Thursday, August 23, 2001

After the Passing of Typhoon

The Seicho-No-Ie International Headquarters offices were closed on August 22nd due to a major typhoon. It was a slow moving one, traveling at a speed of 15 km/hour, but it didn't show any signs of weakening, and kept pounding Japan with torrential rains. Since the Kanto Region had a serious water shortage this summer, this rainfall was very much appreciated. The 23rd was my day off, though, and my daughter, wife and I had initially planned to go to our villa in Ohizumi village on the evening of the 22nd. Due to this slow moving typhoon, though, it didn't seem as though we'd be able to go at all. In the morning of the 22nd, the typhoon had reached Mie Prefecture, by noon it had gotten to the Izu Peninsula, and by 3 pm it had hit Tokyo. However, it was only sprinkling in Tokyo at this time, with moderate winds--nothing at all like a typhoon. My wife phoned an acquaintance living in Ohizumi and asked how the weather was there. "Oh, I can see the blue sky among clouds," was the reply and the TV reported that there was "No danger of storms traveling at over 25 meters." So, we decided to leave in an hour.

We left our house at 4 pm, and traveled straight down the Chuo Expressway. Thanks to the typhoon, traffic was light, with very few big rigs and families going on outing. We saw some signs indicating "Rainy weather--50 km speed limit", but, since it wasn't raining, we drove normally. The hurricane clouds coiled and spiraled throughout the blue sky. The misty vapor coming from the rain drenched mountains reminded us of a person just coming out of a hot bath. The clouds and the misty vapor caught the light of the sun from the west and glittered with a shimmering golden glow. "Wow!" "My, how beautiful," my wife, who was sitting in the passenger seat next to me, exclaimed repeatedly. But, since I was driving, I didn't have an opportunity to appreciate the scenery. After about two hours, we got to Ohizumi, bought something for dinner at a convenience store, and the three of us had dinner out on the deck of our villa. The clouds were moving from south to north and the rain had stopped. I took a bath after dinner and came out and found the room in total darkness, and my wife and daughter were outside on the deck exclaiming in wonder. They said that they couldn't see the stars as clearly if the lights were on. I went outside, looked up and saw a beautiful glittering starlit sky.

The next morning--in other words, this morning, I woke up when my wife got out of bed. It was before 5 am. She likes to go out on the deck early when we're staying here, and likes to enjoy the beginning of the morning in the mountains. I dozed off for a while again but ended up getting up about a half hour later. The south side of our villa faces the Southern Alps and Mt. Kai Komagatake, but in the summertime, with the high levels of humidity, you rarely see these mountains. But, we'd seen all those stars the night before--So thinking, I walked straight out onto the deck, and saw the green Kaikoma clearly, bathed in the brilliant morning sun.

- MT

Sunday, August 19, 2001


The fig tree at our home in Tokyo bore few fruit this year. That's because, we had the tree, which had grown a little too much, pruned at the beginning of the summer. They took off a lot of the branches with the fruit buds on it at that time. Still, we had some small fruit on the tree, and last week my wife picked the biggest, about 4 cm in diameter and 5 cm long, and put it in the refrigerator. Figs are very unusual--although they have no blossoms, fruit suddenly appears.

You can now find the large figs grown in Aichi Prefecture being sold in the supermarkets and fruit specialty stores throughout Tokyo. When I went to Uji City in Kyoto for the Seicho-No-Ie Urabon Ceremonies, I had some beautifully purple ripened figs that were just as big as those, about 7-8 cm in diameter and length. We heard that they were grown in the neighboring city of Johyo City. It had a refined, delicately sweet taste, and there was a pleasant crunching sensation of the little seeds as you chewed. We were talking about this at breakfast, and my mother asked rather demandingly, "Are you going to draw it?" Since I had drawn a picture of a fig when we came to Uji at about the same time last year, I really wanted to draw something else, but I answered somewhat vaguely, "I'm trying to decide what to draw?.." But then, after our meal, she had someone send 3-4 figs to our room, so I couldn't let it go.

Figs are actually the oldest cultivated fruit in the world. They were first found in either Turkey or the southern part of Arabia, and, from there, were widely cultivated in Israel and along the Mediterranean coast from about 2000 BC. The passage in the chapter on "Genesis" in the Bible where Adam and Eve, after having partaken of the "forbidden fruit" realize that they are naked and "they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons" is widely known. So, it follows that there was a fig tree in the "Garden of Eden"" It's said that fig trees came into Japan, through Nagasaki, at the beginning of the 17th Century. Although I said that fig trees have no blossoms on their branches, the flowers are inverted and actually develop inside the fruit. The seeds are drupes, or the real fruit. The many tiny flowers produce the crunchy little seeds that give figs their unique texture. It's really amazing.

Pollination is done by a tiny wasp. This stingerless insect, no bigger than a gnat, enters the open "eye" at the bottom of the fig, and unwittingly pollinates it by brushing pollen onto the female flowers. The tiny wasp then exits the fig to pollinate other fig flowers. However, these wasps cannot survive in the weather in Japan. I wonder how they reproduce then? If it's done by cuttings, then that means that all the fig trees in Japan are clones.

- MT

Monday, August 13, 2001

An Unmanned Vegetable Stand

In areas which grow vegetables, it's probably not very unusual, but, in and around the Northern area of Yamanashi Prefecture, where our villa is located, there are a number of unmanned vegetable stands along the road. It's not that this is the only place that you can buy vegetables. Right off the Nagasaka Interchange, the main thoroughfare here, there's a large supermarket, not much different from those in the city. In the town next to ours, Takane, there are shops where you can buy vegetables by the cardboard boxfuls. But what's best about these unmanned stands is that you can get fresh vegetables picked that very morning. Unlike those sold in supermarkets, you can buy fully ripened tomatoes and things at a very cheap price.

There are different types of these vegetable stands: There are simple ones with vegetables laid out on wooden stands underneath a tent, and there are also those built like small wooden huts, with a roof and walls, in front of which the vegetables are arranged on a special stand. In the former, you pay for your purchase by putting your money in a box, without a lid, that's left there. If you need change, you take from the coins left by people who bought before you. In the latter case, there are often times a metallic cylinder that juts out from inside the hut and you put your money in there. It's made so that the cash isn't exposed outside the stand. In either case, however, it's selling merchandise putting wholehearted trust and good faith in the customer. It's truly refreshing to look at.

It seems, though, that there are "customers" who betray that trust. At one stand, there was a written notice, enough to dampen anyone's enthusiasm, saying, "If you don't leave payment, we'll notify the police." We've bought at the supermarket as well as at the shops, but we've also gratefully purchased tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, okra, string beans, green peppers and other vegetables at these stands. Actually we would have liked to have seen the farmers who grew these vegetables, but that's probably asking too much. They were selling large, full-sized squash at the stand, but, wanting to share in the humor of the farmers, we bought some mini-squash instead.

- MT

Saturday, August 11, 2001

College Professor Next Door

My wife and I went to visit a neighbor of ours today--a college professor who lives next door. I say "neighbor", but sometimes the forest blocks the view, so, in actuality, there really isn't any house that you can see from our villa. This person lives about 2-3 minutes away from us. We'd never met him before, but the realtor who helped us with our villa told us that a "fussy, difficult college professor lives next door", so, if he was as fussy and/or difficult as he was made out to be, we thought we'd better go and say hello. We took some pastries that we had brought from Tokyo and set out for his house.

I'd seen this college professor's villa from the outside before on a number of occasions, and it's very unusual. There are two cylindrical buildings, about 4 meters in diameter, and about 12-13 meters long, connected at one point, next to each other. In addition to this, there's a separate small wooden house connected out in back. Furthermore, in the round area on the side of the metal cylinder facing the road, there was a comic-like "face" drawn in thick lines on it. From the outward appearance of the building and the rumors about him being so "fussy/difficult", I'd secretly named him "The Mad Scientist". I had to muster up a little courage to ring the doorbell to the house.

We heard the bell ring inside, and a lady, apparently in her 60's, came out and looked at me rather suspiciously. When I said, "Sorry for coming by unannounced. We're the Taniguchis. We just moved in next door and wanted to say hello", the lady's expression immediately softened. As we exchanged a few words, a bespectacled gray-haired man in his 70's, came toward us from the road. I knew immediately from the way he looked that this was the "college professor." He was much more "normal" than I had pictured him, and, from the wrinkles at the corner of his eyes, he did not come across to be "fussy/difficult" at all. My wife and I began talking to him when his wife, who had opened the door when we first got there, invited us in. It ended up that we stayed and visited with this professor for about an hour.

The professor told us that he had built his villa about ten years ago, and the odd shaped buildings were actually Chinese-made nuclear bomb shelters. He also told us about conditions in the area, past history, picking wild edible plants and mushrooms, and interesting stories about how deer run wild in the forest nearby and how an owl actually came flying up to his window. We also heard about a place where they raise rainbow trout and char fish and even sell them to individuals upon request. So, in the evening, on our drive back from shopping, we stopped by a place which was apparently what the professor was talking about. The rainbow trout were 120 yen a piece and the char fish 230 yen. We bought two char fish at this extraordinary price. We are very grateful to the professor for everything.

- MT

Thursday, August 09, 2001

Reckless City Dwellers

We've been at our mountain villa in Ohizumi village in Yamanashi Prefecture for several days now, and I've really been struck both with the kindness of those that live here and the recklessness of the city dwellers who aren't at all familiar with the mountains. In order to construct our garden, we went to a home improvement center, about a 30 minute drive away, and loaded the car with some bricks and broken stone chips. As I've written before, I drive a Honda Odyssey, and, if you fold down the back two row of seats, there's quite a bit of cargo space. Taking advantage of that, we loaded 20 bags of stone chips, weighing 20 kilograms each, and 200 bricks. That was about 600 kilograms in total, the equivalent of about 10 people. Since the Odyssey accommodates 7-8 people, It is likely that we were well over capacity.

Driving slowly, we managed to get to end of the paved road. From there, however, it's about 1 kilometer up a road lined only with rock chips. The continuous rains, coupled with the traffic, had created some furrows and ditches, so as soon as we started up this mountain road, there was a big scraping sound from underneath the car. I continued on, however, thinking simply that I could somehow manage to steer the car and avoid damaging the under carriage of the car, when, about 30 meters beyond the Kohmi Line train crossing, the car started to screech and scream with shrill scraping sounds. Realizing that the car would be severely damaged if I continued on any further, I stopped the car and got out. My wife and I both looked at each other in disbelief--there was hardly any room at all between the road and the bottom of the car.

It was then that we heard someone calling from behind. We saw a lady in her 50's, probably someone who lived nearby. She said, "I don't think you'll be able to make it in that car. I'll loan you our jeep so you can move your things." We were touched at her kindness and took her up on the offer to use her car. The jeep was a Suzuki Jimny, a light 4WD that is popular amongst those living in the villas for its power and design. The only thing was the limited cargo space. My wife and I made it home safely after three separate trips to haul everything home.

Had this lady not come out and offered her help, we would undoubtedly have had to unload everything road there and make, not three, but five or six trips back and forth.

We visited this lady later, taking a melon as a small token of our appreciation, and she said, "Lots of things happen up here. Please let me know if I can be of any help." I had to catch myself because I wanted to blurt out, "Yes, please teach us hopeless city dwellers all you can!"

- MT

Sunday, August 05, 2001

A Cage for the Java Sparrows

I've been using my time over the past few days to work on something like a "Summer Art Project"." That is to say, I've been building a new home for the Java sparrows we have at home. I wrote about these birds in my book Personal Reflections * At that time, we only had the two, but now that number's grown to ten. We kept them in two cages, with four in one and six in the other. Somehow, it seemed the cage with the six in it was too "densely populated" because, at times, they began shrieking shrilly and fighting. Java sparrows have a wild temperament. When they fight, they use their red beaks and attack each other at point blank range, aiming at the other's face. It makes one very nervous watching them, thinking they might actually hurt each other, but, similar to kendo, Japanese fencing, when you use your own bamboo fencing stick to defend yourself against the opponent's fencing stick, the birds use their beaks to fight so the tender parts of their bodies seem to be safe. However, it isn't very pleasant to see this, so I've been meaning to build them a "fight-free" environment for a while.

Another reason I've wanted to build a "bird house" is that I felt badly having to leave the bird's in my mother's (who lives next door) care whenever we travel during the summer and such. This is something that all pet owners have in common, but one can always take a dog or cat along on a trip but not birds. So, when you ask someone to take care of them, the person in charge must wash out the water dish and seed container all covered with droppings and change their food and the green leafy vegetables they like to eat. Java sparrows also like to take baths in the water, so the bottom of the bird cage becomes a miserable mess of water and bird droppings. Asking someone to clean something like this up is very difficult. However, if we were to build a large birdhouse and put it in the yard, we could leave enough food for them to last several days. If we were to also make the floor of the "house" like a drainboard, the water and droppings would "drain" and not be as annoying or bothersome.

This is what I had in mind, so I started working on the bird house for the Java sparrows in August, when I have more free time than usual. Just make a box and nail some net on it--I thought it would be relatively simple, but, when I actually started the building, it didn't go as planned. The worst part was putting the squared pieces of Japanese cedar that I bought at a home improvement store together into a right-angled frame. It's probably easy if you're working with something small, but, with something as long as 180 centimeters, the lumber itself is quite heavy, so just hammering nails in it won't hold it in place. Somehow, though, I managed to put it together, but the right angles ended up being a little crooked and irregular. I didn't think this would matter much to the birds, so I went ahead and finished the project in what ended up being about four days. I wasn't totally happy with the results, but, for the Java sparrows, it should be a significant upgrade in their living quarters and environment.

(*Not yet available in English)

- MT