Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Art of Soba 手打ちそば

Last Monday Chizuko and I were invited by a friend, S-san, to try making buckwheat noodles (soba そば, in Japanese) at her home. Soba making is one of several hands-on activities that a group in Otaki is beginning to develop for tourists. So, this time was a kind of trial run, I suppose.

Although soba is eaten throughout Japan, it is particularly popular in Nagano. In Chizuko's hometown of Kyoto, the noodle of choice is udon, which is a white noodle made with regular flour. So, Chizuko isn't a huge fan of soba, and I can't say that I (even though I previously lived in Nagano for two years) ever have been either. Also, since we moved to Otaki, we hadn't really been impressed with any of the soba we tried. Anyway, the soba we were going to make had a long way to go to get any high marks with the two of us (not that we know squat about giving marks to soba).

We arrived at S-san's house at four in the afternoon, as we had previously arranged. As soon as we had parked our car we received a call from S-san, letting us know that she was waiting our arrival; S-san's attention to the needs of others continues to amaze me.

S-san invited us in for a bit of cold tea and also offered us corn that she had picked that day (Otaki corn is some of the best I’ve ever eaten . . . but I’ll have to talk about it in another entry). In the lingering heat of the day, the tea slipped easily down my throat, while beads of sweat rolled down the bottle and onto my hand. A man appeared in the entryway dressed in white and looking very much like a cook. Chizuko and I introduced ourselves. The man (I-san) works for Nagano prefecture as the deputy director of the agricultural department. He is originally from Ida, an area located on the other side of the Kiso Mountains to the east of Otaki. I-san is learning to make soba and has passed the first two or three levels of a five level system for rating skill in soba-making. I had no idea such a system existed and was amazed to learn that such skill was needed in order to make soba.

I finished the last of my tea and we all moved to a small addition with a separate entrance that lies slightly away from the rest of S-san’s house. A small table stood in the middle of a room on the second floor. Bags of flour—soba and regular—lined one wall, with a line of windows that looked out onto green summer hills occupying the opposite side.

I-san began to explain the process for making soba noodles. The ingredients are simple: soba flour, regular flour, and water. The regular flour, he specified, is used as a binding agent, due to the coarseness of soba flour; only the most skilled people, he noted, can make noodles using 100% soba flour. That day we did a five part mixture: four parts soba flour and one part regular. To this we added about 250 ml of water. This is where the art really begins. Too much water and the dough will be too soft to do anything will; too little and it will break apart. In deciding the amount of water to add, both S-san and I-san seemed to rely on intuition more than any sort of quantitative method.

In the past, S-san used to make a lot of soba—not professionally, but for guests who would come to the village. She said that making noodles for 100 was not uncommon. S-san was talking as her hands moved swiftly across the lacquered surface of a mixing bowl, whipping together flour and water, while dashing any large clods in order to keep the mixture even throughout. S-san’s pace is always slow, yet steady, as if she knows that all tasks are worth taking the time to do right; besides, what’s the rush? At the same time, S-san doesn’t seek perfection in her technique; small flaws are overlooked for the beauty or utility of the overall project.

Gathering the coarse dough together, S-san formed a ball about the size of an infant’s head and began to knead it with firm squeezes. S-san is an elderly woman, in her eighties, though you wouldn’t know it to look at her. She’s not small, though not at all tall by any stretch of the imagination, but her build is wide and strong—a body shaped by a life spent working vegetable fields and rice paddies in the high mountains. Chizuko asks if S-san has any siblings. We discover that there were four children in the family, and that three remain in the village. I try to imagine S-san as a young girl, but can’t conjure a face in my head; I’m left wondering about the life here in the mountains that produced such a warm and kind woman.

After perhaps 15 minutes of kneading the dough is ready once again to be transformed, this time into a thin sheet from which we will cut our noodles. S-san lifts a rolling pin to the table, it’s long (about half a meter) and narrow (a bit fatter than the butt end of a pool cue). With her hand she mashes down the dough, which had been left in a conical shape on the table, and forms a round disk with the circumference of a frisbee. Next, she begins to work with the rolling pin. I’m amazed by the technique. The pin is held lightly, with the hands allowed to slide from side to side. A single role starts with the hands placed wide and ends with them meeting at the center, each having travelled half the distance of the pin. The motion allows one to target specific sections of the dough that need to be flattened. The soba dough is a light brown color and, unexpectedly, has the consistency of potter’s clay—smooth and stiff. It responds willingly to the motions of the rolling pin and gives in to the shape we are requesting of it.

With swift and certain strokes, S-san makes quick work of the task and is soon left with a round piece of dough, about a centimeter thick and as round as a large pizza. Beads of sweat have formed on S-san’s brow and we all laugh as I-san tells her to wipe her face before she starts dripping on the soba. She asks I-san to take over. I watch intrigued as I-san uses two rolling pins to continue stretching the soba and to begin reforming the circle into a square. At times he wraps the dough onto the two pins so that it looks like a Chinese scroll. I’m not sure exactly how he accomplishes it, but before long the dough has indeed taken on the shape of a square and is now about half a centimeter thick. Now that he has the thickness right I-san folds the dough on top of itself, putting soba flour in between each layer.

Next, using a specialized knife and a small board that is placed on top of the dough, I-san begins cutting the soba. The noodles he produces are thin and beautiful. The scent of soba flour is in the air and it’s wonderful. I-san scoops up small bundles of the fresh noodles and shakes them free of one another before laying them gently into a plastic bin.

Chizuko and I take our turns attempting the various steps and receive ample amounts of undeserved compliments from S-san and I-san; my rolling technique gets particular praise, as does Chizuko’s skill at wrapping the dough onto the pin to further stretch it. S-san slips out to go to the store for supplies and before long returns with ice cream cones for everyone (how did she know just how perfect an ice cream would be at that moment?).

Soon we’re done rolling the second batch of dough and so Chizuko and I take turns trying our hand at cutting slender noodles. We cheat a bit by using a device that S-san has from when she used to make a lot of soba. It’s a knife that sits on a track so that each time you lift the blade it shifts slightly to the left, enough so that the next slice will create a near perfect set of noodles. Lift the blade higher and you get a thicker noodle—a simple device, well suited to the task it was designed for.

We take a moment to clean up and then move into the main part of S-san’s house to begin preparations for dinner. It’s time to reap the benefits of our humble labors. The artistry of soba-making extends to the kitchen as I-san and S-san discuss the subtleties of boiling the noodles—too long the go soft, not long enough they will be stiff. Broth for dipping the noodles is also prepared. Green onions are sliced thin; these will be placed in the sauce alongside some wasabi.

As the motions of preparations whirl around me I continue to scribble notes in my pocketbook, looking up once in a while to take in the landscape of S-san’s house. The wooden roof and walls of the living room are darkened from soot accumulated from years of using a wood fire stove that sits in the middle of the room. On a high self on the far side of the room sits a Shinto alter called a kamidana 神棚, as well as a couple of daruma, red rounded statues depicting the bodhisattva, Bodhidharma (“daruma” is a Japanese phonetization of the word dharma), who is said to have brought Buddhism from India to China; in the Japan the statues are meant to bring good fortune and help fulfill specific wishes.

Almost without me noticing a meal has taken shape on the small table before me. A pile of cold soba noodles sits on small wooden slates atop a plate, accompanied by a small dish of broth. A bowl of salad made from fresh zucchini and cucumber from S-san’s garden, and topped with small fish called jako 雑魚, as well as a locally made red beet vinaigrette. A potato salad that Chizuko had made also sat on the table. S-san, who doesn’t drink at all, brought out ice cold beers (she can read my mind, truly) and a bottle of shochu (Korean liquor).

I-san asked if there was going to be a spot for him to spend the night. S-san said of course. Beers were opened. With a joyful “kanpai!!” (cheers) we dug into the feast. In Japan soba is slurped, and slurped with gusto. It was hot and we were all sweaty and a bit tired, but the noodles were cold, as was the beer, so we all slurped, reveling in the meal we had just crafted ourselves. I looked up at S-san who was beginning to tell a story about life in Otaki. She smiled and let out a laugh—hers is a laugh that I’ve come to love, and will never forget.

The sun was setting as we continued our meal; a cool mountain breeze began to blow through the house.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Death from Overwork

I came across an article today in the Mainichi Shinbun with the headline, "Restaurant manager died from overwork, rules labor office" (original Mainichi Shinbun article). This poor guy was the manager of a Skylark restaurant, which is the Japanese equivalent of say, Denney's. In my opinion, the very existence of a term meaning "death from overwork"--karoushi 過労死 in Japanese--calls into question the dominant enterprises of "modernization" and capitalism.

Not that work itself is bad--I like work; it's a basic aspect of human life. The selling of one's labor however, to the profiteers of a restaurant for example, has the tendency to divorce humans from the non-commercial aspects of their work. Marxists, of course, have discussed this alienation for over a century now. Recently, here in Otaki I've been thinking about it more and more. It's a mixed bag, many villagers work jobs to earn money, but most families also maintain fields and rice paddies from which they are able to produce a good portion of their daily food.

July has brought a wealth of fresh vegetables from neighbors and friends; plus, a few tomatoes from our own garden. In contemporary Japan, where stories of outdated food being relabelled, imports containing traces of deadly chemicals, and needles being found in frozen foods abound, recieving gifts of fresh vegetables bring with them a sense of peace. In addition, these gifts bring with them the social rewards of friendship and support: conversation, comraderie, and the chance to reciprocate. Veggies Chizuko and I recieve are answered with fresh baked banana bread, potato salad, or donuts.

Capitalist transactions, of course, involve little, if any, social interaction and reciprocation. This fact, in and of itself, is not bad; I don't think. However, it seems to me that the creation of monetary values for goods and services opens the door for lives of humans to be subverted to the accumulation of capital--and to death from overwork.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

In the Canyons: Atera 阿寺渓谷

"In the canyons of the great divide,
familiar places that we can run and hide"
-Neil Young

Last week, on the recommendation of a friend, Chizuko and I visited Atera Canyon (阿寺渓谷), which extends west into the mountains from Okuwa village, the town over from Otaki. The canyon is one of the most beautiful I've ever seen, and just adds to my admiration of the Kiso Region.

Chizuko was all smiles. Definitely a good place to while away an afternoon--watching clouds billow and listening to the river as it tumbles down the mountain.

At the first spot we stopped the remains of an old bridge--part of the extensive forest railroad system that once lined the canyons of the Kiso valley--straddled the river.

Further up the canyon we came to a location called tanuki-ga-buchi 狸ヶ淵. The water here was. . .I'll just add a picture.
Finally, Chizuko and I stopped at a place called ushi-ga-buchi 牛ヶ淵. The canyon was narrow here and rock cliffs stood up above the azure of the river--I thought about jumping, but had second thoughts. Thankfully, a local man and his two sons came and put the idea right back into my head. I asked if they had swam there before and he said that they do it every year. Sure enough they also jump off the cliffs. So, after watching a few jumps there was nothing else stopping me. . .

Dogen said, "All mountains stand with their feet in waters, and splash there." Yes, and so I try to learn from rivers.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Opening the Mountain: Ontake "kaizan" 御嶽山の開山

On Thursday, July 10th, mountain opening ceremonies were held both at Ontake's true summit, or ken-ga-mine 剣ケ峰 (3,067 m), and at Otaki's summit (outaki-choujyou 王滝頂上 2937 m). I had planned on staying in the Otaki mountian hut the night before, but ended up not being able to. So, I set out from Ta-no-hara at about 6 on Thursday morning. It had been overcast and a bit drizzly in the village, but soon after I began my ascent up Ontake's south-eastern slope I left the clouds and rain below me.

My body was light and moved easily up the rocky ridge leading to the Otaki summit. I made good time and was at the first summit by about 7:30. A gave a quick hello to a friend who works in the Otaki mountain hut and hurried on along; I made the true summit by about 7:45.

Visibility was poor, but I was able to see the first two of Ontake's five ponds resting just below the summit. The first pond, ichi-no-ike 一ノ池, no longer holds any water, but the second, ni-no-ike 二ノ池, shown blue, like a flake of turqoise, as sunlight poured in intermittently through gaps in increasingly cloud-filled sky.

By the time the ceremony at the summit began (around 10 am,) a small group of believers, clothed in white, began to gather. Two Shinto priests emerged from a small mountain hut next to the summit shrine and worked their way through a series of chants, offerings, and cleansing activities. I watched for a bit, but had to duck out early to scramble back down to the Otaki Summit, where the ceremony was set to begin at 10:30 am.
I rushed down from the summit, letting my mind to drift off a bit while my feet found their way, almost effortlessly, from rock to rock. The smell of sulfur was strong in the air, flowing up from a vent some yards away that was spitting yellowish steam up into the clouds with a loud hissing sound. As I arrived at the Otaki Summit I found friends and acquantainces who marvelled at my eager early morning ascent. Greetings said, we all moved into the main shrine area for the ceremony.

Following the ceremony, a group of Swiss Horn musicians (of all things) from the neighboring village of Okuwa performed several songs. After the horn group had finished, a young ascetic from Ibaraki Prefecture stood before the shrine and began chanting; he then blew a large conch to conclude his prayers to Ontake-san.
After the ceremonies had concluded everyone moved into the Otaki mountain hut for a quick bite to eat and a small taste of omiki お神酒, which means literally "shrine sake".

I made a quick decent--sliding on remaining patches of snow when I could--and stopped only to take photos of flowers and mushrooms that I found interesting.


Saturday, July 12, 2008

they're G. . .rrrrrr. . . .8

Been up in the hills, and down in the canyons a lot this week, so I haven't had much time to write.

I did have a chance to read a couple of brief articles outlining the utter uselessness of this week's G8 Summit in Hokkaido, and the inactivity of the likes of these two.

Also had a chance to read through the Indigenous People's Declaration on the G8 Summit that was the product of a gathering, also in Hokkaido, of indigenous groups from around the world.

I'll write about the mountains and canyons soon. . .but tomorrow, back to the hills!


Sunday, July 6, 2008

G8 goes green in Hokkaido, while the rest of us go, "what the ?"

In a story entitled "Cars and toilets go green at eco-friendly G8 summit" Reuters reported on some of the steps being taken by the Japanese government to insure the G8 summit currently being held on the northern island of Hokkaido is environmentally friendly. My favorite quote from the article was this one about how security forces at the summit are using "eco-friendly" Segway scooters:

"Usually, we have to walk, so we get tired, but we don't get tired with this," said Kubo, an employee of Rising Sun Security Service.
Though I do have to give credit to the reporters for pointing out the obvious: "how a scooter could be better for the environment than two feet was not so clear."

Here in Otaki I've been watching thunderclouds coming from the Sea of Japan billowing up into the hazy summer sky as they smack into the Kiso Mountains. I've been listening with delight to the dry cracks of thunder as they roll up and down the canyons. We will probably have heavy rains again this evening, and perhaps tomorrow as well. The water is needed, but as I look up at mountaintops bare of trees I worry about too much of a deluge coming at once, which has been common this year. Other parts of Japan have flooded, just like the Midwest of the U.S.

Global warming? Probably. But, just slapping on the label is too simplistic--the complexity of natural processes almost certainly means that we will have little understanding of the results of global warming until we are well into them. Good thing we have eco-friendly G8 summits.

Back to the summit. What I'm trying to get at is that "eco", "carbon offset", "going green", or whatever other label the G8 or any other group is going to apply needs to be considered with much suspicion. It seems to me that if the Japanese government wants to showcase it's "eco-friendliness" they could start with paying some attention to the thousands of hectares of forestland in places like Otaki that have been left in ecological disarray after being heavily overcut in the first half of the 20th century.

Or perhaps instead of spending money installing "green" toilets the Japanese government could offer some seed money to one of the hundreds of villages across Japan that is struggling, like Otaki, to develop some sort of economic activity that can give them a future. Ah, but villages like Otaki don't really fit the whole "eco" image--they don't have spare carbon to "offset", they simply get in the way of projects--planting forests and such--that allow G8 summit-ers and the like to offset their carbon.

So, perhaps that's the sort of eco-friendly world we're heading towards: the elite gather in luxuriant hotels, use green toilets, drive green cars, and allow their tired security guards to ride Segways, while the rest of us struggle to deal with the mess that was made before the G8 became so damn green.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Japan's Forgotten Sacred Mountain: 御嶽山 Ontake san Pt. 2

Last month I participated in a learning activity that consisted of a walking tour of several points of interest on Ontake-san. These learning activities are put on by the village office as a way of promoting greater knowledge among residents of Otaki and its surrounding environment. There was a lot of information during the day, so I'll try to convey what I can here.

The day began at the Otaki community center where we boarded a bus and headed up the mountain to Ta-no-hara 田の原. Sitting at 2108 meters, Ta-no-hara is the highest point accessible by car. Sitting just below the summit of Ontake is the Ta-no-hara Natural Park 田の原天然公園. The park consists of a series of wooden walkways that lead through a marshy forest of tall erman's birch (dakekanba 岳樺 in Japanese), Japanese Rowan (an rose variety, nanakamado 七竈), and several varieties of stunted pines, such as shirabiso 白檜曽(Alvies veitchii Lindley), kometsuga 米栂 (Tsuga diversifolia, a hemlock variety native to Japan), haimatsu 這松 (Pinus pumila, the name means "crawling pine", due to the tree's ability to sprout roots from dangling branches so as to "crawl" across the landscape).

Ta-no-hara Natural Park also boasts a variety of wild-flowers that bloom during the summer months. We learned about too many of these for me to list them all here, which gives a sense of the diversity the park holds.

The staff at the Ta-no-Hara Visitor's Center were nice enough to let us eat our lunches in the cafeteria. A large wall of windows offered clear views of the summit pyramid; though a broad skirt of grey clouds hid the top of the mighty mountain, I could see its eastern slopes which were glowing green with new vegetation (it's still early spring up high on the mountain). Gullies of crumbling rock cut through the green and extended perpendicular to the cloud roof above; sinewy lines of white, crusty snow clung stubbornly, straddling trickles of water bouncing down from the mountaintop.

A chasmic half arc of brown shale opens from the mountain's southern slope and stretches eastward, interrupting the downward progress of a strong ridgeline. From rim to rim this crater is probably a kilometer, if not two, or three! A 1984 earthquake loosened the mass of earth that once occupied the space and sent it rushing in a swollen brown torrent down the mountain towards Otaki. 29 people lost their lives that day. However, looking at the empty space on the mountain I couldn't help wondering how the whole village wasn't consumed.

Bellies full, it was time to start back down the mountain--we had places to see on the way down. Our next stop was at Ginga-mura Campground 銀河村キャンプ場, which is owned and operated by the village. A few years ago a group of volunteers planted a field of keshi-no-hana (garden, or opium, poppies. The field was planted purely as a tourist attraction--as far as I know there are no plans for Otaki to become an opium producer. Opium poppies are funny little flowers, with slender stalks that stand up long and straight and flowers that face downward with large petals that flop about like an a woman's oversized sun hat. I think I heard that there are about 300 of these poppies blooming at Ginga-mura, but I'd put the number more around 100.

From the campground we continued on foot through a mixed forest of mainly karamatsu 唐松 (Japanese larch) and a variety of broadleaf varieties, such as shirakaba 白樺 (white birch, Nagano's prefectural tree), which had replaced the erman's birch that grows primarily above 2500 meters. We continued to encounter a variety of incredible wildflowers, including one of the most fascinating flowers I've ever seen: ginryousou 銀霊草. The Chinese characters for this flower translate as "silver spirit grass", which makes is fitting as the flowers look like little ghosts hovering around the forest floor. Ginryousou have an ephemeral quality that make one question their very existence, as if they may disappear when you look away for a moment.

Our final stops of the day were the twin waterfalls of Kiyotaki 清滝 and Shintaki 新滝, which sit at about 1500 meters on Ontake-san. Both of these waterfalls are respected as places of power and used by pilgrims to Ontake-san for meditation. On this day we descended to Shintaki from above. Before reaching the waterfall itself we passed a small wooden building used by worshipers when engaging in religious practices. We also stopped to look at a small shrine that sits next to the falls. Someone in the group motioned for me to look into a small cave that opens into the rock wall from which Shintaki's waters fall. As I approached the cave I could see the warm glow of candles and after a moment discerned the shape of man sitting in zazen, the traditional posture of meditation in Japanese Buddhism. I allowed myself a photo and then departed trying not to disturb the serenity of the scene.

The path from Shintaki to Kiyotaki covers very steep terrain and so we were forced to use a series of wooden bridges and staircases that, in the rain, were a bit challenging. However, with slow, sturdy steps we navigated the course with no problems. Kiyotaki was impressive as always, but I must say that it lacks the grandeur of it's neighbor, Shintaki. The rain was beginning to increase in intensity, so we didn't spend long lingering at Kiyotaki.

Though I've written about the day, I don't know that I can put words to my own experience with Ontake. I'll end by saying only that Ontake is a deep and powerful place. Simply being there is enough, but spending time on the mountain with local residents, learning from their expertise and joining in their admiration of the wonders that the environment there offers, is something that I come up short in trying to convey.

Peaks like Buddhas at the heights
send waters streaming down
to the deep center of the turning world.

And the Mountain Spirit always wandering
hillsides fade like walls of cloud
pebbles smoothed off sloshing in the sea

old woman mountain hears
shifting sand
tell the wind

Mountains will be Buddhas then

-Gary Snyder (from "The Mountain Spirit", Mountains and Rivers Without End)