Monday, May 15, 2023

Japanese Adventures

"The spirit of saké is female. Her name is Matsuo. Some people say the reason for the old prohibition against women entering a sakagura, the building where saké is brewed, is that Matsuo Sama could get jealous." -- Hannah Kirshner. Water, Wood & Wild Things (p. 73).
Looking inside the saké brewery: "Shintō is a belief system in which everything has a spirit.
If there is a god in water, a god in rice, a god in saké, then a sakagura is like a shrine." (Water, Wood & Wild Things, p. 75)

Water, Wood & Wild Things
(Published 2021)
I have read many accounts of Americans who immersed themselves in a Japanese setting in order to learn one of the many arts and crafts of the many special and sometimes esoteric Japanese traditions. Such books follow a kind of pattern, whereby the author learns more and more and eventually becomes accepted even though their Americanness is never forgotten or forgiven. I enjoy reading them despite this predictability.

The author of Water, Wood & Wild Things, Hannah Kirshner, apprenticed herself to an expert in the Japanese rice wine saké. This expert lived in a very obscure town far from the urban centers and far from urban life, and had dedicated his life to connoisseurship by acquiring many types of saké, and serving them to the tourists (and some locals) who came to the town for the classic Japanese baths and hotels that somehow had survived into modern times.

Saké begins as the center of the book but its author experiences a large and fascinating number of Japanese arts and customs. She tried to conform by choosing appropriate clothing, such as the white shirt and vest of her bartender teacher; the eggplant-colored uniform and hat of a saké worker; a yukata (a less formal robe similar to a kimono) and obi to match other students in her dance class; or a more formal yukata and traditional wooden sandals to attend a tea ceremony class. She wore boots and sturdy clothing to go on trails in search of wild plants or when cultivating a rice paddy or a traditional vegetable garden. And she constantly worked to understand as much of the Japanese language as she could.

Kirshner learned amazing things in every one of her adventures. About saké she explored various ideas, such as pairing food with saké. Unlike with wine, chosen to bring out the best in food that one drinks with it, her mentor would present his customers with food that went with the choice of saké. "It occurs to me that I am thinking about what food the saké would enhance, but Shimoki is thinking about what food would enhance the saké." (p. 26).  As a temporary worker in the brewery, she participated in a blessing ceremony for the new saké brewing year along with the other brewery workers. As a visitor, she learned about a famous song that celebrated the town (and made it well-known). As a student of tea, she memorized the motions of the tea ceremony along with the other students in her group. She learned a variety of crafts and skills, a new avocation in each chapter.

I was fascinated by some of her observations -- for example, about the ritual of tea. She writes that "tea, like martial arts, is a path, not something that you master and finish learning. To call it tea 'ceremony' is a bit of a misnomer. In my lessons it’s more like tea 'practice,' closer to a meditation than a celebration." (p. 38). 
Craft work in Japan appeals to many westerners like Kirshner because of the dedication and strengths of the artists, who perfect a skill set, a level of creativity, and a commitment to constant labor that differs from most western crafters. Japanese people generally value the ethic of these workers in wood, clay, food, hand-made paper, or in cultivating, gathering, hunting, and cooking food. Water, Wood & Wild Things describes several such people. Some are amateurs, such as practitioners of the tea rituals. Others are fine artists, such as a woman who makes paper in a traditional way for her work as a photographer. And some are professionals, such as Nakajima, the local woodworker who makes special cups and vessels for serving saké, who allowed her to learn woodworking. Or in a broader sense, the owner of the saké factory where she worked for a time.

From the author’s Instagram: a cup that she made when working
with Nakajima, the wood turner. (link)

Kirshner also celebrates individuals who pursue less glamorous tasks with traditional resonance; for example, a man who makes charcoal in the old way from before gas and electric power provided light and heat. Or several people who grow rice in small paddies as it was formerly done. Some of the craftsmen have returned to making old-style objects, such as an obscure type of wooden tray called a wagatabon; others have expanded on classic designs and created new styles in craftwork. Kirshner's experiences mostly center on the one rural town that was formerly a place for vacationers to enjoy mineral baths and to buy crafts, but it's clear that she could have found similar places in other towns. 

A few of these "crafts" are downright bizarre, such as the practice of hunting ducks by capturing them in thrown nets (sort of like fishing nets). This was originally a hunt reserved for the samurai, but still done by a few devotees of the sport. Kirshner manages to be invited on one such hunt, and to the duck dinner that followed!

Many descriptions of the local foods are very delightful, including bar foods, high-end restaurant foods, home-cooked foods, camp meals, and food for festivals. The foods compliment the author's experiences with craftsmen, farmers, one boar hunter, and saké experts. An entire chapter documents a fascinating search for wild vegetables in the company of local experts: another old fashioned activity that just a few aficionados pursue. 

The author’s experience growing rice in the traditional way is the subject of another chapter. She is tutored by a few farming craftsmen, particularly a committed rice grower named Hayashi, who has revived old, pesticide-free methods. She is given a very small rice paddy to tend, and takes responsibility for each step from germinating the seeds, raising the seedlings, planting, tending the paddy, and harvesting. Like every one of the author’s experiments in pursuit of a traditional craft or industry or food production, her rice cultivation stage includes fascinating portrayals of the committed Japanese individuals who have maintained the activity. For example, Hayashi is mentors her rice-growing efforts while also tending to the needs of a number of other individuals:

“When the keyaki trees unfurl their serrated lanceolate leaves, it’s time to plant rice. It’s a glorious late spring day—almost hot. The frog eggs have hatched into tadpoles, and some have already grown up. Girls run around catching the green-and-brown-striped tonosama frogs and red-bellied newts. A small boy clings to his parents. Hayashi’s friends have come with their children to help. He’s brought his whole family and some of the young men from the share house he runs. They are hikikomori, shut-ins, a growing affliction in Japan. It’s a broad term that probably encompasses all kinds of struggles with mental health and emotional development. … 
When we take a break for sweets and tea, Grandma picks edible weeds from the aze and tells me how to cook them. Peel the fuki (butterbur) stems, snap them into short pieces, blanch and stir-fry them, and then season with a little soy sauce and sugar.” (p. 286-287)

It’s all a little idyllic! Finally, the rice harvest is done and the sheaves of rice have dried enough to be threshed and for white rice polished. One more product is collected:

“Hayashi sets aside a few armfuls of straw for tying next year’s bundles. I take some for making New Year’s decorations, called shimenawa, and twisting into twine that I’ll use for hanging persimmons to dry. In old times, making things out of rice straw—ropes, baskets, sandals called waraji, and even raincoats—was winter work to do sitting around the hearth.” (p. 295)

Recipes follow each chapter, but they are recipes to read, not to cook. At least not in an American kitchen, as almost all of them require specialty vegetables, wild plants that only grow in the Japanese countryside, or herbs and condiments that couldn't be replicated here.

Do Japanese people find these crafts as compelling as Kirshner does? I suspect that they do, though many are just as obsessed with the online computer age and its gaming and social media as any Americans. Will the next generation still keep valuing all this? Kirshner gives her readers hope that the commitment to tradition will continue, at least in a fair number of interested and dedicated people.

Another Adventure: Seeking Cats in Japanese Life

If you enjoy reading about Japanese culture, Water, Wood & Wild Things is definitely for you! If you want to read something short about one eccentricity in Japanese culture, though, I suggest that you read an article from the New York Times about the Japanese love of cats, especially about abandoned Japanese rural places that are now inhabited only by a few very old people and numerous cats.

At Gotokuji  Temple
From the NYT article.

While the Japanese seemingly love cats, and allow them to roam freely and be fed, there is more to it. Here's one of the most intriguing passages from the article:

"Cats are especially prone to becoming demons. I’m using the term 'demon' broadly, to refer to both yurei, which are ghosts, and yokai, which are spirits. (Actual demons, as well as shape-shifters and ogres, are yokai.) Zack Davisson, the author of the entertaining 'Kaibyo: The Supernatural Cats of Japan' (2021), identifies five major categories of kaibyo, or 'strange cats': 'the split-tailed neko mata (again cat), the shape-changing bakeneko (changing cat), the cat/human hybrid neko musume (cat daughter), the beckoning maneki neko (inviting cat) and the corpse-stealing kasha (fire cart [cat]).' No other animal, he notes (with some admiration), has as many demonic variations as the cat."

The article covers a number of topics about cats, Japan, the aging of the Japanese population, how rural areas are losing population and being inhabited by cats, and much more about the spiritual link between cats and Japanese society, and some of it is very weird!

Blog post © 2023 mae sander 





Iris Flavia said...

That explains the waving cats - we call them "Glückskatzen", they bring luck.

Jeanie said...

Well, you know I've got to check out the cat article! (I have several of the waving cats -- I can't remember the name off the top of my head though I will as soon as I hit post!) When we were in Japan, it was when I had Stimpy who was orange and white. I showed a picture of him to several people and they all said, "He looks like a Japanese cat!"

The first book sounds very interesting. I've read similar book (a potter in Japan, among others) and I'm always intrigued by the journey.

anno said...

How interesting to bring together such two very different aspects of Japanese culture! The book about craft is particularly appealing to me, and especially the idea that aspects of culture we regard as ends in themselves (the tea ceremony, for example) are considered more as a process to negotiate: a path. Maybe that's true for all aspects of our life? What would it mean to us to regard even getting out of bed in the morning as a craft? Or the way we serve dinner? Thanks for this provocative pairing!

Emma at Words And Peace / France Book Tours said...

Ooh! Kirshner's book is now on my TBR. Fascinating, thanks!

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

Kirshner brought up a good point. Japanese artisans become experts in their craft and continue to perfect it throughout their lifetime. We
in the states, seem to "learn" a craft in a workshop, create a couple of the crafts, then go on to other crafts, There are few artisans who actually spend their entire lives making the same things over and over and over again.

I can't see the NYT article unless I pay for it, But I love those waving cats I thought were called Neko.

Thanks for sharing these reviews and especially the one on saki for T this Tuesday, Mae.

J said...

That explains all the gold waving Cats in the Asian stores over here, quite frightening to look at actually!
Interesting about Sake, I tried it but wasn't keen.
Happy T Day Jan S

Divers and Sundry said...

Fascinating! I love a Netflix series called "Samurai Cat" :)

Happy T Tuesday!

My name is Erika. said...

That book sounds amazing. I've read a few books about learning Japanese arts being an American, but never one about sake. No wonder why some temples have sake barrels at them. This was a great T day post Mae. I really enjoyed it. Have a great day. hugs-Erika

CJ Kennedy said...

Wonderful post especially the cats. Happy T Day

CJ Kennedy said...

Thoroughly enjoyable post especially the cats. Happy T Day

Lisca said...

Fascinating to read about Japanese craftsmen. Like Elizabeth says, we have a go at a particular craft but the Japanese learn this craft for a lifetime and still they don't believe they have mastered it!. Amazing.
How interesting that Hayashi invited hikikomori to come out and help with tending the rice plants.
Happy T-Day,

Empire of the Cat said...

Well of course I'm intrigued by this book, and also the article by Hanya Yanagihara, (loved a little life) about the cats. I have many welcoming cats (maneki neko) in my house, and did some journal pages and a post about them last year I think or perhaps 2021. Anyway the newspaper won't let me read without paying boo hoo Happy T Day! Elle/EOTC xx

Carola Bartz said...

What an interesting post this is, Mae. I remember reading the cat article a few days ago. Hannah Kirshner's book sounds fascinating and is on my book wishlist now. A fitting topic for T Tuesday.

pearshapedcrafting said...

A fascinating post! I learn so much from you. I even found by googling Quaker Puffed Wheat that you had all the info I needed. My SIL in France wants us to take some and of course, I can't find it anywhere here. Belated Happy T Day, Chrisx