Wednesday, December 31, 2008



This year I welcomed the New Year in Kyoto with my in-laws. I want to say thank you to all of them for their unceasing warmth and kindness.
In particular, I would like to say thank you to my mother-in-law for always working so hard to make the New Year holiday special--your food is incredible, as always.

I would also like to express my deep gratitude to the people of Otaki Village for their amazing kindness and support. Moving to Otaki and being allowed to learn about the people and their environment has been wonderful beyond what I ever expected.
I've grown deeply attached to Otaki's landscape and people and feel anxious about having to leave in 3 short months.

Also, I'd like extend my condolences to the family of H-san, the head of Otaki's village council, who passed away unexpectedly on the night of the 29th. I only met H-san a couple of times, and only talked with him at any length once. However, in that single conversation I gained a strong sense of his love for Otaki and his commitment to seeing it thrive into the future. H-san was warm and spoke with a strong, yet calm, voice. His passing is a great loss to Otaki, but I hope his example might prove inspirational to others.

Lastly, I'd like to express my gratitude to the earth itself. To all its myriad living beings and to the complexities that sustain us all. In my small mind I forget to show my gratitude, but in my larger mind I feel it at every moment--gazing at spirals of forest sunlight or witnessing the blaze of winter stars.

A happy new year to all. . .

Friday, December 26, 2008

"Itabuki" 板葺: Otaki's traditional roofing

In my previous post I wrote briefly about the wood plank roofing that used to be used in Otaki. These days most homes are roofed using sheets of red tin (I still don't know why red). The tile roofing that is common throughout most of Japan is rarely used--the heavy winds and snows of the area are not friendly.

Wooden planks make sense in Otaki because the village is surrounded by forest. From what residents have told me the planks they used in the past came from the Imperial Forests--known as 御料林 go-ryourin. Sawara cypress was the variety of tree most commonly used for planks.

The wooden planks were laid on top of a roof frame in a staggered pattern with planks on top overlapping those below them, ensuring a watertight covering. Wood-smoke from inside the home would then work to treat the underside of the roof, while the upper-side--exposed to rain and snow--tended to rot. The roof would, therefore, be periodically disassembled and the planks rotated so that exposed sections could be cured by the wood-smoke and previously cured sections faced outwards towards the elements. The planks are rotated and used four times: the initial pattern, an oblong rotation, a single flip, and then one more oblong rotation.
Longer pieces of wood, running the length of the roof, were laid perpendicular to the roof planks and then lined with large rocks to hold the whole thing in place. Otaki's traditional roofs, like the house structures themselves, required no nails--no metal--only wood and stone.

There are only a few of these roofs left in Otaki. I first heard about the old construction techniques during a vist from a Tokyo woman in Kiso to learn lacquerware. She was in Otaki searching for examples of old lacquerware that she could show her teacher. After noticing some of the old planks in my friend S-san's home, the woman was shocked to learn that S-san was using the planks as kindling. The woman used a couple of the planks to create lacquerware plates. She was searching for more, and so a neighbor brought over some unused planks.
One could see clearly how the planks had been peeled from their parent tree. Each plank is chopped away from a larger pie-shaped section of tree. Imagine cutting out a slice of cake and then cutting that slice into a series of thinner slices. Put differently, if one had all the planks from a section of tree, its round shape could be reconstructed by standing the planks on end and fitting them into one another. The grain of the tree runs down the length of each plank, with the tree's growth rings marked across the width.

These planks are beautiful in and of themselves, as objects, but I find beauty in their utilitarian value as well--whether as roofing or firewood (though I prefer the former). Otaki's itabuki made life possible for humans living within the environment from which they themselves were procured. In the global economy, this is a value embodied by fewer and fewer "things". For this reason, more than seeing these wonderful structures preserved, I'd like to see the tradition revived.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Waterwheel 水車

A couple of days before I left for a trip to the U.S., S-san invited me to come by to see her family's waterwheel and mill. I thought I might be too late, but she assured me they would be using the wheel into the first week of December.

I arrived at S-san's on a sunny Wednesday morning. She said she had just been on her way to grind some rice, so the timing was good. S-san's family owns the only waterwheel that remains in Otaki, though it appears that in the past many families operated their own wheels. Every year family's from all over the village bring rice to be ground into flour for making dango, manju and other treats.

After briefly showing me the contents of the wheel-house, S-san walked up above to open and close gates in order to divert water to the wheel. The sound of rushing water that had been constant since I arrived paused. A moment later it resumed. And, a moment after that, water began spewing from the mouth of a pipe situated next to the wheel. It took a few seconds, but the giant wheel finally lurched into motion and was soon spinning with ease. S-san greased the wheel's axel with a few hearty d0llops of oil from a can.

We moved into the wheel-house, which was now alive with noise and motion. Wooden gears spun, squeaking and jumping, as if they would bound from their interlocked positions. The whole thing resembled some fantastic flying machine one might encounter in a novel or movie. I took the following video.


S-san explained to me the art of making rice flour. I call it an art because there's no formula for where to position the funnel into which rice is poured so that it will fall at the right pace to create fine, but not too fine, a flour. There's no manual. It all must be done using one's senses, the way a painter knows if the sky she is painting is the right shade of blue. The same is true, remarked S-san, of the amount of water allowed to power the wheel--too much and the wheel will spin too fast, grind the rice too hard, too little and it won't be fast enough.

The wheel-house itself is only about five feet by five feet and is made entirely of wood. The roof is made of wooden planks that overlap one another--a traditional technique in the Kiso Valley. There are only a few of these roofs left in Otaki. The boards are made by cutting a rounded log into quarter sections, so that it looks like slices of pie. Planks are then cut away from the quartered sections, lengthwise, against the grain of the tree rings. By flipping and rotating the planks a roof can be renewed four times before having to be replaced entirely.

Within the wheel-house are a series of wooden cogs that make up three different stations that can be used by reworking the structure. The first is a grinding station for making rice and other types of flour. The second is a pounding station where a large wooden pestle is pounded into a stone mortar. The third station is also used for grinding, but with fewer cogs, which means it grinds faster therefore creating coarser material. The first griding station consists of two stones that sit within a wooden container above a small box for collecting the flour. A wooden cog sits on top of the stones. Rice is dropped onto the cog from a funnel suspended above it. A small straw broom sweeps the grains of rice from the cog into a hole leading to the spinning stones.

S-san explained to me that this waterwheel has been in her family since the Meiji Period--around the end of the 19th century. She learned from her father and grandfather how to use the wheel. "They used to take it apart and clean everything, but I really can't do that," lamented S-san. Looking at the device one can see why; S-san emphatically stated that moving the grinding stones requires the strength of at least two people.

I got a sense that S-san understands that the use of waterwheels is a dying art in Japan. "Every year I think that perhaps I won't use it," sighed S-san, "but my son said he wanted the manju made with the wheel ground rice flour. He said it tastes better. It does taste better!" Here, I realize, is the heart and future of Otaki--and perhaps other rural areas: the recognition of values aside from convenience, speed, and efficiency. In modern society, a focus on finishing tasks as quickly as possible has collapsed the social spaces where community, art, and tradition are cultivated and cared for. There IS value in slowing down; in living life to the clip-clopping pace of an old rickety waterwheel.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Rethinking wildlife relations

A recent post on KenElwood: Rewilding in Japan about crows reminded me of a TED talk that a friend had sent to me some time ago--also about crows.

In the talk, Joshua Klein speaks to the intelligence of crows; and to the lack of intelligence on the part of humans in "dealing" with crows. Klein's point about taking time to rethink our relationships with other animals is well taken. What's the use of evolving such large brains if we're not gonna use them.

Some more fodder for thought is an article in Orion Magazine by Susanne Antonetta in which she describes her experiences meeting Chantek, an orangutan capable of using sign language to communicate.

Many humans in modern society arrogantly dismiss the intelligence and depth of other animals--especially wild animals. KenElwood began his post by alluding to an elder who might reference a crow story. Many cultures have stories concerning animals, there wisdom and connection to humans. Many people in modern societies tend to shirk these stories and give little attention to relationships with other animals, which often become nuisances or pests.

I know in my country, the U.S., we often "battle" things: nature, terrorism, depression, cancer, wildlife, . . .on and on. Perhaps we need to rethink this. Is there a way to "cooperate" with these things? Adding the word to those listed above sounds strange at first: "cooperate with cancer"; "cooperate with terrorism". However, the exercise may also open some new pathways that we might walk down.

This post is somewhat off topic from my research here in Otaki. But, here too I am constantly seeking new ways of thinking that might blossom into new ways of doing. Also, we are close to many animals here--and these relationships are becoming problematic. People seem to be shifting into a defensive mode, which is not sustainable. How might we rethink it all?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

San Francisco Interlude

Fog slinking through the building tops,
makes me remember
the hip chill of San Francisco.