An Aussie Amongst the Wasabi

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1 – Hooked

I first noticed wasabi patches while hiking in the Okutama hills, years ago. They nestled beside crystal clear streams in deep gullies, some of them as much as an hour’s trek from the nearest road.

Questions flooded in. What kind of person carts equipment and materials up a rugged mountain trail so they can plant, care for and harvest wasabi? Who are they? Is this all they do? How do they do it? How crazy and how determined must they be? Is it worth the effort? How did someone smash masses of stone to build these amazing walls, terraces and water channels?

At that stage it did not occur to me that I, a Tokyo city apartment dweller, could be such a person.

 

2 – Telling the story

I have spent my life as a writer, reporter, journalist and editor. I decided to tell the wasabi story in the monthly Eurobiz Japan. The head of the Okutama wasabi farmers association, Mr. Takeuchi, proved exceptionally helpful, arranging a visit to a first-grade wasabi farm together with its three operators. A key element of the story was the monorail, a simple contrivance by which these elderly gentlemen could continue hauling materials and themselves up and down a typically precipitous and treacherous slope of these young, crumbly Okutama hills.

 

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A flimsy-looking rail snakes its way up a rugged gully

3 – A relationship starts to grow

The story meant nothing to readers of the magazine, but a translation got the wasabi farmers excited. They began inviting me and my partner to everything: their AGM and year-end party, a national conclave of wasabi farmers in Tokyo, and local volunteer activities. During one such volunteer exercise, planting out azalea trees, we met Ohno-san, a tirelessly buoyant imp whose generosity astonishes. He would become a priceless ally. During our visits, the conversation often turned to population decline. “We’re getting older, people are dying, young people are leaving,” the locals explained. A spark of an idea led to: “Well, does that mean there is cheap housing available?” We are forever in the debt of Takeuchi-san for taking up the challenge. “What? Do you want to live in Okutama?” Upon our affirmative, this gem of an individual launched a house-hunt on our behalf.

 

4 – Making a move

In February of 2014, freakish snows closed both the road and rail between Ome and Okutama for a full week. We moved as soon as the road opened, into a rented house with space for a sizeable vegetable patch in the back. Our local friends repeated: “What? You really want to live out here?”

Friends from the city were soon visiting for hikes and barbecues.

 

5 – Finding a wasabida

On one such occasion, we explored a nearby valley for the first time. There was a beautiful creek with many pretty waterfalls. After a leisurely hour or so the trail petered out and the valley walls closed steeply in. We turned back, paying more attention to the creek, and thus discovered a wasabi patch that seemed to have been neglected for some time.

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6 – Staking a claim

We chatted to locals about our discovery, and after some months learned that our friend Ohno was the operator. Meanwhile, I occasionally helped Takeuchi with his wasabida, and at last he suggested that I might take over a neighboring patch. When that line of enquiry reached a dead-end, he said: “Why don’t you take over Ohno-san’s place? He rented it from Harashima-san.”

And so the pieces clicked into place. This Harashima runs a lumber company, has an impressive vegetable garden and grows kinoko fungi, and we knew him well. He agreed to visit the place with us just to make sure we were all talking about the same location. The confirmation came easily enough, but Harashima gazed about in wonder at the steep valley walls with their ranks of tall sugi and hinoko trees.

“I haven’t been here for 50 years,” he muttered. “The last time was when I was in school, and I had to come up here to collect firewood.”

 

7 – The work begins

We struck an agreement with Harashima, paying a very modest annual fee, and got to work. It was a year or so after the above photo was taken. Ohno visited and gave us plenty of advice. Takeuchi visited and gave us plenty of advice, plus some netting and a bag containing a mass of tangled wires.

At that point we were just beginning to discover the extent of the neglect. Surrounding nets had long since collapsed into tangled, mouldering masses. Shovels had been used, but the handles had rotted away completely, leaving only worn and rusting blades. Layers of weeds and moss covered the entire surface.

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8 – Watch out for pigs

Too late! Wild boar, known as inoshishi in these parts, love to root around in such places, hunting for the abundant worms and crabs. Before we could get the surface cleaned or install a defensive net, one or more of the animals arrived with a ferocious appetite. They ripped up large areas (Hey, you’re welcome!) and smashed terrace walls (Hey! Not nice!).

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It was fun, though, rebuilding the wall and restoring the water channel.

Rockwall02112015 copy.jpg9 – Protecting the area

For a while our top priority was to get the surface cleaned up, to discourage inoshishi. We would also need to install a net around the growing area to keep out deer, which love to eat the leaves.

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Wonderful friends did a great job getting rid of all the weeds and moss.

From the mountainside, felled sugi trees provided logs, which were cut into some 40 poles, each 2.5m in length.

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Each pole would be set in a hole dug by hand about 50cm deep into the rocky rubble around the perimeter. Again, friends volunteered invaluable assistance.

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Kevin, our French guest, made a major contribution. Thanks, Kevin!

 

10 – Up goes the net

The trickiest part of excluding animals is to make sure they cannot easily lift the bottom of the net and slip under.

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Years ago, there was a lot of logging here, and we luckily discovered lengths of cable abandoned by loggers. Heavy cables anchored the nets perfectly.

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11 – Break out the kazusa

Opinions vary on what constitutes an ideal wasabi bed. Here we had a surface that was rocky, gravelly and heavily silted. One advisor recommended getting rid of all silt so that nothing but clear flowing water touches the plant. Another said the roots must penetrate into nutritious mud. Either way, hour upon hour of backbreaking labor was in store. The tool for the job is called a kazusa. I went to borrow one from Mr. Takeuchi. He gave it to me.

 

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You demand a great deal of your kazusa, so look after it.

 

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New blades

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Controlling water flow means building reliable horizontal water channels to feed the vertical ruts where wasabi will grow. The kazusa gets a constant workout.

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12 – Planting

A prominent figure in Okutama wasabi production, on Mr. Suzuki, visited the wasabida in March to advise us on the planting of our first crop. Of the five terraces, he said the middle three would be most useful because of the condition of the beds and because too many branches overhang the top and bottom beds. He provided useful hints on controlling water flow (e.g., lower the flow during planting and increase flow when plants are established), preparing water channels and getting rid of surrounding shrubs and weeds. He also undertook to order 1,000 wasabi seedlings for delivery the following month.

At the time, we pondered felling some nearby trees, some of which are huge sugi and hinoki over 60 years old. We consulted with the owner, a gentleman of advanced years who said, in sum: “I worked hard to plant those trees and nurse them through their first years of growth, so now I feel some nostalgia. You may trim them, but please do not cut any down”.

In practice, we could ignore this request. However, maintaining and building relationships is by far and away our first priority.

Waiting for seedlings to arrive, we had far more time than at first thought. They come from Shizuoka, where producers were having a bad year, so ours were not delivered until early July. This turned out to be a good thing because there was more time to prepare properly for our first crop.

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What a young wasabi plant needs is a constant supply of running water and a bed of clean gravel. So, back to work with the kazusa, ploughing deeply enough to sluice out the fine silt that could limit oxygen supply and encourage unwanted bacteria. Ensuring water flow in all channels also means some engineering around water intakes, side channels and horizontal feeder canals.

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INTAKES

Our wasabida has three intakes: one at the top, of course, one beneath the first terrace and another beneath the last of the five terraces. The topmost intake is craftily incorporated into the rock wall, so that a limited amount of water flows directly from the creek onto the upper terrace.

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I gradually worked out how to adjust this intake, by shifting rocks and with the use of robust sheeting. To increase flow in dry weather, I also installed a 10-metre hose.

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The second intake is only slightly less elegant, being aided by a pipe that goes straight through the bottom of the wall. The flow here is adjusted mainly by shifting rocks. The third intake is quite crude, and almost redundant anyway. I only opened it, by unclogging a mass of gravel and other rubbish, after being satisfied with the other two.

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Our wasabi seedlings arrived at last, and so did friends willing to help with the planting.

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At this stage water flow must be kept quite low, so that seedlings don’t get washed away. (PIC) As it happened, heavy rains arrived just after a major planting session, but the intakes behaved well and nearly all the seedlings remained happily in place.

 

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NEXT: Plants establish themselves, then come under attack.

 

 

 

The Okutama Adventure

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I decided a couple of years ago to write a blog about my new life in a rural part of the mountainous Okutama area, which is part of western Tokyo. We have an environment and lifestyle that we love to share. We have fresh vegetables from the garden, encounters with wild animals, a beautiful quiet stretch of river nearby and a real sense of belonging in this community. I am also restoring a traditional mountainside wasabi farm.

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I like to share with anyone interested in the rewards and challenges of this type of country living.

There is also a broader purpose for this blog. Okutama is one of the many rural areas of Japan under threat from declining population. I want to share information on a number of topics related to rural revitalization. How can local, metropolitan and national government policies be improved? Can landowners be persuaded to utilize their assets more creatively? Can the forestry industry be revitalized? Can the massive problem of pollen allergy be solved?

I’m off to a very slow start here. I need better blogging habits in order to draw more attention to the immense potential of this beautiful area.

The Wise Man

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See below for Japanese translation

The wise man loves karaoke. He shows off the sets installed in the makeshift karaoke annex that he built next to his home. The history of karaoke is all there, with cassette tapes, 12” laser disks and a range of players. It’s a love, and his neighborhood friends join him regularly for evenings of singing, jollity, drinking and gossip.
He’s in his heaven. Today, however, the conversation turns to the history of our part of Okutama. We have noticed, in the Japanese cedar forests that blanket the slopes above our home, ancient wires hanging from trees 20m in height. These are single wires, rusted and brittle, that seem to descend from the crowns of these trees?
The wise man, who spent his early years as a timber-getter, explains that in the old days, when this timber had value, the owners attached such wires so that they could pull the young trees straight after heavy snows. Bent trees have no value. Every spring, workers would trudge through the snow levering those wires, which were bound at the lower end to adjacent trees, in order to shake off burdensome snow and allow the trees to straighten.
Timber was big business before WWII, but then cheaper imports dominated the market and in the early 1960s the man had to leave in search of other employment.
With the market for sugi and hinoki timber went the market for the bark of these straight and true trees, which was a fine roofing material with a life of 15 years or so.
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Now he is back, long-retired, and with a home that is a monument to the traditional lifestyle. The house is surrounded by neat, impressive woodpiles.
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He says he prefers the wood-fired bath to the gas-fired contraption in the main building. He likes to make soba noodles from dough that he prepares himself.

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Near the karaoke den is an open storage shed for various gardening tools and materials, with an open faucet overflowing a sink with clear water. Is that not a waste? Yes, it is not. The homeowner explains that he maintains a spring some 300m up the mountain, linked by pipelineto a tank near the house that supplies all household water with plenty to spare. Such arrangements are increasingly scarce, but not unknown in our extended village.

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Our next question regards abandoned antennae found here and there on the slopes. I found one recently on a ridge a couple of hundred meters above Ome-kaido. Our friend explains that in the early days of TV (after 1953) the reception in this area was somewhat fickle. Some people went to great trouble and expense to elevate the receivers.
The wise man has family roots going back several centuries in this area, and he provides a keen insight into why so many people in the Okutama area share surnames. There are so many Harashimas, Hamanos and Shimizus that it seems everyone in the district must be related, and is especially odd in a nation of over 100,000 surnames. The elegant explanation here (I have no historical verification as yet) is that when the Meiji government decreed in 1875 that even commoners must register a surname, many people simply imitated their neighbors. Later, some adopted trade names to avoid confusion. Today, then, many locals who share the same family name have no traceable family links at all.
In the Meiji, Taisho and early Showa areas the local economy was robust, with timber, agriculture and limestone quarrying. The postwar period, however, was particularly harsh on the lumber industry. Overwhelmed by imports, the value of a 30-year-old sugi tree now is less than 500 yen, nowhere near commercial viability.
This becomes a serious problem, the wise one explains, not only here but nationwide, as sugi trees begin flowering around 30 years of age. The pollen they produce causes debilitating hay fever for weeks at a time every spring. In the old days, harvesting kept up with a 30-year cycle, and hay fever was almost unknown. It began increasing sharply in the mid-1960s. These days about 90% of the trees are mature. Pollen from sugi and hinoki affects about 20% of the population of Japan.
The wise man did not offer a solution.

And here is the expert translation

好々爺はカラオケが大好き。彼の自宅の敷地内に自分で離れを建て、カラオケセットをはめ込んでいる。カラオケの歴史を物語るといっても語弊がないような、当初のカセットテープ、レーザーディスク、プレーヤーなどがずらり。楽しい。夜な夜な近所の友達が集まり、飲めや歌えやで大騒ぎ。

気分は最高だ。ところが、今日は奥多摩の歴史を紐解くこととなった。

筆者が住む家の裏山の斜面は、杉に覆われている。高さが20mもあろうか、杉の木から古いワイヤーがぶら下がっているのに気づいた。1本のワイヤーで、錆びて脆くなって杉の木のてっぺんから下がっているように見える。

若かりし頃、山仕事で生計をたてていた好々爺曰く、それは積雪の後にその重みで倒れた若い杉の木を真っ直ぐに引っ張るために、森の持ち主がワイヤーを取り付けた。木の値段が高く商品価値があったのだ。曲がってしまった木は売れない。毎春雪の積もった山に入り、近くの他の木の根元に止めてあるワイヤーを引っ張り、雪の重みに耐えかねた杉の木々を引っ張り上げ、元のように真っ直ぐにしたのだ。第二次大戦前は、木材は大きな事業だった。しかし、その後、輸入木材に席巻され、1960年代初めにはその職を離れることとなった。

杉や檜(ひのき)の需要と同じくして、その外皮(バーク)の需要もあり、屋根の素材として15年程もつとされた。

好々爺は、伝統的な日本様式そのものといった家でリタイヤ生活を送って久しい。きちんと長さを揃えて切った薪が、家を囲っている。薪で焚いたお風呂は最高だ。特注の高価なユニットバスは使ってもいない。

カラオケの離れに隣接する小屋には、畑で使う道具がところ狭しと並んでいる。脇にはシンクが備え付けられ、水が蛇口から溢れ出ている。もったいなくはないか?いや、そんなことはない。裏山の300m程登ったところから湧き水を引き、一旦タンクに貯め、それでも使い切れない分が出ているのだと言う。このような設備は、だんだんと珍しいものになってきたが、この村ではみんなが共同で作り上げたものだ。

次の質問は山道のあちらこちらにある放置されたアンテナ。青梅街道から2〜300m上がった尾根に見つけた。テレビが来た頃、ちょうど1953年くらいか、この辺りは電波の受信が悪かったために大きなレシーバーを山の頂上に設置した。その後、各自が家に取り付けていたアンテナはお役御免となったのである。

好々爺はこの地域では何代も前から続く家に生まれた。なぜにこの地域は同じ苗字が多いのか?

10万も苗字があるというのに。彼の見解では(筆者はまだ歴史的立証はしていないのだが)、明治政府が1875年に平民も苗字を登記するように命じ、多くの平民が隣近所の名前を真似て自分達の名前を決めてしまったのだ。当時、五軒組と呼ばれる隣組ができ、葬儀の時などは協力しあったという。そのような中、同じ名前の隣近所を区別するために屋号が取り入れられた。今でも屋号で呼び合う家々も存在する。そして現在、各地方で、血縁関係もない家族が同じ苗字を名乗って存在するのは、このようなことが原因と考えられる。

明治、大正、そして昭和初期は地方経済は木材、農業、石灰の採石で潤っていた。しかし、戦後、特に木材関連の産業が厳しい状況に追い込まれた。輸入木材が主流となり、今では30年経った杉の木1本が500円にもならない。近場でさばける可能性もない。

このことは奥多摩のみならず、全国的な問題となった、と好々爺は嘆く。杉は30年で花をつける。その花粉が、毎春ある一定期間に多くの人を悩ます花粉症の原因となる。昔は30年周期で杉の伐採を行い、売買され、花粉症などなかった。顕著に現れたのは1960年代中頃。当時は90%の杉が花粉をばらまいた。日本人の20%が杉と檜の花粉に悩むという。これに対しての結論は好々爺から聞くことはなかった。

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Amazing Ambitious Ants

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We have all heard about the strength, tenacity and teamwork of ants, but in my book these ones take the cake for pure ambition.
The task, for fewer than 10 tiny ants, is to carry this moth

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Up these steps

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Then down the wall into that pipe.

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One step at a time lads!

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Now comes the downhill part. Should be a breeze.

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Easy does it!

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Unfortunately, they lost their grip on the wall and had to start all over again. I hope the queen bestows knighthood on the entire crew.

To Catch a Wild Boar

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okutamaonline

Updating the Inoshishi situation.

Several friends have told us not to plant sweet potatoes, as they attract inoshishi, or wild boar, which roam the Okutama hills and are never far away. A neighbour’s crop was totally wiped out, the story goes, by inoshishi that descended on it just the night before a planned harvest.
We planted a few satsumaimo anyway, just out of optimism. We also discovered that nagaimo, the tubers you can eat fresh, have been established in our garden area, a legacy of previous tenants. So it was of concern in late August when a neighbour right on the edge of the forest, about 100 metres distant, reported that inoshishi had been rooting around under the big chestnut tree. They had also left a surprisingly large amount of faeces along the quiet bit of roadway there. Worried on several accounts, not least the safety of very elderly residents…

View original post 189 more words

To Catch a Wild Boar

Posted on Updated on

Updating the Inoshishi situation.

Several friends have told us not to plant sweet potatoes, as they attract inoshishi, or wild boar, which roam the Okutama hills and are never far away. A neighbour’s crop was totally wiped out, the story goes, by inoshishi that descended on it just the night before a planned harvest.
We planted a few satsumaimo anyway, just out of optimism. We also discovered that nagaimo, the tubers you can eat fresh, have been established in our garden area, a legacy of previous tenants. So it was of concern in late August when a neighbour right on the edge of the forest, about 100 metres distant, reported that inoshishi had been rooting around under the big chestnut tree. They had also left a surprisingly large amount of faeces along the quiet bit of roadway there. Worried on several accounts, not least the safety of very elderly residents, she then asked the local government to do something about the problem. In a few days a team arrived with a trap. By this time I had personally observed a large sow and three or four strapping youngsters getting very near our patch.

The trap is lowered into place under the chestnut tree.

The trap appears to be a veteran of many campaigns, and the men who installed it are obviously very experienced. They lowered the trap into place under the chestnut tree and then baited it using a maize fodder normally fed to cattle. It was my job to replenish the bait daily.

Data from a night camera attached to a nearby tree confirmed visits by a sow and five piglets. Almost two weeks later, with the youngsters routinely entering the cage, it was decided to spring the trap.

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That worked!

What followed was not pretty, but later that day we picked up a small share of the meat from the city office in Okutama. Inoshishi nabe that night. Very delicious!

Despite all this, just a couple of weeks later a wild pig (or two) came right into our garden and dug up a couple of nagaimo yams.

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That was just for two tubers. You might imagine what kind of mess they would make in a whole field of them.

The trap was reset. The night camera recorded wild boar, foxes, raccoons and tanuki in the vicinity, but the pigs no longer went near the trap. All we found one morning was this raccoon (araiguma).OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 
I have a new appreciation of animal intelligence. As long as we watched, this raccoon gave every impression of being quite at home and relaxed within the cage. As soon as we were out of sight it got to work trying to dig its way out or squeeze through one of the square holes. When I returned and caught it halfway out, it withdrew calmly and resumed an air of nonchalance within. Eventually it did crawl out and disappear. I wish the little animal well, but now it is chewing holes in my inoshishi net.
 

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Mt. Mitake Uncrowded

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Mt. Mitake is famous for its important historic shrine, tourist facilities and an excellent network of hiking trails. It is also notoriously crowded on weekends. A weekday visit, however, is well worthwhile.

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