Rural perspective — Review of “Inaka” on WiK

path through bamboo
That famous bamboo path in Arashiyama, Kyoto (March 2020)

The Arashiyama bamboo grove is one of those must-go places when you visit. Located in the west of the city, at the foot of Mount Arashiyama, it is a major tourist area offering all the amenities you would expect of a trip to the “ancient” capital (including Rilakkuma pancakes!). Likely the most photographed sight in the district is that path through the bamboo forest. Many people even pay $30+ for the privilege to be pulled through the grove on a rickshaw!

I was stunned after a few days living on the remote island of Ikijima to learn that farmers hate bamboo. It grows very quickly and is difficult to remove — an invasive species that can ruin a field. I had no idea. Back in Kyoto people write poetry about the stuff!

Another local guy here on the island is married to a woman originally from Kyoto. She used to work in a high-end department store selling fancy watches. He told me about the first time he went to Kyoto to visit her family. They took him around the city to see the sights, and finally to Arashiyama. He was shocked when they walked him through that bamboo grove, wistful and yet proud in that Kyoto manner. He was flabbergasted that they were so pleased with their highly manicured weeds.


The urban-rural divide defines our modern era. Bridging this is one of the reasons we moved to Iki in the first place. Living here is like simultaneously living in Japan’s past and future — a real eye-opener that I am still processing. Some of the lessons I have learned on Iki, and many more besides, are found in a new book from Camphor Press: Inaka: Portraits of Life in Rural Japan. I had the opportunity to read the book and write a review for Writers in Kyoto that you can check out here. I share a few more lessons from remote island-living in that piece. Check it out, and if you are interested, get the book!

Creating the image of peace — Kitamura Seibo

Just north of the hypocenter where the atomic bomb exploded over Nagasaki is a commemorative park honouring victims of mass destruction. Walkways wend through trimmed lawns dotted with sculptures gifted from nations around the world in a mournful solidarity. The piece that caps the display is of a powerful man, one hand pointing up at the threat of the bomb while the other is stretched out in tranquil peace. He sits in a partially meditative pose, but with one leg up, ready to leap into action to help humanity. This ten meter tall statue was created by Kitamura Seibo, a renowned artist, at the age of 70.

statue

Seibo is a curious figure and prolific artist who lived until the age of 102. You can see him spryly climbing up the statue and his fantastic moustache in this short NHK profile on him. I have seen his pieces in Nagasaki City but also in Shimabara City including some temples and Shimabara Castle.

Continue reading “Creating the image of peace — Kitamura Seibo”

Nakamura Tetsu

Cover for the book “Providence was with us”

I wrote a review of the recently published English translation of Nakamura Tetsu’s book Providence Was with Us: How a Japanese Doctor Turned the Afghan Desert Green. You can read the review on BooksOnAsia.net here, but I just wanted to say a few more things on a more personal note about this book.

I knew about Dr Nakamura peripherally since he is just such a famous person in Japan. I could recognize his face (and his pakol) and knew that he was building canals in Afghanistan. I had no idea how much more he did there and in Pakistan until I read Providence Was with Us. The book really touched me. I drove across Kyushu to see his memorial before I wrote the book review.

Dr Nakamura is a hero here in Japan, and also in Afghanistan — maybe moreso there. He has very admirable qualities, which come across readily in the book. But the thing that struck me the most is how much he thought about his impact on the world, and strategically made choices to increase that impact. He started out as a psychologist, but by listening carefully to needs on the ground he transitioned to a medical doctor, and finally to a civil engineer, staying up late into the night studying books on well-digging, irrigation, and canal design.

During my (what seems bi-annual at this point) mid-life crises (yes, plural) I grapple with the question of impact, too. We probably all do. Nakamura is special because he was able to analyze and actually execute on it, making a massive impact. In this he is an example for use all. The interesting thing, is he was able to do it by keeping things simple and focusing on the needs around him.

In reading more about Nakamura’s life, probably the biggest lesson I drew was to listen. Quit trying to run around and “be useful.” Often you just end up a nuisance. Stay still and listen carefully. I suppose that is why it is called a “calling.”

Anyways, I encourage everyone in the English-speaking world to learn more about Dr Nakamura. Check out my review of the book and give it a read. You can also check out the NHK documentary “Water, not weapons” to learn more.

Yufuin: Driving across Kyushu

You can drive from one end of Ikijima to the other in about twenty minutes. The narrow roads twist either along the coastline, between fishing villages, or bend back upon themselves into the hills, connecting farms in the interior. I don’t think there is a road on this island that is more than two lanes. Many are single, meaning you need to keep your eyes on the roadside mirrors to watch for oncoming traffic around the corner. I estimate about 90 percent of the vehicles on the island are kei cars.

So, after four months of not going anywhere I was a little freaked at the thought of driving a few hours across Kyushu in a seven seater van!

map of northern Kyushu
Map of our route across the major island of Kyushu
Continue reading “Yufuin: Driving across Kyushu”

Raising kids in multiple languages

A recent episode Japan By River Cruise (Woke Dad Japan) featured Daniel Yoder, one of the hosts of the Konnichiwa Podcast (コニポ). They spoke about the challenges of raising kids in Japan as foreigners. It’s a fun episode, and I can identify with a lot. One of the challenges they spoke of was their kids’ language abilities. My kids’ (aged 8 and 11) situation is different to theirs since we are a family who has been back and forth between Canada and Japan. But the episode made me reflect on how my thinking on child language acquisition has evolved over the years. Generally, it has gone through three stages: bilingualism, heritage language, plurilingualism.

Continue reading “Raising kids in multiple languages”

Island emergency broadcast system

Often on Twitter I will mention hearing about some local happening on the island like new coronavirus cases or massive snowfall stalling bus service. These updates come across the emergency broadcast system, or 告知放送 kokuchi hōsō. We are all familiar with speakers mounted on towers and buildings in every neighbourhood in Japan. But this is the first time I have ever had one in my house!

On a wall there is a home receiver on the left and a standard clock on the right
Emergency broadcast receiver mounted on my kitchen wall, right by the clock. (You can see the old on in the reflection on the clock)

Mounted on the wall in my kitchen is a wireless radio that beams messages from the city directly into my home. Day to day, this includes a simple time alarm: a chime played at 7am, noon, and 5pm every day (including Sundays!). Islander children are told by teachers and parents that they should always hear the 5 o’clock chime from home.

I recorded a sampling of each so you could hear:

The songs are:

  • 07:00 恋は水色 Koi ha mizuiro or “L’amour est bleu”
  • 12:00 壱岐市民歌 Iki City Song
  • 17:00 夕焼け小焼け Yūyake Koyake

The last one is particularly famous, and used as a time alarm in many places in Japan.

It has been kind of strange to have this receiver in my house. Apparently they are in every house in Iki. There are no fees associated and they are maintained by the city Crisis Management Department (危機管理課) as part of Iki’s disaster plan. They have a manual you can read. The system has been in place for a while, since on the other wall there is an older version that doesn’t work anymore:

A radio-like object with metal antennae on the wall above a fridge with Nutella jars on it.
An older home receiver above my fridge

It is up near the ceiling by my fridge. The new one was installed in 2010, but that might have been when this house was built.

They have a manual posted online for operating the device. You can even get FM radio on it. There is a volume control, and you can turn them completely off, but that would defeat the purpose.

The reason for these home receivers is for public service announcements, especially in emergencies. Common ones I have heard include:

  • natural disasters: typhoon, wind, freezing warnings (pipes)
  • emergencies: fires (when they start, the location, and when they are put out), missing persons, coronavirus updates
  • marketing: events run by various city-related organizations (eg. Museum lectures), cancellations of events (eg. due to coronavirus)

I believe these are linked to the J-Alert network so we should get earthquake warnings. I would also expect we would get nuclear disaster warnings since there is a reactor nearby. I don’t know if we would get any type of air raid warning in case of a North Korean missile. 🤷‍♂️

On almost our first day I was shocked to hear a broadcast from the Iki police directly into my house! It was only a reminder to everyone to wear their seatbelt, but it felt a little Orwellian (I don’t think these things have a mic on them, believe me, I checked right away).

On the city website you can request a broadcast. It must use a specific template and be filed at least three days in advance. Broadcasts can be to one or more of the four towns on Iki, or the entire island. I am not sure who clears these messages, but I seriously doubt they will let me send an island-wide Happy Anniversary! to my wife next month. 😂

Emergency broadcast systems are extremely common in Japan, but this is the first time I have seen them inside of a house. Is this common on other islands, or rural areas? If you have seen this before, comment below!

Greeting the sun and moon for 2021

We turned in at about 1AM after watching 紅白 and ゆく年くる年 I roused the kids out of bed at 6am so we could drive to a spot for a view of the first sunrise of 2021. Shivering in the car we ended up at the cliffs by Sakyōbana, the crumbling heavenly pillar and well-known “power spot” on Iki. From high up on the cliff about 20 people were spread out watching across the sea to see the sun rise from behind the taller mountains of the Kyushu mainland. It was pretty cloudy, so we could only see a blotch of pink. But as the morning light brightened up we watched the wind lash waves against the rock formation known as Sakyōbana.

Shrine of the Moon God

Amaterasu is the goddess of the sun, and divine ancestor of the Emperor of Japan. We greeted her last year on a visit to Ise. She has many famous stories about her and her jerk brother Susano’o, the god of the wind. She also has a lesser known brother, who has been kind of written out of the old stories: Tsukiyomi, the moon god. Between Japan and Korea, the island of Tsushima is known as the “Sun” and Iki as the “Moon.” There are not a lot of shrines to Tsukiyomi in Japan, but Iki has an important one. In fact, the Tsukiyomi Shrine here has a sub-shrine on the grounds of Matsuo-taisha in Kyoto. We climbed the stairs to the shrine and were the only ones there as we hammered a wooden plaque number of times of our age for good luck in 2021. Here we dropped off all of our older charms from last year for burning, and bought new fuda for the kamidana in our house.

On the way back home we stopped by Sumiyoshi Shrine, our ujigami to pick up a fuda from there too. You have to have the full set stacked in the right order to protect your household. I also picked up an omikuji and got a wonderful fortune for 2021! I also got a little daruma charm for my wallet (nice mixing of Buddhism there!). Up at Tsukiyomi a few bits of snow and hail fell. While at Sumiyoshi it really started coming down!

Hail in Chad's hair
How many of those wrinkles were put there by 2020?

Back home we set up the house shrine for 2021, busted open the money envelopes with the kids, and then sat down for some osechi. Originally we had planned on being in Kyoto for New Years. As coronavirus cases started to explode, we cancelled all of our plans and just stuck to the island. Too late to make an order, my wife decided to try and make osechi from scratch. She is too embarrassed to let me show pics of the inside, but I think she did an amazing job. 

あけましておめでとうございます。

今年もよろしくお願いします!

The nearly 400 year legacy of a cutting edge ceramic coffee filter

This NY Times piece on a 1,020 year old shop in Kyoto has been making the rounds online. It got me thinking about other examples of products or skills that have traversed centuries, and a random discovery we made at a shopping stall: a paperless ceramic coffee filter.

Map showing route from Iki to Arita

Last October we travelled to Imari and Arita, in the prefecture of Saga on the Kyushu mainland. This region of Japan is famous for its porcelain. In the 17th century, as the Ming dynasty collapsed, Chinese porcelain became a rare commodity. Around the same time a kaolinite mine was discovered in this region of Japan. The lords of the region, the Nabeshima Clan, had participated in the invasion of Korea in the late 16th century. Many Koreans were “brought over” to Japan, and the Nabeshimas found some who had the skills to make high quality ceramics competitive with mainland Asia. The Nabeshima Clan hid the potters up in a secluded valley in Arita to “protect the intellectual property” of this new money-maker, shipping finished product downriver to the port at Imari where they could be loaded onto bigger ships bound for Nagasaki and then on to the palaces of Europe.

This legacy of ceramic-work was put to use in a new way a couple of centuries later. In the late 1800s, when Japan started its process of modernization, the British came to advise on all sorts of things. They helped the Japanese engineer bridges, railways, and other infrastructure, and are the reason why cars are driven on the left in Japan. The British were also responsible for Japan’s new communication network, stringing telegraph cables throughout the country. At the time, the Brits used insulators made of glass. When it came time to replace these with newer and better ceramic insulators, the potters of Arita were called upon for their expertise.

While in Imari and Arita we visited the Kyushu Ceramic Museum and wandered the pottery stores looking at some amazing pieces of art. We even tried our hand at making some vases and painting some mugs. Getting your hands dirty trying to do pottery sure gives you a healthy respect for what the pros can accomplish!

Ceramic technology is of course being still used in all sorts of high tech materials applications like rocket nozzles and 3D printing. I am not sure if that is going on in Arita, but what we did discover are these cool molded ceramic coffee filters that use micro-perforations to allow the water to pass through. We bought this filter and have been using it every day for the past two months. It works a lot better than metal filters — there is very little coffee grit at the bottom of my mug when it is done — and it is more eco friendly. Plus, it looks really cool! Check out the video below. You can see the texture is kind of like volcanic rock, it feels like it is made of sandpaper.

I am sure there are many different examples of traditional skills like this transforming through the ages. If you can think of more examples from Japan or other countries, please add them in the comments!

Island of Gods, Island of Demons

According to the old stories, Iki was one of the first islands of Japan, made by the creator gods themselves. It is the island of the Moon, with Tsushima across the strait being the island of the Sun. The gods had to raise up heavenly pillars to keep the island in place. Iki is said to be home to 1200 shrines despite being only 17 km long and 14 km wide.

But gods are not the only ones that tread here.

According to different old stories, Iki was a Demon Island (鬼ヶ島). Not the one from the Momotaro story, a different one. Demons ran rampant in old Japan, and you can see the evidence today here on Iki: there is the famous Devil’s Footprint and many shrines have demon-shaped wooden dolls to keep away evil (and Mongols). But where did all the demons go? The answer to that question can be found in the traditional kites of Iki.

The ondako (鬼凧) or “demon kite” is one of the symbols of the island. You can see them on the backs of tour buses, at the entrance to the museum, and they sell little versions of them as souvenirs. They are ubiquitous.

There is a kite flying festival in April, but on windy days, if you go down to Sakyobana, the north-facing cliffs, there is a group of older gentleman that fly the kites. They are quite large, and when they go up into the strong winds, they make a sort of buzzing sound that is loud. It is like one of those murder hornets, a warning.

The ondako depicts a fierce looking warrior, with upturned moustache, wearing an ornate helmet. The warrior is looking upwards, because perched on top of the helmet is the head of a demon. The story goes like this:

The hero Yuriwaka came to Iki and killed most of the demons, finally facing down their Poison King. The evil demon king attacked Yuriwaka with his massive golden club, but Yuriwaka was able to decapitate the king. The demon king’s head then flew up into the heavens to get some medicine that would help re-attach his head to his body. Meanwhile Yuriwaka hid the body, and waited for the demon head to finally die. When the Head of Poison King returned and could not find his body, the demon attacked Yuriwaka by chomping on his head! The helmet protected Yuriwaka, and soon the demon head died. Since then the people fly kites celebrating Yuriwaka’s deeds high up into the heavens as a warning to any demons who might be thinking about coming down.

Statue depicting a warrior fighting a demon
Yuriwaka fighting the Poison King, statue in downtown Go-no-ura

Negotiating the seas

It has been busy recently for Japan’s three disputed territories.

Early in October China opened a new digital museum about the Senkaku Islands, and China has had coast guard vessels near the Senkakus for a record number of days this year.

Just a few days ago the “Day of Dokdo” in South Korea was to be marked by singer Kim Jang-Hoon by holding an online concert while cruising around the islets.

Two days later Russia deployed a new missile system to the Kuril Islands during military drills.

These and more are just some of the happenings in these longterm disputes that have been drawn out for decades. Luckily there have been no clashes, and the “fighting” has been mostly taking place in the legal realm. If you are looking to get a good foundation on one or more of these conflicts, check out my review Serita Kentaro’s book The Territory of Japan: Its History and Legal Basis for BooksOnAsia.net. The review is posted on BooksOnAsia.net, check it out here → Negotiating the seas

Cover for The Territory of Japan: Its History and Legal Basis

This is my first piece for BoA, and I hope to have a couple more before the year is out.