The Zen temple Shuuzenji in Shuzenji

Saturday, December 29th, 2012

On our way back from Heda (West Izu ), Mr. Seki said that he’d like to visit Shuuzenji temple. This temple is in the town called Shuzenji. It has good access from Mishima which has a Shinkansen (bullet train) station. Izu Hakone railway takes you from Mishima to this town, which is also famous for its hot springs and old Japanese style inns. One inn even has a Noh stage and puts on performances of this ancient form of theater.

Our visit was at the beginning of December. The autumn leaf colors were past their best but we were still struck by their beauty. We were lucky to have a chance to see the garden of Shuuzenji temple. This garden is open to the public for just one week or so every year and we arrived on the last day. The garden is magnificent and the trees along the river in Shuzenji are beautiful, too. It’s nice to take a walk and visit some of the gift shops.

I wondered why Mr. Seki is interested in Zen temple. As he was a student in Japan, he stayed at a zen temple to experience zen training for one week.

In fact, his major is philosophy.

He was told to do zazen all day long for the first few days. He felt he was doing nothing and that just doing zazen was very hard and so when he was told to sweep the garden, he was extremely happy to work. I thought people who don’t feel like doing anything might try this. After that they will be willing to do many things.

 Sometimes we have too much to do and too many things in our minds. During year end and new year vacation, I’d like to clear my mind by doing zazen.

Organic Yuzu

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

Yuzu is my favorite fruit. The flavor and scent of this citrus fascinates many people. It can be used for many kinds of cooking. For example its ground or chopped peel can be added to soup, grilled fish. Or its juice makes a great dressing for salad when combined with other seasonings. We also put whole yuzu in the bath to enjoy its smell while hoping the essence of yuzu will make our body beautiful and keep our body warm. It is said that if you eat snacks made by pumpkin and azuki beans and take a bath with yuzu on the winter solstice day, you won’t catch a cold.

I visited Fujikawa town in Yamanashi the other day and discovered organic yuzu. They are free from chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or disinfectants last 30 years.

Yuzu sometimes taste bitter but these are not bitter at all. Growing them organically must be difficult and the price of this kind is much more expensive, though. I also learned that yuzu is good food for the people who are suffering from diabetes, high blood pressure and gout.

   

 

I heard that the town harvests a lot of good yuzu every year. The town has an old temple (probably more than 700 years old) and the priests at the temple planted yuzu to use it for shoujin cooking. The history of yuzu in this area is very old. Like many other country towns, this town doesn’t have young people to take care of agricultural production, so they ask people outside of town to help with harvesting or taking care of trees etc as volunteers. Or they invite people to gain ownership of yuzu trees. Once I wanted to plant yuzu in my garden but got discouraged having heard that it takes 18 years to harvest the first yuzu. It takes many years to get it started and once we quit doing it, it can get out of hand or wither very quickly. We have to do all we can do to keep the land free from any kind of contamination and maintaining the right style of agriculture. I’m always amazed to learn the contributions of temples in olden time. The person who introduced tea first was a priest and in this area it was a priest who started to grow this wonderful fruit. Of course the lords of areas encouraged him to keep going, too. Temples have been and should continue to be centers of culture.

Agriculture is a long lasting investment. We also enjoyed viewing beautiful colored maple leaves. This year’s autumn leaves are very beautiful. I heard this years’ are the best in the last ten years.

 

Ink Stone in Yamanashi

Monday, October 15th, 2012

I went to Amahata village in Yamanashi. This village is located to the north west of Minobu. It is a very quiet but interesting and slightly spooky place.

This place is famous for ink stones – the stone used to hold ink when painting caligraphy. I found this ink stone museum. It’s awesome.

Ink stones were first produced about 700 years ago. Nichiren , the founder of Nichiren sect in Buddhism told his student to explore this area. He discovered beautiful stone in the upper stream of the Amahata river. The priest asked a local person to carve the stone and the person made a great ink stone. Since then, ink stones in Amahata became very famous all over Japan. The golden age was the Meiji Era when about 100 artisans were working together there. However, after the Second World War, the number of artisans decreased to only a few and today only one person carves ink stone in Amahata. It’s a shame that so many traditional skills have been abandoned.

    

 

 

 

You can see how to make ink stone and if you want, visitors can learn how to carve their own ink stone. This stone doesn’t absorb water very much so even if you keep ink in the stone over one night, the ink stays as it is. The hardness of this local stone is just right for ink stone. You can cut it with a normal saw but it’s very durable. Once you buy one you can use it for a very long time. Since the quality is excellent, the prices are not low. A small one is cheaper, starting from 3,000 yen and a very big one with elaborate one is 350,000 yen.

 

 

 

They are all beautiful. I felt like learning calligraphy. Yamanashi also produces good handmade Japanese paper. Paper for calligraphy, postcards, pads and envelopes, brush, and Indian ink are sold. This museum is designed very well. The windows are set in the lower part of the wall so that we can see the lake Amahata ( a dam lake ). The color of the lake is mysterious and the big sandy mountain made the scenery more interesting. The sandy mountain in the lake was made by heavy rain. The sand ran down from the mountain to the nearby dam.

They say the end of November is a good time to view autumn colors. I hope to visit Amahata again at that time to enjoy hot springs and tofu dishes.

They don’t have many visitors. Probably not many people know this place.

I would like more people to visit it but on the other hand I don’t want it to become a noisy place. I have mixed feelings.

 

 

Old railway and Hot Spring around Kitakata

Friday, September 28th, 2012

Kitakata itself doesn’t have a hot spring but if you go north you will find some very quiet hot spring resorts.

One is called Atsushio hot spring and another is called Nittchu hot spring.

They used to have a railway called the Nittchu Line. This railway connected Kitakata to Atsushio covering just 11.6 km and five stations. It was built in 1938. That time people planned to build a railway from Imaichi in Tochigi ( near Nittko ) to Aizu Wakamatsu, Kitakata and  Yonezawa ( Yamagata ).But because of the war, they couldn’t continue the construction work. Also high mountains made the work more difficult. That is why the line is so short. Still the line was used but was eventually abandoned in 1984.

 This line was mainly used by students to commute to school. Only four to six train services were available each day, just early in the morning and evening. People used to joke that the Nittchu line did not run during day time even though “Nittchu” means daytime in Japanese.  I pictured steam locomotives running backwards on their way to Kitakata and forwards on their way to Atsushio. It must have been wonderful. In Japan after this line was closed, we had a steam locomotive boom. The track the train ran on is now used as a cycle lane. I wish they had kept the railway and steam locomotive so that this line could attract more tourists or make railway enthusiasts happy. Just like Ooigawa railway in Shizuoka. However the terminal station and the old train carriages are kept in a nice way. The car at front is used as a snowplow. It snows a lot in this area. The waiting room has many pictures of olden times and very nostalgic.

 

 I didn’t have time to visit Nittchu hot spring but I took a bath at Atsushio hot spring. As the Kanji say, “atsu “ means hot and “ shio “ means salt. The hot spring’s temperature is said to be 70C and the water is salty. They cool the water down so that people can bathe. This hot spring was discovered about 600 years ago by a priest. You can see a Zen temple in the middle of the village. The water is hot and salty and that makes people’s body keep warm for a long time. It is effective for skin ailments and stomach problems. Also it’s good for women who wish to have babies or people who have poor circulation.

All in all relaxing in this peaceful and quiet place while bathing in the hot spring and eating natural food will benefit your health. Or if you like you can try out Zazen at the nearby temple.

Kitakata , the town of warehouses

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

Kitakata is located in northwest Fukushima Prefecture. Aizu Wakamatsu city is less than 30 minutes by car. You can find old warehouses all over the city. I heard there are as many as 4,000 in the city. This area has been blessed with good water and rice and that enabled people to make good sake ( rice wine ) and miso ( soy bean paste).

Kura (warehouses ) can keep the food stock in perfect condition. Many people worked hard to make money to build warehouses by the age of 40 in that area.

Long ago, refrigerators weren’t available but kura provided environmentally friendly storage. In summer the inside of the kura is cool and in winter it’s warm. Nearly 100 years ago, a big fire broke out and burned down many houses in this city but the warehouses were fire proof. After that people realized the value again. Thanks to kura, Kitakata keeps many old things.

   I stayed at an inn to find nice furniture in our room and asked about it. Then the landlord introduced me to the person who repaired it. I visited the shop.

 

I was very excited to see many fantastic pieces of furniture and goods he made and repaired. Also the old fixed drawers aren’t as expensive as I thought. He used the old chest of drawers as a cupboard. Since the top drawer was broken, he placed some cups on it. I like the idea. As he made tea for us, he told me that he can design and build houses. I really like the sink and counter which he designed and made. He finds some old things which are not in use and fixes them to make something new. Or he goes into the woods to find material for his new furniture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He knows which wood makes good chairs or tables. For example this chair looks very hard but when I sat on it, it felt warm, soft and comfortable. This chair is made of walnut. That reminded me of sitting on grandmother’s lap as a child.

According to him, trees are cut into wood and become furniture but wood is

alive so it makes us happy and provides us with comfort. He thinks to make good use of wood and keep using old wooden things are very important. By cherishing them, we can show our gratitude to nature.

 

Shoju-an, Zen temple in Iiyama, Nagano

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

I have always wanted to visit Shoju-an in Iiyama since reading the book on Hakuin( Wild Ivy), the famous Edo era Zen priest. Hakuin was born in Hara (Shizuoka) about more than 300 years ago. He trained in many temples in Japan. One day he visited Shoju-an to see the head priest Etan. That time Hakuin was kind of conceited and the old sharp priest at Shoju-an saw through Hakuin’s mind. The old priest was very hard on him but Hakuin somehow came to respect him. However the old priest didn’t accept Hakuin as his pupil. Eventually Hakuin was allowed to stay at the temple and he learned a lot from the old priest.  

   This uphill path to the temple is called “ Hakuin keotoshi no saka “.

“ Keotoshi” means to kick one down and “saka “ means slope. It is said that Etan, a son of the lord of Matsushiro (Nagano) kicked Hakuin down the slope. Etan ( the old priest at Shojyu-an)  went through a lot of harsh training, he became a distinguished priest and was offered many good positions and donations but he kept turning down many kind offers. He was happy to be at Shoju-an, which is small and located in country.

 

 

 The night before I visited Shoju-an, I had dinner at an Izakaya style restaurant. I had a chance to talk with the owner of the restaurant. He told me a lot about Iiyama City and Shoju-an.

   He was an alpine skier himself and he has been a coach for Olympic competitions. One of the famous skiers who he has coached is Aiko Uemura.  According to him, Iiyama has been famous for manufacturing skis. The ski firms Ogasaka and Imura are from Iiyama. They were originally manufacturing furniture. The owner also knows a lot about Zen.

  His story about the present priest of Shoju-an was very interesting to me. This area was affected by a big earthquake a few years ago. One day a person offered some amount of money to repair the building of Shoju-an but the present priest turned down this kind offer. Everybody asked him why he didn’t accept the donation. He said that the money would help him and the temple only temporarily and he shouldn’t grow to always expect that kind of money. He is far from greedy. For example, he grows vegetables at the temple and he often gives them away to the supporters of the temple. He probably takes after Etan’s spirit. Shoju-an is not big but it is a very pleasant temple.

   I really enjoyed listening to the owner’s story. The food they serve is very delicious. I also like the wide line up of their sake. The quality of the food and drink are good but the price is very reasonable. I strongly recommend the people who visit Iiyama should go to this restaurant called “ Rokubei “.

 

 

 Another interesting thing I found in Iiyama is this golden lavatory.

I asked why they applied gold on a lavatory. Iiyama is also famous for making family Buddhist altars and the interiors of these expensive altars’ inside are covered with gold. I was just amazed to see it and I felt kind of guilty about using the toilet. I just viewed and took some photos of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Going back to Minami Soma

Friday, August 10th, 2012

Minami Soma in Fukushima is my hometown. Before 3.11 in 2011, it was not as well-known as now. Now whenever I say I’m from Minami Soma, people look rather puzzled or even astonished. I sometimes feel kind of uncomfortable and tell myself “ I shouldn’t have said that.”

 

Minami Soma and Soma city have a very old festival called “ Soma Nomaoi “.

It’s at least 1,000 years old. Last year, it was a big issue for the whether to hold the festival or not. But this year the festival recovered up to 80 % with 400 horses. Many people and horses left Minami Soma last year but they came back. I’m really happy for that.

 

I came back to Minami Soma to attend a memorial service for my relatives; it was just a co-incidence. I wanted to get a ticket to see the festival but all tickets were sold out in June. This festival is usually around 23rd of July but they decided to have it on 28th, 29th and 30th  of July this year. This weekend schedule enabled more people to visit Minami Soma more easily. Some families living separated could be reunited and people who came to know this festival visited Minami Soma for the first time. In fact, as I was walking on the street some people from different areas of Japan asked me for directions.

 

Tradition is important but being flexible is also important. I wish this festival were held sometime in autumn so that more people could enjoy the festival in better weather ( it’s too hot at the end of July ). Also tourists can visit nearby hot spring while admiring autumn leaves.

 

My parents and relatives who have been living in Minami Soma are all fine.

According to my parents, moving into different and unfamiliar places is more harmful for older people since they feel tremendous stress.

   

After the memorial service, we had meal at a restaurant in a hotel. I was very surprised with the quality of food and skills of its chef. I didn’t expect this good meal in the affected Minami Soma area. All dishes were great but I liked fresh sea urchin ( from Sanriku ) and other dishes cooked in good stock.

 

 

The one big problem was transportation. We had to drive to Fukushima City to take the Shinkansen. From Minami Soma to Fukushima, it usually takes one hour and half but it took about twice as long. Joban Highway and some part of railway aren’t functioning so people have to go to Fukushima City. We also had to give priority to homecoming horses. When horses are on the road, cars have to wait. More people visited Minami Soma for the weekend and the city doesn’t have enough accommodation and many people stayed in hotels in Fukushima while taking the bus to visit Minami Soma.

 

We still have many difficult problems to overcome but I’m sure we can do it.

 

 

 

 

Kaiseki in March

Friday, February 24th, 2012

 

We made some small dishes for Hinamatsuri, or the Doll Festival celebrated on March 3. For this festival, peach blossoms are featured so we used pink items for cooking such as pink radish, pink flower-shaped fu, or wheat gluten, and red rice for sushi rolls. Peaches are said to drive evil spirits away.

 

People display hina dolls along with peach blossoms. The dolls represent members of the ancient imperial court. Originally people prepared doll-shaped white paper and touch the surface of their bodies with the paper to remove bad things. Then the white paper was to thrown into the river. March is the month when people start the year’s agricultural work and people wished for a good harvest for the year.

 

On the lower left there are two kinds of sushi rolls. They are called hosomaki, or thin rolls. To make thin ones we used half-sized laver. We use full-size laver to make futomaki, or thick rolls.

 

On the right down, this is a dressed food called aemono. Boiled Brussels sprouts and boiled squid are mixed with miso, sugar, vinegar, soy source and mustard. I like the plate with Hina dolls on.

 

In the middle, you can see marinated red radish with kelp and yuzu.

 

On the upper left you see grilled salmon. Before grilling it, the salmon was marinated in sake lees for a day. Using sake lees for cooking is getting very popular recently. Sake lees make meat and fish tender and tasty.

 

On the upper right are wild vegetables called fuki, rolled with fried bean curd ones and simmered Shitake mushrooms.

Here is a cup-steamed egg custard decorated with flower-shaped fu. Just before serving, thick starchy sauce seasoned with ginger juice was added.

 

Kaiseki dishes always makes me aware of the change of seasons.

 

Itadakimasu !

Getting to know hemp in Yamanashi ( Lake Kawaguchi )

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

I happened to know about hemp by reading someone’s blog. I don’t know why but I became really curious about it. I learned that a couple living on Lake Kawaguchi ( Yamanashi ) and growing organic rice and vegetables also deal with hemp products. The wife makes clothes, underwear and accessories, etc.

I visited their place and found beautiful hemp clothes. They say that hemp is not only beautiful but also gives you energy and health.

Honestly I couldn’t believe that at first. So as a trial, I bought some pairs of socks made from hemp ( 46% ), cotton ( 38 % ), nylon ( 13 % ) and polyurethane ( 3% ). I bought some pairs for my family and we all tried and were surprised with this magical power. 1. Socks and feet don’t get stinky. 2. After wearing them for a day, the socks stay dry. 3. We all felt our feet warm in the socks.

 

 

 

Then I bought a loincloth since they say loincloth is the best to feel the effect of hemp. The loincloth is made from 100% hemp. Loincloth covers the point called “ seika tanden “ or “ hara “. The point is located about two inches below the navel. When I do zazen I try to bring my mind to focus on that point. Probably hemp provides my hara with its energy. The loincloth is thin but strong. It didn’t look very warm like a blanket but in fact I feel really warn when I wear it. They say wearing underpants often lowers our immune systems. But when I wear loincloth, our hip joints move smoothly and lymph glands work properly to make us healthy.

I feel very relaxed. The touch of hemp is very nice, too.

I heard that god gave humans hemp and water. After trying out hemp clothes, I understand that. It’s fun to know about hemp.

Minamisoma, Soma Nomaoi Festival

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

I went to back to my hometown, Minamisoma. I visited one of the sites where Soma Nomaoi Festival takes place. This festival starts on July 23 in Soma,

24th in Haramachi (which is now called Minamisoma ) and 25th in Odaka (another part of Minamisoma ). Each city has a Shinto shrine which is related to this festival. This festival has a long history over 1,000 years old. Riders on horseback appear on the street. They have a procession to a site called Hibarigahara, where they hold horse races. This is a photo of Hibarigahara in September.The first photo is from the city hall.

 

My childhood memories have a lot to do with this festival. Our summer vacation always started around this time of the year, just as the rainy season finished and the hot weather set in. But this year, things were different. Because of the earthquakes, tsunami and the nuclear power plants’ problems, there was uncertainty about putting the festival on. Some enthusiastic people made great efforts to hold the festival but it was downsized very much.

I have heard many sad stories around the world but I didn’t really understand until I experienced this sad incident in my hometown. It is heart breaking to remember what it was like and what it is now.

I’m sure this festival is a great asset for Japan and it should be kept.

In fact, some of my friends who have seen the festival from different cultures asked me if they can do something to help maintain the festival.

 

I was very stunned to read the news that Japan is to offer 10,000 free trips to foreigners to boost the tourism industry. I would like more people visit Japan but why do we have to do that now ?

The things are tough for Japan’s tourism industry, but we have to spend  our money, tax payers’ money on cleaning or fixing Japan. And that will do good for all over the world. Then everyone can live or take a trip without worries.