Saturday, April 24, 2010


OK, what have we here? A stainless steel bath, sitting around in my garden... Hmm, what can we do with this?

Wow, it's pretty fancy. It's got like, Greek gods and stuff on it. Well, we probably won't be needing them, but it's nice to know they're there.

Right, so this is the old metal pot that we buried a few years ago. Not very thoroughly since some of it sticks out of the ground.

Actually, it served its purpose pretty well. In fact, it's teeming with life. It contains several medaka, an American bullfrog (naturalized), several types of snail, lots of small, dragon-like nymphs and one big ugly nymph that seems to have eaten most of the medaka, and millions of water fleas. In fact, the water is thick with these minute fleas.

Indeed, it felt a bit brutal 'liquidating' this particular pond so that a bigger, better one could take its place. But the die was cast last weekend when we went to our friends' house which they're renewing, and I spotted the bath 'going begging' as the expression has it.

I spent a good part of the day digging this hole, all the while reflecting on mortality for some reason. My own for a start, and also that of the various life forms that had come to live in the old pond. Since I hadn't enough vessels to hold the water, most of it had to be put on the ground, with all those millions of water fleas. I rescued the last surviving medaka, and a lot of snails and small nymphs. The big nymph I took to one of the big local ponds, an environment which I'm sure it will find tougher than my garden.

The bullfrog although very large, is expert at hiding. But as I was scooping out the mud and leaves at the bottom with a ladle, I noticed that I'd also scooped up the frog. Clearly deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, he sat there in the ladle with his head sticking out among the leaves, pretending not to be there, as I put him in a bucket. I had been expecting trouble, but it was quite a classy performance in the end.

When the missus came home from shopping, hilarious banter was exchanged about graves, rotenburo, and what the neighbours are thinking. It all had a certain inevitability about it and you can probably figure out for yourself how it went.

The challenge now is to make it look less like a stainless steel bath buried in the ground. As the sun was beginning to set and it became cold, I laid a few stones which suggest that some pleasant combination of naturalistic/bourgeois may be possible.

The old big pot (looking a lot bigger now it's out of the ground) and another little pot that came with it may be reburied further up the garden with a cascading sort of configuration. And all the little water fleas will be welcomed back with open arms!

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Kukri vs. Ebinata

Kukri and ebinata

When I first set about cutting bamboo many years ago, I bought an Ebinata (literally "shrimp bill-hook", dunno why it's called that). It cost about 1,500 yen from the DIY store and it came with a fairly useless leatherette blade cover, but no sheath or holder. I liked it a lot at first. It feels good in my hand and it does swift destruction to anything it's used on, from bamboo to tree branches and even clumps of grass. The hooky bit on the end can be used as a hammer, as can the flat of the blade if need be, and the hook also keeps the blade from getting dinged. And when you've cut down a big bamboo and find that it's too heavy to move, the hook can be inserted at the bottom of the culm as a means of dragging it to an angle so that it falls over by itself.

Being a cheap and easily replaceable tool, I've used it savagely, especially when splitting very big culms of bamboo. This involves driving the tool through inch-thick material by hammering alternately on the spine of the blade and on the tang with another stout piece of bamboo. The tool is not harmed in the least by this rough usage.

However, although it's an excellent tool, I began to find the handle less than ergonomic, with a tendency to fly out of my hand when wet. Binding it with string helped, but not as much as I'd hoped. A bigger pommel would be a huge plus. Also, since it didn't come with a sheath and the cover fell to bits, finding somewhere to put it between bouts of chopping became a problem. I often just threw it down on the ground in the bamboo grove, but then finding it again later was not always easy. I put a hook in the end to attach it to my belt loop, but it keeps falling off. And the main problem was that I began to feel it was taking too many swings to cut through any size of bamboo. I felt that if it were just a bit heavier and bit more choppingly balanced, it would save me a few strokes.

Chopping comparison test.
Kukri marginally better, more fun.

So after reading that the Nepalese kukri is a crazy chopping tool, I figured that it might be what I was looking for. After looking through the extensive and annoying bullshit-filled catalogue at, I decided to get the 12" Chinautee. Since Khukuri House makes their knives to order and they accept modifications, I opted not to have the traditional kukri notch since I'm not a devotee of the goddess Kali or whatever the notch is supposed to be for. Also, the traditional kukri has a sharply tapered pommel which is commonly reported to jab painfully into the wrist when chopping, so I asked to have a rounded off pommel. Finally, I asked for none of the ridges on the handle that would seem to promise flayed hands after a few minutes' real work. The knife itself seems very cheap at $40, but the shipping was the same again making it a good deal costlier than the ebinata from the DIY store.

My knife arrived almost a month later than promised due to some power problem across the whole of Nepal. The whole thing, sheath included, is a beautiful piece of workmanship, and the two-tone handle is especially attractive. However, a 12" blade is imposing and heavy, something I began to consider carefully only after I had ordered it. It does chop well, although not vastly better than the ebinata. The handle however fits nicely in the hand, and the pommel prevents unwanted droppage. Wielding it presents more of a hazard than the ebinata since the kukri has a sharp point. A mistake with the ebinata would leave a nasty bruise on your shin -- the kukri would cut your shin right open.

Having a rather inventive nature, I very quickly gussied up the sheath attachment by cannibalizing a defunct bum bag. It now has quick-release frog with leg strap to stop it flapping about. The kukri sits perfectly, out of the way of work, but right within reach.

Sharpening the kukri presents problems that the ebinata doesn't. The ebinata can be brought to a very sharp edge simply be running an oilstone up and down it a couple of times. But the blade of the kukri is a rather eccentric S-shape and getting an even edge on it is not easy. I bought a kitchen knife-sharpening tool, but quickly found that the kukri is too big to fit in the slot (but boy, our kitchen knives are sharp now...). Incidentally, there are some good videos about knife-sharpening here.

So which 'wins', the kukri or the ebinata? Well on balance, the cheap ebinata has a lot of merits, and I won't be throwing mine away. (I didn't mention that it doesn't rust readily either.) But the kukri is a thing of beauty in itself, and actually chops better. Now I'd really like to try a 10" kukri which I think would be a more convenient size.

Bonus thoughts: A word about tangs.
Who that has heard the phrase "full tang" could not but experience anxiety when buying a knife that was not "full tang", but had a "hidden tang", or even worse, a "rat-tail tang"? The full tang is knife that goes all the way through the handle, so that's one handle that won't ever break off, no sir.

Well the ebinata has a tang that's a fraction of the length of the blade, and of the handle. It's fixed with a little metal ring and two very inferior looking pins that scarcely merit the term 'rivet'. And yet, the ebinata is made for a lifetime of constant impact with very hard bamboo. This fixture, laughably inadequate compared to a full tang, serves very well. I've seen ebinata that have been sharpened down by about one-third over many years of hard use, and their miserable little tangs are still holding up.

It's the same with the traditional "hidden tang" of kukris which are glued in place with some poxy natural epoxy. There are antique kukris on the market that are a century old and that have seen hard usage chopping the enemies of the British Empire into beefsteak tartare. But their tangs are still strong and in place.

I firmly believe that the cult of the full tang is nothing but a simple-minded dependency on the redundant appearance of strength, which adds weight and nothing much else. The history of cutlery offers abundant proof that a little tang is a good thing.

Extra thought
Since I bought the kukri, I've discovered the Razel SS7 which looks like this;

This too is said to be a wicked chopper and I believe it. It comes with a very robust sheath too. If anybody would like to send me one for review, I can be contacted at ocean11 at gmail.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

3-bay compost

I can't believe it's taken me so long, but I've finally built a 3-bay compost system.

The idea is that you can have a pile that receives new kitchen and garden waste, alongside an old, curing pile. Since compost works best when it's chucked around periodically, the middle bay allows space for this chucking.

It will be observed that the left bay contains something that looks quite like compost, but actually it's full of very stinky mikan rind and some viable potato peelings that will produce potatoes unless I use that middle bay assiduously.

This is the time of year when the combination of daytime heat and frequent rain creates just the right conditions to make the compost heat up and give off vapour when you stick a fork in it. It's all full of luridly purple and pink worms that are quite obviously enjoying a riot of multiplication.

Things blooming

From mid-February, things have been blooming, starting with the weeping plum. A friend criticised me persistently for having cut back my plum so harshly. I didn't have the heart to riposte with the timeless Japanese wisdom "He who prunes a cherry; complete idiot. He who fails to a prune plum; stupid bastard". (The English seems to depend a lot on the translation, but the original Japanese expression is quite unequivocal.)

Weeping plum

Apricot (close-up)

Apricot (distant)

People keep walking past and commenting that my cherry is looking pretty.

The thing that produces the not very palatable berries around June.

Actual cherry blossoms.
We can see these blooming from our kitchen window. I went to have a look at them close-up, and strangely enough, I could also see our kitchen window in the distance.

Today I went to the temple Zenno-ji just up the road where a lot of big old cherry trees blossom. In the quiet of the temple grounds, the hum of the bees harvesting the pollen sounded like ... like ... well, something a bit Zen-like I suppose.

Here, clever people will suppose that they've detected a category error. However, this newly emerged butterfly looked so much like a flower when it first caught my eye that I don't mind taking the liberty of posting it as a blooming thing.