sake

Shiho ceramic teachers and students make sake bottle character

180度開脚しているのが一番好きです。史火陶芸教室の先生と生徒さんが「とっくりとっくん」という日本酒のキャラクターの陶芸を作りました。このキャラクターのことをあまり知りませんでしたが、面白いですね。

This sake bottle character is named Tokkuri Tokkun (とっくりとっくん). The Shiho ceramic studio teachers and students each made one. I like Tokkuri Tokkun’s super-flexible limbs, particularly the one doing the splits.

Edo morning glory

Even though I planted the seeds back in May, it’s only recently that the Edo morning glory vines have climbed up to the top of the balcony and begun blooming. As their name implies, the flowers are most spectacular in the morning. By afternoon, they wilt and are finished. Each day there are about a dozen new flowers.

Last year, I visited the famous Iriya morning glory festival and bought five different colors. Last year I harvested seeds from all the plants (and also bitter melon, chamomile and some that I forgot). It’s interesting that all of my plants, and those I gave to friends, are this red and white variegated variety.

Here you can see that I stored the seeds in sake cups bought from a student at Shiho ceramic studio.

Nodai Trip (part 2): Obuse

Obuse Revitalization

Obuse, as I mentioned in the previous post, is a revitalized small town that was once a center of commerce and culture. Revitalization centers on tourism and agricultural production, with a restored city center that is very charming. Above are wood sidewalk pavers made from chestnut trees: unique and tied to the town’s 600 year history, in which chestnuts were one of the few agricultural products that could grow in the silty river valley.

Obuse sake distillery renovated

It was also wonderful to see the old sake distillery buildings reworked into a chic restaurant and high end hotel. It is rare in Tokyo to see creative re-use of old buildings. The restaurant where we ate featured chestnuts with rice, and displayed an enormous wood sake barrel and old photographs in the bathroom. I like how preservation and stylishness are combined here.

Obusedo Honten Restaurant

The Obusedo Honten Restaurant serves seasonal food and aims to be a “vegetable showroom” with a “from the countryside to the kingdom concept.” The restaurant was able to accommodate all 55 of us, and it was chic and tasty.

In addition to the obligatory “omeyage” store where you can buy chestnut sweets to bring back from your trip, there is also a revitalized Masuichi-Ichimura Sake Brewery that uses old techniques like wood barrels for distilling and ceramic bottles for sale. Again, they do a terrific job of making Japanese rural traditions modern and appealing.

Obuse Masuichi Ichimura Sake Brewery

One of the driving forces behind Obuse’s revitalization is an American woman named Sara Marie Cummings, who settled in the town more than 15 years ago. In a country that is often resistant to foreigners, it is great to see how an American has helped this town find its future by reviving its past and appealing to modern sensibilities. She gave a brief talk to the students and professors.

Obuse's Sara Marie Cummings talks to Nodai students

Cummings has created a cultural salon and a marathon to engage locals and bring in visitors. In collecting information about the town, the students and I discovered that there is also an “Open Garden” program where residents and small businesses create gardens open to the streets and sidewalks. A plaque shows their participation, and provides an English-only welcome.

Obuse Open Garden

See some more photos after the jump:

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Hakutsuru Sake’s rooftop rice garden

Hakutsuru Sake rooftop rice field in Ginza

This amazing photograph of Hakutsuru Sake rooftop rice field in Ginza comes from photographers Diane Cook and Len Jenshel, and appeared as part of National Geographic’s global green rooftop photo essay.

This is the third urban agricultural project in Ginza, in addition to the Ginza Honey Bee Project and the Ginza Farm.

Ginza Honey Bee Project

Ginza Honey Bee Project, cropped poster

Last week the Ginza Honey Bee Project (銀座ミツバチプロジェクト) founders Takayasu Kazuo (高安和夫) and Tanaka Atsuo (田中淳夫) talked with me about their successful four year old honey-making project in the middle of Ginza, and showed me their rooftop hives.

We met in a unremarkable conference room in a nondescript office building behind Matsuya department store. A group of veterinarians was leaving, and we would soon be joined by a professional photographer. In the years since they launched urban bee farming in Tokyo’s most expensive commercial district, Ginza Honey Bee Project has attracted attention from local, national and international media, including National Geographic, BBC, CNN and many others.

Takayasu-san and Tanaka-san lead an all-volunteer effort, and their backgrounds are suitably in organic farming and real estate. They are deeply committed to keeping bees and reviving an industry that is in decline. Tanaka-san explained two factors contributing to the decline in the Japanese honey industry: deforestation after World War II to rebuild Japan and the increasing use of pesticides in rice farming. And while other countries are also experiencing “colony collapse disorder,” Japan is particularly vulnerable to the advanced age of its farmers and a decline in beekeepers from 15,000 to about 2,500.

Ginza Honey Bee Project aims to revive honey production, and increase awareness of the relationship between bees, nature and people. It was initially difficult to gain the permission of all 25 building tenants to have eight hives on the roof, housing 300,000 bees. Now they are producing 440 kilos of honey per year, one third of which goes to the volunteers and the remaining 3,000,000 yen in sales are donated to Ginza neighborhood projects such as an opera concert, a Farm Aid Ginza event in support of organic agriculture, local tree planting, and roof greening to create bee habitats. The large volunteer base includes Ginza club “mama-sans” and bartenders, landscape architects, art therapists and kids. Matsuya department store, a project sponsor, uses the Ginza honey in special pastries and a cocktail.

Ginza Honey Bee Project label

One interesting story Tanaka-san told was how Ginza Honey Bee Project rescued bees from nearby Tsukudajima that were going to be exterminated. There is now a hive of Japanese bees, which previously were not considered suitable for honey-making. Japanese bees are said to be at once “more gentle” and also “less loyal” to their hives. Despite some initial fears, we were encouraged to put our fingers in the honey-comb for a taste, and it was delicious.

Ginza Honey Bee Project honeycomb

The Ginza bees travel to the Imperial Palace and Hamarikyu, “flying faster than taxis.” The honey is labeled according to the nectar source, including chestnut, orange, clover and mint. The honey bottles are marked with the collection date. Future plans include a hoped-for 20 hive farm near Tokyo Station.

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