Friday, 22 October 2010

Saved by noodles

Unidentified wild mushrooms, rarely seen in the shops and gathered on the mountains by old hands whose knowledge I trust (almost) completely, glistened under red grains of schimi on a hot bed of udon noodles. No ordinary bowl of noodles this, it sat on the trestle table on the playground of a disused school which had lasted from the 1870's to the 1970's. All around were stalls and the ear-splitting distortion of an antiquated public address system not designed to take loud music. I ate with one finger in my bad ear. We were all here to help get the village back on the map and back on it's feet, and what better in a food-obsessed nation than a noodle festival to draw in the salivating punters?

A landslide in the spring downpours smashed down on a snow shed and made the main valley road south of Tamonashi unsafe to use. Rather more important than the inconvenience this caused to cyclist like myself, it severed the whole village from much of the tourist traffic that brings income to those who run accommodation, shops, and restaurants. Commuters had an extra hour of mountain roads to negotiate twice a day. Seven months of risky engineering work later, the road is open again, and the noodle festival was in full swing, run by volunteers from all over the area, and with lots of familiar faces behind the stalls.

Other dishes of a less culinary nature included the team of dancers having a lot of fun in their Kung Fu - looking costumes, leaping about on the gravel to blaring backing tracks, which must have echoed up the mountainsides to confused squirrels and bears disturbed in their mid-day snoozes up trees.

Upstairs in the old school, three rooms are a haunting home-made museum, each thing with its own hand written luggage label tied on with string. Many are still in use today, Aizu being itself a kind of living museum, but others a mystery. The walls carried fading photographs of the people for whom these objects were simply useful. The dusty clothes, patched and worn, sometimes, like the ankle length jacket, made from old futons and kimonos, were rawly personal, imprinted with the wearer's shape.

Uncomfortable information. A hand made aid for teaching anatomy

In the late afternoon musicians began to play to a scattering of people in the school gym.  I wondered where the young people were, as this gig was clearly aimed at them. Were they at home playing with their DS's, or in the shopping centres in Wakamatsu? When they dream of life in the cities isn't it just this kind of thing that they dream of going to? And yet when they have it here, they don't come.

Armed to a man or woman with acoustic guitars and the occasional harmonica, the performers were skilled singer-song writers in the efficient but somewhat off-the-peg mould that often afflicts many genres of Japanese popular music. If they were less skilled might it be better? Then they would have to invent their own ham-fisted and strange way of doing things and whatever is in them could come straight out.

The first two boys were winsome, poppy and sweet, the second a little more there, but the last performer was really good of her kind, though in all cases it was probably best not to understand the lyrics, like opera.

She played beautifully constructed slow acoustic songs with well judged and varied dynamics, her voice haunting and moving, creating that stillness and focus in the room that tells you the audience are no longer in it, but have floated out somewhere to meet the music. She deserved the young people to be here.

Friday, 15 October 2010

On the rack

Sun dried rice on the rack, with its rain hat on

Late September and Early October sees Aizu heavy with green-gold rice heaved onto tall racks, every doorstep full of aka kabucha (red pumpkins), walnuts, mushrooms from the mountains and all the riches of the harvest. Compliment someone on their sweet potatoes and you will get an armful, and bags of chestnuts and fungi like nipples arrive unbidden. It beats shopping, a warm glow of cash free exchange, no strings attached.

Drying rice in the sun is said to increase the flavour and increase nutrition, and fetches a premium over the more common machine-dried version. Here most is grown for personal consumption and to send to children long gone to the city. What will they do when the old ones are gone too, and their fields rank with weeds? Rice is much more than a food. The kanji character for a man resembles a paddy, and means "One who derives his power from rice."

Daikon thinnings and beans, chilled and washed in an old bath

Our neighbour opposite gets an extraordinary amount of produce from a small patch of ground, an endless round of seasonal food being trimmed, grated, pickled or dried for that day's food or for through the winter. This week it included walnuts. Nothing is wasted. An old tiled bath is used to both wash vegetables and keep them cool until meal time. Thinned out plants are eaten, leaves and all.

Despite our towny incompetence and reprehensible laziness some food miraculously leaped out of our own garden this year, and sometimes we had the satisfaction of meals entirely home grown, with only minutes from ground to plate, which must have come as a shock to the aubergines. This week I astounded the waiting world with my first attempt at green tomato and apple chutney and managed not to burn the house down. Unfortunately a nice bit of strong Cheddar to go with it is 5,000 miles away.

Our benign neglect produced enough for a daily meal for months.

The plants seem to be as resilient as the people. For example, in attempting to be organic we don't spray, but allowed some black caterpillars to get the upper hand, and five rows of autumn plantings were reduced to rags. We assumed that was the end of both them and our veg cred with the neighbours, but returned from three days away to see them resurgent and thriving. Amazing. They must be adapted to tolerating the insects' life cycle, or we were just lucky....or, come to think of it, the neighbours may have taken pity on us and sprayed them while we were away. Hmmm. Much more likely, come to think of it.
Don't come the innocent with me, madam

Kame mushi teleporting

Look: I can walk on glass. But that's not the clever very carefully...Now I am on the outside
Now I am on the inside. You missed it? Shall I do it again, only slowly?

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Brother insect

I don't know what you are, but you are sure as hell something my friend

This extraordinary creature, only one centimetre long, possibly mimicking the buds of a pine tree, or simply discouraging would be predators, is a stunning example of why, of all living things, we often find insects the hardest land - based form of life to identify with. Presumably it is a kind of caterpillar, but I have never seen the like before, and it made me very aware of my own body by its very difference - or rather mine. All hail you splendid beast - walking coral, luminous battleship, all bristling defences and spiked turrets!

A big blue Japanese dragonfly and its flying equipment
Living in Aizu means living in much closer proximity to insects, much closer to much bigger insects, which suits the boy in me better than the city girl in my wife, though even she is becoming accustomed. The sudden screams from the bowels of the house are less frequent eighteen months into our residency, as she gradually comes to accept our fellow residents, who strangely seem to think the house is theirs as much as ours.

I'm a leaf, I'm a leaf...oh shit, what's this white stuff?
The unprecedented heat of this summer was the mosquitoes' loss and the dragonflies' gain. Dragonflies are voracious predators and they have patrolled our garden in droves - but fortunately they, unlike mosquitoes, do not drink human blood, otherwise I would be sitting here an empty sac and typing might be a problem. They build them big here, like sharks suspended beneath assault helicopters - a winning combination.

The biggest dragonflies have green heads
They are welcome to eat all the insects that would otherwise eat our vegetables. In fact insect appetites and drives are increasingly inseparable from our own. Kusai mushi (stink bugs) for example, are currently trying to leave the cooling woods and return to the house they overwintered in last year - that would be ours. Who wouldn't rather be tucked up under a blanket in a cupboard than wedged in some bark under ten feet of snow? My beloved has a theory that they are able to beam themselves through glass. You see them gathering at the windows, then click! They are inside. But you never see them crawling through a crack. Never. There don't even appear to be any cracks around the windows, so she may be right. I have decided to live with them rather than against them. That way if they do have useful skills inherited via shreds of DNA discarded by advanced alien civilisations, they may see me right come the re-invasion.

Butterflies as big as your hand are higher in the cuddle-ability ratings
Big green stripey spiders are somewhat lower for some reason

Grandly decorated, with satisfyingly striped legs and a body that swells over the weeks to a pregnant green blob, these spiders grace every house and set a trap across every footpath in the autumn, getting bigger and rounder by the week. Judging by the litter of limbs and bodies trawled from the air in their nets, some of their own relatives, spouses and courtiers may have added to the banquet rather than merely attending it. And how is that different from the court of Henry VIII, or any modern dynastic tyrant?

As in any marriage it is sometimes hard to distinguish consummation from consumption