Sunday, December 27, 2009

Managing a bamboo grove

There are a couple of bamboo groves within a two minute walk of our house, one of moso, and the other of madake. Both of them are a real mess of half-fallen dead wood which forces all new growth to grow up at the same slant. As a new soft culm forces itself up through the tangle of dead wood, it suffers damage which is then subject to attack by insects and other rot. And although the grove persists, each bamboo fails to reach its fullest size, and none of it is usefully straight.

I've been wanting to do something about it for a while, and I've been gradually cutting out the dead wood from the moso grove to make charcoal with. Recently, having decided to complete my bamboo fence with the easily manageable madake, I began to tackle the dead wood. Hacking it into pieces with my bill-hook/machete thing is a very violent activity, and showers of rotten bamboo come crashing down from on high. Luckily, most of it is pretty light so it doesn't hurt much if it lands on your head.

By the time I've smashed up great swathes of dead wood and cut out the mature culms that I want for my fence, it's generally too dark to stack the cuttings tidily. But unless I do that, the new growth will no doubt be as twisted as ever. So I guess at least part of the New Year holidays will be spend sorting and stacking dead sticks.

It occurs to me that chickens could be kept in a well managed bamboo grove. The cuttings could be used for fencing all around parts of the grove, the trees would give the birds some protection from the weather and predators, the birds would be able to find quite a lot of insects to eat, and they would provide the trees with fertilizer. A few berry and seed-bearing plants around the edges would bring more insects and provide the birds with more nutrition. It seems like an interesting idea in theory.

I've finally found out who owns the grove. When I was in there tidying up the other day, a mikan farmer with storehouse next to the grove hailed me through the trees to offer me several sacks of mikan. I took the opportunity to ask if he knew whose land it was, and he told me that it belongs to a doctor who lives on the other side of Matsuyama. He never visits apparently. Absentee landlords, the old problem...

"Fungal Exuberance" by Mike O'Rizal

Put some charcoal in a bucket. Use the bucket as a urinal for a few days. Mix in some of the powder that you get after polishing rice (nuka*). Cover and leave to stand for a week or so. And enjoy the absolute riot of fungus that results.

I'm not sure if this is going to be beneficial for the soil or not, but I'm fondly hoping that this is going to be the start of a truly beautiful mycorrhiza. I chucked several spoonfuls of it on a few areas of the ground cover to see if it makes any difference.

* I can't seem to say the word "nuka" normally. Whenever I'm about to say it, some kind of primitive spirit takes over and forces me to say it in a really deep voice, and then repeat "nuka - nuka - nuka" in the same deep voice while rolling my eyes. It's hardly surprising that I attribute special powers to nuka.

More bamboo fencing

The fencing method using bundles of bamboo twigs was getting to be a real hassle. I began to think I'd be an old man before I got my fence finished. So I changed to a new method, with cross pieces of moso bamboo split into four, and uprights of madake bamboo cut into roughly similar lengths. This method is also time-consuming, but nothing in comparison to the twigs.


"Teppo-gaki" or "Gun Fence"

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Hojo Matsuri


On the first evening, it was looking a lot like rain. As the sun went down, it backlit the Takanawa Shrine flags. The flags creak like sails in the wind.

The activities of Saturday night were essentially the same as Sunday night, so I won't bother going into them in detail -- needless to say though, there was beer, noise, exertion and shouting.


The morning started in Takanawa Shrine following a breakfast of beer and custard-filled bread. The dancing dragon-lion thing was finally tamed in the traditional method with a couple of shots to the head from a musket, whereupon it could be led about quietly.

An exceptionally heavy omikoshi was bounced around the shrine grounds. This monster is an old portable shrine from the days when our area had a bigger, younger population that could bear the weight.

View from the shrine gate

Looks like a question of too much beer too early

After the diabolical entertainments in the shrine, it's time to wheel the danjiri up and down the street. I'm wearing my new black koikuchi pyjamas which my neighbour kindly brought to my house from his workman's clothing shop.

Shortly after this picture was taken, I ducked aside to avoid the corner of a portable shrine that was making straight for my head. Whereupon I experienced an intense crushing, burning sensation that I couldn't quite place. Then I realized that the danjiri had run right over my foot. No harm done, but gosh, your fully laden danjiri is a very heavy thing.

Not that omikoshi are light either. The one that missed me was laden with a young father clutching his baby daughter who was dressed in full festival fig of course.

The sun rises over Takanawa-san in the background

A young lady in boots appeared to watch the danjiri, but she wasn't left in peace for long. A farmer promptly gave her his happi jacket and recruited her to grab a pole. Now as I understand it, for safety reasons, nobody is allowed to ride or manipulate the danjiri unless they're wearing tabi, but it seems exceptions can be made under special circumstances.

When I declared that the little girls looked like a herd of some species of animal, there was a strong and mutinous reaction, but when I showed them this photo, it turned to general agreement.

The morning bash ended and I went home to brush my teeth, weed my garden and gird my loins for the second evening's session.

Now the evening session is quite a business. All of the danjiri from the local districts gather on a wide stretch of road and are pushed together side-by-side in rows of six. While the young folk ride on the danjiri, hammering on bells, thrashing drums, blowing whistles and waving batons, their ageing parents push on the poles like galley slaves. Some of the older folk, myself included, like to yell 'Yoi-sa!" in time at the top of their lungs until they're hoarse. Then they like to croak impolitely at the womenfolk for beer.

Local teenage girls who normally drift by unnoticed in school uniforms suddenly appear in full make-up with earrings and big smiles.

After the evening bash, there was a solemn ceremony in Takanawa Shrine to invite the god down into the portable god-box. However the solemnity was broken by a series of loud farting noises from the assembled kneeling children. It was hard to tell if the noises were real or feigned, but nevertheless they produced uncontrollable giggles. The adults did their best to suppress the hilarity by saying things like "If you keep that up you'll really shit yourself" and "Cor, that was a nasty one". It seems as though the Shinto aspect of the festival is not treated with great respect by all parties, and at one point I noticed that the younger kaminushi or 'god master' was getting seriously riled by his parishioner's lack of piety.

The little ones were not still for long

The next morning, Monday, we were up at a leisurely 7:30 for a breakfast of beer, sake, and horrible little dried fish at the shrine. The sake tasted pretty good as a change after all the beer. We set off from the shrine singing the shrine-carrying song, a nice call and response ditty which extols the virtues of our region. I have the melody down better than most of my neighbours and received some joshing about stealing the limelight -- "Roddo bakkashi yan".

The region is certainly worthy of songs of praise

We carried the shrine here and there to different people's houses and were treated to more beer and some rather good snacks.

Farmers, men of industry, and salesmen

The view from the roof of the wedding hall

More stops, more beer

Of course, after three days of drinking beer from dawn till dark, hauling danjiri and omikoshi along flag adorned streets, these heavy articles have to be disassembled and put away carefully in storage for next year. This can seem a bit of a fag. A pleasant meal and more beer is served after the work is done.

The last picture is one I took on my way home on Monday evening. Like the strips of land, I felt like I was suspended in space, and my thoughts, such as they were, mirrored the wispy clouds. Home, to an early bed.


It appears that the shock of getting up on Tuesday and not drinking several bottles of beer before 7 am has undermined my constitution. I have a terrible cold and my hips don't seem to be functioning properly at all.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Festival preparations

Next week we have our festival, Insh'Allah. And so today, in spite of it being Sunday, I rose at 7:30 to join my neighbours at 8 for the 'michizukuri' or 'roadmaking'. This is a jolly business of going along all the roads pulling up weeds, trimming the verges with weedwhackers, and setting fire to the banks of dams. It's also a good chance to shoot the breeze with one's neighbours, most of whom have lived here all their lives and offer some interesting descriptions of how things used to be. Now that most pathways are paved with poured concrete, the literal meaning of 'michizukuri' has largely vanished, and the petrol-driven weedwhacker has also made things a lot easier, if a lot more noisy.

Women sheltering in the shade of a shed. It was hot.
I wonder what they talk about together.

One bloke who farms was showing me where a wild boar had entered a rice paddy and knocked down a lot of stalks. As we walked, I failed to notice the dip by which the farm equipment enters the paddy, twisted my ankle, and nearly ended up in the paddy myself. It didn't hurt at the time, but now it does. I obviously haven't been here long enough, because nobody laughed at me.

Moonlit shrine on Friday night.
The boys were practising their Drum n' Bell while the girls
were pasting 3,000 little flags on bamboo twigs to decorate the

In the afternoon, it was time to put together the 'danjiri', or what might I suppose be called a 'juggernaut'. This involves getting enormous wooden poles from inconspicuous storage next to the shrine, and various parts from the storeroom adjoining the village hall. Also, bamboo is cut from the mountain to make fenders for the main unit. These bits and pieces are all tied together with ropes which are pulled and hammered tight until they feel like steel.

Roping up the poles to the body of the danjiri.
Lots of headscratching about the method of winding.

Putting the cross-braces on. Everything wound and hammered.

Putting on the bamboo fenders.

All wrapped up against the typhoon expected tomorrow

The Japanese passion for 'monozukuri', or 'making things' is apparent in the collective care that goes into making a good, safe danjiri (English monozukuri also made itself apparent in a rather fanatical zeal to take the sharp edges off the cut bamboo with a lathe, since this alone is something one knows how to do...).

Jaboticaba flowers

The Jaboticaba didn't do very well during the two months when it didn't rain. It gradually shed its leaves and took on a sad, strained look. I watered it every few days, but I forgot what I'd read about it liking heavy irrigation. However, with the first decent fall of autumn rain, lo! it put forth lots of little white flowers, all over its branches in that thoroughly weird way it has.

The little white flowers that bloomed a few days ago have turned into little green fruit. We'll be watching their development with the most intense interest.

In my joy to see flowers, I put my bee suit on and grabbed my cotton bud to ensure that all the flowers got properly pollinated in the absence of real bees. However, as I buzzed between flowers, I noticed that ants were going between the flowers and I also nearly bludgeoned a hover fly that was taking darting flights at each flower. It appears that hover flies also pollinate the goji bushes (amongst other pollinators) and they seem to play a role similar to that of the largely absent bee -- they're present throughout the whole spring and summer whereas bees only appear to be active in the early spring.

Ground cover spreading

What I like about ground cover is the way that it covers the ground. That is, it covers the ground if the ground has been prepared carefully by digging and the addition of organic material. Also if it's watered every night laboriously with a watering can, and when the rainwater runs out, with a hose, for the nearly two months when it didn't rain. However, it's nice to see it spreading out, and it's also nice to see how it stops all the topsoil being washed away when it eventually rains. It's also convenient to be able to dump spadefulls of compost on it when the compost piles get out of hand. Thanks to the ground cover, there's now a thin layer of dark, absorbent soil taking shape on top of the clay.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Jaboticaba, and an almond

With two Feijoas and a Jaboticaba, South Americans should feel at home

I was very impressed by the flavour of the Jaboticaba fruit I tasted at the garden shop the other day, and after checking that the tree is supposedly cold tolerant down to -6°C , I bought it (in Matsuyama, the average temperature gets down to 1.9°C in February). When it arrived, I gobbled down a few of the fruit to get the energy to plant the tree, and decided that the fruit is a delicious cross between a cherry and a grape, but with much more reliable sweetness.

A little beetle makes a tasty meal of my pips

The Jaboticaba is said to like a deep soil with a lot of organic content, so I dug a hole about half a metre deep and filled it with compost and charcoal. Digging the hole in the solid clay/quartz mix was a major undertaking which took nearly an hour. It seems miraculous that the roots of plants can penetrate this medium when a pick axe can only penetrate a couple of inches with a good hard swing.

This hole goes a long way down, and is full of Terra Preta goodness

I'm saving the seeds of the Jaboticaba fruit and I'll try planting them. I believe that the cultivar I have is probably "Sabara" which is said to be "precocious". I hope so, because waiting 8 to 10 years for a seedling to fruit would really try my patience.

The almond tree has given up its single fruit. In the rains of the last few months, it gradually took on a very disreputable appearance, and today when I poked it cautiously with a gloved finger, it fell off the bush and some little poisonous ants came streaming out of it.

Inside the half-rotten "fruit" portion, the pit seemed to be in reasonable condition. Presumably, when this is cracked open, there should be a pristine almond inside. Whereas in California and other dry places like that, the fruit is left to dessicate and fall off on its own, in Japan where fruiting coincides with wet weather, the husbandman is supposed to devise measures for drying the fruit before it rots. Next year, I can see myself either hoping for a dry snap (but only in relation to the almonds!) or leaving matters to the ants, since no harm seems to have been done this year.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Pomegranates and other fruit trees

I was surprised the other day to see vivid red flowers blooming in the garden, not aware that I had planted anything with red flowers. In fact it was the pomegranate that I planted last autumn, and it shows how little I actually know about what I plant. I know what a pomegranate fruit looks like, but hitherto, I had no idea what its flowers looked like.

Indeed, when I first noticed the buds, I thought that they were in fact the fruit, and so I was surprised when they morphed into flowers.

Today I went to the garden rather superior garden shop Tokiwa Garland to pick up the seaberry plants I ordered. One of the two I planted last spring died. The seaberry comes in male and female varieties, and since I forgot which was which, I had to plant one of each again. At Tokiwa Garland, I encountered the Jaboticaba (Myrciaria cauliflora) or 'Kibudo' in Japanese.

This rather bizarre tree has grape-like fruit sticking out of its branches. I rather surreptiously picked a few and popped them in my mouth. They had a slightly sticky, waxy feel which heightened the feeling that one was running a hazard by ingesting them. The inside of the fruit, which pops outside with a spurt when you bite into it, is sweet like a grape but with a custardy texture and also a slight sourness. This is quite a delightful combination. The skin is bitter and I spat it out, along with a couple of largish seeds, although a taste for the skin could probably be acquired. At a price of 10,000 yen for a tree taller than I am with fruit already on it, I'm very tempted to add this one to our growing collection of uncommon fruit.