Sunday, November 9, 2008

Becoming "アルプス"

The blog One Hundred Mountains recently contained a post Weighing up Walter Weston, that explores the validity of Weston's title as "the father of the Japanese Alps".

Weston's place in Japanese history has a lot to do with what was happening in Japan at the time as the Meiji government was creating a political space that required a reconfiguring of the entire landscape. Berkeley geographer Karen Wigen takes up this topic and argues that the mountains of central Japan were "discovered" as the alps (アルプス) and reconfigured to meet the political and social needs of the Meiji regime.

Here is the full reference

Wigen K. 2005. Discovering the Japanese Alps: Meiji Mountaineering and the Quest for Geographical Enlightenment. Journal of Japanese Studies 31

If anyone wants the article, but can't find it online, I can email a PDF.

寒山の御嶽山 Cold mountain, Ontake-san

I'll be leaving Otaki in March of next year, and I'm not sure if I'll have a chance to climb Ontake-san on the other side of winter. I've wanted to see san-no-ike (三ノ池), Ontake's third pond, since I arrived here in Otaki. So, though it was late in the season, on Halloween day I decided to give it a go. This is the Ontake-san that had peaked out at me the morning of the previous day. . .irresistable.

I had been busy until about 10:00 that morning, but should have gone--the weather was perfect. Instead I kept my eyes on the weather forecasts and decided that the next day would be best for an ascent; I could get an early start.

I was climbing the road to Ta-no-hara 田の原 by about 5:30 the next morning. When I reached the clearings of Ontake 2240's ski hills I could gaze clearly at the first stirrings of the morning swelling up behind the Kiso Range.
At Ta-no-hara I climbed from my car and took in my first breaths of the cool air there. I looked up at Ontake-san. The mountain was exquisite.
Eager to get climbing, I tightened my boots and quickly hefted my pack. My worshiper's bell, that I had inherited from the summit on a previous ascent, rang out, cracking the solitude of the cold air. Just below the treeline the sun spilled over the Kiso Range and flooded the landscape with it's warmth and light.

Above the treeline I gained views of the hills and valleys below, with just enough time to see the wall of clouds about to smack into Ontake-san. In my head--and just a bit outside of my head-- I cursed the weather forecasters of the world.

"Keep going". . ."retreat". . ."wait a few minutes". . ."fuck"--my head was a snowstorm of thoughts. I wasn't so concerned with bad weather on the mountain; I knew my way at least as far as the summit. The fear that was nagging me was of snow down below. I had come in a small "k-car" (660cc engine) with no snow tires; THAT was the descent I was worried about. However, always a captive of the lure of the mountain I kept moving upward, promising myself that I'd turn back if the weather didn't let up.

I made it to the Otaki summit in about an hour and a half. There I encountered a frozen world. Everything was still within the stone walls of the shrine, but stepping out towards Ken-ga-mine 剣ヶ峰, Ontake's true summit, I was smacked by wind coursing up from the southwest.
Below I had insincerely promised myself that if upon reaching the Otaki summit the weather had not cleared I would head down the mountain. The weather had not cleared, but the mountain beckoned. I began making my way across Ontake's southeasern face, but encountered deep snow and knew that a fall would send me hurling down the mountain towards Hyakkentaki 百間滝. From here I knew the climb to the true summit at ken-ga-mine would be short and I was familiar with the route, so I took off skyward. I arrived at the summit within about 30 minutes. The weather had not changed and the top of Ontake-san was blustering.

Though it was freezing cold and somewhat cumbersome to move around I forced myself to eat some of the onigiri I had brought. The balls of rice were cold and stiff, but I gobbled them down gleefully. Hot tea would have been wonderful, but I settled for cold water. I ended my quick meal with a piece of chocolate that took ages to melt in my mouth.

I started down from the summit with the intention to descend back to the parking lot at Ta-no-hara, but was drawn off course by the distant call of Ontake's third pond, san-no-ike--my original goal for the day. According to local legend, long ago Ontake was home to only one pond, within which dwelled a dragon who remained undisturbed within it's depths. The dragon was awoken by a curious traveler who peered into the pond. The dragon was angered and thrashed about in the pond, scattering it's waters and giving birth to five ponds within which were born five dragons of different colors. Those dragons are said to live in the ponds to this day.

Before long I had reached ni-no-ike (二ノ池), the second pond, which was frozen solid. I walked along it's edge, searching for a trail sign that could lead me in the direction of san-no-ike. The wooden signs, however, were all covered with thick layers of blown snow and ice, making them difficult to read.

Eventually I did find the trail leading towards san-no-ike. The weather was still no good, but it made little sense to turn back at this point. I encountered some deeper snow and the trail became harder and harder to decipher in the frozen landscape. Slipping and stumbling down a small drop I spotted a ptarmigan (raichou 雷鳥) puffed up on a snow bank in front of me; I fumbled for my camera and luckily got a shot off before the bird took flight, cutting the air with it's strange song of clicks.

Another 30 minutes or so of stumbling over snow covered rocks I began up a small rise. At the top I encountered a small shrine covered in wind blown snow; it looked as though time had stopped in the middle of some molecular event where the shrine's very form was exploding into space. I was intrigued, and just a little disturbed, by the abstract beauty of the scene.
Just beyond the shrine a steep slope opened up to the east. Looking down I could see through the clouds a dark oblong form. I brushed the snow from a nearby sign and confirmed that the form below me was san-no-ike. The descent to the pond seemed a bit precarious, but I was prepared to make my way down for a better view. However, just as I was about to start the climb down, the clouds began to lift and san-no-ike came into full view. Soon I could see the pond clearly and I was perfectly content to enjoy the scene from above.
Wrapped in the contentment of having attained my goal, I was able now to begin my descent. The thick clouds that had blanketed Ontake's crown through the morning had now retreated and the peaks of the Kiso Range stood like sentinels overlooking the valley below. I gazed at the peaks as I stumbled my way back through the mine-field of slippery stones and snow drifts, retracing, as I best I could, my footsteps from before. In a valley to my right I spotted a thick bank of clouds lurking like a shark; I quickened my pace.
I stopped only briefly at the former sight of the Ontake Fire Festival and gave a bow to the frozen buddhas and gods there. The mountain is their realm and I admire their diligent meditation that will continue despite the icy winds of winter. For me, the world lay below. . .and so I left that place and began my descent.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Common forests: rediscovering a good idea

An article in Northern Woodlands Magazine entitled, A Forest for Every Town, talks about the Vermont Town Forest Program, which aims to ensure common forestlands for municipalities in Vermont. The program's idea has grown, in part, out of movements, such as the slow food movement, that strive to use local products. It sounds like the program is quite successful so far. From the article:

Hinesburg’s forests exemplify town forest potential. They have recreation: world-class mountain biking trails, along with skiing, hiking, and horseback riding. They also serve as outdoor classrooms, both for local teachers and for the University of Vermont, whose students have conducted dozens of projects there.

And the older forest also has active forest management: one recent harvest took out white ash, which was then milled and kiln-dried locally and installed to replace the floor of the Hinesburg Town Hall, which had been sanded so many times that the tongue of each tongue-and-groove board was exposed. All this at a total cost of $2.48 per square foot, about what you’d pay commercially.

The great thing is, Hinesburg is only one of many Vermont communities with town forests. Some towns have had forests for years, while others are just now acquiring them – a task made easier by the assistance provided by the Vermont Town Forest Project and the federal Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program, which will provide 50-50 matching grants for towns to acquire town forests.

It's encouraging to see support for this project at local, state, and even federal levels. This kind of institutional networking is woefully lacking in Japan, making it hard to institute programs like this. It's a shame, because there is a lot of forestland out there that could be put to good use by local communities; and there are local communities that are struggling to survive. Seems a perfect match.

Otaki has about 2,600 hectares of common forest, which, ecologically speaking, is some of the best in the area with a diversity of both broadleaf and pine varities (there are, however, some large tracts of karamatsu, which is not uncommon in Nagano). Residents of Otaki struggle, however, with the management of these forests and so many of them are becoming overgrown to the point of being a nuisance.

There's a need in Japanese society for greater recognition of the value these forestlands have and for more support to maintain forest communities. A "forest for every town" is a wonderful ideal to shoot for.

An anthropology of resilience: AAA paper

The following is a link to a paper providing a brief overview of my research that I will be presenting during a panel discussion entitled, "Graduate Student Collaborations and Engagements in Environmental Change Research", at the American Anthropological Association (AAA) meetings in San Francisco this month.

Take a look if it's of any interest.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Keeping with Tradition: "Aka-kabu" and "Sunki"

*I've received comments from observant readers informing me that 赤カブ akakabu are not in fact "red beets", but rather are a member of the brassica genus, and therefore a variety of turnip.

To order Otaki "aka-kabura-zuke" or "sunki-zuke" please write to

My good friend TS-san invited Chizuko and I to come watch her and two other women from a cooperative called "Himawari-market" (ひまわりマーケット) prepare tsukemono. "Tsukemono" refers to a huge variety of pickled vegetables that are ubiquitous in the Japanese diet. In Otaki, there are two main types of tsukemono. The first is "aka-kabu" (赤かぶ), which means red beets in English. The second is a type of tsukemono that is unique to this region, called "sunki" (すんき). This tsukemono is made using the leafy tops of red beets and is peculiar in that the process requires no salt.

We arrived at sunki-n0-sato (すんきの里)--meaning "house of sunki"--at about 10 in the morning. The woman were already furiously at work cutting the kabu. The sweet smell of smoke drifted through the air from a wood-fired cauldron of water burning outside. Chizuko and I announced ourselves and the women welcomed us in. TS-san introduced us to GS-san and O-san, who are both experts in the pickling process.

GS-san commented that the kabu is slow this year and she wonders whether this is not connected to global warming. Usually its better to do sunki when it's really cold, she continued, but since we harvested the kabu, we have to do the sunki as well. I ask how much they will pickle today. About 70 kilograms of kabu!! I watch the speed with which GS-san cuts the kabu and realize that the goal is perhaps not so lofty for her. The women explain to me that in the past residents of Otaki used aka-kabu to pay taxes to the Owari-clan (尾張藩) that maintained political control over the Kiso Valley in the Edo Period. The tradition of pickling aka-kabu apparently is a long one in Otaki.

After a short break for tea, it was time to get to work on the sunki. Outside, piles of beet-tops lay in small bundles. Each one will be boiled briefly and then placed in a pickling barrel along with sunki from last year. The use of sunki that has been saved from the year before is what makes this process so fascinating. The old sunki is called "tane", which means seed in Japanese, though I don't know that the etymology is the same. When I asked GS-san how the tane was originally made, she said that she didn't know. I've since asked other women in the village and have gotten some ideas that it may have involved the use of some wild products gathered from the forest. The truth is, no one really knows how sunki was originally made. Today, the process of making sunki relies totally on the existence of tane that are reserved from the stock made each year. In other words, a cultural knowledge set continues to be handed down from generation to generation in a physical form. The practice of making sunki relies totally on the transmission of this cultural product.
Himawari-market, the group that makes aka-kabu and sunki in Otaki is a totally locally grown cooperative business. Women in the village who had long made these tsukemono for their own use got together and began producing them for sale. They have since invested in their company by purchasing needed equipment using their own funds. Everything they make is locally produced and 100% organic.
The aka-kabura-tsuke (赤かぶら漬) is absolutely wonderful; one of the best tsukemono I've ever tried. Sunki is a bit of an acquired taste, but very good, and it goes well in a variety of dishes from miso soup to pasta. Also, it is totally salt-free, so you don't have to worry about excessive sodium intake.

If you are interested in trying either of these products, please contact me at