Saturday, December 22, 2007

Twisting Straw

Last weekend I had a chance to visit Mukugawa (椋川), a village located about an hour north of Kyoto in Shiga prefecture. I found the area where Mukugawa is located on the internet, and was taken there by a professor from Shiga University whom I had contacted. This professor has been doing fieldwork in Mukugawa since 2005, much of which has focused on reviving past techniques of farming, forestry, and daily life. He began visiting Mukugawa because he had read that the villagers practiced burning of local hillsides up until the 1960’s. This initial interest grew into explorations of a variety of activities including charcoal-making, silviculture, and ox-drawn plowing. It also led him to develop a friendship with a young forester who lives in the village with his wife and three children, and who has also taken an interest in reviving various lifestyle techniques.

On December 16th, the Sunday I was in Mukugawa, several men of the village spent the morning making shimenawa (しめ縄 ) from rice straw. The word shimenawa is made up of the verb “shimeru”, which means to close, and the noun “nawa”, which means rope. So, its literal meaning is “rope to close”. Shimenawa are hung at Shinto shrines to designate sacred spaces. The men of the village make shimenawa by twisting strands of rice straw together in the palm of their hands. After a huge amount of coaching I was also able to twist very small ropes. Other village men worked on wooden “machines”, using an ancient technique for weaving mats of rice straw, to be used for visiting the shrine on New Years day. Watching these men was absolutely amazing; they are all very skilled in their crafts. At the same time it was somewhat disheartening to look out on a room of men, whose average age was probably around 65, practice their dying art. There were very few children present.

As the men continued to roll straw in their big, gnarled hands, the women of the village skittered about in the background, keeping rice wine warm and preparing food. From another room I heard a dull pounding and soon a voice called out for someone to help with mochitsuki (餅つき)—pounding mochi rice. A couple of us moved down the hall to where the mochi was being made. I had participated in making mochi once before this, with my wife’s family, but we had used a machine. I had also once, on a small street in Kyoto, seen mochi being made the traditional way, with a wooden pestle and a large wooden mallet, and had wanted to try it ever since. Mochitsuki is a two person job: one person works the mallet, pounding at a slow, steady pace, while a second person darts their wet hands into the pestle between mallet swings to turn the rice. A mochi-ized hand seems always a second away, yet I’ve never heard of such a thing. Still, when my turn came to swing the wooden mallet I was caught by a mixture of excitement and fear—I didn’t want to be the first to obliterate a hand through an overly eager mallet swing. Happy to say my swinging was fine, and after a brief correction in technique from the village head I was making mochi like a pro.

After the pounding, while the mochi was still gooey and steaming hot, leafless tree branches were brought into the hall and the women began attaching small clumps of white and red rice, creating the illusion of flower buds; a prayer for spring, warmth, and life.

In the afternoon we moved to our guest’s house to rest a bit before a drinking party to be held that night. He showed me photos of a variety of activities that, by his own admission, he has often prodded the villagers into once again trying. These included making charcoal, tofu, tea, and miso paste, as well as fishing for river eels and burning hillsides. I also saw pictures of the making of what was described to me as “the first sushi”, which I would later have a chance to sample. The technique consisted of gutting mackerel and stuffing them with salted rice and then placing them in buckets and weighting them with large stones; after five months of fermentation, the “sushi” is ready. Again, I felt a sense of awe at the skill of the villager’s craft, though wondered what would become of it all.

At around six we returned to the village center for a drinking party with everyone who had participated in the morning’s activities, as well as a few extras. I’ve been to many drinking parties in Japan, but this one was special: everything was made by hand and had a wonderful roughness to it that I had never experienced before. The men and women were separated, with the women seated close to the kitchen and the children. The food was nabe, which is essentially a hotpot into which is placed vegetables, tofu, meat, and various other delicious things. Everyone draws what they want from the nabe and adds it to a mixture of citrus juice and soy sauce—very tasty. Many of the men were also snacking on raw chicken, which I’ve eaten in Japan before, but didn’t have the stomach for that day. As always there was an ample amount of beer, sake, and Korean shochu to keep every jovial and getting jovial-er. As the night progressed I spotted pairs of men across the room jabbing one another and looking my way, building their courage to move in my direction and try their hand at chatting with the foreigner. Because Mukugawa is located in the far northwestern corner of Shiga prefecture, the people speak an odd blend of the Kyoto/Shiga dialect and a dialect prevalent in Fukui prefecture, which probably means little to most reading this, but means near incomprehensibility for an anthropologist who struggles with standard Japanese. Still, as the night wore on we were all able to communicate, as is always the case, in drunkenese, the universal language of friendship.

Upon returning to our host’s home, the professor and I were treated to homemade white rice wine, which has a flavor reminiscent of yogurt. We also enjoyed deer meat cooked with garlic, small fish in a sweet sauce, and the fermented mackerel sushi I mentioned earlier. I must say, though I usually dislike mackerel, I was quite enamored with the fermented sushi—nice, sour taste that went well with the strong yogurty rice wine. The night wore on into less formal language, funnier stories, and mild arguments. Bed time was welcomed and I slept very comfortable on a futon waiting for me in the next room.

Mukugawa may become my fieldwork site, but I am still hoping that things will work out for me to go to Nagano. It’s looking positive. However, my mind has been turned recently to the end of the year, which is always a big deal in Japan. Still have to get the house clean. I’ll have to write next time about my thoughts on 2007. Wasn’t too impressed with the year. Hopefully the year of the rat will be better.

Anyway, here’s to Mukugawa. . .

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


I was going to begin by apologizing for not having posted in a while, but realized that there is no one on the other side of this computer screen waiting in anticipation for the next exciting installment of the Sardonic twenty-something Graduate Student. "Oh I love when he makes vague references to theoretical concepts. . .it's da bomb" (my years of isolation from the world 'out there' allow me to continue using 'da bomb' (and my academic superiority allows me to use both 'quotations' and (parentheses) within parentheses))--check out the double parentheses. . .woo woo.

I have Japan news, but I'm going to start first with an album recommendation. . .well, half an album, because I've been meaning to write about it for a while now. Again, my existence inside the confines of a tiny office almost certainly ensures that most reading this already know of this album, but here goes. Raising Sand is the album's name, it's by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. You can hear songs on the All Songs Considered website. I say I recommend half of the album because there are quite a few songs I don't like. But, songs like "Please Read the Letter", "Polly Come Home", "Killing the Blues", and "Through the Morning, Through the Night" are really well done and the mix of Plant's and Krauss' voices is amazing. T-Bone Burnett produced the album and you can hear his influence. Anyway, give a listen.

Now to Japan. The photos above are from Arashiyama 嵐山, which is a famous part of Kyoto. The wifey and I went. . .what, couple of weeks ago now? Sounds right. Even though it was late in the year, the leaves were really amazing. Just one of the many benefits brought to us all by global warming. Nobel Peace Prize my ass, Mr. Gore. Can't wait to work on my tan next summer.

Late in the year. Yes, it is almost that time of year. In Japan it's not so much Christmas, but New Years, that is important. "Nen matsu" (年末), literally "year's end", is a general word for the season. Basically it's a time when everyone in Japan reviews the past year and prepares for the coming one. The same thing occurs in the U.S., but not in the same way. Already I've been seeing TV shows that recount the songs that were popular in the previous year (and they go ahead and do it for the last 20 or 30 years as well), and shows that sum up major news stories and such--all very nostalgic--"Ah February, that was a good time". I don't know, perhaps it is the same in the U.S., I'm just used to it. Nah, there's something different.

Another big part of the "nen matsu" season is the unveiling of the year's kanji, or chinese character. This year's was 偽, "gi" or "itsuwari", which means falsehood or fake. The character was chosen because Japan has been bombarded this year by companies lying, mainly relating to expired foods. There have been several stories of different companies reusing food that was past its expiration food. . .yum.

"Nen matsu", unfortunately, also means 大掃除 "oosouji", the BIG CLEAN. All of us here in Japan MUST, and I do mean MUST, clean the living hell outta our houses, cars, offices, et cetera, so that we can start the year off "clean". Gotta get new toothbrushes too. I must say, as long as no one tells my wife, that though I HATE this custom, it is nice to have a clean house to begin the New Year. In this respect, Japan is definitely different from the U.S. While people in Japan begin the New Year clean and with the chance for new possibilities, those in the U.S. tend to begin the New Year with a hangover, a new friend (or two) in bed with them, and resolutions that have already been broken (often repeatedly). Ah, but there's dignity in the American way too. . .well, I wouldn't go that far, but makes for better stories.

The other good news from the Japan front is that I heard from the village office in Otaki today and they seem quite excited about the prospect of me doing fieldwork there. So, I'm pretty official now. Still gotta see if the "real people", on the ground, are going to be as receiving, but hopefully they will be. Apparently the village owns about 70 homes, perhaps due to outmigration, so I'll be able to get a place to live through the village office. I'm sure it will be a bit more primitive that where I am living now, but I'm looking forward to that. The wifey. . .another matter, but sounds like she's game for the adventure (which will probably last a month). Anyway, looking forward to it.

Okay, that's the "nen matsu" blog entry. My eyes are going goo goo goo right now, so I'd better get off the computer.