(Blog is currently going through a second edit.)

by Ayako

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Our Journey to a Sustainable Future

The theme of our "farm house" is "Sustainability." It is a great place to talk about, think about, and experiment with a lifestyle that is more sustainable than the one we've inherited. It is helpful to have friends and family members who are supportive.

Mutual encouragements, combined with humor, can help keep us steadily on the path towards a more conscientious lifestyle. I am an environmentalist because our kids deserve to have what many of us were lucky enough to have: Clean food and water, access to nature and natural resources, Peace, and the knowledge that we are part of something bigger.


We have five bins in the kitchen at our house.
  1. One bin is for packaging that can't be recycled or composted (trash; mostly plastic packaging);
  2. One bin is for recycling plastics, glass, and aluminum;
  3. One bin is for recycling paper and cardboard;
  4. One bin is for the city compost (organic waste that would attract raccoons, like meat); and
  5. One bin is for the household compost (organic waste that doesn't attract raccoons).
The use of plastics should be avoided where it can, especially as disposable packaging for food (see below). After I've recycled and composted the things that might otherwise be trash, I am primarily left with un-recyclable plastic packaging in the trash bin. Even plastics that go into the recycling bin are oft not recyclable and end up as trash. I am voting with my wallet by buying things that are sustainably packaged. The following are some good websites to look at.
I avoid the use of disposable, "one time use" things. I try, or at least make an effort to:
  • avoid the use of disposable, one-time-use items like plastic utensils, straws, cups, etc.
  • If I have to choose between a bio-degradable disposable paper cup versus a non-biodegradable plastic cup, I always use the bio-degradable one.
  • carry around :
    • a water container at all times, so to not use disposable water bottled in plastic. 
    • a set of utensils (my favorite chopsticks in a Totoro case) to minimize waste.
    • a small container to take home take-out food in, to minimize the use of doggie bags. (My Nalgene bottle doubles as a take out container - I wish steel water bottles came with bigger mouths.)
    • ceramic tall mugs with silicon lids to avoid the use of disposable paper cups.  They are the size of a Grande at Starbucks. If I'm lucky enough to remember to have it with me, great.
The Japanese have another phrase that they use a lot. It's the word "mottainai" meaning that at all times we shouldn't throw things away if it's "good enough." The Western lifestyle is, in general, mottainai, IMHO. The Japanese also have a concept of aesthetics called "Wabi Sabi," which is an aesthetic that is sustainable. The concept teaches us that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It's just all perspective. And yet the Japanese wrap everything excessively in plastic, which drives me crazy.

Other good sites:


According to the online carbon calculator my carbon footprint is way lower than the average American's, but way above the average World citizen's. We have to continue to make hard choices to dial down our carbon footprint. 

Some of the below concerns the secret life I haven't been blogging about:

For now, it is a necessary evil in my life. I have a bio-diesel car. I pack 10 gallons of the veggie oil in my trunk, and together with the 10 gallons in the tank, I have plenty of fuel to go to L.A. and back (about a 12 hour drive), and then some. Diesel engines have double the efficiency of a normal car engine.

I did try out City Car Share (a non-profit, car sharing service in the S.F. bay area) while my sister was here this summer. It was cool to have access to the car models that I like to drive: hybrid (Prius), cool (Mini), cute (Scion), or useful (Outback, Tacoma). At $10/month, it was a no brainer, and I would use their services again. The for-profit version of City Car Share is called Zipcar, which has spread to most other major cities in the U.S. If you must have a car in your life, it's better to share. Two thumbs up!

I am considering various options to minimize flying, long term. Some of the options involve teleconferencing with skype on the iPad. I can have a pretty effective meeting with anyone, any where in the World, as long as we are both connected to the internet. I know I said I was on a journey to a sustainable past, but to me the ability to video conference with people from around the globe instantaneously is an integral part of that plan. (Or is that wishful thinking?)

It takes a lot of fuel to carry us to far away lands, no matter what form of transport we choose (airplane, train, car, etc.) I try not to travel to far away places, but I am the first to admit that I have plenty of exceptions to this rule. When I do, I try to do less of it. This has been the most difficult adjustment in my life, because I have family in two continents.

When I buy local, I save a lot of gas that shippers might have otherwise expended bringing the stuff to me. I am also supporting local businesses and the vibrancy of my local community by keeping my money local. At a minimum, I try to buy food grown in the Western side of North America. Luckily, California has many options when it comes to local produce, and our local supermarkets have evolved to a point where the supermarket labels where our food is grown, and if it is from abroad, whether it is a fair-trade produce or not. Buying local is harder to do if you live on an Island. The most ideal thing to do is to have a garden locally where you can grown your own food.


Meat tastes good, and most people agree. It's just that we should eat less of it, at a minimum. For now, I'm letting myself eat meat that I'm willing to kill the animal for, at least in my mind. Also, some people need to eat meat, like people who do physically taxing work or children. So I don't think we can exclude meat completely from the human diet, so I've been looking for a reasonable alternative to industrialized meat.

When I first gave up meat, I craved meat. My housemates and I experimented with raising nine edible bunny rabbits. Bunny stew can be delicious (tastes like pork)! The baby bunnies were extremely cute however. After spending several months raising the fluffers, my housemates declared that they preferred being Vegetarian - so our bunny experiment was a bust.

Michael Pollen says that we should treat meat as a side dish, a type of seasoning. Americans eat more meat than any other population in the World. Eating less meat would be a good thing to do for most Americans to decrease obesity, heart disease, etc.

I follow the guidance of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I don't eat Sushi anymore, unless it's a special occasion. Vegetarian sushi is surprisingly good.

Or, if I really feel like eating seafood, I eat seafood that are lower on the food chain. For example, eating a pound of tuna is like eating 30 pounds of a fish that the tuna eat. Eating things lower on the food chain (especially creatures that are herbivores) is better for the environment. This also doubles as a way to consume less mercury, which are found in creatures that are higher on the food chain (like tuna) because the mercury accumulates as you go up the food chain. For now, U.S. farmed rainbow trout, catfish, and tilapia, have a green stamp of approval from the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

In a pinch, bean burritos (@ Taco Hell or Green Burrito) offer a quick snack that is both delicious, inexpensive, vegetarian and has minimal, biodegradable packaging (a piece of wax paper).


I've learned a lot about using old fashioned ingredients to clean, and they work!! Some basic ingredients are: borax, baking soda, and vinegar. Here's a good websites about making your own non toxic household products:

This has been a challenge, but luckily in Berkeley and in San Francisco, the local supermarkets sell bulk household cleaning products like shampoo and conditioners. I take an empty container to the store and a store clerk weighs the empty bottle. Then, I fill up the bottle with whatever I want. They weigh the bottle for a second time, and I pay the difference. I don't have to keep buying plastic containers this way. I've been able to significantly cut down on the consumption of household disposable plastics.

Here's another good page, which I am implementing, bit by bit. (Weather-proofing, insulating, etc.)

You can compare your energy consumption with your Facebook friends if your local gas & electric company participates in OPOWER. It is interesting to see how you compare.

Before purchasing that thing in your hands, consider the following:
  • Can I supplement the purchase of this thingy by other creative means (for example, can I borrow something like it from a friend instead?)
  • Is the thing bio-degradable?
  • Is it locally made? Can I get something similar that is manufactured more locally?
  • Do I really need this thing?
  • Is it over packaged? If so, can I get a similar thing with less packaging?
The Ecology Center has further considerations before purchasing things.

I have several wool hats and wool gloves that I wear around house during the winter to cut down on the heating bill. Sometimes, however, you'll find me blasting the wall furnace for short periods of my time while I treat myself to a good soaking of heat to warm my bum up.

Here's a good link for dialing down our energy consumption.


Am a bit behind schedule on this one. (Must finish blog soon, so that I have more time. Writing this blog is the opposite of simple.) De-cluttering my physical space does mean that I need to have less projects going on at any given time. Must do less.

Organizing annual yard sales with your neighbors is a good thing to do.

That place that is in our soul that is quiet needs to be the source of all of our outer calmness. Somewhere deep inside of us, many of us know that we are each a piece of the puzzle, and that we are capable of what our brains tell us is impossible. In order to find that higher-self inside of us, we need to create time in our lives to relax and reflect. I know that this is a luxury. But many of us DO have this luxury.

In order to simplify my life, I need to do less. And before I do less, I need to prioritize my life goals. I want to throw out all the b.s. in my life and only keep the necessary or good bits. That means that I need to know myself. At times like this, I think about who I want to be.

The best guide to simplifying my life is also online, by a guy named Leo Babauta. Good stuff!

Still, taking a "half-step" towards a "sustainable lifestyle" is the best I can do sometimes. No matter how much I do, I find that I could have done better in retrospect. This journey is, at times, frustrating. I try to balance effort with compassion: I make an effort to cut down on over-consumptive behaviors, but don't really judge myself or others when I/we fall off the wagon. Our over-consumptive behaviors are an addiction.

In a World devoid of spirituality, we'd learned to make pacify ourselves by over-consuming our resources. I find myself reciting the serenity prayer to myself sometimes, just to get through the Changes.

It's like perpetually being on a twelve-step program. But unlike Alcoholics Anonymous, I don't really believe in going cold-turkey about addictions, since I know myself enough to know that I'll crave it more if I do. I prefer dialing my consumption down gradually. That seems to work better. 
As I get better at this, I get more and more accustomed to my lifestyle choices, and in the end it feels normal and easy. For example, now I often prefer a vegetarian meal because I like how I feel when I eat vegetarian, both physically and mentally. I don't miss the things that I've intentionally cut out of my life. Life is simpler with less, and I feel great. There's no point in beating myself up during this process.

Dear Fellow Travelers

"Irrashai-mase (Welcome!)," he bowed with a silver-tooth showing between his smile. 

At Zuiganji, a man who worked for the temple stood at the doorway in his gray kimono, as he greeted visitors coming in. He was available for questions if needed. He had a bright, yellow, western-style rubber rain coat on because it was raining that day. At one point he asked me where I was from, and I told him I was from San Francisco. "Oh! San Furanshisuko!" He repeated back to me excitedly. "I have never met such an international person!" he exclaimed.

I was with another woman from the bus, a slightly chubby, affable and intelligent mother of two small girls. After our prayers, she and I just hung-out with each other, while we learned about the history of the Date clan via the exhibits at the Temple. They are a well-known war lord clan from the 16 ~ 18th centuries that ruled the Tohoku area. The outfit for the rice ball head (Musubimaru) is modeled after Masamune Date's stylish crescent moon bearing helmet. He was the most famous member of that clan.

She and I and the man from the temple (with the yellow rain coat) stood in the rain under our umbrellas for a couple of minutes, while he talked about how, after the tsunami, he didn't know that his friends in an adjacent town had died for three days, because he had lost all communication with the outside world. And then he said: "I think... I want to go back to the past, and stay there."

Therein I found, another piece of my puzzle. My journey to simplicity has been a journey to a technologically sustainable past, a point in history where we were not as dependent on the now dwindling reserves of fossil fuels that have become increasingly polluting to extract. Sure, we can keep living the way we do, but it will be at the expense of everything else. Please see the movie Gasland for more details about the practice of hydraulic fracking, which has been polluting many water systems in the U.S. It is available via streaming on Netflix.

There is a bill in Congress that will allow for the keystone pipeline, a colossally bad idea to keep feeding our addiction to fossil fuels at the expense of our water systems, forests, and other things that make life on Earth worth living. This pipeline would extend from Alberta, Canada to Nebraska, and would most likely ruin major water systems in-between given our stellar track record of preventing oil spills. See http://www.350.org.

Modern science has confirmed that an emotional brain is necessary for a healthy, functioning human being. And a healthy emotional brain is necessary for our pursuit of happiness, because happiness comes as a result of an emotional decision that we make about our lives, to see things as they are, and still say that the cup is more than half full. Many of us really do have enough. But our brains malfunction. When our emotional brains hold a negative bias, we continue to seek things outside of us (like food, shoes, electronics, vacations, etc.) for happiness. Rather, to be sustainable, happiness, and positive energy, must come from within. 

If we don't learn how to be happy with what's sustainable, we are going to be extinct as a species. We need to get together and make this work.

There is a force at play here, a shifting of energies that we can not measure, though many of us feel it. Since the advent of the scientific method, Logic has been King; Emotion, his under-appreciated Queen. But, unscientific/illogical traditions and intuitions seem to hold important clues to finding our sustainable futures.

Recently, Autumn Festivals were celebrated at Shinto Shrines all over Japan. Today, I felt cold for the first time this fall. The weather is changing, and so are we. So many people I know are changing their lives, and trying something different. If you are one of them: Bon voyage, we are fellow travelers in the storm.

Act Four: Epilogues

Saturday, July 9, 2011

母と日本 (Mom and Japan)

English text is below.


私は、今まで自分はアメリカ人であると信じていました。兄と姉が帰国子女として大学に帰国後、苦労をした日本。「自分は、日本人離れしすぎているので、日本では通用しない人間だ。」と思う事が良くあります。が、震災後の自分の日本に対する愛情の強さと気持ちの暗さに、自分でも驚きました。「これからの日本 は、どうなってしまうのだろう。」と随時悩む様になりました。(以下、所々、「です。」や「ます。」を省略させていただきます。)



まず、東京近辺で気がついたのが、節電の様子。駅の中、電車の中、公共施設はどこもかしこも電球が外され抜けている。いつもより暗いが、案外町並みは普通。フムフム。So far, so good.

母 は毎日、温泉に行く生活を続けている。いつも温泉に行く時はゴキゲン。お風呂に入る前は駅前の定食屋で美味しい焼き魚定食。楽しそうに父が 育った町を歩く母は、この旧風呂屋では顔なじみばかりで、裸のお付き合いが沢山。そして、翌朝は、母の家の近くの公園でラジオ体操。なつかしい思い出が沢 山溢れ出てくる。おじいちゃんとおばあちゃんが歩いた商店街。変わってなくて、良かった。一安心。



駅前の寿司屋の店内には、目立つ所に大きな張り紙:「謹んで地震災害のお見舞い申し上げます。頑張れ東北!!当店は積極的に東北の美味しい食材を使 用いたします。」店の外は待つ人で混雑。いつもと変わらない忙しさ。母は、「毒になるものは、出してないでしょ。」とパクパク。一国心中とでも呼ぶのだろ うか、私はおいしく、いつも通りのお寿司を食べさせていただきました。それが愛情であると思ったからです。この先どんな事が起こるかわからな い、不安な将来。その時、今を大切に生きることを重視しようと心に誓った。

つけ麵ブームの東京を散策しながら仕事に励んだ一週間。東京駅や新宿駅で、ちょっと迷子になったあげく、落し物をしたりして、駅員さんのサービスの良さに関 心。どこに行っても、手伝ってくれたり案内してくれる人が沢山。普段の感覚では考えられない親切。でも、一日に2、3回ぐらい「人身事故」で、電車が東京 各地で運行停止。「経済不景気が続いているせいかしら。人身事故って、殆どが自殺なのよ。」と母がポロリ。




まずは小岩さんという方の自宅へ行くよう指示をうけた。170セ ンチ以上の津波が押しかけ、1階が台無しになった後、ヘドロまみれになっている庭から、ヘドロを撤去するのがボランティアの仕事。小岩さんは、津波が押し かけてきた日の話しをしてくれた。「車を捨てて、逃げたよ。家族とは、2、3日連絡が取れなかった。」と。その後、もうちょっと内陸だけれど、広い庭に浅 めの津波が押しかけた家へ。半日かかって、深さ40cmぐらいのヘドロを500袋ほど詰めて仕事は終了。その夜は、仙台の駅前(牛タンでなく、つけ麵を試食しました)で一時間半の自由時間の後、宮城県の秋保温泉へ一路。ちょっと古めのホテルの旧館を、ボランティアが4人づつ相部屋。食事は含まれてなかった が、温泉には入れた。が、地震の為、ホテルの湯量に変化があり、温泉の源泉は一時的に使用不可。風呂場は沸かし湯だったが、桶に養分がついているのであろ うか、湯加減は非常に良かった。泥んこになって泥掃除を一日したのであちこち筋肉痛だったが、日本のお風呂は、疲れがよく取れる。

日曜日のボラセン活動は、あいにく雨天中止。雨にセシウムが含まれていて、健康に悪い。急遽菅原さんはコースを変え、朝はまず南三陸町の復興市へと向かった。一路、バスは南三陸町の中の、津波の最上水位のちょっと上にあった志津川中学校へと向かった。南三陸町は、CNNで も何回か風景を見たことがあった町で、テレビに映っていた通りの惨状が残っていた。車や船がゴロゴロと転がっていて、人家は骨格も残っていない土台だけ。 所どころ、生き残った5回建てぐらいの鉄筋コンクリ構造の建物の天辺には、のりあがった車があったり。幻想の世界の中のような風景ばかり。足元に落ちてい たプーさん人形の持ち主は大丈夫だったのだろうか、など、頭の中は色々な思いが、駆け巡る。でも、津波のあまりのすさまじさに圧倒され、頭の中の半分ぐら いは、空っぽだった。

志津川中学校の敷地内は、あいにくの雨で泥んこ。泥んこの中を沢山の人が行きかわっていた。焼きそば、たこ焼き、魚市場、バスの中のモバイル・コンビ二、せんべいラーメン、T-シャ ツ、おみやげ、ガラクタ、等、ありとあらゆる店が並んでいた。誰もが元気そうで、太鼓の演奏を中心に、伊達政宗とオニギリを足して二つに割ったような仙台 と宮城県のマスコットの「むすび丸」さんもいた。南三陸町を応援しにきた沢山の人の数とエネルギーに、感動した。どのテントもおなじみの「いらっしゃ い!」で掛け声、客を呼び込む。大騒ぎで、楽しかった。

復 興市の後、バスは観光地として有名な松島へ直行。そこまでの道のりは、両側破壊された町並みがしばらく続いたが、松島自体は湾内にある為、膝の高さぐらい の津波が押し寄せたが、大きい津波の災害からは免れた。伊達政宗の瑞巌寺(すいがんじ)で沢山お祈りをしてから、その後またバスで一路東京駅へ。クタクタ になって梅が丘へ戻ったら、起きてきてくれた母が、腎臓結石で翌朝病院に行かなければいけない、と。翌朝、母と病院へ直行。「お父さんとお母さんが病気に なったら、ここに入院するから、場所を知っておいて欲しい。」と母は言う。色々忙しくしているうちに、成田空港へ向かう時間になってしまい、おじいちゃん とおばあちゃんの墓参りもできないまま、アメリカに帰国。


[The below is a re-write in English. I used the above as the first draft.]



For a time now, I've thought of myself as an American. After returning to Japan as a "kikoku-shijo (directly translated as 'returning children')," some of my best friends were discriminated by other Japanese people. We are the "odd balls" that look Japanese but don't conform, and to make things worse, we speak English fluently.

The Japanese have a saying: "The Nail That Sticks Out Gets Hit." Commonly referred to as "IJIME (bullying)," this mentality to persecute those who are different is a huge problem amongst Japanese children. But this pattern of persecuting those with slight differences is not a problem that is specific to Japan. Unfortunately, this seems to be a common behavior in many animal species (think Spicy the chicken). We always try to exclude (at least in the beginning), even when we're chickens.

I was born in Japan, but was brought to California when I was two months' old. Mathematically, I am 100% made in Japan, and 95.886% raised in America. Because of this weird split in my heritage, Japanese people are sometimes fascinated by me. Because I speak Japanese fluently, they can't tell that I'm not really Japanese right away - but they can tell fairly quickly. For example, I sometimes speak as an equal to Japanese men who are my father's age, and sometimes this upsets people, and I don't care. At the Japanese Community Center in San Francisco, I'd recently taken to introducing myself as follows, so that people could understand me better: "I am here to support you, but I am here as an American."


I visited Japan in May 2011. Three months had passed since the Earthquake. Emotionally, the news has been hard to swallow, as it affects my family directly. (I stopped reading the news re: nuclear meltdowns when they had the melt through.) For my own sanity, I needed to see my sister and her kids, and to know that they were OK. Also, I'd been busy for the last four years. It was a long time to stay away.

Once in Tokyo, I first noticed there were bulbs missing from every other light fixture. Train stations, public facilities, commercial districts and some private residences were all darker than usual, but otherwise the scenery was surprisingly normal. "So far, so good,"I said to myself.


My mother goes to an "onsen (hot spring)" spa everyday. It's several stops away by train from her house. Attractions include an "electric" tub (the water lightly electrocutes you with intermittent pulses - my mom loves it - she says it's like getting an all body acupuncture), as well as a wet / dry sauna, a cold room, cold bath, and massage chairs. Mom is always in a good mood when going to the onsen. Beforehand, she likes to eat at her favorite Japanese Diner next to the train stop. (When I tagged-along, I ordered the "broiled mackerel set dinner with natto and jakko-oroshi." Yum!) She then strolls down a crowded commercial area to the bathhouse, about 1/3 of a mile down main street. She's been coming here since she was 16 years old, when she started dating Dad, because Dad had grown up in this neighborhood. At the bathhouse, Mom has many friends; there's a lot of naked socializing, and a constant, casual banter. No one talks about politics, though no one can ignore the big screen TV above the Women's bath area featuring NHK (Japan's BBC) 24/7.

Like my mother, many of the other women at the bathhouse come every day. The County gives six free vouchers to every person over the age of 62. Using those six vouchers, anyone can get in for free, so I went in for free several times. Otherwise, it's about $8 per entry (650 yen). This bathhouse is a true community, and it is a very important part of my mother's spiritual sustenance. To the bathhouse and the County that supports this facility, I give my deepest gratitude.


My Mom and I attend the "Radio Taiso (the radio-guided Japanese national exercise)" at 6:30 in the morning, at a park nearby. They have these morning gatherings at parks all over Japan. It's mostly a bunch of old people there exercising at 6:30 a.m., but it keeps them vibrant.   Fond memories percolate from walking through town. I used to come here with Grandma and Grandpa. There is a picture of my brother playing on a monkey bar at this park, when he was five years old. It was my mom's favorite picture of him for a long time. Mom's hometown, more than any other place, has been my hometown, partly because I'd moved around so much in America. The place that my mother's soul resides seemed to be where I had left mine, because I was created from a fragment of her soul, like Eve was created from Adam's rib. I took a sigh of relief, because things almost felt normal. But then, there was the radiation.


Mom watches NHK religiously. After the morning exercise, Mom and I usually pick up fresh-baked pastries like "potato-cheese-dill rolls," "cheddar puff-balls," and "butter corn mayo croissant" from a local bakery. It's Just So Delicious. We go home, and then at 8:15 a.m., she watches the 15 minute morning-mini drama series, again on NHK. At 8:30 a.m. exactly, she rushes off to work. During this time, she is like a cruiser passing through a port. I anchor myself to the TV, and stay out of her way. In general, Mom's daily rhythm felt like a safe, calm ocean for me to rest in, while I prepared myself for the storm brewing outside.

I too watched NHK religiously while in Tokyo. From NHK, I learned that people in the Tohoku (the affected Northeast part of Japan, which includes Tokyo) had voluntarily cut down their power consumption by 26%. If true, it's an amazing feat. For example, Mom mostly opted to live in the dark (because she could), except that the TV was on most of the time. A lot of the news focused on Japan's reconstruction efforts. It was fascinating, and it was like free therapy. "It's not that bad." was the consensus on NHK. One is asked to bend reality, just a little bit.


There is an extremely popular sushi restaurant in front of the local train station. My Mom always takes me there when I visit, usually on the first evening I'm there. It's tradition. When I ascended the narrow staircase, a large poster prominently displayed the following message: "We respectfully sympathize with the victims of the earthquake disaster. Ganbare Tohoku! (Translation is something like: Good Luck Northeasterners!!) [We] will aggressively use delicious ingredients from the Tohoku ("Northeast") area." (This was in reaction to a media-campaign to discourage a secondary economic meltdown to the Tohoku area's farming industry. The Tohoku is home to Japan's rice industry. The mascot for the area features a rice ball head with a samurai outfit, Musubimaru.)

The restaurant was, as usual, crowded inside and out. There was a line of people waiting to get in. Once we were seated and served, my mother said, "They wouldn't serve poisonous food!" and started eating. I didn't share her opinion, but I ate the food anyways, because I thought it was the right thing to do. And the feast was sumptuous, as usual. I also thought that from now on, I would focus on the quality of my present life, instead of focusing on the future so much. It might be better to live a shorter, fulfilling life, than a longer, conflict-filled one. There has been a lot of loss; it's a lot of attachments to relinquish all at once, especially when it involves 127.5 million people. Right now, Japan is like a widower who has lost his spouse suddenly. (As discussed before in this blog, we should know that Grief comes in five steps. Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. These emotions are normal.)

There is a term called "shinju" in Japan. It is a word people use when a family, or any group, commits suicide together. Shinjus occur when misfortune befalls on people, and those people see no other way out. What is going on in Japan right now is like a "National Shinju." Baby boomers accept the fact that the radiation may give them cancer in 10-20 years. Some families with small children have already evacuated. Some U.S. universities had ordered all of their students to return to the U.S. immediately after the earthquake. But Tokyo boasts a population of 13 million, and another 22 million live within commuting distance. I'm hearing a lot of angry voices through the grape-vine, especially from University academics. A storm is brewing.


I spent a week working in Tokyo, while I tried out different ramen restaurants all over town. Ramen is extremely popular in Japan, and peoples' tastes evolve. The currently popular rendition of ramen is called "tsuke-men (translation: dipping noodle)." Purists want the noodles to be served separately from the broth, so that the texture of the noodles are preserved. You don't need to hurry when you eat tsuke-men ramen, because you don't have to worry about the noodles getting too soggy. (Like many, the Japanese are crazy about food.)

While working and eating in Tokyo, I got lost several times in the sprawling Tokyo and Shinjuku train stations. I was dumb-founded at the abundance of people available to guide my way. (I am accustomed to American style customer service.) Life seems easier, when people are more helpful. But two or three times a day, the train systems in Japan had temporary closures because of "personal injuries" on the tracks. "I wonder if it's due to the economic recession. They call it personal injury, but it's usually suicide." Mom quietly muttered.


The last weekend of May, I participated in Japan Travel Bureau's ("JTB") first "Miyagi volunteer bus pack," in which JTB teamed up with the Volunteer Center of Miyagi Prefecture ("Borasen") to coordinate the placement of volunteers visiting Miyagi prefecture. It was more efficient for the Borasen to work with travel agencies that could organize 40+ volunteers at a time. That weekend, at the direction of the Miyagi Borasen, our bus was assigned to visit Higashi-matsushima County.

At 11:00 pm on Friday May 27th, I boarded a bus at a parking lot near Tokyo station. Sitting next to me in the bus was a mom of two teenage boys, Mrs. Kojima. For two days, Mrs. Kojima and I talked about everything under the Sun. I give thanks, this time for this fortuitous seat assignment.

On Saturday morning, after spending the night on the bus, we disembarked at the Higashi-matsushima temporary Borasen. I was told that on that day, 1000 volunteers were in town. Given the many counties that needed volunteers, it's a huge number. Japan's reconstruction effort is powerful. On our bus, all 40 seats were occupied by volunteers, who each paid $187 (15,000 yen) to be on the bus. The cost covered the bus ride from and to Tokyo Station, two trip coordinators, two bus drivers, one night at the onsen hotel, and a special insurance for volunteers. In our bus, there were people from all over Japan (and one from the United States).

Our group was first asked to go to Mr. Koiwa's house. The tsunami was about six feet high when it flooded the first floor of their two-story house. Their yard was covered in toxic mud. Our job was to remove it. While we were there, Mr. Koiwa told us about the day of the tsunami. "I abandoned my car in order to escape the tsunami. It took 2, 3 days to find my family." he said.

Afterwards, we were assigned to another house which was located a little more inland. The mud in their yard was about a foot deep. 30 volunteers filled about 500 bags of mud, and we were done for the day. In the evening, we were given an hour-and-a-half to explore Sendai Train Station. (Though most people on the bus ate beef tongue BBQ, which Sendai is known for, I ate tsuke-men ramen for dinner.) Then our bus took us to an old onsen hotel near Sendai. Four volunteers were assigned to sleep in each room which was the size of eight tatami mats, and though a Japanese dinner (usually kaiseki at these hotels) was not included in the package, we were allowed to use the onsen facilities. The actual hot spring was under "repair" that day (it was reported that, since the quake, the flow from the hot spring had become intermittent). I had shoveled mud all day so I was sore all over, but the piping-hot Japanese bath washed away the mud and fatigue from me completely.


We were rained out on Sunday, and could not work with the mud. Mr. Sugawara, our lead JTB trip coordinator, quickly changed the day's itinerary: we were to visit the "Reconstruction Fair" at Minami-sanriku. The bus took us to Shizugawa Middle School, which was located above the tsunami's water line. I had seen Minami-sanriku on CNN. When we got there, it looked just like it did on TV. Cars and ships were crumpled up like boulders, amongst the debris strewn all across the landscape. The only thing left of most buildings were the foundations. There were several steel and concrete structures that survived (though they all looked as if they were bombed out), and on top of one of the five-story buildings was a perfect-looking car, parked diagonally on a roof with no off ramp. It was a scene out of a movie. Thousands of thoughts ran through my mind. But because I finally understood the power and brutality of nature, I was speechless for a time.

We had to ascend a long staircase (from the bottom of the canyon) to get to the middle school on top of the hill. The Reconstruction Fair was a muddy affair, but hundreds of people were gathered in the rain to support Minami-sanriku. The rain contained cesium. At the fair, there were many booths featuring: yakisoba, takoyaki, a fish mart, a mobile convenience store in a bus, rice cracker ramen, t-shirts, good luck charms, junk, etc. etc. When I was there, there was a taiko performance in the center of all of it. Someone had planted pansy flowers in the ground. Miyagi's mascot Musubimaru was there. Every tent had several people inviting you in for a visit, as if we were at an omatsuri / festival. I had found love again, in Minami-sanriku. It spilled over the edges of my cup, and overflowed. And with that love, I knew Japan would be OK. My friend Yuki had been telling me: "Japan has survived 2000 years of history, and it will survive again." I finally knew what she meant.


After the Fair, our bus took us to Matsushima (let's call it "Pine Island"). (Pine Island is considered one of the three best views in Japan. Matsushima Bay boasts beautiful pine tree-lined islands inside of it, one of which is connected to the main land with just a long, red, foot bridge.) The road from Minami-sanriku to Pine Island was about 40 miles of destruction and abandonment on either side of the road. But Pine Island (which is not an Island) itself was spared the same destruction because it is inside a bay, shielded by islands. While the small villages on the outside islands were destroyed completely, Pine Island was visited by a mini-tsunami two feet high. I spent most of my free time in Pine Island visiting and offering prayers at Zuiganji Temple. I was told that the tsunami miraculously stopped at its gates. Residents from 1000 years ago had foretold of a safe area that would be protected, and Zuiganji had been built there. Afterwards, we boarded the bus again, which was followed by an eight hour bus ride back to Tokyo Station.


Around midnight on Sunday, I got back to Mom's house, exhausted. Mom got out of bed to tell me that she was diagnosed with kidney stones and that she would need to go back to the hospital the next morning for more tests. The next morning, we woke up and went to the hospital, and Mom said: "Your Dad and I come here when we get sick, so I wanted you to know where this hospital is."

It became time to go to Narita Aiport, so I left my Mom at the hospital (regretfully), and flew back to the U.S. I didn't even have time to visit my Grandparents' grave, which was just ten minutes away from Mom's house.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Ship and the Animals on the Fourth of July

"Ahoy! Ahoy! Red Alert! Danger Ahead!"
"Something's up. YOU KNOW WHO is not too happy with us these days." someone said.

We are like travelers on a ship (or a hand-basket depending on our destination). We know that there are "others" on this ship - other animals we don't know - some of us look like giraffe's, others like kangaroos. Some look like horses. Unfortunately, not everyone likes each other on this ship. (Shhh. Don't say that out loud.)

So, what should the giraffes and kangaroos and all of the other animals do about the fact that there seems to be danger up ahead? The animals thought about it, and decided to hold a town hall meeting.

The next morning, a large crowd had gathered on the bow of the ship.
Jeffrey the squirrel, who stood on the mainmast squealed: "Well, ideally, we should have a discussion, I guess!"
Pepper the buffalo, simultaneously chewing on grass, said: "But what if we don't get along?"
A hippo named Mike who was taking up way too much space on the upper deck yelled: "Ya!"
Sammy the donkey whinnied: "E, each of us will v-vote. We'll all have a say in the outcome that w-way."
Jeffrey said "So what are we going to vote on?" as he corrected his spectacles.
An alligator, Samantha spoke out in a low calm voice "I vote to eat the red alert." Samantha appeared to be on a leash which someone had tied to the staircase.
A little birdy named Tom, who was flying above Samantha, complained: "She tried to eat me before! Take her away!"
Samantha protested: "I am an alligator. What do you expect?"
Kuro (a dog) barked: "I vote for more bones in the cafeteria!"
(Kuro was a little confused about the subject matter of the discussion.)

So the discussion went on like this until everyone got hungry and it was lunchtime, and the animals decided to take a lunch break. During the break, there were still a few residual resentments in the room, so there were several naughty food fights, but most everyone managed to get back to the deck of the ship when discussions resumed. (Some had to stay behind to clean up after their own mess.)

After lunch, Jeffrey resumed the discussion by summing up what happened in the morning. "We can't agree on anything!! We're a mess!! Meanwhile, we keep getting closer to danger!"

Sasha the salamander said (with a slight lisp because of his long tongue): "We should organize zis a bit. We should pick leaderz, zo that we can delegate zis task to zomeone who representz uz! How about a sleader for each family? Let's re-convene when we've picked a sleader."

For a time, there was much commotion all around the ship. Arguments could be heard from huddles in all directions. Most of the animals resumed their daily schedules during this time, mostly because they were not going to be picked, and they were bored.

After dinner, a smaller crowd of animals re-convened around Jeffrey, who shouted, "Are all families accounted for with a chosen representative?"
Sammy, again whinnying, said: "I t'think so!"

At that point, one of the kitchen chefs showed up on the deck and made an announcement: "If you help me keep my job, I'll give you more food. Thanks!"
Seeing what he just saw, an engineer on break from the engine room (after all, this is a large ship!) who just happened to be walking by, said: "Well - I can stop this ship if I want to. But if you want my help, you have to make it worth it for me." The Captain, hearing the commotion, shouted from his window: "Ya, I'll need some of that 'encouragement' too! Thanks!"

The animals, including Jeffrey, stood there not quite understanding what just happened.

Finally, Jeffrey spoke: "We're screwed. We don't have any money!"
Pepper said: "We're doomed!! What do we do?"
The crowd of animals broke out into another commotion.
Everyone threw out ideas like: What if we protested? What if we stopped paying our dues? What if we went on a hunger strike? What if? What if?
It was at that moment that Spicy the chicken started singing "I Will Survive" on the deck, towards the Moon. Many of the smaller animals started to pray. The monkeys on the deck proceeded with their original plans of throwing a party for themselves, since it was the time of day for a good soirée.

Several elephants were listening in from the starboard side of the deck, a few dozen feet towards the stern. They were huddled around each other and whispering. Finally, Plump, the wisest of them all, spoke loudly to whomever was gathered at the deck as twilight washed over the sky with a deep dark blue purple. Plump spoke clearly and slowly, though with a slight drawl:

"Accept that we must, at times, face danger, and that death is a part of life. To know danger is to celebrate life. We will go when it is our time. Until that day, let's XOXOXOXO."

Plump's last words were drowned out by a large popping sound from the stern of the deck where the monkeys were. Up above, several multi-colored fireworks brilliantly lit up the sky, lighting up the faces of a thousand mesmerized gawkers on the ship. Several other balls-of-fire soared upwards, and then crackled into a hundred points of light. When the popping sounds came to an end, the only thing left was the echo of the wind. Our ship, with the animals, had sailed away quietly into the darkness.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Purpose of the Dead Tree In My Yard

Yesterday, I was talking about the design of our garden with my housemate Stacy, the Quaker. There is a big prune tree in my yard that died in the last year from over-watering. It was an old tree with years of neglect apparent in how its branches were gnarled into each other. It was a tree that gave me courage that even disorderly things were part of nature and could thrive, and I rather liked its imperfections. But now I had been spending time thinking about how I could remove it and its roots from my yard.

When I pointed out the dead tree to Stacy and how it needed to be removed, Stacy, being the Peace Corp serving environmental educator and ecologist she was, said to me this: "You know, even dead things have a place in nature. Mother Earth knows best. Look at the tree. Moss is starting to grow on it, and the bacteria are starting to break down the branches, making it hospitable to other beings. The insects and birds rely on dead trees for shelter, and THEY will enjoy this tree. EVERYTHING has its place in nature. Humans think we know best, but we don't. Mother Earth knows best, and we should trust her."