Tsukudajima

Obon Season

Kafū Nagai self portrait

This week is Japan’s Obon festival, a Japanese Buddhist custom of honoring ancestors’ spirits. Mid-August is a time when many Japanese take vacation, some to visit their home towns and others simply to get away or take a rest. Obon is a 500 year tradition that includes offerings in home altars, special dances and lantern festivals.

The date varies by region and by neighborhood. Tsukudajima had its festival in mid-July. The shift in the timing of the Obon festival is discussed by Nagai Kafū in his Tidings from Okubo. Kafū laments the change from fall to summer, from lunar to solar calendars, and from agricultural Edo to modern “careless” Tokyo.

After three days of rain, autumn suddenly deepens. Not waiting for the night, the crickets sing their loudest under the verandas. Their singing somehow brings to mind a Japanese wife of old, sad and yet alluring, at work on her husband’s clothes in the dim light of a paper lantern. . . . Under the old lunar calendar the festival of the dead came at the beginning of autumn. Every unfilial son, however profligate and however forgetful of home he might have been on ordinary occasions, must have thought of his dead mother and father in the sadness of the autumn dews. But now we have imitated the West and adopted the solar calendar, and the festival comes just after the June rains or toward the middle of the summer. The sadness with which the dead ought to be remembered is wholly lacking. The morals of a country are in danger when they are cut loose from the beauty of its soil and its seasons. The makers of our new age have been careless in many ways.” (p 238, Edward Seidensticker’s Kafū the Scribbler: The Life and Writing of Nagai Kafū, 1879-1959, Stanford University Press, 1965).

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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Tsukudajima: nature and history

Tsukudajima canal

Next to Tsukishima is Tsukudajima, a tiny island that escaped the earthquake, war and high rise redevelopment. While not all of the houses have been preserved, the scale and and small alleys have been. Walking there today, you can see residents still fishing, visit a beautiful old shrine Sumiyoshi Jinja, buy tsukudani (fish boiled in miso sauce) from Edo-era stores, and attend annual obon and omatsuri festivals.

Tsukudajima old streetscape

This August there will be a special omatsuri festival that happens only once every 50 years. See the government website for more information: http://tsukuda.chuo.tokyo.jp/

Special omatsuri Tsukudajima poster

More photos after the jump.

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