. I look forward to doing that in the future, but always coming back to Square One more refreshed and positive. ;)

Thinking about your question, remembering those stressful moments and seeing the name of our house again, I want to add something else. I think this philosophy - focusing on the positive and moving forward - can be used in life, too. There are always going to be bumps in the road, and you can either address them, let them stop you in your tracks, or totally ignore them and try to act like they aren't happening. By acknowledging them in a positive manner, you can have a much smoother drive down the road.

PH: What made your project different than other more conventional house-building projects?

TW: It was very hands-on by us, the owners, and other normal folks. It has more of a personal touch than any conventional house. When we walk around our house, I usually have a story for everything someone points out. I don't think anyone has that personal of a touch with conventional building.

PH: It struck me as well that those working for you were also working with you. How would you characterize your relationship with these folks? How do you think that impacts the project and the process?

TW: It makes the project more personal, and it probably makes those people feel a little more responsible for the end result. I would consider everyone who worked on the project and helped us build this amazing house of straw and mud our friends!

PH: If you had it to do again, would you do anything differently?

TW: Yes, and I think anyone who honestly answers this question would say the same. I believe every project like this is going to have its challenges and ours was no different. However, I also believe the challenges were a necessary yin to go with the yang.

PH: What advice would you give to someone embarking on a similar project?

TW: I'd say two main things. One, do not let the nay-sayers get you down. Stay focused, stick to the facts, and don't let anyone rain on your parade.

Two, I would highly recommend connecting to a network of professionals to get their advice on things during the designing and planning stage as well as during the build. If you are limited to one or two people, you might not be getting the full array of options. For example, we were introduced to a Yahoo! group on straw bale construction. Through them I've received some amazing feedback on what to do for the final coat on the house. Many recommended what we are doing, and that gave us great peace of mind.

Tomorrow I'll share Toby's list of favorite resources that guided he and Maiko through the project. For up to the moment information on Square One, check out their blog, and read the first and second installments of my interview with Toby to get the perspective of one straw bale build in Japan.

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.

Yet, there are organizations such as Slow Design Research Group (Japanese website here), the Straw Bale Project, and the Japan Straw Bale Association actively working with consumers to create straw bale interiors as well as structures. Viewed as something of a novelty, the appeal of this sustainable building material is undeniable. The beauty of the finished product is another added benefit that often is the first attractor for interested parties.

While our discussion in this section is a bit brief (Toby is giving some thought to puting his reflections into a larger tome of his own and didn't want to give it all away in one fell swoop) it offers a fascinating glimpse of the process. Here we discuss what he sees as the future of straw bale in Japan, and some of the challenges he and Maiko experienced during the construction of Square One.

*Thanks to Kyle Holzheuter for his insight on straw bale in Japan. Check out his blog to get an idea of what's happening here with this new (yet old?) concept, and look for a more in-depth piece on it in the near future.

PH: What has been the reaction of people as they learn the house is straw bale and the philosophy behind it?

TW: Most people are impressed and surprised. At first blush, most of them think it's a way to stay warm in the winter, but it's much more than that which is something we're still educating people about. Other than that, almost everyone is very impressed, because they know how much work it was for us.

I believe many, if not most, straw bale homes in America are even more hands-on by the owners. For six months, Maiko and I didn't have any holidays, often worked on the house before and after our main work for the week, and then late into the evening on plans and discussions. I believe most projects like this in North America have at least one person on site at all times. However, I think anything even close to what we were doing is extremely unusual in Japan. it was a very complicated route we chose to get to Square One, but I believe it was the best for our situation.

PH: Were there any challenges or benefits you found that might be peculiar to Japan? I'm thinking here of the post where you mention the saying, "The nail that sticks out gets pounded back in." in the days of working out the permit process. It struck me that there may have been many moments along the way like this - both good and bad - and that it might be interesting for someone thinking of embarking on a similar project to hear about that in a little more detail.

TW: Yes, we had challenges and benefits peculiar to Japan. I think this is very interesting indeed, and was constantly reminded throughout the whole process how "interesting" it was. One thing I will tell you was that it was particularly challenging to have my main builders be Japanese and my natural builder be a foreigner whose years of straw bale experience were in America. We were often stuck in the middle of these two building cultures.

PH: Why do you think straw bale has not caught on more in Japan. Rice straw is everywhere, and it seems like a great choice that would be sustainable.

TW: It's going to take a long time for this to go mainstream in Japan. It seems that only recently has the "My Bag" concept - taking a reusable shopping bag to the store each time - taken hold, and that is super easy.

House building is a big industry in Japan, especially up here in Hokkaido. And Japanese culture is more about hiring people to do things for you rather than doing it yourself. But there will always be people who choose to go against the grain, and with knowledge and awareness, I believe straw bale will become more popular over time.

Read the first part of my discussion with Toby about Square One, and take a look at his blog to get the latest on his straw bale adventures in Hokkaido. Tomorrow I'll share the third part of the interview, The View from Square One, where Toby reflects on the project as a whole and the community that formed around it.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

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:

Part One: Sum and Substance of Square One

A two-story post and beam straw bale home just outside Asahikawa, Japan, Square One is the culmination of Toby and Maiko's desire to take advantage of their amazing location in the most sustainable way possible. In this first part, Toby talks about how they settled on straw bale, Hokkaido, and the name for their new home.

PH: You both seemed so passionate about straw bale from the start. I'm curious to know what really appealed to you about this technique versus other eco-friendly styles of construction, i.e. recycled materials, etc?

TW: Location was the most important thing for us from the beginning. After we got the property, then we started to talk about what we'd build on it. Originally, I thought about a log cabin because of it's natural feel, and because my good friend, Sakai-san, is a very well-respected log-builder here and throughout Japan.

Over the past ten years Maiko and I were exposed to a variety of sustainable lifestyles and we were becoming greener every day. In Seattle, we lived car-free for many years, and this us introduced to many other eco ideas. A friend of ours, Gabriel Scheer, then loaned me two books on straw bale building. They sat on our coffee table until one morning when I just couldn't get back to sleep. I woke up and started reading. After the first twenty pages or so I brewed a pot of coffee and spent the next three hours going cover to cover. When Maiko woke up I had finished the first book and was jumping into the second. I then told her we were building a straw bale house. As you might think, she took a little longer to come around to the idea. However, after we participated in a workshop in Winthrop, Washington she was sold big time on the idea.

Straw bale IS a recycled material, and in my opinion is the best material for this climate. It would keep us warm in the winter and cooler in the summer - not that it gets real hot up here anyway. It was readily available - from our neighbor's farm across the street for free - and the final product is truly beautiful when you look at it from an aesthetic point of view.

We visited a number of straw bale houses and saw many pictures of many straw bale homes. One, they were very beautiful inside and out. Two, the atmosphere inside a straw bale house is particularly unique. It's very quiet (straw bale insulates against sound as well as cold and heat) and just feels incredibly natural. Of course, the latter is because it is indeed very natural, but I think it goes beyond that. It's so easy to just relax in a straw bale house because you can almost feel the walls breathing. It's truly hard to explain, but I hope you understand more when you come visit!

We also used many other recycled, reused, and sustainable materials in the building. Many beams are recycled (some 100 plus years old), and we strove to find local timber, natural materials, and an assortment of recycled goods including much of the furniture to fit our goal.

PH: How and why did you and Maiko choose Hokkaido?

TW: Maiko is from Asahikawa, Hokkaido, and I lived in Fukagawa, Hokkaido (30 minutes southwest of Asahikawa) for three years. We had a good lifestyle and alot of good friends and family in Seattle, but something was missing. When my mom passed away it was hard on both of us. Maiko and my mom were close. It was a dark place for awhile, but it was also a blessing. When we came out of that dark tunnel the light was not only brighter, but we could see a lot clearer. We realized together that we wanted to live in Hokkaido. Fifteen years ago I dreamed of living in Higashikawa (as close to Asahidake as possible), which is why I worked in Fukagawa for three years. That dream, as well as many others, came true. :)

PH: What did you read to prepare for the project and inspire yourselves?

TW: It's a long list of books, blogs, workshops, and people, and much of the stuff is still in boxes. Bill and Athena Steen's books got us started, though. After that we started looking at everything and anything we could get our hands on.

PH: Did this cost more than a usual house-building project? If you don't mind my asking, what was the overall budget?

TW: Yes. Honestly, there wasn't really a budget per say. We had a ballpark figure that we wanted to stay near (roughly US$330,000) and we went a little over that. We had enough stress over the course of this project without constantly nickle-and-diming ourselves. However, we found places every day to make it less expensive. In the end, we have no regrets regarding the cost of the project as we have an amazingly beautiful house that we love!!!

PH: Can you give me an example of places where you could have cut corners but chose not to as well as where you chose to save?

TW: One example of where we could have cut corners is labor. Stefan, our natural builder, did a lot of work on the house that we could have hired done at probably a third of his hourly rate. We also could have done much of the final plastering ourselves or with more friends, family and workshops rather than hiring a local plaster company. In both cases, we decided against cutting corners in the interest of time (winter was coming fast!) and because we wanted a durable, high quality finish.

We also could have ordered timber logs from America or Canada for a lower price than those we got from Yamagata-ken. We chose to go with local and reused logs to cut down on the embodied energy of our house.

On the flip side, we also could have spent more on labor and materials. We could have flown professionals over to be with us during the project. Instead, we decided to trust who we had locally and what destiny seemed to choose for us. We also used a wholesale method to get many of our materials at about a third of the cost.

PH: What's the lifespan of a straw bale house?

TW: For as long as we want. With care, there is no reason why it won't last many lifetimes. The tosashikkui lime plaster we are looking to put on the walls are used in buildings in Kochi Prefecture that are over 600 years old. With TLC (like any other building) a straw bale house should last forever.

PH: Why do you think most people build straw bale houses?

TW: One, because they can do it themselves. Two, because they could then save alot of money and forgo a mortgage. Three, it's an eco-friendly material.

PH: What's the ultimate goal or objective of your home and what role does building it in this way play?

TW: To be sustainable now and for the rest of our lives. As I mentioned earlier, location was the most important factor. We have just about everything we need - shops, bank, post office, town hall, good ramen, and a good izakaya - within a one kilometer walk. We are two blocks from the last bus stop in town, and two blocks from a cycling road that takes us either into the mountains or back into Asahikawa. We are on the edge of town so we have amazing views and can get to the largest national park in all of Japan with just a fifteen minute drive or an hour bike ride.

PH: Why did you call your house Square One?

TW: I wanted a name for our house. I was thinking about it one day while listening to one of Tom Petty's latest CD's, The Highway Companion. (I'm a bit of a fan, by the way.) The song, Square One, started and the lyrics touched home. (No pun intended.) I remembered the first time I heard that song. It was shortly after my mom passed away when watching the movie Elizabethtown, which also helped us cope with the sudden loss in our lives. I didn't want the name of the house to be strictly after a Tom Petty song, but the more I thought about it the more I liked it.

I then did some research on what Square One means to different people, and I liked what I found. For us, it's a place to go back to and refresh. Whether we go to work, the outdoors, another country or whatever, we will ALWAYS come back to Square One to refresh and be home. Square One is where we belong and where we will stay!

Learn more about Toby and Maiko's adventures in straw bale and Hokkaido at their blog. Interior photos can be found here, and more photos of the construction process can be found here and by perusing their blog. Check back here tomorrow for the next part of the interview: Straw Bale in Japan!

(Completed house photo courtesy of Toby and Maiko Weymiller.)

Monday, May 24, 2010

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.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

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 ridiculously good for you and tasty that it seems like a no-brainer to eat it. (Not to mention I didn't have to do anything to encourage it's growth.) If I feel it's getting a bit out of control I harvest a big bundle and take it home to add - stems and all - to salad. One grower made what sounds like a fantastic stew from a good round of weeding.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

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...

Friday, May 21, 2010

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 loans for machinery (ahem!), high taxes on land viewed as more valuable if it's NOT growing food for your table, and an industry that supports monoculture using chemical fertilizers and pesticides that are backfiring left and right despite warnings from scientists.

2. A plan for an alternative energy source that really misses the mark. The article sites India and Texas as great places for this technology to develop. For heaven's sake, did anyone ever notice the freakin' sun? The wind? How about technology for energy that would actually be useful for everyone over the long term?

3. An idea that will only benefit the large operation. Ok, I love farming, but those big operations are not my cup of tea. It's not that I think every large scale farmer is inherently evil, mean to their animals, or doesn't care about their land. Not at all. What I find annoying is that small farmers will once again be screwed by a system that still sees bigger as better despite signals from consumers and scientists that smaller (and organic) is feasible for farmers and local economies, and even, dare I say it, ideal.

I'm all for alternative energy and think it's more than high time we look for real solutions, but bless their hearts over at HP this idea seems short-sighted at best.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

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!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

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 travel. It was how the government kept track of us foreigners.

Murph was a sports guy who worked for the American Embassy in Tokyo. Upon hearing that I would be there in a few weeks, he invited me to stay with him and his wife and very young children. I arrived there in early-December when it was cool and crisp, and startlingly beautiful. The bones of the gardens at the Imperial Palace were an awesome sight for its grandiosity and simultaneous serenity. The streets were clean. The people were unfailingly polite and the subway system immaculate and effective. Once I left my camera on the subway, realized it and ran back. The train hadn’t left the station yet and the bulky SLR sat on the overhead bin right where I’d left it.

Because of his sports job, Murph was friendly with Ito-San, the “minister” of Go. We met at a bar, and preceded to a Kaiten-zushi, where fresh sushi rotates by customers seated at a bar on a conveyor belt. We took a few plates and then moved on. This was completely new to me but with a little help from Ito-San I was treated to delicious taste treats. The price of the meal is calculated by how many plates the customer has in front of him. Brilliant. Why don’t all restaurants work this way, I wondered?

Ito-San was dashing and polite, as all Japanese seemed to be. My journal records my young impression, “Very nice chap.”

We slipped out of the Kaiten-zushi and walked a block or two before darting into a plain curtained doorway. With so few tables, perhaps six at the most, Murph and his wife were at one table, Ito-San and I at another.

He spoke to me in perfect English and told me everything I was eating. It had been my rule on this journey to eat whatever was given me. It led me into some odd places for sure—fried chicken blood in France, for instance. That night topped it for me, however, with one particular dish of raw meat.

I looked at him suspiciously, “What is this?” I asked.

“Horse. It’s a delicacy.”

Now I have a rule never to eat anything I’d had as a pet, with a name. That includes bunny, dog, cat, horse, mice, squirrel, chipmunk and turtle. I politely turned it down. I did acquiesce have a bite of raw pig, however. Not to my liking, and I have never have repeated that experience.

A few dishes later we again exited by a back curtained door into another alley and into yet another restaurant. This went on for a few hours. From one to another, more sake ensued and a lot more talking. I learned (and promptly) forgot all about the game of Go. Everywhere we went Ito-San was well-known. I never saw money exchange hands. He showed me at one point where to buy an antique kimono, which I did later that week. It is pale pink with a blue obi (belt). I have worn it several times to great affect since.

The next day we got the news that John Lennon was killed on West 72nd Street in New York City. I lived on the same street just two blocks from his home and saw him, Yoko and baby Sean often. It resonated with me but not my hosts who hadn’t lived in the States for some time. Young Japanese people desperately wanted to connect with me. I took the bullet train to Kyoto and met more people I have never seen or heard from again.

It was the other side of the world.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

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 Pyone compotes made by Ito Budo Farm in Nagano (photo of Kazutoshi Ito at left) we just had to have a jar to take home.

The atmosphere remained festive even after the band packed up and the vendors began dismantling their stalls for the night. A number of folks stayed on at the tables despite the chilly spring evening and in spite of a gentle boot from market workers. Even as some of the last boxes were loaded, cups washed, and tables put away in preparation for the next mornings market voices could be heard laughing and chatting. We'll be going again without a doubt.

If you go
United Nations University Night Market
Third Saturday of Each Month
4pm until 8pm
Live music, seasonal vegetables and fruits along with a great variety of homemade edibles and functionals, plus reasonable priced healthy dinner options.
Stations: Omotesando (about a 7 minute walk) or Shibuya (about a 10 minute uphill walk)

Monday, May 17, 2010

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 potted fruit trees and tiny bonsai trees. Lush green leaves of strawberries hid nearly ripe fruit while roses of all types and colors mixed their scent with the honeysuckle. Young eggplant, kaboucha, and cherry tomato plants showed a mildly practical side to this riot of color and scent, as did pots of shiso and sansho. Not to be outdone, here and there an early hydrangea lent a brilliant globe of blue, white, or cranberry pink to the scene.

Perhaps one of the most verdant areas of the city I've found yet, Yanaka residents seem to think it perfectly normal to surround themselves with so much greenery mostly in containers. One woman we spoke to while she was watering her immense sidewalk collection (she refused to call it a garden) said simply that she loved green. Gardens such as hers - filled with plants large and small, young and old, cactus and vegetable, annual and perennial - turned an already pleasant neighborhood into a magical maze that drew us in like bees to a flower. (Let's just say there was so much greenery that I managed to completely deplete the battery on the camera and did nearly the same to the cellphone.)

I'll be posting more about the gardens specifically at Everyday Gardens, and describing the hike in more detail here for those who want to make a trip.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

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?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

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!

Friday, May 14, 2010

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 almmost literally up past a small shrine with a bathroom - and we made our way up to the first viewing spot. No Fuji-san. Clouds had moved in and shrouded the mountain.

We carried on through a relatively young forest showing some of the first signs of spring - little sprouts pushing up through the leaves, and clear signs of ground ruffling. We were both hopeful and fearful that it was either wild boar (the area was temporarily protected) foraging or monkeys looking for snacks. We began second-guessing the salmon onigiri's we'd brought for a snack.

The fairly well-marked trail then took us along a steep hillside and through a beautiful Japanese cedar grove where the floor was still drifted with snow. Clouds periodically showcased the valley below while we sat down for a moment to have our snack. Little spits of snow reminded us we were in the mountains, and so we carried on ever higher and through ever-increasing amounts of snow until we reached the peak only to find Fuji still well-obscured by clouds. Sighing heavily, we began our descent.

The map promised a waterfall - Haha no Shira Falls - on our way, and as we continued down the mountain and the snow lessened we continued to zero in on it. We heard it as we walked through an old cedar grove, and the sound increased as we came to a makeshift stairway. Much of the stream up to this point had been damned and channeled, so we weren't quite sure what to expect. What we did find took our breath away.

Huge cedar trees and shining black angular rocks cut seemed to barely contain the spring meltwater pouring down through the gap. A magnificent cedar gripped the side of the waterfall impossibly positioned just next to the falls and hanging over a small shrine at the bottom. A few of last year's hydrangea blossoms clung to their stems along the side of the stream. It felt old and wonderful. This alone was well worth the trip.

As the sun lowered itself to the horizon our trail flattened and gradually became more civilized. We passed a huge old rambling building that must have been a mill of some kind in the past, but now sat relatively defunct. A massive highway overpass rumbled overhead obscuring the now perfect (of course!) view of Fuji-san. After pausing to take a photo or two our thoughts began turning toward a big bowl of houtou and a trip to the onsen. But as we looked to our right the sunlight filled a silent courtyard filled with some of the biggest trees I've ever seen. Houtou and the onsen would wait.

Sengen shrine is one of the oldest and most magnificent shrines I've seen in Japan yet. The buildings themselves are wonderful - sweeping roofs with enormous hanging eaves - but it is the group of seven cedars that nearly bring the viewer to tears of joy. Huge trunks tied with the blah blah signifying a sacred tree, the cedars rise up and up. One is protected by metal sheeting all up one side from what we presume is an earlier lightning strike. The rest all have lightning rods discreetly tucked in their branches and running the length of their trunks to protect against similar future incidents. We sat for a moment at the foot of these giants soaking in the peace and grace of their presence in the setting sun.

As we rode the Retro Bus (a small bus conveniently making regular rounds of Lake Kawaguchi to its frequent stops) back to the hostel we savored the now spectacular views of Mount Fuji, and the thought of a second bowl of houtou udon. That and a trip to the nearby onsen would warm us through and through, and make a perfect ending to a great little do-it-yourself eco-vacation!

A Few Final Thoughts
Taking an eco-vacation doesn't have to be expensive or difficult. You can make your own like we did. Mass transit - the bus from Shinjuku (remember, no bathroom on board so appropriately dehydrate yourself), bike touring to get a feel for the place and the people, a good hike to explore and take in the magnificent scenery, local food - so tasty you'll need that bike ride and hike, as well as staying somewhere where you can cook your own meals if you hanker for it. Now, get out there, have an adventure or to, and tell me all about it!