Sending Greetings to Japan

The tale of Genji (Murasaki Shikibu) was written in the early 11th century in Japan.

The story is about the secret affairs of a handsome and intelligent playboy named Hikaru Genji with prominent ladies. Hikaru Genji and the ladies sometimes exchanged letters instead of meeting: he was particularly attracted by well written letters. Perhaps it was because sending a good handwritten letter to somebody is a creative and passionate way of presenting ones thoughts. Not limited to love letters, the impact of receiving handwritten letters hasn’t changed for over 900 years – although it feels the impact might be stronger during this pandemic. It has been said that the golden age of letter writing was between the 18th and 20th century.

The post card above was painted by a 16 year old girl who stayed in Kiwanosato last summer. It was posted just before the lockdown to celebrate the 90th birthday of the oldest lady in the village in April. The postman who delivered this card will have been one of the very few wanted visitors to the valley during the pandemic.

A Suspicious 90 Year Old Lady

The oldest villager of Kiwanosato, Mrs. Isomura, turned 90 years old earlier this month (April 2020).

On the morning of her birthday, she went to the mountain to collect horsetails that grow wild. Then she made a phone call to a man who is referred to in the local area as ‘the agent’.

What does he do exactly? What is Mrs. Isomura’s business with him? Why call him on her 90th birthday?

April is the season for horsetails. As Mrs. Isomura loves going to the mountain to collect seasonal harvests, she has arranged for the agent (a dealer for the local farmer’s market) to come and collect the bunches of horsetails she gathers from her home as she no longer drives.

Tending to the rice fields, collecting seasonal harvests and chuckling every day are a just a few of the many things that Mrs. Isomura loves to do and are perhaps many of the reasons why she is loved by everyone.

Not Just ‘Longevity of Life’: Updates from Kiwanosato

It is a commonly shared philosophy within Kiwanosato that there is no retirement in being productive. Staying active during the lockdown, some of the villagers share the recipes that they feel support their long and active lives, while others provide updates on how they are remaining active during this time.

Mrs. Yoshimura’s (75) Ginger Punch

Ingredients:  thinly sliced organic fresh ginger, rice vinegar, sugar and a pinch of salt

Pour boiling water over the sliced ginger and drain. Mix well with the vinegar, sugar and salt mix and set in the fridge. Consume a couple of slices a day. If the ginger is too hard, chop it finely.

Mr. Okamomto’s (83) Mountain Chocolate Factory

Ingredients and Equipment:  organic garlic, newspaper, rice cooker

Line the rice cooker with the newspaper and then lay in the separated garlic cloves. Leave in the cooker on a warm heat setting for 10 to 15 days. Check occasionally until the garlic gets soft and becomes a dark chocolate brown colour. Consume one clove a day.

Nobody but Cherry Blossoms

The local potter, Mr. Kato, visited one of the famous cherry parks in Shimonoseki, near Kiwanosato where over 320 trees are in full bloom (see image above).  Normally cherry bloom potluck parties are hosted everywhere across Japan to celebrate the occasion, but not this year.

Image: In Kato-san’s cherry park. Image courtesy: Mr. Kato

Life Goes On: The Village During Pandemic

Among the population of 70 people in Kiwanosato, the majority are over seventy with the eldest celebrating her ninetieth birthday this April (2020).

Grizedale Arts should be there now (April 2020), working with the villagers to construct a dream garden and hybrid bee house and hunting out fancy mushrooms in the bamboo forest. Although we all have to hold our actions for the moment, nature in the valley keeps moving and so do the villagers. Naturally isolated for centuries the valley’s land remains active with non-stop growing, and no shadow of the pandemic as new bamboo shoots appear.

In our absence, Dream of Kiwanosato project manager and artist Motoko Fujita is keeping in touch with the village and has compiled some of their updates below:

Mrs. Yoshimura (wife of the chairperson, 75 years old)

“I went to the local shop in town to get masks and there were only two packs left. I got one pack but left the other for somebody else. After returning home, I started to cook Tempura and set it on a piece of kitchen paper. I suddenly thought: Kitchen paper….yes! why can’t I make a mask from kitchen paper!”

She recalls when she was young nothing was ‘disposable’ and masks were no exception. Soft cotton fabric masks were readily available and commonly used by Japanese school children when they took their turn in serving school lunch to everyone and then washed after use. In Japan, students are required to help out with work to maintain school life, including serving food and cleaning classrooms.

After the conversation with Mrs. Yoshimura over the phone, I made a mask using one of my mother’s cotton kimono fabric with soft linen on the back. The strings are made from recycled stocking – a gentle touch to ears. I posted this to my mother-in-law who is currently isolating at home in Ireland.


Keep that kiln a firing

Mr. Kato (a retired businessman who has led the local pottery group for 15 years)

“I was lucky to be chosen as one of the Olympic torch bearers this year. Well, it was not a bad thing to postpone something fun for a while – until next year. I will keep preparing myself ready to run.”

Mr. Kato’s pottery group Gaga Yudo (meaning ‘enjoy yourself in playing with clay’) holds an annual exhibition in Kikugawa, a town beside Kiwanosato village, every November. Grizedale Arts have collaborated with them through on various programmes hosted in the village. Artist Tom Philipson led the development of bamboo mould pottery as one of the village products, and with their support, he will return later this year to host one of our schools with fellow maker, Joe Hartley.

Keep the Bees Happy

Mr Kaneko (a retired businessman, beekeeper, grower and a young lad in the village)

“Bees need bloom in February and March. Maybe next time you come to Kiwanosato you can plant rape blossoms because they are very good for bees. I will keep updating the garden but I will not have social drinks with friends for the next few months, that is the only change!”

Grizedale Arts organised a new bee garden last October with artist and gardener Karen Guthrie who planned the challenging self-managing garden as a test case. The garden will require no weeding and has anti-deer & boar prevention incorporated with no need for traps or scaring devices.  Mr. Kaneko continues to report back regularly on how the garden is developing, with each of his reports very clear and precisely delivered. When I read his reports, I can imagine how he was when he worked as an engineer in one of the big bathroom fixtures companies in Japan.

A Potato Story: The Matter of Potatoes in the Far East

October to November is harvest season in Japan, especially for potatoes.

Kiwanosato village is a small farming community of 70 people.

Among them, people aged 65 are referred to as ‘young lads’. The oldest villager in 2019 was 89 year old Mrs. Isomura who will turn 90 in 2020. She is still healthy and continues to working the land growing rice.

Within the village everybody looks after each other from birth to grave.

Like the village’s people, potatoes are well looked after in every season. Sweet potatoes are especially well respected.

Just as you have different kinds of potatoes in Europe, Japan has a wide variety of sweet potatoes, each of which have a different name and texture.

This is Mr. Yoshimura, leader of the village revitalisation committee and one of the many keen organic produce and fungi growers within the community.

Mr. Yoshimura and his team organise an annual potato harvest day in early November as one of the ten public events hosted by the village throughout the year.  During the event, the population of the village doubles as members of the public visit for the harvest.

A well organised event, precise instructions are given as to the correct methods for harvesting the potatoes. The soil in front is fine and tight, the soil at the back, rough and drainable. The potatoes are planted in this way to demonstrate growth differences in each soil type.

Experience is one of the most important elements of the activity.

The harvest is shared equally with every participant.

While the village’s men look after the land, women are cooking lunch for everyone.

The volunteer village ladies come dressed and ready to work. The younger villager’s kitchen fashion is especially remarkable with a traditional cooking hat, arm protectors and apron.

Everyone takes on a roll in the chopping, mixing, washing and cooking of meals without any particular system of working – it just happens.

A super seasonal village lunch is served, including newly harvested potatoes, rice balls and homemade pickles with a pork and vegetable miso soup.

The village’s leader, Mr.Yoshimura, is a keen organic fungi grower. He uses Konbu seaweed as his chosen fertiliser.

This photo was taken after the typhoon. He was with his wife when they both saw seaweed washed up on the shore of his holiday location by the sea. They immediately went home to collect their truck and returned to load up as much seaweed as they could.

It is illegal to harvest any seaweed directly from the sea without permission so this was a lucky day for them!

This is him tending to his especially sweet potatoes. Trimming back all the leaves and stems.

He then chops and mixes with Nuka (bran from rice) before spreading on his crops and waiting for nature to do its work.

Sweet potatoes need to sit under the sun for over two weeks before they are ready to eat. 

Mrs. Yoshimura stores her potatoes in an old milk barn and covers them with a thick blanket.

“They get cold otherwise!” she explains.

Another village lady, Mrs. Kawasaki is also busy covering her potatoes with a thick blanket.

This is another important creature Mr. Yoshimura uses for fertilising his crops called kogosei-photosynthesis: “The oldest life on earth!” he explains enthusiastically.

He also makes anti slug liquid from hot chilli peppers and water which he sprays around his crops every so often, but especially after the rain.

He has such a passion for growing he talks about it non-stop.

The ground becomes a white board for him to explain how to best set fertilisers.

This is Momigara- a part of the husk left after harvesting rice.

This breed of potato is called Konnyaku which the Japanese traditional food of the same name is made from. Konnyaku has no calories and is full of fibre and amongst the most loved Japanese foods for those pursuing a healthy diet.

This mysterious looking potato grows underneath big trees or in shady areas of land taking between 2 – 3 years to grow to full size.

Mr. Okamoto, 83 years old, grows a long potato called Jinenjo. At the local market, the longer the potato the better with this example valued at around £30.

This is how to grow a long, straight potato. Mr. Okamoto sets a support to the side, so as not to break the potato when he comes to harvest it. Watering the potato is quite tricky as if you over water it, the potato will avoid the wet part by twisting itself around it.

Another villager, Mrs. Ueda, who is 76 years old supplies her harvest to the market every morning in her truck.

Mrs. Ueda shows a very special mother-child taro potato. When planting she took out a tiny part of a larger potato and buried them alongside each other. Now, they have both grown well and are ready for market.

Images and Stories © Motoko Fujita

This series of photographs was first presented as a part of Potato Connoisseur evening events hosted during Fairland Collective’s residency in Jersey in 2019.