Sunday, October 18, 2009

bears and bells

IMG_6093, originally uploaded by taintus.

There has been a lot of talk about bears in the village recently. I've heard that there is an overabundance of chestnuts and acorns in the Kiso area this year (though I've heard conflicting reports of low volume), which means more bears.

Regardless of this particular factor, many people in Otaki suggest that bear-human encounters are increasing. There may be many causes, but a general ecological shift is likely the main culprit. Wartime over-cutting in backcountry areas, followed by heavy planting of timber trees has limited nutrient rich habitat for many animals, including bears. Forests around many villages, which tend to be locally managed for mulitple uses, on the other hand are often comprised of diverse trees, including a variety of fruit-bearing broadleaf varieties (including chestnut and acorn trees). So, guess where the bears are going for food?
We've had several bear sightings in Otaki recently. To the point where all elementary and junior high students have been issued bear bells, called "kuma-yoke-suzu" くまよけ鈴 (bear repelling bells). My bell isn't a bear bell per se, but rather a bell used in Buddhist practice. . .my friend picked it up while hiking Ontake-san. It's got a nice ring to it (I've received compliments).

I took the above picture of acorns on the road one morning last week. Seems to me there are more acorns than I remember there being last year. So, for now the students and I clang clang clang our way to school--at least until the winter.

first snow

During a walk in Otaki's backcountry today I was greeted with the wonderful sight of Otake-san donning its robe of white for the first time this season. Rain yesterday in the village had translated to a light blanket of snow down to about 2,500 meters.

As I gazed upon the mountain cool breezes rolled down the canyon and whispered in my ears. . ."winter is on its way". I walked back to town through shafts of soft light that filtered through tree tops at the canyon's rim while papery leaves whirled clumsily about me like a team of drunkards.

My last Otaki autumn for a while. The snows will be coming soon.

Goodnight Ontake-san.

Monday, October 5, 2009



riceThe days have cooled considerably here in Otaki, and the hillsides are beginning to blush. Stalks of rice, which were planted in May, have begun to hang their heavy heads. They look tired, having spent their days stretching to grasp the sun, which sits so impossibly far away, yet always taunts with its warm embrace.

Because of Otaki's elevation, the growing season for rice is quite short. As a result, I've heard, that rice grown here is not so delicious. However, I've received rice from people in the village before and found it to be quite tasty.

In the past rice was not heavily grown in Otaki. Millet, buckwheat, and other grains appear to have been more common. In Takigoshi, a hamlet located in the back of the Otaki valley, it is too cold for rice. At points in the past rice was purchased by residents who earned money hunting and selling skins--particularly bear.

riceI'm not sure when rice came to be more commonly grown in Otaki, but I imagine it's probably a post-war phenomenon. However, Otaki's physical geography has never allowed for a whole lot of paddie land in Otaki. Moreover, a World Bank funded dam project completed in the mid 1960's cut the villages paddy land by half.

Japan is talked about as a "rice culture", but this is not entirely true (particularly historically) in many upland villages, such as Otaki. Rather, the food economy in mountain villages was likely much more diverse: wild vegetables and game, mushrooms, river fish, grains, chestnuts, acorns, small birds, and, occasionally perhaps, rice.

Anyway, no matter its wider context, I love the season of rice harvesting. The drying stalks are a beautiful sight. After the grains are dislodged, cleaned, and stored. The rice straw will be twisted to make ritual ropes that will hang in the entryways of homes and shrines in the new year season. Later, in the still whiteness of winter, this straw will be piled up, along with boughs of pine and bright red, round statues of Bodhidharma, and set ablaze to ensure health for the year.

Then, in the spring, the rice will return--young and green, reincarnate--to begin life again.
Though I wouldn't call it a "rice culture", the lives of Otaki's residents are intimately bound with rice in a perennial dance that unfolds as a magnificent display upon the landscape.