Thursday, March 31, 2011

Parsley and Daffodils

Spring continues her steady process of infiltrating everything. The days gradually warm and I can feel the world slowly stretching its limbs as the heat permeates. (That's not a veiled reference to continued aftershocks, although it wouldn't be a bad one now that I think about it.)

Two of my spring favorites are pictured here. Picked last week from just behind the greenhouse by the gate, these daffodils fully opened just yesterday. My favorite spouse plunked the parsley (overwintered nicely, by the way) from the balcony garden in a jar next to them, and like magic, Spring came to the kitchen sink. Doing dishes is almost a pleasant chore now.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fantasy Farm Bike

My bicycle is really a pick-up truck in disguise. In America, we lived in the boonies. We hauled firewood, horse manure, sand, rocks large and small, furniture, recycling, parts for a hoophouse, appliances, other people's stuff, and even the occasional chicken in the back of our little truck. It was one of the most valuable tools we had.

Here in Tokyo, we don't own a car. The city's mass transit system alone connects us to anywhere we would want to go - bus or train - including the venerable shinkansen (bullet train) that will get us nearly anywhere else we might want to wander off to in a mind-boggling short amount of time. For short hops to the store or even slightly longer ones sometimes, we use our mama-chari's (bicycles).

My mama-chari is my best friend. It has a front and back basket, gears, light and a bell. Like the pick-up truck, it's a dirty and dusty little thing. Bits of mud and momigara (rice hulls) thickly coat the tires after a rain, and it tips over in high winds if I don't wedge the handlebars into the crook of a cherry tree near the gate. It's hauled 25-liter bags of compost, chicken manure, and calcium. Not all at once, mind you, but often in groups of four. And I can never go to the garden center and not come home with a plant or two, which hang precariously from a plastic bag on the handlebars. And heaven forbid the kiwi orchard near the garden center has a full stand. I'm surprised I haven't been the rims yet.

So, it feels a little bit like cheating to write about the bike pictured here. We spotted during our recent week in Osaka, and I fell in love. It's a no-nonsense bike perfect for the working woman. The sides fold up on the back platform, which means no flopping out on bumps. Those bags of manure or compost could simply lie flat, and the shovel I got for my birthday would fit perfectly. I've seen other bikes that resemble a garden cart with a bicycle attached to the front that are just as appealing, but I would easily weigh that version down to immobility. This one would most likely keep me somewhat in line with my shopping, and therefore still mobile. Maybe someday...

To see the other bike I mention here visit Engineered Bike Service (E.B.S.), and hop over to this page. Scroll down to see WorkforChild. (You might need to translate the page, but then again just cruise the site. It's amazing!)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Updated Garden Photos

Despite still being on crutches, I've been dying to get my hands in the dirt again. While our balcony garden lies in that mildly chaotic state that happens between seasons, my mind continually wanders down the street, around the corner, and through the gate at the farm. This past Saturday afternoon I corralled some friends to join me there to do a bit of tidying and much-needed harvesting (I'm not kidding when I make those offers of vegetables, people.) I can just hear Spring raising a commotion out there and warming things up in preparation for Summer's grand arrival. It's time for a clean slate once again.

We weeded the beds and harvested the last of the daikon. (The farmers have a wheeled stool I borrowed to toddle about in for our time there.) I'll be making some quick pickles of them with the last of the umetsu, and hopefully whipping up that batch of kimchi I've been talking about for weeks now. (Darn earthquake...) We took down the row covers as all of the greens were essentially lifting them up and off with their exuberant growth anyway. Passersby stopped to watch our progress and to comment that the vegetables were all too big. (There is an optimal size, of course, for vegetables, but I find they still taste fantastic even if their a bit...oversized for the average shopper/eater.) Big handfuls of shungiku, komatsuna, arugula, and a lovely head of broccoli got bagged up and sent home with our laborers. The plants will have to come out sooner rather than later, and I'm hoping to get them eaten rather than just composting them. (Anyone want some vegetables?)

The kale and swiss chard remain under their covers for the time being. It's getting a bit warm for that, I know, but I'm hoping to protect them as long as possible from marauding bands of cabbage worms. And birds. The latter decimated the leaves of my broccoli plants, although they managed to still produce beautiful heads. In the case of kale, though, I want to eat the leaves. This is my most successful planting yet - big beautiful leaves on robust plants - and I want to savor every last morsel. The birds are on their own.

As mentioned briefly before, the rhubarb and its neighbors are waking up. My mouth virtually waters at the thought of batches of rhubarb butter. I'm considering trying to dry it, although I have no idea if that will work or not. I think it would make a nice addition to our winter oatmeal or maybe even our muesli. (Anyone ever tried that?) A small army of bergamont is emerging (anyone want some seedlings?) and the garlic looks strong and healthy in the west bed. I'm pleased the experiment with non-veneer mulch went so well so far.

And finally, here's a photo of me toodling about on my wheeled-stool. The weather turned chilly and cloudy towards the end of our work party, but it was still good fun. I'm walking a bit more every day, and even starting seeds now. Better late than never, I say, and I should have seedlings to share, too. Let me know if you're interested. I'll see what I can do.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Osaka Farmers Market Post at Summer Tomato

I've become a bit of a farmer's market nut (as well as a yasai otaku) since coming to Japan. Folks told me before arriving here that they didn't exist. (They said the same thing about farms and gardens, too, but luckily it took just a couple of walks and bike rides to knock that misconception out of the park.)

Anyway, I've also been lucky enough to find a few folks interested in reading about my market adventures. Summer Tomato, a food-health-all-around-nifty-blog out of San Francisco, is one of them. Discovered in the course of the 2010 Blogathon, it's become a regular read. I wrote about Tokyo's United Nation's University Market in October (one of a number of markets in the city, by the way); the Dane County Farmer's Market in February, and now Osaka's Odona Market can be added to the list.

P.S. My dearest assistant is working up a video of our visit to the Odona Market, too, so get your popcorn ready!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Back on the Farm in Tokyo

Our week in Osaka drew to a close with a visit to the Odona Farmer's Market on Wednesday evening, and fond farewells to our friends there. (Look for the post at Summer Tomato on Sunday morning, 6am, PST. Check out my posts about the UN University Market in Tokyo and my visit in February to a beloved old haunt, the Dane County Farmers Market.) Our earthquake-nuclear-power-plant free week refreshed us a bit, and I was able to spend some time getting my leg to heal (Let me just say again that the Nintendo Wii Dance Party is a great party game, but I do recommend a good stretch beforehand.) We decided to return to Tokyo because it's our home now, and we missed our friends there. By all accounts (from friends and colleagues), the mood in the city was lightening, and despite the news of radiation in the water we decided to head back.

Our return on Thursday morning was uneventful except for a rather large aftershock (none since for the most part), and we learned that the warnings about drinking water had been lifted. We've also since learned that the drinking water in our little suburb is very safe, and so we feel relieved and lucky. We seem to be getting back into the groove of our lives again, which is a refreshing change from the previous weeks. A little of the routine and the mundane is a good thing.

Our first stop (after coffee, of course) was at the farm. Takashi-san and C-chan fall somewhere between friends and family now, and so we wanted to see them immediately. They'd driven us to the bus station when we left, and it seemed only right to greet them first upon our return. We found them at the farm as usual finishing up the broccoli harvest for the day. We brought them a sample of treats from the farmers market - some shiitake and mochi - and caught up on their week. Shortly after we headed off to the garden to harvest a fresh round of vegetables for ourselves and some friends (anyone else need vegetables?), and see what work needed to be done. I'm sure I'll be saying this again and again, but it certainly feels good to be home.

*The above photo is taken at the farm next to one of the greenhouses. Four early cherries keep watch there, and make a lovely grove for an after lunch nap later in the year. In front of them is the momigara (rice hull) corral, which we spread throughout the year on the fields as a source of carbon. We pick it up each fall from a sake brewery further up the Tamagawa.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Road to Osaka

My most recent posts have not focused on gardening or food much at all. I've been mostly home bound before and after the March 11th quake with a strained Achilles. I've ventured to the farm once since then for a blissful (and mildly painful) few hours only. Instead I'm writing briefly about my experiences here in Japan during this time. I'm writing (somewhat rapidly and badly) for myself, family, and friends to try and capture what I'm seeing, hearing and feeling and subsequently sort through it all. Please bear with me. - Joan

We boarded a night bus to Osaka with mixed feelings last night. Many of our friends are still in Tokyo and are not planning to leave. Their families and homes are there, and they don't feel a need to go. We obviously felt some kind of need, and decided to go with it. Our decision was based on the fact that I'm still on crutches with my strained Achilles and that if people panicked in any way, it wouldn't be easy to maneuver quickly. Getting from the bus to our friend's apartment this morning proved our point. Lots of stairs, long walks between stops, and hard-to-find elevators made for a difficult, tiresome, and lengthy journey. My arms and shoulders are sore even as I type, and I confess that I may not go out again today.

The farmer's drove us to the Shinjuku bus station last night despite fuel concerns. They packed a big bag of onigiri, Japanese omelets, and tsukemono for us in anticipation of empty convenience store shelves. (They were essentially right.) On the way there was little foot or car traffic. Many stores and shops we passed were closed or they had turned their lights down as part of the effort to conserve power as the flow to Tokyo is lessened due to the problems at Fukushima. Some gas stations were closed with signs saying they had no fuel, and others had long lines of cars waiting to top up. Shinjuku itself, normally bustling to the brim with people and lights, was practically empty.

The farmers dropped us off, and it was difficult to say goodbye. We're going back in about a week or so, but I'm worried about them and our friends who remain in the city. I feel guilty for going, but I think it was the right choice for us. I feel guilty for complaining and feeling afraid when I'm warm, dry, and radiation free in comparison to those up north. I feel like I'm navel-gazing and whining, but I'm also nervous and a little afraid. Stepping away to Osaka to catch our breath and gain a little perspective is the right choice for us at this moment. That's what I perhaps need to remember.

While waiting for our bus the Shizouka quake struck, and I felt the blood drain from my face. I felt the first tremor and looked up at our friends. Conversation paused. I wanted to believe it was just a passing bus, but I knew it couldn't be. The station is in the basement of one of Shinjuku's skyscrapers. A mighty big bus is required to shake that thing. Then a stronger tremor came and the floor seemed to move up and down under my feet. I uttered an expletive my mother would not appreciate, and watched as company staff froze in place and lamps overhead swung. We learned upon arrival in Osaka this morning of the subsequent damage and loss.

Now, every sound is an earthquake and I swear I feel the earth or the building I'm in is moving all the time. I imagine I will feel this way for some time. Now, too, I am really not a fan of nuclear power. Things are essentially fine in Tokyo, but there is a low grade tension from continued quakes and the news about the nuclear power plants. We'd not seen any of the panic that we hear of in the media, although the tofu and dairy sections of our grocery store were empty and toilet paper was hard to find. The bakery was nearly sold out, but mostly people seemed to be going about their business, living life. The power cuts have apparently begun since we left, too. Some Japanese friends have sent their children to stay with grandparents, and some friends have flown to their home countries to wait it out. We just came on down to Osaka.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Our Sources for News on Earthquake

I'll get back to gardening and growing shortly, but I also wanted to share the sources we follow for our news about the earthquake. A number of folks at home and elsewhere have asked. (I'm including another plum blossom photo because it's a little thing that gives me great comfort and pleasure at the moment.)

Wild as it may seem, it's proven invaluable. We follow TimeOutTokyo tweets for links, translations of news conferences, and general Tokyo information. I just started following Makiko Itoh yesterday for her outstanding translations and on-top-of-it-all information. Better known as the author of Just Hungry - a blog about Japanese food and culture that I also follow - she's a no-nonsense writer/foodie.

You can also follow me on Twitter (see the column at the right where my Tweets are listed) for the snippets I pass along.

NHK, Japan's primary broadcaster, has an English translation channel that we listen to also.
Al Jazeera easily has some of the best broadcast news, too. CNN (no offense) tends to be a bit inflamatory-scary. Al Jazeera feels quite honest, calm, and objective, which makes even baddish news seem somehow palatable.

Quake Updates
This USGS Site is where we go immediately after a quake occurs to see it's location, magnitude, and time.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Aftershocks and Nuclear Power Plants

My list of posts for this week included topics such as gardening while on crutches, starting seeds, plum blossoms (pictured above), a book review, and a few notable food/gardening moments from our trip to America. Earthquakes, tsunami, nuclear power plants, aftershocks and rolling blackouts never crossed my mind. At least not until last Friday.

While my husband was peering over the edge of the Kandagawa to see what a giant koi might look like, I was at home working on an article for Summer Tomato. My Achilles up on ice and my brain word-smithing away at my memories of the Dane County Farmer's Market, I felt a bit of a tremor. I paused as we'd had a similar one earlier in the week registering somewhere around 7 on the Richter scale. The shaking kept going and seemed to get stronger. I got up and started to make my way on my crutches to our bedroom to get under the desk. The shaking increased, and while part of my brain thought I was overreacting another part thought this was a great idea. Halfway under the desk and the shaking intensified.

Confession time. I totally panicked. Somehow with my crutches I grabbed the bottle of water and dashed outside. (Mistake number one.) Part of me still thought I was overreacting, but I was terrified. Skipping shoes (mistake number two) I dashed down the stairs to the street below. Outside the world rattled and shook all around me. The power poles danced and the lines over my head swayed. The ground under my feet undulated. And it wouldn't stop.

Neighbors stood outside in the street, too, all looking scared like me and all saying "Daijoubu." or "It's ok." Clearly, it was not ok. Neighborhood stray cats dashed about looking for shelter, and my neighbor's cat growled it's displeasure as she held it. I closed my eyes and kept whispering a plea for it to stop.

Upstairs I found our apartment strewn with books, a few jars, and a dish or two. Only two things broke, neither of which we were greatly fond, so it worked out. I donned my shoes, coat, and put on the backpack that contains our earthquake kit. I spent the next few hours waiting for Richard outside, and the time after that in half dashes to get under a table. Aftershocks - some stronger than others - woke us up regularly. I slept in my clothes.

Now, a handful of days later the aftershocks still come (a rather strong one just now), and I continue to do my half dash. Rolling blackouts are scheduled to begin sometime today, and we watch the news of the nuclear power plants up north. Helicopters and planes steadily go north, and I send as much hope and heart with them that I can. My home stands, my loved ones are alive and well, and I am, by comparison, extremely well off. I am grateful.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Tokyo Garden Check-In

After the interview with YokosoNews Sunday afternoon, we headed over to the garden to see what was happening. Last year when we returned from our trip to America, the garden was bursting with leaves ready to eat. This year proved much the same.

Komatsuna, wasabina, karashina (both green and red), arugula, and mizuna are making a concerted effort to lift off the row covers. An older fellow stopped by as we were working ('we' meaning my friends and husband doing my bidding as I hovered over them on crutches) to say they were too big to eat, but we just laughed. The leaves are larger than normal since they stayed in the ground so long, but they still make a great addition to miso or salad.

The garlic is happily sprouting in the west wall bed, and some of the crocus I planted are blooming, too. One rhubarb crown looks like it's more than ready for spring, but the other is nowhere to be seen. I suspect that the long hot summer may have been too much for it. The cabbage and broccoli plants look less than pretty as they've been ravaged by caterpillars. Last year I'd covered them, but this year I didn't. The kale, which I covered shortly before leaving for America, looks good and unsnacked upon. Lesson learned.

Otherwise, everything looked pretty good. There's no shortage of work to be done, and the list I've started compiling in my head is already long. I'm looking forward to it, although I might need some help eating all of our produce. If you're reading this and in the Tokyo area, give me a shout. I've got vegetables to share if you've got the inclination to head over and can lend a hand for moment. I can even offer a recipe or two, too!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Fresh Vegetables at Narita Airport

The last thing I thought I would see when we emerged from Immigration and Customs at Narita Airport on Friday was fresh produce. Packaged tsukemono, a few sembei, and sake would have been par for the course, but fresh eggs? Brilliant salad greens with a bright red radish? Assorted kinds of rice and soy beans? Daikon? No way! These are things I fully expect to see at my neighborhood vegetable stalls, but not at the airport.

Turns out it wasn't a foggy jet-lag dream after all. There they were in their fresh, leafy, gleaming glory. Strawberries, multiple-hued eggs, tomatoes, salad greens, ropey gobo (burdock), satoimo, and more enticed travelers to pick up something fresh for their wait, for the ride home, or as a gift. If we weren't rushing to our bus, and if I hadn't been on crutches and unable to help with our luggage I would have snapped up a handful of things to be supportive and get some good green vegetable juice moving through my veins once more. (We ate extremely well on our trip, but we desperately missed our daily dose of fresh, green vegetables.) Instead, I just snapped a few quick photos and thanked the proprietor for having such a great little store before hobbling off as quick as I could for the next leg of our journey home.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Back in the Garden Again

We are back home in Tokyo after a fantastic month at home in America. Exchanging one wintry landscape for one clearly about to burst into spring feels delightful in a way, but we're already more than homesick for our family and friends. One of the beautiful things international living teaches is that there are amazing people everywhere in the world. It is heartening and humbling to meet people on many continents, in places large and small, urban and rural, that are so wonderful.

It is also, at times, heart-breaking. Farewells are inevitable and the least favorite part of any adventure. The places we have been lucky enough to live and visit - England, Wisconsin, Kazakhstan, Michigan, Illinois, and now Japan - have been brought to life by the people we have met there and shared time with. A part of us remains in those places and a bit of those places also always travels with us.

*Another snapshot of the landscape of my heart: While the accompanying photo is clearly not my best work (notice the reflection of my hand holding the camera), it is a view I've known my whole life. Looking west from my mother's kitchen through the pines to spot the last rays of a glorious sunset is nearly a family past time. When we moved to this house those pines didn't impede the view in the least, and now they provide a contrasting grid-work to the brilliant clouds. It's part of where my inspiration for international adventures began, and where I first learned the pleasures of growing food as well as eating it.