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“You go to Japan . . . to be reborn.”

Arimatsu – shibori

Hiroshige Ukiyo-e: Armatsu Shibori


Shibori is the 400 year old art of indigo dying in Japan.  Often taking months to create one piece of fabric, the art from Arimatsu is an endangered craft.   Chinese students now come over from the mainland to learn how to make shibori.


But, the shibori from Arimatsu is the most revered.










Saturday, a few weeks before Christmas and New Years.  I expected to fight through crowds on the streets and in shops.  The streets were virtually empty and no one was in the shops.  How tragic!  Some of the work is breath-taking!


How to get there:  Take the train to Arimatsu, either from Nagoya Station or Kanayama -go to the  Meitetsu-Nagoya Line.  Get off the train, follow map at the station to the shibori region.

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Arimatsu is Japan’s historical center of shibori (tie-dyeing) workmanship, since the seventeenth century, dating back to 1608.  Arimatsu was an old Edo-period (1603-1867) post station town on the Tokaido highway between Kyoto and Tokyo.


The technique found its way to the Nagoya area when craftsmen from Oita in Kyushu, skilled in the shibori technique were ordered to help in the construction of Nagoya Castle by the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu and later settled in the area.

Arimatsu Narumi Shibori Kaikan is a good place to start. Classes are taught on how to make shibori:


Here is a charming video of the old ladies that spent a life time preserving the art.  I am sorry, it is in Japanese, but you will see how the work is done and you can watch the women at work.


On the main street of the old quarter there are a number of fine, preserved merchant houses, with Nurigome-style, anti-fire, clay coatings and second-floor latticework windows, including Takeda’s house.

The original buildings were destroyed by a fire in 1784 and the houses seen today date from after that year, when the buildings were rebuilt with thick plaster walls and tiled roofs as a defence against fire.

Thanks for Autumn, good food and family

I can’t be home with our family for Thanksgiving and I am feeling a bit homesick.  So I wanted to talk to you about food.

Thanksgiving is much more than food, isn’t it?  Thanksgiving is an experience, a memory.  It is about sharing stories and conversations.   And, of course, Thanksgiving is about family.

Thanksgiving for our family is memories of a farm on an island in the Puget Sound, a fall storm and turkey cooked on the barbecue, board games, a visiting donkey and puppies born under the kitchen table.  Thanksgiving is pumpkins, apple pie and stuffing.  Thanksgiving is Barney with a plate too big for him to carry and little girls dressed up and dancing on the deck.

We don’t celebrate American Thanksgiving here in Japan.  Today, just like any other work day, we were up at 6:00 a.m. and then off to school to teach at our international school near Nagoya.

However, tomorrow is a holiday, Kinrō Kansha no Hi (勤労感謝の日-Labour Day).  The holiday is a mixture of thanks for the rice harvest, appreciation of hard work done, human rights day and other things all thrown in together.

We will be happy to take the three day weekend to have dinner with friends, go visit a new Japanese crafts town,  and maybe do some Christmas shopping.

The Japanese celebrate food.  They show thanks for food at nearly every meal.   Like the Italians, good food is very important to the Japanese culture.  If you know a few Japanese words for foods, you should have a head start in Japan.

As I rode my bus home this afternoon, I looked out the window and saw food growing on trees and nestled in family vegetable plots.  Persimmon (kaki), mikans (satsuma) and nashi (Japanese pear) hang from trees at the entrances to homes.  My favorite vegetable plot is lush with onions, cabbage and greens.  Hanging gems of small purple nasubi (eggplant) and red chilis peak out between fence posts.

Saturday Don and I made an easy salad with a few fresh vegetables.  We were inspired by a delicate little okazu (side dish) we had as part of an obento last weekend in a nearby town, Mino.  Mino is famous for its handmade paper art: scrolls, paper lanterns and shoji paper.

Vegetables are honored here in Japan and there are a surprising variety of them.  In this recipe, the crisp clean taste of the thinly sliced vegetables is enhanced by the warm dressing made of ground sesames and miso.

Autumn vegetable salad with sesame dressing

Ingredients and directions:


Choose crisp bright colored vegetables.  Cool in refrigerator until very crisp.  Slice thinly these 3 vegetables.

  • Carrots

  • Mizuna (水菜 ’water greens’).  Check out this blog to learn how to grow it.  I hope you can find mizuna in New York and Oakland.  If not, find a green that has a clean, not too pungent flavor.

  • Red onions

Sesame-miso Dressing   (You can also use this dressing for hot vegetables such as spinach or broccoli.)

4 T of fresh sesame seeds.

  •          Buy very fresh sesame seeds.  Sesame seeds can quickly go rancid and may even be rancid in the store.  If you can, buy in bulk from a store that has a fast turnover.  Taste a few to be sure.
  •         Toast in a pan over medium heat.    No oil is necessary.  Toast until you can smell the aroma of warm sesame and the seeds just begin to pop.  Do not toast past a golden color.
  •         Grind the seeds into a paste in a suribachi bowl with a surikogi (wooden pestle).

If you aren’t luck enough to have one of these great little suribachi bowls, use a mortar and pestle.  You will enjoy the slow soothing process of grinding the seeds.  It is a kind of ‘zen-like’ process and the warm aroma wafts up from the bowl.  There is nothing quite like using one of these ceramic bowls with ridges carved into the inside of the bowl.   Just Hungry, a blog by Makiko, my favorite Japanese recipe blogs, says it better: “The rough-surfaced grooves, which are called kushi no me since they are made with a comb-like device on the wet surface of the clay, help to mash and bruise whatever you are grinding a lot more efficiently than a smooth surface. It’s ideal for grinding up sesame seeds, which is what I use it for mostly.”

2 T of miso (white or brown rice miso)

  • With the wooden pestle smash the miso into the sesame paste in the suribachi.

1 T of Japanese vinegar

  • Stir vinegar into the suribachi, mixing with sesame-miso paste.

1-2 T sugar

  • Stir sugar into suribachi, mixing with sesame-miso-vinegar paste.

1-3 T corn oil

  • Stir oil into suribachi, mixing with the rest.

Now apply the dressing to the vegetables.  Apply according to your taste.  But, a little bit goes a long way.  Start with less and add as you desire.

That should be it.  I did find that the dressing was very thick.  This thick dressing is fine with hot vegetables, as the warm vegetables ‘melt’ the dressing into a better consistency.  For the cold vegetables, I found the consistency worked out fine even though it seemed thick.

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Flowers, holidays and dictatorships

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Higanbana – 彼岸花

The higanbana, is a Fall flower that blooms only for a short time, from the Autumnal Equinox Day (秋分の日 Shūbun no Hi) until the end of the week.   The higanbana is related to the amaryllis.

The last kanji (Japanese characters) of higanbana means flower (花).  The first two kanji (彼岸higan) refer to the week of the Fall Equinox.  During that week there are special celebrations in Buddhist temples.

The Higan

Buddhist temples celebrate the Fall equinox when day and night are equal.

The observance is a reminder of life’s impermanence.   Higan literally means ‘the other shore.’  This ‘shore’ is our everyday life.  The ‘other shore’ symbolizes nirvana after a practice of patience, morality, meditation, generosity, energy and wisdom.

The equinox is so important in Japan that the day is designated as a national holiday.  This year the equinox fell on Saturday, September 22.   The celebrations around the equinox have been a part of Japanese customs for over a 1000 years.  The tradition is kind of like the Mexican Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos), where families take flowers, incense and food and go to visit their deceased family members at the cemetery.


Leave it to politics to corrupt a perfectly nice day in September.

In 1868, following the toppling of the Tokugawa Shogun, the Meiji government (1868-1912) made efforts to stimulate allegiance for its new government led by the titular head, the emperor.  The Meiji government directed that the Equinox should be converted into a day to pay respect to past emperors and their family.  The government renamed the holiday Kōreisai (皇霊祭 – lit. emperor spirits ceremony).  Was the government just making a small request that the Japanese folk add their emperor to their family’s list of deceased?  Or was this simple decree, a more insidious political effort to fashion a mindless populace to follow their emperor anywhere, even into war?

I had trouble finding neutral information on this small issue.

I do not believe that early Meiji leaders such as Ito Hirobumi were deviously planning an international war or a super-nation.  The Meiji oligarchs looked for ways to help the new government survive.  In the early years, following the overthrow of Tokugawa , the Meiji leaders dealt with uprisings by samurai and protests from the disenfranchised.  In 1868, whether the new Meiji government would survive was still a question of history.

60 years after the deposition of the Shogun, super-nationalists would take power in Japan.  These usurpers led Japan to expansion and war.  The militarists realized the advantage of appropriating vestiges of the Tokugawa dictatorship: propaganda, censorship and an education system suffused with conservative, traditional ideals.  The despots retooled the institutions the Meiji government had used to maneuver through the first difficult years of modernization and democratization.  The nationalists turned Japan into a military dictatorship.

What an apt warning from history!


The United States of today and Tojo’s Japan and Hitler’s Germany are different.  In the 1920s,  Japan and Germany were embryonic democracies whose leaders and people had little skill molding their cultures to fit democratic institutions.   They didn’t have much time to appreciate the advantages of a liberal society.   Too soon after beginning the democratic experiment, the people became more concerned about making a living than defending a new fangled right to vote.  Democracy called for conversations, compromise and slow solutions to problems.   Having to deal with fear and deprivation spawned by the economic Depression in the 1930s, many Japanese and Germans were happy to return to the old autocratic governments instead of fighting for a new democracy they didn’t understand.

Be wary of the use of temporary oppression.  How benign that sounds…temporary oppression.  Oppression is oppression.  It is a malignancy.  Today some American politicians are comfortable with the suspension of human rights, i.e. phone tapping, incarceration without trial, and use of torture, as a temporary necessity to fight terrorism.

History would lead me to believe that it is dangerous to fiddle with freedoms.

But…back to our innocent red flower and the Equinox.

After WW II,  American Occupation officials were thorough in their search for signs of “emperor worship.”  Wanting to wipe out what was viewed as an ideology supporting the rise of extreme nationalism, the Americans insisted on the obliteration of the ‘worship’ of the emperor.  Little Shūbun no Hi could no longer be connected to the emperor and his ancestors.

On my calendar in 2012, this national holiday on September 22nd is now again labeled “Autumnal Equinox Day.”

I am happy for the Japanese.  They have recovered their day of thanksgiving for a good harvest, a day to meditate on the impermanence of life and a day to visit with loved ones who have moved on.

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秋 Autumn foods


Fall has come to Japan!

Fall means cooler weather, shorter days, and the smell of burning fields.   The trees are just beginning to change their green dress to colors of yellow and reds.    Autumn is so important to the Japanese that everywhere we go we see signs heralding the coming of fall.

The daily special in a little cafe I went to last week was a bento of fall foods: mushrooms,  chestnuts and persimmon.  The tempura was not served with a sauce, as usual,  but a small plate of green wasabi salt to dab in the fried fish and vegetables.


The farmers 「nōka 農家」are out in the fields harvesting the rice.   The other day, I bought some newly harvested rice (新米 – shinmai).  

Today Don and I went to our local food store and bought an assortment of ready made okazu (おかず- side dishes)。We bought sweet potatoes, cooked spinach, sweet beans, yaki-tori (chicken kabob) and black stringy sweet things (some kind of seaweed product).  Okazu are intended to accompany the rice, miso and tsukemono (Japanese pickles) and often a hot dish such as grilled fish or chicken.  We bought some very large fresh scallops that we will grill with a dash of lemon and butter and top with a sprinkle of green onions.   A feast!

We will serve newly harvested nashi and kaki for dessert.

Later in the evening we will grill some omochi and dip the little hot round balls in abekawa (a soy flour [kinako] mixed with sugar) and serve it with green tea from my new little red tea pot (急須 – kyusu) made of Tokoname yaki .

Abekawa Mochi


  • 5 mochi balls/squares
  • 2 tbsp kinako (roasted soy flour)
  • 2 1/2 tbsp sugar
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  1. Dunk mochi in a bowl of water and grill over a very hot stove OR microwave for 2 1/2 minutes (or until mochi gets soft)
  2. Mix kinako, sugar, and salt in a small bowl
  3. Dredge mochi in mixture, one by one, covering thoroughly
  4. Serve with hot tea

Yoda and the Dalai Lama

                    Kannon Bodhisattva at Jōkōji Temple near Nagoya, Japan

The Kannon Buddha, the Dalai Lama and Yoda.  Similar views all.

Being invited to a special showing of an historical treasure is an honor.

The 500 year old Kannon Buddha is open for viewing at Jōkōji only once every 12 years.  I didn’t want to pass up this opportunity.  But, to be truthful, I did not think that I would learn much from this statute hidden in a little temple in a forgotten corner of Japan.  I was wrong.

Brought to Japan from India, through China and Korea, the story of the Kannon Buddha was introduced to Japan in the 6th century.  Though originally depicted as a male, Kannon in later years was given a gentler face and is dressed in the flowing gowns of a woman.  She has become the symbol of the divine mother or the divine feminine.

Kannon is a Bodhisattva (Japanese-Bosatsu).  This means that though she has achieved enlightenment, she has decided to wait for full ‘Buddhahood‘ until everyone else in the world can be saved.  Though she will be released from suffering at a later date, she has vowed to remain on earth in different reincarnations until all living things reach enlightenment.

I love this idea of the Bosatsu!   To be so unselfish to delay your own Buddhahood until everyone else reaches enlightenment.  This is the core of my ideal of motherhood, of womanhood, of mankind.  Life is not a ‘zero-sum’ game.’  There are no winners and no losers.  Life is a journey where all must be valued, all treated with compassion, all find peace and enlightenment.

Oh, and what about those 11 heads?  Kannon is the Juichimen Kannon.  Juichi [十一」means eleven and men 「面」refers to face or facet.

There are different explanation for the eleven heads.  On a simpler level, those heads spread kindness in all directions.  Or do the faces see the suffering in the world, and hope to give relief? On a more philosophical level, the 10 heads represent the 10 stages of the path to Bodhisattva needed to reach enlightenment.  The 11th head represents Buddhahood.  I guess I will have to get back to you on that.

It should be no surprise that the Dalai Lama is believed by the Tibetans to be a reincarnation of the Kannon Budhisattva.  Kannon represents compassion and the Dalai Lama’s words, though not scholarly or particularly eloquente, call for mankind to live in kindness,  “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”   “This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.’

Dalai Lama

I saw the Dalai Lama 12 years ago.   I was one of fifty people standing in the early summer chill of the Town Hall Square (Raekoja plats) in Tallinn, Estonia.  I listened to his soft voice and his words dotted with laughter.  Dressed in long orange robes in contrast to the dour plaza, he reminded me of a real live Yoda, speaking simple words of wisdom.  “Kind, you must be.” (That’s Yoda pretending to be the Dalai Lama.)

A few minutes before seeing the Dalai Lama, I was at the Estonian Parliament meeting with Tunne Kelam, who now represents Estonia in the European Parliament.  Tunne Kelam was an important Estonian dissident during Soviet occupation.  During our numerous meetings, Tunne always made me feel that he had all the time in the world just to sit and chat with me.   After about an hour of conversation, I asked Tunne, “How are we doing for time today?”  He check his watch and laughed, “Maybe we should quit in 10 minutes, I don’t want to keep the Dalai Lama waiting.”

Tunne Kelam and Dalai Lama

Tunne is an old friend of the Dalai Lama.  For decades the Tibetan leader and the Estonian dissident have talked about how to end foreign occupation of their homes.  Estonia now celebrates 21 years of freedom.

Tibet waits.

Perhaps this relationship between Estonia and Tibet is analogous to the Bosatsu ushering others into paradise, yet, staying behind to help others reach enlightenment.   Is Tibet and the Dalai Lama helping the rest of us and our nations reach freedom from suffering and a path to enlightenment?  And Tibet…

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