September 2006 Archives

Luddite Week


Last Thursday, I refinished all the outdoor furniture - scraped, sanded and repainted the table, chairs and side table. Now I itch to build and sand and scrape more things: a storage bench for the verandah, a sort of butsudan altar, a new kitchen counter.

I want to enjoy the great outdoors because it is particularly great right now. The humidity has disappeared, the skies are clear and the days are warm enough but the nights cool. Walking weather. Picnicing weather! This is weather that makes me want to be outside and pound my head on the rug when it's time to come in.

It's been too long since I've sketched anything. It sure would be nice to go sit in a park or even in my living room and make some drawings. And I have things I want to write, a script to refine, storyboards to draw, some footage to shoot for a film project.

But to do all that, I need to get away from the computer. Too easily, a "quick Google" for research devloves into watching popular culture via YouTube and suddenly the day, my plans, and all my time are gone.

So this week, no computer. Honestly, I'm not touching the thing after I make this post. If you want to reach me, write me a letter or call me. Maybe I'll write or call you.



The man who drove into Tod last week called to check up on him and asked if he could come to make a formal apology - owabi. Tod told him it wasn't necessary, but of course it really was important to Ootusbo-san.

So today we invited him into our house and sat with him for a few minutes. I wasn't sure what to expect; Tod hadn't given me any sort of description of him. He is my age or maybe a few years older. His hair is short and simply cut; his skin is tanned from outdoor work. He wore all white, like a spiritual pilgrim: white pants, new white sneakers, a white cap and a white t-shirt with a heather blue sweater vest over it. He had his keitai tucked into his back pocket, with various colored straps and characters hanging from it.

I think he didn't quite know what to expect, either. He came into the living room and commented on our stack of zabuton cushions. We put them to use, sitting on the floor at our low table. After presenting us with a box of rice crackers and dorayaki, Ootsubo-san gave us his account of the accident. He was driving back from a job in Kofu, Yamanashi prefecture, and exited the highway to escape the Friday evening congestion. In Otemachi, he turned at the intersection, then slammed on the brakes when his passengers all shouted "Abunai!" They had seen Tod in the crosswalk. Thank goodness he used the brakes. He asked several times after Tod's various body parts, all of which are healing fine, and apologised to me for causing me worry and trouble.

After the sembei and the chat, Ootsubo-san passed Tod an envelope. "It's really not much," he began. Tod tried to refuse the money, but Ootsubo insisted. "It's not about the money. It's about my own feeling. Please accept it."

Then he asked Tod if he could snap a photograph of the bicycle and explained that his car insurance company needed to see it so he could get the van fixed. He said they might call to verify the circumstances of the accident. Apparently Tod left a pretty big dent in the van. So Tod and Ootsubo-san went outside together, but only after Ootsubo-san gave us a deep bow and a pro forma "I have no excuse. I'm very sorry." I think he really was glad that it all turned out alright.

Better Life, Olive Crown


I wrote a poem using two-word phrases collected from the subject lines of spam I've received recently. They were so inventive, it seemed a pity to just throw them away. I've combined 28 of them into something that makes about as much sense and the spam they came in.

Better Life, Olive Crown

Olive Crown, yarn stretcher and wool-oiler, whips winter-hardened thread
(Yellow fleece, Wedgewood blue, winter teal) through her narrow-necked warp.

She is wind-worn but never withering at her loom.

Needlepoint lace, wire stranding through and through and through.
Her non-universalist, world-portioning weave oar-feathers the future.

Olive Crown does not want wicked speaking.

October bird whistles a single passing note into her parcel-popish neat house
Parrot mouths a one-seeded message, wonder-mocking the well-alleged tale.

World-strange patterns reveal the mock-beggar of truth.


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Today I was witness to a remarkable event.

While I sat chatting with Tod, our friend Shinji, and two of his "older sisters" in Sugimoto's kimono shop on the promenade leading to Nezu Shrine, two women popped their heads in the open doorway.

"Um, do you remember us?" one began. In a moment they revealed that all four women had gone to grade school together 62 years before. These 70 year old ladies turned into schoolgirls in the blink of an eye. They caught up over half a century in a flurry of words so entangled that I could not follow unless I looked at one of them at a time and read her lips.

How lucky I was to be there for that happy, once in a lifetime event. It made me wonder if I would recognise my classmates from 30 years ago in a chance encounter?



"...and suddenly I'm flat on my back. I think 'Holy shit! I was just hit by a car.'" Tod recounted. "Then I see a van cruise by and slow down. It pulls away, and I think, 'Damn, a hit-and-run!'"

But the van was just getting out of the traffic. The driver and his four mates jumped out, collected Tod's bicycle, offered to call the police and ambulance. Tod, hyped up on adrenaline, insisted he was fine and refused medical help but did accept a ride home in the van, conversing in Japanese about their work.

Luckily, he is pretty much alright. His left shoulder collided with the van, throwing him from the bike onto his back. There's a dent in the vehicle and an ugly swollen bruise on his shoulder and arm. He's got some scrapes and abrasions but he was wearing his helmet, so his head's fine. After a night's sleep, he's feeling achy and tired but otherwise seems normal.

He and the driver exchanged contact details, and half an hour after he got home, the Ootsubo-san called to check up on him and reiterated he'd bear any medical costs and repairs to the bike. (So much more civil than "my insurance company will call your insurance company and we'll settle out of court," don't you think?)

Tod's biggest pain is me asking him to describe his pains. I know he won't go to the hospital if he can avoid it, so I feel like I have to monitor his swellings, aches, concussion and possible sites of infection. He says this accident is less painful than the time he wiped out on his bike in suburban Chicago and he survived that, so I'm trying not to fuss too much.

Anyway, happy holiday weekend.

Early Influence

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creative perspectivesMy mother sent me an interesting package a few days ago, crammed with schoolwork, report cards and childhood art. Of course I dropped my work to page through everything and I was interested to see something on my report cards that I had never noticed.

My best marks when I was very young were in Reading Aloud. Teachers commented on my performances and stories (a few of which were enclosed in the package).

Mrs. Walder, nursery school: "She...speaks well before the class."
Mrs Brinster, kindergarten: " completely at ease in performing before the class"
Miss Karatosis, 1st grade: "She is becoming quite a storywriter."

I think these small nods influenced me deeply. In sixth grade, I wrote the Christmas play and performed as MC for the spring school program. And my work now involves reading aloud, writing and performing. But I wonder if my weakest subjects, math & physical education, had been positively remarked upon in 1973, if I'd be more able and skilled in those areas as an adult?

Do you recall any positive youthful encouragement that still holds influence on your creativity? Do you give any to children in your life?

Fresh Fig with Spiced Cheese


recipe thursdayFigs are in season now. I love the big dark figs we get here - beautifully pink and sweet on the inside, the skin is a little tart. Mmmmm. This recipe adds just the right extra touch, whiskey, to turn a fresh fig and a dollop of cheese into a light but luscious dessert. And it's only 81 calories - go ahead and make a double serving!

Fresh Fig with Spiced Cheese
serves 1

1 large fresh fig
1 Tbsp Marscapone or cottage cheese
1/4 tsp powdered sugar
1 dash quatre epices (or white pepper, clove, cinnamon)
1/2 tsp whiskey
1/8 lemon (wedge)

Mix together the cheese, sugar and spice. Stem and quarter the fig. Plate with the cheese. Drizzle with whiskey. Serve with a lemon wedge to squeeze over.

Matsudai Sendoff

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L-R: Yuki, the Yanagi's grandson; the man who taught me how to harvest; Kimie Yanagi, matriarch; Tsuchiya-san, exhausted student; Hanako Murakami, artist; Higuchi-san, of Yumatsuya; Higuchi-san's friend; Akria Yanagi, patriarch.

We didn't plan it, but six of us were leaving Matsudai on the same train. The Yanagis came down to see us all off, so I snapped this memorial photograph of our hostesses and fellow harvesters. I wish I remembered everyone's names. They were, without a doubt, formally introduced to me at some point.



Mature rice, ready for harvest

Harvesting rice is a lot of work. I have a deep appreciation of each and every grain I eat now that I know what goes into just one day of rice production. The Yanagis, and thousands of other Japanese families, toil to feed me and I am grateful.

Sunday morning at 6:30 on the dot, Hanako, Tsuchiya-san and I sat down to breakfast prepared by our hostesses, who were awake and cooking at 5:30. At 8:30, we were called over to the Yanagi’s house to dress and wait for further instructions. The waiting made me fidgety and irritable. I wanted to go pick rice, but here were indoors with Kimie, who served tea and edamame and offered us our choice of hats and boots to wear outside.

By 9:30 we were finally in the field, where Akira Yanagi, his grandson, mother, neighbor and two young boys were already at work. After a quick demonstration of harvesting skills we’d need to use, we were set to work.

The machine harvester

Akira has a harvesting machine that growls like a lawnmower, and it’s not far off in size. The harvester is pushed by hand through the rows, cutting the clumps of rice near the ground and binding nine of them together with twine before spitting the bundle out to the side.

My first task was to follow the harvester, picking up the bundles it spit out and gathering them into sets of seven. I cinched them together with a noose-like rope, then carried the 10 kilo bundle to one corner of the field.

It was hot – around 33 C (91F) - the sky was clear blue and sun beat down on us. In a few minutes, I was sweating buckets and so was everyone else.

The harvester doesn’t get all the rice; uneven rows or a misdirected push can leave clumps uncut. So someone has to hand-cut the clumps. After a while, I followed the hand-harvesters around, picking up their clumps of nine and tying them into bundles using rice straw from the last harvest.

The technique was simple and effective – belt a few strands of straw around the bundle, twist once, and then spin the whole thing around itself to tighten the twist, and finally tuck the ends under the belt. I kept getting the thumb of my glove stuck in the twist when I spun the bundle, but a good sharp tug always freed it.

Enjoying a much-needed drink

It wasn’t long before we took a break and everyone had a small bottle of tea. Japanese don’t drink much compared to Americans. Maybe because their diet is saltier and they retain water so don’t need as much going in. I don’t know, but one 300 ml bottle of tea wasn’t enough for me but nobody else was having more, so I didn’t either. Very soon it was back to work.

More tying, spinning, cinching and carrying got us one field cleared. We moved the piled sheaves from the side of the field into the truck, laying the bundles rice-end in and alternating the direction of the layers so that the rice was secure and the grains protected for transportation.

Three men took the rice off to hang it up to dry in the sun while the rest of us started on the second field. This time, I asked to try the hand-cutting. With a short, serrated curved blade in one hand, you grasp the clump of rice in the other hand and draw the blade across in one firm movement. The trick is to make your cutting stroke count - not to saw at the rice – while not pulling the clump out of the soft muddy earth while you cut. It took me a while, but I did eventually get the hang of it. I was not adept, but I managed.

Farmer Kristen

I cut out part of a corner for the harvester to turn in and a whole row along one side of the paddy, and then took a break on my own– cutting the rice was more intense than bundling and carrying – and drank the last little bottle of tea. I noticed that the sky was starting to cloud up on the horizon. The weather forecast called for afternoon rain, followed by a few rainy days in a row, so we wanted to get as much rice in today as possible. My energy was starting to flag, but I was determined not to fall behind.

The truck was back, but now parked further away, so I loaded up the wheelbarrows with Hanako and we loaded the remainder of the first field into the truck. Then I did some more tying and carrying before a break was called for lunch. We put what we had completed in the truck, tidied up our tools and rode back to the Yanagi’s for lunch.

Everyone was covered in mud and sweat. “Ladies shower first!” one of the men called out and that meant, really, that “foreign ladies” shower first. So I stripped down, surprised at how very, very wet my clothes were, and hopped into the shower. Hanako called in to me, “Do you have a change of clothes for the afternoon?” Oops, no. I hadn’t considered that. Kimie kindly loaned me an entire outfit, including a brand-new pair of her panties. I looked like a grandmother in her largest polka dotted polyester ensemble, but I was dry.

While we were in the field, Kimie had prepared a feast of tempura vegetables, simmered fish and tofu, pickles and cold somen noodles. It was plentiful and bountiful and everyone at the table dug in like they’d never eaten before.

Only I wasn’t hungry. My head throbbed, my teeth ached and my stomach hurt. Hanako noticed my lack of appetite and asked if I was ok. I wasn’t sure. I had goosebumps and was feeling cold. I’d stopped sweating and I was hot to the touch. Hanako lead me upstairs and put me to bed under a quilt. I slept while they finished lunch.

When Hanako back came upstairs to change into her field clothes, she told me I would stay there while they went back out. I sat up, sipped some tea and declared that I was fine, really. “Mom, I want to go out to play!” I pleaded jokingly. But she insisted I rest. She was right, of course, but I was terribly disappointed as I listened to their laughing voices piling into the truck and driving away without me.

I drifted off to sleep again to be awakened half an hour later by the pounding of hard rain on the tin roof. “Rain! Ah…Rain? Ah!! The laundry!” I leapt up to rescue the clothes and towels hanging outside the second floor balconies. Kimie raced up after collecting everything downstairs and we put the glass doors on their tracks and rehung the clothes – only slightly damp - on plastic racks inside the house to finish drying.

Kimiko wrings out her towel in the rain; Hanako laughs and drips into the house

That was the finish of the harvesting day, of course. Moments later the crew returned, soaked again but this time with rain. They were laughing and wringing out their clothes. We handed out all the towels and they changed – again – into clean dry togs.

Despite the heatstroke, I enjoyed the harvest immensely. I grinned like an idiot in the field, so happy to be joining in an aspect of life that is mostly hidden behind city supermarket price tags. And I hope this first harvest wasn’t my last.

(For more photos, see my Rice Harvest photo set on Flickr)

Rice Farmers


Sekiya-san & Motohei-san in the rice paddy. May, 2006

Filling an Empty Space

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Tagged by Mark Lindeman at DumLuk, I've been given a few questions to answer. So while I'm still away at the rice harvest, here's something to distract you from the important work you should be doing.

Why do you blog?
Bad habits are hard to break.

How long have you been blogging?
Since July 2000, and I have maintained a personal website since 1994.

Self Portrait?
Middle-aged woman
Wonders what she's doing here;
Tries to savor life.

Why do readers read your blog?
Bad habits are hard to break.

What was the last search phrase someone used to get to your site?
"kristen" but I'll bet they were looking for the Kristen Archives.

Which of your entries unjustly gets too little attention?
I think the opposite is more appropriate - what unjustly gets too much attention? The gingerbread computer got me /.ed but it wasn't my own creation, just something I reported.

Your current favorite blog?
I love it when my friends post to their weblogs; they are all my favorites.

What blog did you read most recently?
Tea Leaves

Which feeds do you subscribe to?
In addition to friends, flickr and news, I subscribe LibriVox, Whip Up, Time Goes By, Marginal Revolution, Boing Boing and Astronomy Picture of the Day.

What four blogs are you tagging with this meme and why?
Cerebral Soup, Threads of Gold, Keitai Goddess and UltraMom from Dynamic Duo all get tagged because they are busy women with exciting lives who don't really post often enough.

Rice Harvest

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Maturing rice in Kanagawa

The rice harvest begins September 10th, and I'm off to Matsudai to help for a few days.

5-minute t-shirt jacket

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creative perspectivesEarlier this summer, there was a craze in the sewing/crafting world for "wardrobe refashioning," taking an item of ready-made clothing and turning it into something else. There were some really clever ideas (here are some photos) and I wanted to play, too.

Finally, today, I grabbed a t-shirt I never wear - it's a little too long and tight - and turned it into a jacket. Took me five minutes to get the shape right with a pair of pinking shears. Now it's a flutter-sleeved, cutaway jacket/overshirt nd I can tell I'll wear it often.

I liked the results enough to write up an illustrated guide to doing it yourself. Writing the instructions took 2 hours. So much for getting any other sewing done today... Now here's your challenge. Reinvent one of your own ill-fitting t-shirts. If you like what you refashion, tell us about it in the comments.

Click for larger image, or download a printable version: 5-minute t-shirt jacket (PDF 232K)


Acqua Pazza

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recipe thursdayAcqua pazza means crazy water in Italian. It's a delicious way to poach fish to add lots of flavor. How can you go wrong with garlic, anchovy and a lot of vegetables? I made this version the other night .It's healthy as well as delicious, see the recipe analysis.

Acqua Pazza
serves 2

200 gr swordfish fillet or fish of your choice
1/2 cup onion, chopped
1 tsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic
2 anchovy fillets
1 cup tomatoes, diced
50 g carrot, diced
50 g green pepper, diced
4 button mushrooms, chopped
2 tbsp fresh parsley
1/4 cup wine (red or white)
1 cup water
salt & pepper to taste
1 wedge lemon

Saute the onion, garlic and anchovy in olive oil. Add tomatoes, carrot, pepper, & mushrooms, Cook until just tender. Splash in the wine and water, allow to come to a boil. Lay fish in broth, cover and allow to simmer until cooked through. Top with parsley and season to taste with salt, pepper and lemon.

Serve over spinach egg noodles.

Beware of Dog


I was attacked by a dog last night. No major injury resulted, just a coin-sized blood bruise, an achy muscle, and a tooth scrape on my leg, but what a shock.

Tod & I were almost home from a late evening walk when we passed a neighbor walking his knee-high, white Japanese Spitz. It was a typical dog on a leash so I wasn't paying much attention to the dog or its owner as Tod & I were conversing, but without warning the dog lunged at me.

I paid attention then!

Needless to say we all stopped; the owner curbing the dog; Tod checking on my well-being. I hitched up my skirt to reveal an already angry blue bruised leg and a bit of blood. The owner couldn't believe it and apologised with a deep bow. I think he might have been more stunned than I was.

I was wearing a skirt and glad of it because it had hidden the exact position of my limbs. As it was, the dog bit hard with the part of his mouth that connected- if he'd know exactly where to crunch down, I am sure my injury would have been much worse.

After I realised that my injury was only slight and mainly I was surprised and scared, I assured our neighbor that it was OK, admonished "Bad dog!" at the canine offender, and limped the few remaining steps home.

Maybe this unprovoked attack explains why so many Japanese seem afraid of dogs.

Scale and Scanner


After seeing myself in a bathing suit for the first time in about 18 months, I decided to buy a bathroom scale to monitor the progress of my thighs.

I've never owned a scale though my parents had one in their bathroom when I was growing up. Scales in Japan in 2006 are stunningly complex. At Bic Camera yesterday, there were three scale-only models and nearly 30 scales that also scanned your body for signs of life. Prices ranged from 1,000 yen for a classic non-digital scale to 20,000 yen for the Cadillac of body monitoring technology.

We decided to splurge and get a mid-range device one that measures more than weight. We now are the befuddled owners of a Tanita InnerScan. If you enter your age and height then step on the scale, it measures not only your weight, but your:

  • Body fat %
  • Visceral fat
  • Muscle mass and "body type score"
  • Bone mass
  • Base metabolic rate and metabolic age

It's interesting comparing me & Tod. My body fat is at the upper edge of acceptable levels. His is smack in the middle range, but he's got too much visceral fat (I had to look that up; it's the fat around your belly and organs) where my visceral fat, which I always think is too much is actually OK.

My bone mass is also fine and I am, as always, a mesomorph body type.

But my metabolic age is higher than my real age, so I need to do some more exercise to get the metabolism in line. Exercise will also increase my muscle mass. Combine that with a bit of calorie counting and I should be able to monitor my thighs in a shapely downward slope, rather than buying a new and larger swiimsuit.

Til 2009


The visa and re-entry permit

Hard to believe it's been three years since our previous visa renewal, but it has and our papers to re-up were turned in a few weeks back. Yesterday evening Tod handed me our passports newly plastered with self-adhesive, QR coded visa extensions. We're good until 2009.

And then? Maybe an application for permanent residency.

Exterior Textures

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creative perspectives

Walking through my neighborhood recently, I've been paying attention to all the new construction. Most of it is terribly disappointing - generic, cheaply made apartment blocks - but I'm interested in all the different exterior facings that are popular now and how thy compare to exterior surfaces from a decade ago and even older ones.

There's a lot of creativity in these. Sometimes they all look the same, but they aren't.

Plasti-brick panel siding.

The new stuff seems to be mainly sheet siding formed into brick and stone shapes. The seams are obvious cracks filled with a finger-width of putty and the bricks don't meet up at the seams. Dreadful. A decade ago, they were using flat brick-like tiles on the exteriors. Stucco remains popular for certain styles of housing. Real stone and brick are hard to find. Wood and tin are relegated mainly to the old and decrepit buildings of 20+ years ago.

I've begun to take photos of exterior surfaces and have started a Flickr set here: Exterior Textures. The first set of photos is from yesterday's trip to Kanagawa. I'll add more from my neighborhood and around Tokyo as I have time.

Taking photos of exteriors makes me dangerous to walk around with, as MJ can attest. As we walked through her neighborhood yesterday, I stopped at almost every building to snap a photo of the siding. Homeowners throughout Hiratsuka were undoubtedly reporting the suspicious behaviour of a foreign person.

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