Author: Ai Kanazawa

Autumn Equinox Approximately September 23rd – October 7th

The scrolls are read from right to left and the dates are approximate 
Autumn Equinox (Shubun 秋分)
Thunder pipes down (Kaminari sunawachi Koeoosamu 雷乃収声) Sept. 23-27
Insects wall up in shelters (Chicchu to o fusagu 蟄虫坏戸) Sept.28-Oct. 2
Waters dry up (Mizu hajimetekareru 水始涸) Oct. 3-7
Calligraphy by Chieko

Waters Dry Up

When the sweet smell of orange tea olive flowers waft through the air, it is truly autumn. After the rice is harvested, the paddy fields that were drained in advance slowly dry up into mud cracks. Darkness descends earlier in the evenings and with that, my visits to the fields become few and far between.

Around the end of September, vertical banners in the shop front would announce the arrival of new rice at our local supermarket. The rice would be followed by a flood of seasonal delicacies such as Kyoho grapes, Kosui pears, Matsutake mushrooms, and most important, the pacific saury fish, which is my favorite fall delicacy called sanma in Japanese.

“Let’s eat sanma tonight,” my mother would say as soon as she spots the fresh fish in the supermarket aisle. Their long silver bodies are piled in a Styrofoam container packed with ice. “Pick a plump one with clear eyes and yellow nose,” she would say as she passes me a tong. As I pick each fish, she would indicate with a nod or shake of her head to put them into the plastic bag.

When I was growing up in Japan in the late 70s, we ate a lot of fish prepared Himono-style. Himono are split, cleaned, salted, and partially dried small fish, mostly skipjacks and horse mackerels. Raw fish like sashimi and sushi were only served on special days when we had guests. Sanma is unique because it is only eaten for a short period in autumn, grilled and served whole with its intestines intact.

To prepare a sanma, the fish is salted generously on the outside and popped into the fish grill —every Japanese household stove is equipped with one— to be roasted under the open flame for a few minutes. It is usually served on a long plate, uncut, horizontally with its head pointed to the left. A little mound of grated daikon radish topped with a dash of soy sauce should accompany it on the side, together with a wedge of Kabosu lime to squeeze over the caramelized skin. I enjoy eating sanma because its salty and oily meat paired perfectly with the new rice, which comes out of the rice cooker softer than older rice.

The other reason I loved eating sanma when I was young was to prove my fish-eating skills to my parents. This is because the things my parents particularly respected were proper greetings and excellent chopstick skills. “So-and-so can’t even greet people properly!” my mother would say about one of my friends who didn’t say hello to her on the street.

She also said, “a person who holds chopsticks properly and eats a fish clean to the bone has a good upbringing.” Sanma is very difficult to eat clean because it has numerous fine bones along its narrow body, but because we were well-trained by my parents, my sisters and I were expert fish eaters at a young age. My parents didn’t praise us easily, but they always complimented us for eating fish properly.

Several years ago, I was in the town of Tsu on the shores of Ise bay in Mie prefecture. I was interpreting for a group of people from the US visiting pottery towns in Japan. One night, the group photographer and I ate at a little local Japanese bar with two of the American members of the group. It was sanma season and one of the Americans ordered a sanma. When the fish arrived at the table grilled to perfection, he asked for a fork and a knife and started eating the sanma. Everyone, including the bar owners and the other customers surrounded the table and watched him artfully eat the fish with the cutlery. When he finished and the sanma was eaten clean to the bone, the crowd broke into cheers. So, it’s not just my parents, but many Japanese people have unconditional respect for anyone who knows how to graciously eat a fish.

White Dew
Approximately September 8th – 22nd

 

The scrolls are read from right to left and the dates are approximate 
White Dew (Hakuro 白露)
White dew on grass (Kusatsuyu Shiroshi 草露白)
Wagtails Cry (Sekirei naku 鶺鴒鳴)
Swallows depart (Gencho saru 玄鳥去)
Calligraphy by Chieko

 

White Dew on Grass

“If you are going out to play, take your little sister with you,” my mother would occasionally say as I was hastily running out the door after school. When this happened, the sad trombone would play in my head and my exciting plans to explore the rice paddy fields had to be aborted. I couldn’t take my little sister to the fields because the bugs scared her and the water was too dangerous.

But even though I couldn’t indulge in some of the activities that I loved, I still enjoyed playing with my little sister who is only two years my junior. She was skinny and sickly when she was little and didn’t have many friends because she spent a lot of time at home. We often played together until she became healthier and started making her own friends.

In September, when the colorful Mirabilis flowers that adorn the warm summer evenings start to develop seeds, we would go to the flower border to collect their seeds. The black seeds, which resemble small grenades, carry white powder in the middle. We would gather the powder by cracking the seeds and then paint each other’s faces white, pretending to be putting on make-up. In Japanese, Mirabilis flowers are called “oshiroi bana,” which means “white make-up flower.”

I also frequently took my little sister to play games with my friends as “omiso”. Omiso means miso paste, and it was the name that Japanese children used to describe little ones that participated in games without having the proper rules applied to them. When my sister came along as “omisho”–this is the way she said the word because she couldn’t pronounce it properly– my friends that didn’t have younger siblings enjoyed being her temporary elder, so it worked out perfectly for everyone.

One day, I played hide-and-seek at the bus terminal with my friends. My little sister came along as omiso, but there were two problems in bringing her to play this particular game. The first problem was that she would cry whenever the seeker would find her because she was so timid. The second problem was that she would not come out at the end of each game because she became scared. So we would often stop looking for her because we didn’t want to make her cry. And on that day, as you might expect, I completely forgot about her after playing several games because she had not come out.

I jollily went home without my sister for dinner and only remembered when my mother asked in a sharp tone, “where is your sister?” as I walked into the apartment.  In a hurry, I ran back and found her still hiding behind a bunch of tall grass that was her favorite hiding spot. As soon as she saw me, she burst out crying. None of the tricks that I had accumulated over the years to make her stop crying worked. As we walked home with my sister crying at the top of her lungs, every neighbor that we passed asked me what had happened to her.

My family loves to talk about this incident as “the day Ai forgot her sister” when we gather for dinner and reminisce about our old days in Chiba. As I was writing this essay, I discovered that omiso is a term that originated as an abbreviation of the word misokasu, which means miso dregs that are a good-for-nothing leftover that remain in the strainer after miso is melted in soup.

I had always assumed that it simply meant miso paste, so I was surprised by the derogatory nature of the term’s origin.  But omiso continues to have an adorable ring to my ears, probably, because I remember the voice of a little girl that used to say, “Ai-chan, can I come as omisho please, take me along to play,” as I’m about to walk out of the door.

 

Heat Ceases
Approximately August 23rd – September 7th

The scrolls are read from right to left and the dates are approximate 
Heat Ceases (Shosho 処暑)
Cotton bolls open (Menpu hiraku 綿柎開)
Heaven and Earth become solemn (Tenchi hajimete shukusu 天地始粛)
Rice Ripens (Ka minoru 禾乃登)
Calligraphy by Chieko

Heaven and Earth Become Solemn

At the corner of the west entrance to our danchi apartment complex, there was a mini-police station called koban in Japanese. The koban was next to the terminal where the local bus shuttled residents to and from the nearest train station. There were three to four policemen assigned at this police station-cum-information center in rotation to protect our community of around 2000 families.

We didn’t know the names of these policemen because we simply called them ‘omawari-san,’ which means, ‘the person that goes around.’ True to the name, they frequently patrolled the complex on their sturdy-looking white bicycles. They chatted with the residents, listened to their concerns, and arrived quickly when there was a disturbance in our community, no matter how minor it was. We all respected and depended on the omawari-san and felt safe because they were always around.

One September day after the summer holidays, my older sister talked about an exciting project at her primary school over dinner. Her class was going to bury a time capsule that would be opened many years later, and the students discussed what should go inside. She said that someone suggested that the music album ‘Swim! Taiyaki (oyoge taiyakikun)’—a song about a fish-shaped cake filled with red bean paste that escaped the pastry shop— should go inside the time capsule. The song, which sold over 4.5 million copies, was so popular that almost every child in Japan could sing it. She said that the class agreed that it was the perfect item to put into the capsule.

As a pre-schooler, I listened intently to my older sister’s stories because I was very eager to attend primary school. I also wanted to imitate everything my older sister did, which, unfortunately, extremely annoyed her. When I heard this story, I immediately decided that I should make my own time capsule with my friends.

I acquired a small biscuit tin from my grandfather and started gathering precious items with two other friends. One of them brought his supercar Lamborghini-shaped eraser (a rare transparent one in green), and the other brought her orange yo-yo that she valued greatly. I decided to put my little glass jar of ‘star sands’ that my aunt gave me as a souvenir from Okinawa. It is funny because I was fascinated by these tiny star-shaped sands, but didn’t know where Okinawa was. I vaguely imagined that it was a tropical island with coconut trees in a foreign country.

After filling the tin with these ‘treasures of our times’, the three of us went to a field in the southern part of the danchi, next to the rice paddy fields. As we looked for an ideal burial spot, one of my friends found a 100-yen coin. We stared at the coin for a while wondering what to do, then decided that it was best to take it to the omawari-san.

“Where did you find it?” the omawari-san asked when we arrived at the koban with the coin. The fan was blowing furiously at the station, but it was still stifling inside. We nervously explained to him that we found the coin in the field next to the rice paddy fields. To avoid any suspicion, I quickly added that we were in the field to look for a spot to bury our time capsule.

“A time capsule?” he said, and curiously eyed the tin that I was holding. “You’re going to bury that?” We quietly nodded in unison, and braced for further interrogation about its content.

But no more questions came, which was a relief to all of us. We were worried if he thought that the time capsule was a bad idea. The omawari-san picked up the coin, put it in the desk drawer, turned to us and said, “well, thank you for bringing lost items to the koban, we appreciate your cooperation,” in a very formal tone.  He then smiled and pulled out a 100-yen coin from his shirt pocket, passed it to us and said, “here, this is for you, buy some ice-cream at the bread shop.”

We ran with joy to the bread shop feeling proud that the omawari-san praised us for our actions. We bought three “Home-run Bars” with the 100-yen he gave us. Home-run Bars were the cheapest ice-cream available at 30 yen each. And while we ate the ice-cream on a bench, my friend discovered that her stick had “home-run” written on it. This meant that we could get another ice-cream for free, and we were all surprised because this rarely happened.

I can’t remember how our discussion progressed after that stroke of luck, but the three of us concluded that the home-run stick and the leftover 10-yen should all go into our time capsule. We put them in the tin, went back to the field, and buried our time capsule. We then said goodbye and went home for dinner.

Three years after I buried the time capsule with my friends, our family moved to Singapore. When I returned to see my grandparents several years later, I heard whispers of several suicides that happened in the danchi after we had left. I was much older then and tried to imagine what could make people end their own lives. I also thought about the gentle omawari-san who bought us ice-cream and wondered how he was, because he would have investigated these incidents. He was no longer working at our koban, but I imagined that he must have been heartbroken that these tragedies happened in the community that he looked after.

I also never got to dig up my time capsule. While I was away, the field was paved and turned into acrylic tennis courts. When people talk about Japan’s feverish bubble-period that soon followed, I think about those tennis courts that appeared in the field where we used to play. They were jarringly out of place in the middle of the beautiful paddy fields.

Revitalizing Taketa with Craftsmanship: Glassblower Naru

Glasswork by Naru in our shop ->

GLASS SHOW with Naru <Inoue Naruhito>
September 3 & 4, 2022
11 am – 5 pm
At The Den on Laurel Street
205 Laurel Street, #104
San Diego CA 92101

For more than two decades, Japanese glassblower Inoue Naruhito, known as Naru, has been fascinated by glass, the raw material of his work. “When I create work, I pay special attention to how light occurs in the work I make,” he says. “I think about how my work refracts and reflects light, and the unique lens effects.”

Large KAGUYA vase by Naru. Its appearance changes subtly with light
KAGUYA Lidded jar by Naru
KAGUYA teabowl by Naru
KAGUYA pourer and glasses by Naru.
In his smaller utilitarian work, Naru seeks pleasant plumpness of the glass surface

Naru’s work is sinuous and colorful, carrying unique meditative qualities, like an enchanting sea jelly bursting with life. “I want to make work that seems to have sprung out of the earth, or suggest a ripening fruit,” he explains. “Even though they’re manmade, I want to evoke the notion of natural objects that has existed on earth from the ancient past.”

Naru first became interested in glass while traveling alone in Morocco over 20 years ago. Seeing that he had brought a camera, a local friend asked him to document the “Festival of Sacrifice.” “When they brought out a sheep, I assumed that they were going to shear it,” he said. “I was so startled when they started slaughtering it. I wanted to cover my eyes, but somehow, I could maintain my calm through my camera lens.”  It was this emboldening effect of seeing the world through glass that stuck with him.

After returning to Japan, Naru visited a local glass studio to learn more about glass. He also discovered that his name “Naru” means “fire” in Arabic. “I felt a sense of destiny because the shape of the glass is changed by melting it with fire,” he says. Eventually Naru signed up for his first glassblowing class at Pilchuck Glass School in Seattle, Washington. “I boldly signed up for their summer session with almost no experience,” he says. But this fearless act allowed him to build friendships with fellow artists at Pilchuck and drove him to seriously pursue the craft.

In 2002, Naru joined the Toyama Institute of Glass Art. After graduating from the institute, he continued to hone his skills by working for various glass artists until 2011.

Nature is the source of inspiration for Naru, and he is immersed in it in Taketa, where he set up his glass studio in 2015. A small country town of less than 20,000 people in Oita prefecture in Kyushu, Taketa is an ancient castle town famous for its soda hot springs and magnificent panoramic plateau on sediment from the Mount Aso volcano.

Magma Glass, a studio founded and operated by Naru in Kuju plateau, Taketa, Oita
Photo courtesy of Naru
The surrounding Kuju Plateau, Taketa, Oita
Photo courtesy of Naru
Central Taketa Town, Oita
Photo courtesy of Naru

Like other small Japanese towns in the countryside, Taketa’s population is aging and shrinking. But what is special about this town is its unique program to promote settlement by young and motivated craft artisans through subsidies. “In 2012, I built my own studio in Yokohama, my hometown, but Taketa invited me, so I decided to move here with my family three years later,” Naru said.

Taketa attracted enough artisans over the years to be known as a town of crafts and beautiful nature among Japanese tourists. Naru’s well-established glass studio –called Magma Glass, in homage to the adjacent Mount Aso— is a great success story providing local employment and attracting craft tourism.

“After I arrived here, I wanted to create work using local materials,” Naru explains. “And because it is Taketa, I wanted to use bamboo.” “Taketa” literally means “bamboo fields.”

Through trial and error, Naru devised a method to cure bamboo to use as molds for glassblowing. Now, his main line of work is made using these bound bamboo molds that create beautiful soft curved lines. He named the series “Kaguya”, after the bamboo princess Kaguya, who was born from a segment of bamboo in the old Japanese folklore, “The Tale of The Bamboo Cutter” (竹取物語).

WATCH VIDEO FOOTAGE OF GLASS ARTIST NARU BY JETRO

Cured bamboo glass molds
Photo courtesy of Naru
KAGUYA wind bell by Naru. These bells have bamboo clappers that create soothing sounds. There will be over 30 of these bells shown in San Diego in September 2022
Naru working at his studio at Magma Glass
Photo courtesy of Naru

The other line of work that Naru passionately pursues include lamps and candle holders that he began making after the destructive earthquake in Japan in 2011. “Soon after the earthquake, there were widespread power outages and electricity conservation requests,” he recalls. He also added that since the pandemic, there has been renewed interest in lanterns in Japan. He says that it is probably because more people spent time outdoors or went camping, and they needed a reliable light source without electricity. “I thought that maybe it is also because fire is a source of comfort during this time of crisis.”

Blownglass candle stand by Naru

For the Labor Day weekend pop-up at the Den on Laurel Street, Naru will bring over 130 pieces of his work from Japan that will be shown in the U.S. for the first time. He will be at the Den throughout the two-day event. Join us to meet this prolific artist, who is also playing a big part in revitalizing a beautiful town in Kyushu through creativity.

Beginning of Autumn
Approximately August 8th – 22nd

The scrolls are read from right to left and the dates are approximate 
Beginning of Autumn (Risshu 立秋)
Cool winds arrive (ryofu itaru 涼風至)
Cold cicadas cry (kanzemi naku 寒蝉鳴)
Thick fog descends (nomu shokosu 蒙霧升降)
Calligraphy by Chieko

 

Cold Cicadas Cry

Before I started attending an international school in Singapore, I didn’t know summer holidays in Western schools were much longer than their Japanese counterparts. I clearly remember the panicked expression on my mother’s face when she discovered that I would have two months of vacation from my new school. She said she didn’t know what to do with me being idle at home for such a long period of time.

In Japanese primary schools, the summer holidays are a little over a month long, which starts around the third week of July and runs until the end of August. On the last day of school, we are assigned tons of homework and also have to thoroughly clean and empty out our classrooms. This meant that we carried home all our textbooks, indoor shoes, school lunch bags, calligraphy kits, and melodica keyboards. If you see young Japanese children walking with a lot of stuff, you will know that it is their last day of school before vacation.

During the summer holidays, there was no shortage of finding playmates in our apartment complex because most families spent the summer at home. This was because many of our fathers worked long hours and took few vacations. It seemed that our parents’ generation collectively nurtured a culture that respected men who put their work before family.

In my family, my mother, who used to work at a large department store in Yokohama, also enjoyed working. As soon as my younger sister started attending nursery school, she took up a part time job at the local bookshop. I was secretly proud of my mother because she enjoyed going to work, regardless of what other people said or thought about her. Unlike men, Japanese working mothers were often viewed as neglecting their children.

A typical summer morning started with the loudspeakers blasting the NHK radio exercise at our community park. It promptly started at 6:30 am with a piano intro and a man’s voice cheerfully narrating, “lift your arms up from the front and begin by stretching your back.” Ask anyone who attended Japanese primary schools about ‘radio exercise, No. 1’ and they will be able to show you every move because they would have done it countless times.

After the radio exercise, there were many choices for the summer day’s activity. I could join a group of friends serving up mud cakes in the sandbox, pull out my bicycle and go to the rice paddy fields to check on the bugs and frogs, simply roam the shopping area in the center of our danchi and drop in on my mother at the bookstore, or hang out with friends who were buying rubbishy plastic toys dispensed from vending machines using their monthly allowance. In the afternoons, the humid sky often developed layers of clouds rising like huge mountains that often turned into thunderstorms.

What I most enjoyed in the summer was when we could gather enough friends to play games of dodgeball in a parking lot. I became so absorbed in the games that I was often late for the 5.30pm curfew to get home. When I was late, my mother locked me out of the apartment as punishment while I cried and banged on the door, begging her to let me in.

This may sound overly harsh and unacceptable today, but it was a common practice when I was growing up. I frequently heard other children banging on doors and crying to be let in on summer evenings. Neighbors teased and said, “Ai, were you locked out again yesterday?” when they saw me. No one thought much of it, and in fact, my friends were envious because my mother never grounded me even though I was a repeat offender.

I still remember a late summer day near the end of August, when I was playing dodgeball with my friends. The sun had begun to lower when one of them shouted “look at how big and red it is today!” We all stopped and watched the sun. The dry, bell-like sound of higurashi (sunset) cicadas was filling the air and we could see our school in the distance. I felt slightly sorry for the school that seemed lonely without us. Then someone suddenly said “bye!” and started running and we all scattered and began racing home to meet our curfews.

Great Heat
Approximately July 23rd- August 7th

The scrolls are read from right to left and the dates are approximate 
Great Heat (Taisho 大暑)
Paulownia develops flower buds ( Kirihajimete hanawomusubu桐始結花)July 23-28
Moist earth and humid air (Tsuchiuruoite mushiatsushi土潤溽暑) July 29-Aug 2
Great rains pass (Taiu tokidokifuru大雨時行) Aug 3-7
Calligraphy by Chieko

Moist Earth and Humid Air

You might be surprised to know that the hot and humid days of summer in Japan are not only the season for dreaded mosquitos, but also of monsters and ghosts. When I was growing up, I was told that the reason we tell “kaidan” (which means strange stories) in the summer is because scary stories give us the chills and would cool us down. I later realized that kaidan had more to do with “obon” being around this time of the year when, the Japanese believe, the souls of our ancestors return home and stay with the living for a couple of days.

Sharing stories of ghosts and supernatural phenomenon in the summer is a national pastime and it is perfectly acceptable for grown-ups to frighten young children with these tales. I loved being scared and often pestered the adults to tell me more kaidan. Some told them so well that I had nightmares for days. On those nights, I would fidget in my bed and fight the urge to go crying to my mother who was sleeping in the other room. I was afraid that my mother would be angry and forbid me from hearing more kaidan.

There are some distinguishing characteristics to Japanese ghosts found in famous classic tales. First, they have no legs. This is helpful because it makes it very easy to distinguish ghosts from real people. Second, ghosts are mostly women because Japanese consider women to be much more vengeful and jealous, which is very sexist. Third, they come out and usually say “urameshiya,” which means “I’ve been wronged”. This is because they feel that they died under undeserved circumstances. For example, the servant Okiku of the famous “The Dish Mansion at Bancho” kaidan, was killed by being thrown into a well because she did not comply to her master’s sexual advances.

These ghosts will not sleep in peace until we hear their stories. You can find many of the classic kaidan stories in the book “Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things”, written by Lafcadio Hearn, aka Koizumi Yakumo.

My favorite kaidan is “Earless Hoichi,” and we had a picture book of this story at home. It is about a blind biwa lute player who lived in a temple. He was an excellent performer of “The Tale of Heike,” a long military narrative about the rise and fall of the Taira clan, while playing the biwa. One night he gets invited by some samurai servants to go to their powerful lord’s estate to perform the tale. His performance impresses them and he is told to return the next night to continue as the Tale of Heike is very long, and it takes several days to completely tell the tale.

The samurai servants and the lord turn out to be the souls of the fallen Heike ghosts possessing Hoichi, and the estate he was performing at was actually a graveyard. The priest of the temple tries to protect Hoichi from the returning ghosts by writing the heart sutra all over his body which makes him invisible to the dead. The ghosts return and are enraged that Hoichi is missing but they discover his ears where the priest had forgotten to write the sutra. As a result, the ghosts rip off Hoichi’s ears and disappear, but he survives the injury and becomes a famous biwa performer.

I asked my older sister to read this book to me so many times that she quickly got tired of it. I also became fed up asking other people to read for me, so I memorized the whole book. I often imagined and shivered at the thought of sitting amid ghosts while hoping for the best for Hoichi. I schemed about what I would do if I were put in Hoichi’s situation, which could happen any night, so decided that I would cover my ears with my hands. My hands would be covered in the sutra so they would make my ears invisible.

I wonder what picture books children read in the U.S, but my hunch is that ghost stories are not on the top recommended lists. Many of the Japanese stories are clearly aimed at teaching children to steer away from danger. But I also think they allowed us to experience fear and sadness with others. And because these feelings are usually experienced alone, sharing could make the experience more tolerable and make us feel closer.

During obon, we light lanterns so our ancestors can find their way home, or chant a sutra to comfort them, or even cook dishes the departed liked. These acts of remembrance let those that have passed cross the mythological river of Sanzu, where they can rest in peace, because culturally, one of the worst things we can do is to forget about the people who are no longer with us. The Day of the Dead celebrated by people in Mexico is very similar to our obon.

Once I asked my mother what the “heart sutra” of Earless Hoichi was, and she surprised me by reciting the whole sutra to me. She went to a Soto Zen temple’s women’s high school and had to recite it every morning before starting class, so she knew it by heart. When I heard it for the first time, I thought it sounded beautiful and calming. Later, whenever I heard a priest chanting the sutra, I often joined in on the catchy climax of the sutra which goes like, “gyate, gyate, hara gyate, haraso gyate, boji sowaka”.

It was only decades later that I discovered the penetrating meaning of this verse:

Gone
Gone
Gone over
Gone fully over and
Awakened

I know it sounds strange, but thinking about death and those who left us fills me with gratefulness.

POP UP GLASS SHOW at the Den on Laurel Street Sept 3rd & 4th

We have exciting news San Diego and the World!
Mark your calendar for the Labor Day weekend when Entoten will welcome Japanese glassblower Inoue Naruhito from Taketa in Oita prefecture, Kyushu.

GLASS SHOW with Inoue Naruhito
September 3 & 4, 2022
11 am – 5 pm
At The Den on Laurel Street
205 Laurel Street, #104
San Diego CA 92101

The city of Taketa is famous for bamboo and, appropriately, Inoue-san casts his “Kaguya” glass series in cured bamboo molds. The series is named after the bamboo princess Kaguya, who was born from a segment of bamboo in the old Japanese folklore, “The Tale of The Bamboo Cutter (竹取物語).”

These stunning bamboo cast plates resemble huge morning glory blossoms. We look forward to sharing plenty of stunning glasswork by Inoue-san this September at The Den.

Lesser Heat
Approximately July 7th – July 22nd

The scrolls are read from right to left and the dates are approximate 
Lesser Heat (Shosho 小暑)
Warm winds arrive ( Onpu itaru温風至)July 7-11
Lotus blossoms (Hasuhajimete hiraku蓮始開) July 12-16
Falcons learn to fly  (Taka wazaonarau鷹乃学習) July 17-22
Calligraphy by Chieko

Falcons learn to fly

Before our family moved to Singapore in the spring of 1980, we lived in a cluster of apartment buildings called danchi, in suburban Chiba. The complex, which was completed in 1972, housed approximately 2000 families, and although this sounds like one of those terrible soulless mass housing projects of the 20th century (they were almost identical to the Soviet style Khurushchyovka), it was actually wonderful to live there as a young child because there were so many other children to play with.  Each building housed 20 families on 5 stories with 4 apartments on each floor, and there were no elevators.

Our family lived on the second floor of a danchi, right above my grandparents who lived on the ground level apartment with a small garden. They were my father’s parents, and would have been around 80 years old when we lived together. Their front door was usually unlocked so, often after school, my sisters and I would simply barge into their apartment like it was our right. They were always happy to see us though, so we spent many hours sitting together sipping tea, watching sumo, and eating rice crackers.

My grandmother was an introvert who mostly stayed home, cooked, did some needlework, and watched TV. She occasionally practiced shamisen that she wasn’t particularly good at and made delicious home-made pickles that she shared with my family. She was also a constant guardian to my younger sister, who spent a lot of time at home because she was often sick.

My grandfather was a very tall man for someone born in the Meiji period, and he was active in the community as the president of the senior citizens club of our danchiI often spotted him cycling around the neighborhood and chatting with people in the community park. He also had a myriad of hobbies that he practiced seriously, including oil painting, poetry writing, singing, and gardening, all of which he picked up after retiring from running a soba restaurant across the street from Komazawa park in Tokyo.

“Grandpa used to be very strict, but he is so gentle with you grandkids,” my father once said, “my friends never wanted to come to my house because they thought grandpa was too scary.” I remember feeling thankful that my grandfather had mellowed before I arrived in this world because it was terrifying to imagine someone who could intimidate my father, who frightened us with his thunderous temper from time to time.

My grandfather sometimes allowed me to sit and watch him paint in the dark tatami room that smelled of turpentine, mixed with the smell of incense from the modest wooden buddhist alter he had in the same room. Many of the paintings that he made were of some distant mountains or fields. He said they were paintings of Nagano, where he grew up before moving to Tokyo.

Once, when my grandfather was painting, I told him that I wanted to learn to draw, and this made him very happy. He immediately flipped a piece of advertisement paper and used its blank back to show me how to draw a mug that was sitting on the table. “Cups are three-dimensional,” he said, as he started to pencil the outline of the mug. “And to depict that, you draw shadows.” I was about 6 years old and couldn’t even write Japanese alphabets properly, so ‘three-dimensional’ and ‘depict’ were big words for me. I remember I paid as much attention as I could because I understood that he was sharing his passion with me wholeheartedly.

My grandfather was never cynical about my ability, and I loved that about him. If I live to be 80 years old, I hope that I’d still be the person that can share my own passion with anyone without contempt, just like my grandfather.

My grandfather died in the spring of 1990 when I was a senior in high school. I was studying abroad and only found out about his death after I returned that summer. My parents said that they didn’t call me back because he wouldn’t have wished to interrupt my study.

In the corner of my messy workroom in San Diego, I still have the square paper board with a tanka poem that my grandfather wrote for me before I went abroad. It reads: –

Granddaughter,
Off to a school in distant Canada
The old hide their tears, and send her away

Many years have passed since he left us, but I think of my grandfather often. There are many things I would have liked to tell him and many questions that I wish I had asked. I never wrote to him when he was alive, but I want to write a letter to him now. There is no question that he would send me a reply, if only he could.

 

Summer Solstice
Approximately June 21st – July 6th

The scrolls are read from right to left and the dates are approximate 
Summer solstice (Geshi 夏至)
Self-heal withers (Natsukarekusa kareru 乃東枯)June 21-26
Irises bloom (Ayame hanasaku 菖蒲華) June 27- July 1
Crowdipper sprouts  (Hangesho 半夏生) July 2-6
Calligraphy by Chieko

Self-Heal Withers

I don’t know if it was a common practice to use Self-Heal, the medicinal plant, for ailments in Japan in the 1970s. No one around me used it, but I imagine that it would have had a pungent smell and strong flavor, just like the many herbs that appeared on our dining table that were “good for health” throughout the seasons. The annual herb roster started with butterbur (fukinoto) and angelica tree sprouts (taranome) in the spring, to Japanese ginger (myoga) and heartleaf (dokudami) tea around this time of the year.

It baffled me that adults liked these terrible tasting weeds. They also firmly believed in the old proverb that “good medicine is bitter to the mouth,” and there were many bitter plants and medicines that made life miserable for children growing up in this era.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to suffer much of the consequences of these old-fashioned convictions because I was the healthiest of my sisters. Apart from regular cuts and bruises, I had no health issues. My two sisters weren’t as lucky. They both had asthma and my younger sister had weak kidneys and bladder, so she was frequently in and out of the hospital.

Children were outside most of the time and nature seemed abundant that I often forget that the air we breathed and the environment we played in was quite polluted in a rapidly developing Japan. Like my sisters, many children had asthma, and I remember watching the news about Minamata disease (mercury poisoning) and Itai-itai disease (cadmium poisoning, so called because the victims suffered acute and constant pain and “itai” is an exclamation to pain in Japanese) that were caused by massive industrial pollution during this time.

Over the counter medicines that we used were a mixture of western and herbal kinds. We had a small lacquered wooden chest decorated in Kamakura-bori on the kitchen cabinet that was our “medicine and first aid box”. As soon as someone pulled out one of its small drawers, the distinct aroma of Seirogan wafted in the air. Seirogan was a popular herbal anti-diarrheal medicine that came in a brown glass jar and topped with an orange cap with a symbol of a bugle. Its militaristic packaging scared us and the bad smell that took over the entire medicine box was revolting. Despite its repulsiveness, we had to depend on Seirogan occasionally because its soft black pills, which resembled charcoal pellets, stopped diarrhea and stomach pain very quickly.

For other bitter medicines and strange herbal powders, Oblaat came to the rescue. Oblaat is a clear and extremely thin layer of edible film made from potato starch that is used to wrap medicines. Even though the word “Oblaat” sounds western, it is a Japanese invention that was a staple in the medicine box. This thin, circular film was also a great toy for me because when it was placed on the palm of my hand, it constantly curled and unfurled like it was alive. You may know Oblaat as the edible wrappers of the citrus flavored Japanese rice candy called Bontan Ame that are sold in Asian supermarkets here in the U.S.

A while back, for this essay, I chatted with my younger sister about the herbs and medicines that we grew up with. I told her that I still have vivid memories of her crying and protesting about taking her medication. My sister chuckled and said, “once I screamed at father that I didn’t want to take it.” My father was authoritarian and hardly ever allowed his children to contradict him, so she was expecting to be scolded for yelling. “But then he quietly replied, “I know, I don’t want to give it to you either,” my sister said, “his melancholic words caught me by surprise, so I shut up and took the pills.”

Showa was a silly time when parents had to be invincible and didn’t casually share their own worries and tender emotions with their children. But in moments like that we understood that our parents were just as distressed about us being sick, and that they only wanted us to get better.

Grain Seeds are Planted
Approximately June 6th – June 20th

The scrolls are read from right to left and the dates are approximate
Grain Seeds are Planted (Boshu 芒種)
Praying Mantises Hatch (Kamakiri Shozu 蟷螂生)June 6-10
Rotten Grass Becomes Fireflies (Fuso Hotarutonaru 腐草為蛍) June 11-15
Plums Ripen (Umenomi Kinari 梅子黄) June 16-20

 

Praying Mantises Hatch

June marked the beginning of a busy hunting season for me and my friends. As soon as I arrived home from school, I would throw my backpack in the hallway, grab a cage, and quickly run out of the apartment to join my friends that were waiting outside to catch insects together. We caught all kinds of bugs, like grasshoppers, butterflies, and beetles, but I most vividly remember catching praying mantises, probably because many grown-ups were scared of them.

To capture a praying mantis, you must move slowly from behind to stay out of its sight and quickly pinch its long green thorax where their forelegs are attached. By holding it there, you can keep your fingers safe from its powerful legs and mouth while moving it into a cage. I liked peering into the eyes of these green captives, which had tiny black dots that seemed to stare straight back at me.

My sisters, however, were not interested in bugs and my mother hated them. “My grandmother used to make me pick up leeches on the way home from school. I had to carry home these tiny leeches in a glass jar, and they wiggled. They were so disgusting!” my mother exclaimed. Apparently, my great-grandmother often used leeches to alleviate shoulder stiffness, which was a common practice in Japan. It was a traumatic experience for my mother. She said she was so relieved when the leech shop closed soon after the Second World War.

Despite my mother’s objections, my passionate pursuit of bugs continued and the balcony of our apartment slowly turned into a mini insectarium. Then one day, while trying to hang laundry on the balcony, my mother tripped over a cage. “This is intolerable!” she said frustratedly, and banned me from bringing back more insects.

After I was deprived of my hobby, I sulked for a while, and then came up with the brilliant idea that perhaps it was time to ask for a pet mammal in exchange for giving up my insect hunting. I had been wanting to have a pet for a while, and my heart was set on a raccoon. This was because at that time, in 1977, I was watching an anime called “Washing Bear Rascal,” adapted from the book, “Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era” by American author Sterling North. I was enamored with the story about a young boy in a foreign country (Wisconsin) who had a pet raccoon. Raccoons are called Araiguma in Japanese, which literally translates as “washing bear,” because raccoons washed their food in water. How amazing, I thought, that an animal was smart enough to wash their food before eating!

The anime started with a melodious theme song of an image of a boy cycling down a clover-filled meadow with a raccoon in the front basket:

When the white clovers bloom
Let’s arise and go, Rascal
Through the road, where the June breeze blows
On an expedition down the Rock River
Thank you God for giving me a friend
For letting me meet Rascal, for letting me meet Rascal
Thank you for letting me meet, my friend, Rascal

Japanese anime songs from the era had simple and beautiful lyrics, and many were about traveling to distant places and looking for adventure, just like this one. I imagined going on an expedition with my pet raccoon in my bicycle basket, although I didn’t know where Rock River was. 

As you might have guessed, my plea to get a pet raccoon was immediately shot down by my mother. She allowed me to get a goldfish instead, which didn’t quite live up to my expectations. It’s quite funny to imagine how flabbergasted my mother was when I asked for the raccoon. Many years have passed since I’ve gone on a bug-hunting expedition, but I can still hear my mother’s voice yelling “don’t bring anything home!” as I impatiently closed the apartment door to meet my friends. And, even now, when I stroll through a field of white clovers, I catch myself humming the cheerful Rascal song in my head.