Pebbled paths, a drizzled expedition, and being alone

When I found my apartment on Google Maps, I noticed that I’m not far from a wooded area, and made up my mind to go check it out on a day off. Today I rode out to find it, and eventually did. I got side-tracked by a brilliant roof (a tiny local shrine, it turns out), and after riding up a couple steep hills, and walking my bike the rest of the way in a sudden drizzle, I found the foot of two paths leading into a forest. I took the narrow, rougher path, and thought myself something of an adventurer. It was pebbled at first, but luckily became overgrown quickly by the forest.

The trees were tall and regular, as though they were planted by humans, growing close together and blocking out the glowing sun that took turns hiding behind the clouds and staring at me. They didn’t seem more than 30 or 40 years old (but seriously, wtf do I know about the age of a tree just by looking?), and one had fallen over across the path, pushing a few other trees away and showing the ground to the sky, creating a natural spotlight that I thought would be neat to walk through until I got rained all over as I stepped over the fallen trunk and into the soft, clean light where plants grew verdant and lush, soaking in the only sun in sight.

chestnut-20115-400x250Open chestnut pods were strewn about, emptied by local animals whose paws are small and tough enough to get past their prickly exterior. I attempted to pick one up and was skewered several times at once.

Finally, I happened upon a large community garden with a gravel path down the middle and a view of the city, and felt thankful for the uphill push that brought me up the hill. One part was fenced off with a quaint wooden fence decorated with birdhouses, surrounding a 4’x10′ area with a little gravel path going in a right-angled U shape, with plants on either side, the tiniest personal garden designed to be walked through and enjoyed I’d ever seen. I attempted to call Nicholas, Jon and my dad, but the rain was coming down hard, and I lost the signal when I stepped into the treeline. I ate chestnuts and wandered back through the dark forest, stepped over the fallen tree, under the blink of sky that stared boldly at the opportunistic foliage, and waited out the rain under a tree. In my orange shirt and teal sneakers, I took a bite of the yellow apple I brought. As I surveyed the little path leading back to my bicycle through rain-flecked glasses, my solitude was finally a gift.


My chronological crutch

A lot has happened since I stopped updating this blog. I’ve landed a job teaching ESL at a university, basically a dream job. I’ve traveled for another project I’m shocked and thrilled to be a part of. I’ve fallen out and back in love. I’ve torn up roots and put new ones down. What’s known and comfortable has come rushing back in a storm of whirring airplane engines and apartment searches, quiet nights spent alone in my first roommate-less place in LA, the dripping Spring Tides of loss upon entering a familiar space. The things that were here before are still here, and a part of me that was in constant motion has finally come to something resembling a state of rest. It gives a false new sense of confidence with which I find myself more and more at ease.

Regardless, I’ve neglected to document these things for several reasons: I got lazy, I got busy, I got both (living in Japan was all the excuse I needed). Once I came back, the guilt of leaving early with so little notice repelled me from that little notebook that held my Honshu life with such quaint efficiency, and I just couldn’t bring myself to recount it with detail. But I owe it to myself. My time there was nearly always beautiful, and beauty of that magnitude and consistency is worth my while.

Putting everything down in the order in which it happened seemed very important to me, and this time-sense has also contributed to holding me back from documenting my life in real time. I’ve been obsessed with chronology, everything in the right order, or else who knows what? Something awful, definitely. But there’s something to be said for time and its effortless gait, over which I pretend to have any grasp by putting things in the right order, or else, as I’ve said, who knows what would happen? Something awful, probably.

I’ll start again, now. Sorry, past self. I know you did your best. I’ll stop talking shit about you now. Probably.

Spawning salmon, a recipe for rice, and hot crazy types


I found a second hand store near Sakanacho Hotline today. The stuff in these shops is much higher quality, and far more fashionable than in American second hand shops. Maybe I need to spend more time in second hand shops in the US.

On the recommendation of some of my Wednesday coffee house students, I went one bridge further south than I usually do to observe the salmon spawning on my way to work. Several other people of all ages stopped to look, too. One man didn’t notice he had dropped his cane as he took a photo with his phone. I picked it up for him, and he chatted a bit about the fish, but I didn’t understand a word. Afterward, I took the river route to work for the first time. It’s faster and beautiful.

Yuko and Chiyako gave me a recipe for kurigohan (mixed rice):
-3 cups rice (standard amount of water, to 3)
-1.5 cups fresh chestnuts, peeled (“Kiotsukete!” [be careful!])
-a little salt

Chiyako is apparently a huge Korean movie fan, and has been to Korea ten times in four years. She even goes to Korea just to enjoy a special winter dish. We discuss the word ‘fanatic,’ the kanji for which literally reads: heat, crazy, type.

In a private lesson, the topic of ‘warrior poet’ comes up, and I mention Nicholas. My student says, “You, too.”

Mascots, athletic Japanese, and evolution denial


When you arrive in Morioka, the first of many mascots you’ll encounter is Sobachi, the black-and-red-bowl-headed… thing that is just super jazzed you’re finally here. Sometimes his head has wanko soba noodles inside, sometimes tofu, sometimes rice, the list goes on. He is the multi-talented, highly edible mascot of Morioka City.

Kumamon is more recognizable; he’s the black bear mascot of Kumamoto prefecture. He’s on everything from purses to tshirts to these little pieces of paper you can stick to the top of your cup to keep your tea warm. I’ve even seen him in Los Angeles. Sobachi could learn a thing or two from Kumamon.

Today, my students and I were discussing markets in the area, and one of them mentioned D & Delica, a somewhat expensive grocery store (“I like the cheap stuff,” one student specified). Another student chimed in: “I like donkey!” Everyone nodded. I was lost. Apparently this is short for Don Quixote, a “discount grocery store,” whatever that is.

Within a month or so of my arrival in Japan, my coworkers, a few students and I were sitting in the upstairs lobby area enjoying tea and cake together to celebrate something. Everyone was chatting and being friendly. One of the students was asking me questions, to which I was replying “Hai.” I looked to my right, and saw my coworker Hiroko shaking with silent laughter, her eyes squeezed shut with the effort of containing herself. “Hiroko-san,” I said. “Daijobu desu ka?” (are you ok?), to which she burst out laughing in earnest, and in between gasping breaths, managed to say, “You sound like an athlete!” Of course, I learned to say yes in Japanese from my father, but have used it far more at the Shinkendo dojo, where we are taught to say it sharply and clearly, a habit that Hiroko-san finds endlessly amusing.

I mentioned this incident to my students today to illustrate how Japanese can sound sharp of soft depending on the speaker. We practiced my “female Japanese,” which was more entertaining than instructive for all involved.

6pm Dr. Sasaki
I’ve picked up some valuable skills during my short time here so far, one of which is training my eyes to see something new without reacting immediately. This gives me time to observe others to gauge their reaction. I learned this skill from Dr. Sasaki, who has taken to bringing something interesting, strange, or disgusting with him for every class. Today, I enter the room wearing a practiced, neutral expression to find skis and poles leaning into a corner of the room. They’re for “mountain skiing,” which means they’re used for going uphill, which sounds absurd.

Dr. Sasaki has made a couple dozen gouges on the bottom side of the ski to prevent backsliding, and help the seal skin grip the ski. That’s right: there’s a strip of seal skin strapped to the bottom of each ski (which also helps prevent backsliding). “This is my invention,” he preens. He mentions “ant traps” on the mountain in Hachimantai, a surprisingly perilous feature if Dr. Sasaki’s description holds any truth: “If I fall in it, is very dangerous. I must climb out, or I must die.” The lesson takes a distinctly more medical tone from there.

Hemostatic forceps are used on veins or arteries to stop bleeding temporarily.
Motor nerves are under our control. Sensible nerves feel hot, cold, itch, etc. Autonomous nerves control blood vessel dilation, sweat, digestion, etc.
We review the post-stomach digestive tract: ascending, transverse, descending, s-shape bowel, straight bowel, rectum, anus.

Dr. Sasaki sits and asks me if I believe in god. I say no. This is not an unusual answer in Japan. He asks if I believe in evolution. I say there is a lot of evidence for it, so yes. He says there is no evolution because different species cannot inter-breed, therefore this is god’s will. I point out the production of a mule from a horse and a donkey. Yes, he says, but mules cannot procreate, therefore this is god’s will. We have not found the missing link, therefore evolution is untrue. I reply that god cannot be seen, therefore it doesn’t exist either. He thinks for a second, then smiles and says, “Let’s talk about this again next time.” End of discussion.

Butterflies, and English: The silent language


I’m told I should visit Nanshyousou, an old wooden house with a beautiful garden. It’s a historic landmark in Morioka. I’ll have to go.

Private lessons with a high school girl who doesn’t talk much tend to be very slow and quiet, but that’s the same issue most Japanese students have: they don’t want to volunteer information, even if they know it’s right, because they don’t want to stand out. It makes the teachers’ jobs very difficult, which is probably why they rely so comfortably on reading and writing. But languages are alive; no modern language exists solely on paper, so I try to get my students to talk as much as possible, sometimes using something comfortable like a written prompt. Today, I provided a worksheet with sentences she had to complete.
I’m afraid of… “butterfly.”
“Really?!” I ask her to clarify. Turns out it’s moths.
On weekends, I like to… “watch TV.”
“What do you watch?”
“…and drama.”
I’m good at… “soccer and table tennis.”

Bribes, German, parental figures, and inter-cultural lunch


While discussing politics in my reading class, my students brought up the topic of bribes, how they are a problem with politicians all over the world, and Japan is no exception.  In fact, the history of bribery is in part preserved in its name: sodenoshita, literally “under the sleeve,” hearkening back to the days when people would slip money into the large kimono sleeves of the influential in exchange for favor.  Today a more modern term is used: wairo, which means bribe.

One of my students told us about when she visited a friend of hers in America whose child was in the process of being potty trained.  She randomly asked, “Pee, and what’s the second one… excrement?”  “Ah,” I said sagely, “Poo.”  Another student chimed in: “Yoo-reen.  Urine is pee.”  Another chirps, as though reading from a dictionary, “Stool, excrement, feces.”  I change the subject.

The woman mentions that English goes up and down, while Japanese is “flat.”  I say that Italian has even more musicality.  One of the men says German is also flat. The other man starts spouting German phrases: “Das ist. Ich bin,” and then, “Heil Hitler!” several times with his arm thrown out in a Nazi salute, chuckling softly to himself while I attempt to give examples of how German can sound harsh or gentle depending on how it’s spoken.

In the evening, I teach a private lesson with a high school girl named Mayu. We chat freely; her parents just want her to talk with and hear a native English speaker, and she enjoys chatting about random topics, so there is no preparation necessary.  Today she told me about her family.
“My mother is so scary!”
“Really?  Why?”
“Mmm… She is 46.”
“Yes… 46. So…” She thinks for a moment, then types something into the translation app on her phone. She holds it up for me to see: menopause. I laugh loudly. She calmly concludes, “Maybe that’s why always angry.”
“Does your father get mad about your grades?”
“No, he is very smart. He got good grades. He things we are…” She consults her phone again, and comes back with: idiot.

There’s a medical student in my advanced Monday evening class who asks excellent questions about the finer points of English, and who, if he had more exposure or lived in an English speaking country, would be capable of communicating at close to a native English speaking level. Having said all that, his grasp of American cuisine is shockingly stunted, which I learned when I explained what PBJ was.  I said, “It’s a sandwich with peanut butter and jelly.”
“So, it’s one sandwich… with both?”
“Yes, jelly goes on one piece of bread. Peanut butter goes on the other piece of bread. Then you put them together.”
“The peanut butter and… jelly are… in the same space?”
“Yes, they touch.” He is visibly disgusted.
Since he comes straight from the medical school to join our class, he typically spends time in hospitals with patients, or, like today, observing routine (aka. bloody and graphic) surgeries, presumably without making any of the faces he made during this discussion about a lunchtime staple I’ve literally eaten thousands of. Here’s hoping his amusing frankness and total lack of a poker face doesn’t leak into his bedside manner

Honey on tap: Beekeeping innovation for a modern age

bees cleaning up honey

A couple of the ladies from our hive clean up some spilled honey on top of the bars. Inside, brand new comb shines brilliant white while other bees build even more.

My dad and I have been beekeeping for about two years.  It’s been immensely rewarding, and not just for the sweet liquid gold the ladies under our care produce.  Bees are incredible creatures, and the more I learn about them, the more I admire them (and the less I fear them).  Here are just a few examples of the marvels of bee-life, and their bizarre, wonderful, occasionally adorable habits:

-They utilize complex forms of communication, from pheromones to the “waggle dance,” which employs the sun’s position, and the angle of the bee’s trajectory over the comb as she dances to show her sisters that she’s found a plentiful patch of flowers, how to get there, how far from the hive it lies, and how abundant their harvest will be; the more energetically she dances, the more bountiful her discovery.

-Bees employ an entirely democratic decision-making process to find and choose a suitable new home for the colony.  Hundreds of scouts are sent out, and each of them reports back to the colony with data in the form of dance: location, size, defensibility, and overall desirability.  The scouts then check each other’s proposed locations, and, if one scout decides that another bee’s location is better than the one she already saw, she’ll vote for it by adopting the dance for that location.  This continues until all the scouts vote (usually) unanimously for the same location by doing the same dance.

-Every honeybee you’ve ever seen peeking out from a flower is female; males only make up 15% of the colony’s population at their peak numbers in the Spring, and in areas that experience harsh winters, get forcibly ejected from the hive in Autumn in order to preserve resources for the rest (at that point, more valuable members) of the colony.  Come Spring, their numbers are back up.  How, you might ask?  The queen bee actively selects the gender of her offspring, and therefore chooses when to create males.

Honey never spoils; it has a potentially infinite shelf life due to its chemical makeup.  In fact, jars of honey found in Egyptian tombs have been tested, and determined edible even now, 3,000 years later (some 5,500 year-old honey was discovered in Georgia in 2012).  If you have honey at home that has hardened or crystallized, just warm it double-boiler style, and you’re back in business.

-The rule really is true: if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.  While Africanized honeybees are known to be more aggressive than European honeybees (the most common kind you’ll find in the United States), they’re not as scary as you’ve been led to believe, and have already been breeding with local European bees for quite some time.  Beekeeper Ruth Askren, who tends nearly two dozen hives for clients all over Los Angeles, said it best: “If we really had serious Africanized bees in LA, people would be chased down the street every day.”  You can get inches away from a worker harvesting nectar and pollen from flowers, and she generally won’t mind.  Get some nice close-up photos while you’re at it.  Impress your hipster friends on Instabrag.  If you’re unlucky (read: stupid) enough to upset a hive, just run away.  Eventually they’ll stop chasing you since it makes less sense to leave the hive undefended to pursue a single threat (that’s you, you’re the threat, you giant, hulking, honey-eating mammal).  Don’t bother taking a few steps to jump into a nearby pool, though; the water won’t protect you forever, and they’ll wait for you to surface.  Distance is the key.  If you happen upon a hive, I recommend at least 4-5 meters of distance between yourself and the hive, and try to stay out of their flight path while they enter and exit.  Bonus: Try to stand downwind from the hive so you can catch the sweet, heady scent of the pollen and honey inside.

-Most beekeepers are gentle folk with an enormous respect for Mother Nature borne from the patient observation of some of her most misunderstood creatures, but bring up the topic of wasps at a beekeeper’s meeting, and get ready to tell your kid to cover his ears if he wants to enter his teen years with his innocence intact.  Bees produce honey for food, and generally mind their own business.  Wasps do not; they invade hives, kill all the bees, then eat the baby bees (brood), and the honey their dead sisters worked so hard to make.  They produce nothing but pain and fear, and we hate them with the fire of a thousand suns (and so should you if you ever want to be my friend).  The problem is that wasps can sting more than once without dying, while honeybees cannot.  Plus, bees’ stingers aren’t strong enough or long enough to do any damage to wasps, so they’re basically defenseless.  Having said all that, leave it to the Japanese (bees) to figure out a strategy that involves a self-sacrificial approach to defeat their dreaded enemy, the wasp.  When attacked by wasps, Japanese bees surround each wasp, forming a tight ball around it, and flex their wing muscles rapidly to raise the temperature of the center of their bundle, literally cooking the wasp alive, and killing it.  Unfortunately, this also kills a few bees next to the wasp, but a 20% mortality rate is better than a 100% mortality rate, so the bees take one for the team, and the colony survives to fight another day.  IFLS featured a video of this incredible behavior last year (check out the queen bee taking a walk at 0:50).

A colony sets up a feral hive in a neglected bucket

Getting into beekeeping is easy and fun, but not everyone is enthused about the prospect of a beehive in their neighbor’s back yard.  A close friend of mine decided to inform his neighbors that he had recently taken up beekeeping, and had just placed a hive in his back yard.  One neighbor replied that this was fine, but if his bees stung her dog, she would sue him (insert giant eye-roll here).  Fortunately, the sheer multitude of feral hives (roughly 10 per square mile in Los Angeles, for example) makes threats like this beyond absurd.  The fact is, bees are everywhere, and they should be.  There are still laws restricting beekeeping, but they’re all but unenforceable for obvious reasons.  The running joke about laws against beekeeping is: Some cops show up to tell a beekeeper she can’t have a hive in her back yard.  She replies, “Ok, no problem, go ahead and take it.”  *cue cricket chirp*

Fortunately, beekeepers are coming together with groups like HoneyLove to advocate for their right to keep hives in their back yards, on their balconies, even their rooftops, and working hard to change the oddly restrictive laws currently in place.  In Los Angeles, an ordinance has been proposed to allow single-family residences to keep bees, thereby adding beekeeper oversight to what would otherwise be feral hives.  What people seem to forget is that the bees will be there anyway, so putting them under the watchful eye of a beekeeper is an improvement to a feral colony setting up a hive in a BBQ, under the hood of an old car, in a trash can, or anywhere else they might find suitable.

Urban beekeeping is an increasingly popular hobby, and with demand comes supply: a new way to harvest honey has been proposed by a father-and-son team from Australia that might very well revolutionize how we extract honey from our hives.  To understand how incredible their invention is, here’s a quick rundown of how honey is typically harvested:

First, put on your bee suit.  Next, prep your smoker, a small metal can with a spout and bellows that contains smoldering material (I like to use egg cartons or cardboard) to produce smoke that you can blow into the hive before you open it to begin robbing the bees of their honey (this is an actual term beekeepers use, as in, “I robbed the hive yesterday,” or “I’ll raid the hive tomorrow.”).  The smoke calms the bees; why that is has been a subject of debate.*

This comb is upside down (see the wooden bar below the comb).  This comb contains honey (closest to the bar), then brood (baby bees), then empty comb.

This comb is upside down (see the wooden bar below the comb). This comb contains honey (closest to the bar), then brood (baby bees), then empty comb.

Once you’ve smoked them for about ten or 15 minutes, you can open the hive and start pulling up the strips of wood across the top of the hive, called frames (if they’re attached to a square frame in which the bees build comb), or bars (if each of them is just one strip of wood from which the bees build their comb downward).  Remove the bars or frames that contain honeycomb only (no brood comb where the baby bees are adorably growing), and set them aside.  Beekeepers use various methods to get the bees to leave the honeycomb: a gentle brush, a leaf blower, an air compressor, or a small trap hive that allows bees to leave, but not enter (this is the method my dad and I employ, as it seems the most humane).

Once you’ve extracted the bar or frame with honeycomb attached, you can either mash it up and pass it through a series of cheesecloth filters, or, if you have a frame around the comb, cut off the caps the bees have placed on each cell, put it in a centrifuge, and whip the honey out.  Then you can put the empty comb back in the hive for the bees to reuse.  This way they don’t have to rebuild the comb the way they do with the mashing method.

Stuart and Cedar Anderson of Australia have created a system they call a Flow Hive that allows you to simply turn a lever to harvest honey from your hive safely and humanely.  You can watch the video to see exactly how it works, but basically, the comb is made of plastic, and all the cells can be opened by shifting the alignment of the cell walls to create a continuous opening from the top of the frame to the bottom, allowing the contents (honey) to flow into a trough at the bottom, and out a tube at the end of the hive into conveniently placed jars.

This would obviously revolutionize the way we harvest honey.  You might think this sounds intuative, but there are a few obvious challenges to overcome, and some conditions that must be met for this innovation to work:

1-The bees must use these cells EXCLUSIVELY for honey, and not brood.
I couldn’t figure out how they would manage this until my dad lent his wisdom: “You could put these frames in a hive box that is separate from the main hive with a queen excluder mesh between the main hive and this separate box.  In that way the queen will not have access to these frames and no eggs would be laid in these separated frames.”  Problem solved!  And in fact, such a mesh can be seen very briefly in the video they have up on their Indiegogo campaign page. Naturally, if you were to break open the comb like it shows in the video while it contained both brood AND honey, you’d end up killing hundreds of brood and wiping out an entire generation of bees, potentially crippling the hive.  However, as dad explained, this can be avoided simply by adding a queen excluder mesh.

2-Bees are more disturbed when a bar is removed than during a regular inspection, thereby making this product attractive by removing a high-stress event for the bees.
A responsible beekeeper inspects her hive now and then, which entails the same practices as honey extraction, minus the extraction (suit, smoke, opening the hive, pulling up bars). If this was really so stressful, the bees would just leave! Still, I like the idea of not disturbing and crushing bees when replacing bars and the hive lid, so I actually like this part, especially if the bees are producing a lot of honey.  More honey equals more robbing the hive, and the fewer disturbances while doing so, the better.

3-The honey-extraction process is laborious and tiresome for beekeepers, who would rather avoid it.
Once the honeycomb is extracted from the hive, the labor involved in the actual harvest can be time-consuming.  It can also be expensive if you use a centrifuge like the video shows. Commercial beekeepers would appreciate this part of the process most, it seems, and if it works, go for it! Non-commercial beekeepers with just a hive or two (or even six or seven) tend to agree that the honey tastes sweeter after all the work we put into cutting and mashing the comb, filtering and pouring it into jars, and so on.  It also makes the little jars of honey my dad and I collect into more personal gifts.  Regardless of how many hives you might have, and whether you’re selling your honey commercially or giving it away to friends, this invention has appeal: it saves a TON of time, it’s much less labor intensive, more humane to your precious bees, and for commercial beekeepers, it would pay for itself many times over.

I’m left to conclude that if it makes honey extraction easy, and doesn’t disturb bees, I’m all for it.  It’s simply an incredible idea.  It sounds like these Aussies did their homework, so I’m very optimistic, and I’m itching to see one in action.  If I end up with one, I’ll update with results.  Until then, keep your beesuit handy, and go start a hive of your own, you thieving, lumbering beast, you.

*Regarding the use of smoke to calm bees:
It’s generally accepted that smoke acts in one of two ways: it blocks the bees’ pheromones from reaching the other bees, thus disabling them from starting a panic when the hive is opened, invaded, and eventually robbed (by you, you hairless bear-thief).  If the bees don’t sense the others panicking, they won’t panic themselves, and remain calm instead of attacking.  The other function the smoke serves is to trick the bees into thinking the hive is on fire.  They’ll think their home is about to be destroyed, and gorge themselves on honey to make the most of their hard work before disaster wipes out their home, and with it all their food.  Then a food coma sets in, and they get groggy, and won’t attack (which is adorable).

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