Hard to know where to start

DSC_0003Since I last wrote in August, things have changed. Ba-chan passed away on August 18th….both Jiro and I were with her and she was calm until she was gone. The three days after someone dies in Japan are all culturally choreographed- there were no big decisions to make about what kind of service or what should  be done or who to invite. Of course, there were many choices about what kind of food to serve, what kind of gifts to give to the guests,  how many monks to hire to chant, and how many characters for her Buddhist name, but from the moment she died to the funeral three days later, it was a smooth process that honored her and gave family and friends time to say goodbye. I hope to write more in detail about those days, but I need to get this blog restarted and I think I’ll just start with what is going on now.

view from Shiroyama
view from Shiroyama

We are slowly moving our residence from our old kura to Ba-chan’s house. We’ve always done all our meals there, but I am going through all her things and trying to make room for us to live there. It’s hard to shed her personality from the space- I think that’s why it’s taking us so long.  The house is pretty small, but we’ll make it work. Hopefully by summer, we’ll complete the transition. We’d like to rent out the kura for a little extra cash.

Jiro has just finished building a huge storage space and workshop. It’s 8 x 12 meters and we had solar panels installed on the roof. We’ll sell all the energy to the electric company- there is a push for alternative energy sources these days and we got a nice subsidy. He won’t be using much electricity there, and it works out to be a better deal if he sets up a separate line for his own power use. Seems counterintuitive to me.

山桜 Wild cherry trees
山桜 Wild cherry trees

He has been running a small forestry business for the past four years, but has decided to gradually stop doing that work. His last crew member just quit, so he is working alone. He has one big tree-planting contract to finish and then he’ll just pick up small jobs to keep a cash flow. He hasn’t had any time to do his art the past couple years and he is really eager to get back to it.

I decided to keep teaching at the university for at least another year. I expect this year will be easier, now that I know how the system works and what I can expect from the students. Last year we implemented placement testing, and it has made a big difference. The university also decided to hire another instructor, so I have a new colleague. She is from England and has lived here about 25 years. We’ve already gotten together a couple times to do some planning-  I am so excited to be have someone to collaborate with.

DSC_0025It’s cherry blossom time- about 10 days earlier than usual. Most years the wild cherry trees bloom first and after those blossoms fall, the cultivars bloom- this year everything is in bloom at once. Today I took a walk up Shiroyama to see the view from the top of the hill- hazy, but beautiful. There were so many people out and about- I really love this time of year.

So the plan is to write regularly- we’ll see. I guess I should have mentioned that we have decided to stay put. We have a comfortable place to live, jobs, and health insurance, but mainly we’re not ready for another big transition yet. Ideally we’d like to work it out to live here part of the year and  in the US the other part of the year. Right now we both are feeling like it may be a good time to start thinking about some extended travel.

 

 

Finally a post about bamboo

Nagase This is woven with madake. It is tightly woven and the surface is flat.
Nagase This is woven with madake. It is tightly woven and the surface is flat.

Jiro finished building his studio a few months ago and is slowly getting back into production. He has exhibited in a couple of shows here and has a show scheduled for July at Butters Gallery in Portland. He has started work on some new pieces, but because he just started a new business, he is really working hard.

His new business is called Inagaki Ringyou 稲垣林業 – Inagaki Forestry (Inagaki is the name of our neighborhood). He has pulled together a small crew and picks up contracts from the forestry service to thin plots of trees, usually 杉(cryptomeria japonica). The plots can be anywhere between 5 and 25 acres and the terrain is variable. Once his business gets going, he expects to be able to just manage the crew and work part-time, but now he is working 6 or 7 days a week and working on bamboo in the evenings and on rainy days. On the days he isn’t up in the mountains,  he is gathering supplies, designing, prepping and creating work.

We’ve had a few visitors to Saiki to see his work and it’s been fun to show people our space here. A couple weeks ago, Jerry Wingren, a sculptor friend of Jiro’s from Colorado, came to Saiki for a couple of days. We enjoyed a great dinner with some other friends here and Jiro took him to look at bamboo knives and we just hung out and talked. It is a little tricky juggling care for ba-chan and visitors, but we are figuring out how to make it all work.

Jizo 2- Woven using Kurochiku(black bamboo)  Notice the mottled coloring
Jizo 2- Woven using Kurochiku(black bamboo) Notice the mottled coloring

Like most of the bamboo artisans in Kyushu, Jiro usually uses madake (phyllostachys bambusoides) in his work. However, he also uses kurochiku black bamboo (phyllostachys nigra) and nemagaridake bamboo (Sasa kurilensis).

Footbridge- woven using nemagaridake- Rounded shape of strips results in a uneven surface
Footbridge- woven using nemagaridake- Rounded shape of strips results in a uneven surface

Each of these bamboos has different qualities that suit different style of pieces and weaving styles. Madake and kurochiku are both timber bamboos, but black bamboo has a distinctive coloring that needs to be considered when dying and applying lacquer.

Nemagaridake poles
Nemagaridake poles

He has been using nemagaridake for some of his recent work. Nemagaridake (literally: bent root bamboo) grows well in cold climate and is about pencil-thick in diameter. In comparison, madake ranges from 2 to 4 inches in diameter.

Nemagaridake is a tenacious, vigorous plant and can grow up to about 3 meters in height. In warmer climates (i.e. where we live), it doesn’t grow to its full height. The bamboo shoots of this variety are especially tasty and don’t require a boiling to remove the acrid flavor. They can even be eaten raw or grilled. Information and recipes in Japanese. This variety doesn’t grow much around here, so Jiro orders it from Shimane Prefecture.

Splitting the outer layer from the center
Splitting the outer layer from the center

Splitting nemagaridake is a little trickier than splitting the large poles of madake and kurochiku. The edges are sharper and it splinters easily. In all of his weaving, he only uses the outer layer of the bamboo and the rest is composted. Each strip used in a piece is split and finished to be the exact same thickness and width. Also every edge is beveled, so that it the weaving looks good. He usually dyes the strips before weaving. Once a piece is woven, he applies several layers of urushi lacquer.

Two weekends ago I went up to Kokura where I lived when I first lived in Japan 30 years ago. I met up with some old friends and explored some old, familiar places. It was a beauiful weekend and it’s always great to get away for a few days.

It’s getting really warm and I put away all our winter gear. I’ve got some cilantro growing and some jalapeno start. Hopefully we’ll have the makings for some good salsa this summer.

The end of the cherry blossom season in Kokura
The end of the cherry blossom season in Kokura