Sunday, August 31, 2008

Birgit Nilsson in Osaka 1967

Soprano Birgit Nilsson was born just a few miles from my hometown, in Skåne, Sweden. She performed at the Met in New York 223 times in 16 roles, appeared 232 times at the Vienna State Opera from 1954-82, and at Bayreuth in Germany. The video above is from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde at Thèâtre Antique d'Orange in 1973.

The miracles of Youtube: A very rare NHK video from her concert in Osaka in 1967, performing Wagner with the Bayreuth Festival. Conductor Pierre Boulez.

Wagner in the news: Times on Line

Osaka Festival celebrated its 50th year anniversary in 2008!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Gary Snyder Wins 2008 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize

Wow, I like the heavy rain and the thunderstorms. Makes me wonder if it is true that one should unplug the computer when lightning is near. Any thoughts?

Over at Treehugger, I wrote about Gary Snyder, who won the 2008 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Gary, one of the Beat Poets, lived in Kyoto for a decade from 1956 (!) and is still going strong. Congratulations.

I like his humour and political sarcasm, as in Coyote Man, Mr. President & the Gunfighters, a story inspired by an ancient Chinese text, in Kyoto Journal:

Mr. President was fascinated by gunfighters. Expert gunfighters were invited to his White House, three thousand of them, like guests in the house. Day and night they practiced fast-draw and shootouts in his presence until the dead and wounded men numbered more than a hundred a year.

The Senator from the Great Basin was troubled by this, and summoning his aides, said, "I’ll give a basket of turquoise and a truckload of compost to any man who can reason with Mr. President and make him give up these gunfights!" "Coyote Man is the one who can do it!" said his aides...

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Summer Festival

Just a short, lovely live version of Nakayama Uri's Summer Festival song.

I have to mention she went to high school in Yono, Saitama... Way to go!

Bonus: 月とラクダの夢をみた

Virtual Temple

A bunch of young Japanese monks have created a virtual temple online to talk about issues close to their hearts. They are based in Tokyo, where there are surprisingly many Buddhist temples, many as old as the city itself, dating back to the Edo Period (1603-1868).

They note that no matter how artificial our environment becomes, monks continue to pass on age-old wisdom from master to disciple, inheriting the modes of living, using the temple as its vehicle:

The continuity of such lifestyle will become an aid for those who hope, with all of their heart, for a life full of love and appreciation. The Japanese lifestyle made of culture and traits influenced from Buddhist beliefs is the heritage for Japanese people and could be shared amongst people all over the world. We hope to transform these Buddhist thoughts into a lamplight and deliver this message to the world. Hope to fill the world with smiles of joy.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Food Safety In The News

Kyodo says more than 60 percent of surveyed consumers in Japan are buying more domestically produced food than they used to. This follows a number of food scandals and books published here about food safety. Kyodo quotes a recent survey conducted jointly by NTT Resonant Inc. and Japan Research Institute Ltd.

The survey found a noticeable decrease in consumers buying frozen food and eating out, an indication that more people now want to select and prepare food themselves. People also worry about food shortages:

Consumer behavior apparently has been affected by a widespread food scare earlier this year resulting from pesticide-tainted Chinese-made frozen meat dumplings and numerous recent cases of fraud involving food passed off as domestically produced or as premium brands, food industry observers say.

Asked about how their eating habits have changed over the past three years, 64.3 percent of the respondents said they are now buying more domestic food. In addition, 39.3 percent said that they cook at home more often than before. In regard to eating habits they have come to eschew, 47.2 percent have reduced purchases of frozen food and 46.9 percent now eat out less frequently.

The survey also revealed that people buying fewer canned goods, retort-packed food and precooked dishes outnumber those who purchased more of these items.

The Internet poll was conducted between late June and early July, with 1,059 people responding.

The photo shows domestically produced broccoli, as part of Dole Japan's campaign. The text on the label says: Gambarimasu! Kokusan yasai (We do our best! Domestically produced vegetables) and in English, "I LOVE I Live on Vegetables". The square bar code is for mobile phone users to access a campaign website with information about each farmer.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Koenji: Best Summer Matsuri Dance Festival in Tokyo

Summer festivals... If you live in Japan, how can you avoid them. A great time to be in town, celebrating and getting to know your neighbours.

Japan's summer festivals are getting some attention on Youtube, with lots of homemade videos featuring traditional street dance and music. Search for 高円寺 (Koenji) or 阿波おどり (Awaodori) or 祭り (Matsuri). You will also find clips from Tokushima, where this particular festival originated over 400 years ago. Some history.

Koenji is a great little town just west of Shinjuku, Tokyo. I used to go there a lot and still like to visit. The Koenji festival in August every year is one of the best in the capital, after the Sumida River Fireworks Festival and Asakusa Samba Carnival.

Yes, yes.. the food is pretty bad, and it is crowded, and only really young kids like the stalls with silly games. If you went to Koenji this weekend, you probably went for the dance and the music. The different troupes practice a lot to get their steps right, with a powerful taiko beat, tambourines, more drums, and flutes...

Tokyo Koenji Awaodori Festival was first held in 1957 and celebrated the 50th anniversary in 2006. As the festival developed into a huge event, the number of visitors has also grown significantly from the original few thousands into 1.2 million. The town of Koenji gets incredibly crowded with visitors during the festival.

From the Koenji Awaodori Ren Association, a really nice website - thanks for the translations and updates guys!

And below, please click to enjoy Nakayama Uri and her sweet samba-inspired song called Splendid Summer Festival (夏祭り鮮やかに)...

Friday, August 22, 2008

Cleaning Up The Ganges

I'm off for Niigata this weekend, but a story on the Ganges caught my eye. I have written about Japan's rivers previously, but none are "holy" in the sense that India has historically revered what is actually the largest river and river delta on earth. Japan seems to have had more spiritual feelings for its numerous mountains, including Mt. Fuji.

In India, the problem is that since the 1970s, the Ganges is increasingly polluted. A campaign, “Awiral Ganga, Nirmal Ganga: From Gangotri to Ganga Sagar”, aims to clean up the holy river right from its source in the Himalayas to where it drains into the Bay of Bengal at Ganga Sagar in West Bengal. They want to reduce pollution and demand national heritage status for the river.

Not a minute too late. At stake are deeply held spiritual values, notes The Times:

A coalition of gurus has issued an ultimatum to India’s fragile Government: purify the chronically polluted Ganges, the river revered by Hindus, or face protests and political ruin.

Ganga Raksha Manch, a newly formed alliance of celebrity holy men, is demanding urgent action to cleanse the holy waterway, which has become a noxious cocktail of human and industrial waste, before a general election that must be held before May.

The movement, which holds sway over countless devotees’ votes, is being led by Baba Ramdev, a yoga teacher and spiritual leader who has won tens of millions of followers through his combination of anti-Western diatribe and a cable television show.

If the Government did not pay heed to the call for saving the Ganges, the agitation would take “a fierce turn”, he said.

Is the Ganges just a river? The story of the descent of Ganga: Ganga, a heavenly river was brought down to the earth through the efforts of the ruler Bhagiratha.

The tide of change that has engulfed humanity in the last two centuries - through the industrial revolution and beyond has inevitably left its mark on the Ganges. Industries upstream discharge their effluents into this river, once known for its purity, rendering the waters unsafe for consumption. While it used to be considered meritorious to die and be cremated in Benares, the very belief causes further pollution of the river - given the un-sustainable rate at which partially cremated cadavers are dumped into the river.

The dawn of the information revolution and the internet has brought thoughts from around the world in close contact as never before. As a newly generated affluence generated by the boom in the information industry spreads across the world, life styles across the Indian subcontinent are undergoing a sea change. It is only a matter of time, before a semi-urban style of life will establish itself in hitherto remote areas.

In spite of these waves of change, the core of the Indian belief in the interconnectedness of life remains unchanged. The simple act of thanksgiving - through the offering of a clay lamp, on a leaf with a few petals of fresh flowers to the life sustaining waters of the Ganges, at the culmination of the Ganga Aarti - carried out even today - night after night at Haridwar where the Ganga enters the plains is a standing testimony to this immutable undercurrent of Indian thought.

From The Ganga: Then and Now

Art of Living Japan

The Times (UK): Polluted Ganges must be cleaned, gurus demand

The Times of India: 250 religious heads flag off save Ganga campaign in Delhi

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Why Are Japanese Farmers So Old?

I'm interested in farm policy and cannot understand why young people in Japan are not encouraged to go into farming.

Seems high land prices and inheritance taxes are making it virtually impossible. I don't agree that the job is un-cool, although that is also often put forward as a reason (Young ladies don't like guys who do dirty jobs? Come one...) and I'm pretty sure many young men and ladies too for that matter would rather live in the countryside than move into a small apartment in a suburb of Tokyo or Osaka - if possible. Yet, the average age of farmers here is around 65, which spells trouble for the future.

As blogger Shisaku notes, Yoshikawa Miho of Reuters has an excellent article out on the "insanity" of Japan's rice agriculture policy. I would also recommend the PBS documentary from 2005 called Japan: The Slow Life Tune in, drop out, grow rice by a young American who prefers the quiet island of Shikoku, which is, in his words, "the spiritual center of the nation, the farm country." Lovely scenery, lovely people.

Organic farmers are usually young in Japan. They are the pioneers of a new way of doing agriculture in a land that has long been told to maximize profit using chemical pesticides and fertilizers, as well as the latest machines. I'm suspecting that the new generation of young farmers are the ones that actually want to work with nature, and not fight against it.

For example, many of the farmers in the popular network called Radish Boya, that sells organic food boxes dircetly to some 90,000 consumers, are much younger than the average of 65-70!

Radish Boya makes weekly deliveries to households throughout Japan, making it one of the leading distributors of natural and organic farm products. Radish Boya became a member of IFOAM in 1997 and then they established IFOAM Japan in 2001 with producers, distributors, certification bodies, and NGOs to promote the Japanese organic movement.

Radish Boya was featured in Nikkei Ecology in January 2006 for "Winning the hearts of vegetable consumers with stylish designing and trustworthiness".

More details over at Frugal Japan Grocery Delivery: Convenient, Fast & Sometimes Frugal

(Photos from a Radish Boya project in Tsukuba, 2007)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

What Does It Mean To Be A Foreigner In Japan?

The Japan Times is a daily English newspaper here that struggles hard to be relevant. Some of its articles help us to understand the country (I like the environmental news) but other writers are really not up to the mark.

Point in case: in early August, an American-born English teacher who is now a Japanese citizen wrote that the Japanese word "gaijin" is the same as the American word "nigger". I find that really hard to believe. In Japanese, there are several words to say "foreigner". Gaijin is a short form for gaikokujin - a person that comes from a foreign country. Leave "country" out and you have "a foreigner" or gaijin. Gaikokujin is thus similar to words in many other languages, such as Swedish (utlänning) or German (Auslander). Hmm, it makes me wonder what the English word "foreigner" really means, politically correct Latin roots perhaps?!

The Japan Times should stop publish drivel from people who don't understand Japan. Even if the English teacher in this case has gotten Japanese citizenship, the author seems to have trouble understanding basic Japanese: "gaijin" is NOT the same as "nigger" in the country of his birth.

'nuff said.

The Japan Times: Once a 'gaijin,' always a 'gaijin'
The Japan Times: Readers respond: Once a 'gaijin,' always a 'gaijin'?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Masanobu Fukuoka: Philosopher of Farming

Masanobu Fukuoka, the pioneer of "natural" farming, which eschews plowing, weeding and the use of fertilizers or pesticides, died of old age at his home in Iyo, Ehime Prefecture on Saturday, according to Breitbart. He was 95.

Fukuoka was the author of "The One Straw Revolution," a book that has been translated into English, Korean, Thai and several other languages, and the recipient of the Deshikottam Award, India's most prestigious award, and the Philippines' Ramon Magsaysay award for public service, both in 1988.

After attending an agricultural college in Gifu Prefecture and working at the customs office in Yokohama and an agricultural laboratory in Kochi Prefecture, Fukuoka returned to his native Ehime Prefecture to practice the natural farming method that does not require artificial fertilizers or pesticides and goes beyond organic farming.

He advocated natural farming in various parts of Asia and Africa and also made efforts at greening deserts using such ideas as enclosing seeds in clay pellets.

Masanobu Fukuoka was born in 1914 in a small farming village on the island of Shikoku in Southern Japan. He was educated in microbiology and worked as a soil scientist specializing in plant pathology, but at the age of twenty-five he began to have doubts about modern agriculture science.

Fukuoka wrote:

"If a single new bud is snipped off a fruit tree with a pair of scissors, that may bring about a disorder which cannot be undone…. Human beings with their tampering do something wrong, leave the damage unrepaired, and when the adverse results accumulate, work with all their might to correct them."

"To become one with nature -- agriculture is an occupation in which a farmer adapts himself to nature. To do that, you have to gaze at a rice plant and listen to the words from the plant. If you understand what the rice says, you just adjust your heart to that of the rice plants and raise them. In reality, we do not have to raise them. They will grow. We just serve nature. A piece of advice I need to give you here. When I say gaze at a rice plant or stare at its true form, it does not mean to make an observation or to contemplate the rice plant, which makes it an object different from yourself. It is very difficult to explain in words. In a sense, it is important that you become the rice plant. Just as you, as the subject of gazing, have to disappear. If you do not understand what you should do or what I am talking about, you should be absorbed in taking care of the rice without looking aside. If you could work wholeheartedly without yourself, that is enough. Giving up your ego is the shortest way to unification with nature."

Fukuoka believed that farming is related to the spiritual health of the farmer. "Natural farming is not just for growing crops," he said, "it is for the cultivation and perfection of human beings."

Saturday, August 16, 2008

A Prince's Dream

I like royalty that care about the environment. I wrote about the Swedish king's visit to Japan, when he hosted a symposium was about sustainable energy and global warming. And I wrote about Japan's Imperial Household farms, which are promoting organic farming (no chemical pesticides or fertilizers, and no genetically engineered seeds).

Prince Charles is another case in point: do read about his deeply felt resistance to GMO foods and his passion for sustainable agriculture.

"What we should be talking about is food security not food production - that is what matters and that is what people will not understand.

"And if they think its somehow going to work because they are going to have one form of clever genetic engineering after another then again count me out, because that will be guaranteed to cause the biggest disaster environmentally of all time."

Small farmers, in particular, would be the victims of "gigantic corporations" taking over the mass production of food.

"I think it's heading for real disaster," he said.

"If they think this is the way to go....we [will] end up with millions of small farmers all over the world being driven off their land into unsustainable, unmanageable, degraded and dysfunctional conurbations of unmentionable awfulness."

Telegraph: Prince Charles warns GM crops risk causing the biggest-ever environmental disaster

Grist: A prince's dream: Far-fetched fairytale or a real future of food?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Tony Boys: Photo Essay Of A Rural Japanese City

Tony Boys has published a longer (and much funnier) essay on the trip he and I did earlier this week in Ibaraki prefecture. He has lots of details and photos over at his Candobetter blog: Photo essay of a rural Japanese city. Quote:

Actually, as we came out of the house, I saw that the farmer who is now growing a crop of upland rice (i.e. a rice variety that does not need to be grown in a wet paddy field) right next to my house had turned up on his morning round of his fields. We went over and said hello and I took out my camera and snapped him right there. The evening before, Martin and I had passed by another of his fields which is on my regular dog walk. The field is a bit less that one-tenth of a hectare and is now covered with a dense growth of soybeans. It's very 'clean', but it's interesting how it got that way. Since I walk our dogs along the same route nearly every day between about four and five in the afternoon, I had seen what had happened in the field over the few weeks since the soy had been planted. The farmer had been out there with a tiny hand-pushed machine (like a small manual lawn mower about 20 or 25 centimetres wide) almost every day, slowly and labouriously, and with meticulous care, removing anything green in the rows between the soybean plants. Sometimes he was just walking up and down between the rows, with his eyes on the ground, occasionally bending down to pluck out a weed. Only once in the two weeks or so that I walked by the field every day did we greet each other, because he was concentrating so hard on what he was doing that he probably didn't notice me, and I didn't want to disturb his concentration by calling out to him.

Martin and I agreed as we walked the dogs that this man's work is now being replaced by herbicide-resistant GE [Genetically Engineered, or GMO] soybeans ... (There is NO commercial planting of GE soy in Japan.)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Ibaraki Trip

I spent my birthday up in Ibaraki prefecture with Tony Boys and his family. We went around his town, Hitachiomiya, to look at farms and talk to the people who actually know about rice, vegetables and so on.

Tony took a lot of photos for the survey he has been working on, to investigate if a town the size of Hitachiomiya with around 50,000-60,000 people can be self-sufficient if there are no food imports (say, if peak oil suddenly means farmers and the food industry and supermarkets cannot import cheaply anymore).

We also went to a wonderful vegan restaurant up in the mountains.

CEO/health food adviser Izumi Tomoyuki started the Marin-no Oyatsu to serve only the best vegan food, together with a very dedicated staff - that were probably a bit surprised to see a Swede and an Englishman!

Do pay them a visit: they served us terrific vegan ramen, with their own original dashi sauce, and the best tea and organic fruit juice.

Izumi-san showed us the farms and we had a long talk about food and health and spiritual matters...

Ibaraki is only about two hours from busy Tokyo by train or bus, yet you feel like you are in a different world. Further up in the hills there are ancient temples and shrines, as a reminder that people have walked (and walked and walked) on pilgrimages to these parts of the world for a long, long time.

And perhaps, each time a new priest arrived, he carried with him some vegetable seeds, or something new from Kyoto or Nara, or Edo, that would help the people here continue to develop their survival skills.

Living off-the-grid was practically invented in these parts of the world!

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

How to hide data about the effects of atomic bombs

NHK is showing a very interesting documentary tonight about the early studies done on the victims of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The first research was done during the US occupation, when there was no press freedom in Japan. Virtually no news about radioactivity and its damage were to be released to the public until after the occupation ended in 1952.

The early data from the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC) said there was no evidence of any damage to humans from radioactivity. ABCC is now called The Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF). The 1947 ABCC Report is available here (pdf) but it appears to be heavily edited later. How easy it is to hide the truth about the terrible - no, worse: inhuman - effects that atomic bombs have on all living things.

Radiation Health Effects

What NHK is pointing out is that people who entered Hiroshima or Nagasaki after the bombings were also exposed to high doses of radioactivity. This was not accepted by the early legal frameworks for the hibakusha (victims of atomic bombings). Recently, finally, through prolonged efforts in Japanese courts, these victims are also able to get compensation for their suffering.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Free Hybrid Electric Buses at Tokyo's Haneda Airport

I like the 4 new hybrid electric buses at Haneda Airport. Daimler, the German company, owns Mitsubishi Fuso, that has supplied three, while Hino supplied one.

Batteries on the roofs are from Toyota: great to see that companies can cooperate for sustainable development - and the bus rides are free, linking Haneda's first, second and international terminals. As we all want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, this is clearly a win-win situation.

More details over at Treehugger.

A bit of history - Haneda first opened in 1931. During the 1930s, Haneda handled flights to destinations in Japan, Korea and Manchuria, and was taken over by the U.S. in 1945 as an Army Air Base.

Scandinavian Airlines DC-7 began regular flights between Haneda and Copenhagen via Anchorage beginning in 1957.

There is a nice memorial in Tokyo with a rune stone, to comemorate the very first SAS flight between Scandinavia and Japan in 1955, over the North Pole.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Devendra Banhart: Carmensita

Quite possibly the best (contemporary) little music video I have seen in a long time. I think you can enjoy it even without headphones. And - yes - that's Natalie Portman as the princess, later to be reincarnated as a... Oh, but I should not spoil your fun.

Devendra was on the cover of Rolling Stones Japan edition earlier this year (Image from the naturalismo blog)

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Hanok houses destroyed in Seoul while South Korea is obsessed with Dokdo

This is a difficult post to write. I have visited Korea a few times, it is a country I love, and I admire their history, the palaces and the temples. Yet, the current Korean obsession with simplistic issues like Takeshima, or Dokdo (or the Liancourt Rocks) make it a difficult country to talk about. North Korea, of course, is always on our minds, too, with bombastic propaganda and its isolationist juche philosophy - while begging for food and energy aid from the West.

Meanwhile, in the very heart of Seoul, there are some beautiful quarters that Koreans appear to care less about.

The hanok are wooden houses built in a traditional Korean style that I like very much. My friend David Kilborn has devoted a lot of time trying to alert people to their destruction. On his blog,, he points out that it is the Korean government that is supporting the destruction of these wonderful homes. I cannot help but wonder why that same Korean government devotes so much effort (even naming an expensive assault ship Dokdo as if it really matters) to barren rocks in the Sea of Japan while Seoul's own historical heritage is ignored.

As David explains:

Surely it is time to halt all the destruction of old buildings in Kahoi-dong, to demolish new buildings with illegal features, and for society as a whole to consider the fate of the district? Is it too much to expect that a country of Korea's economic power should find the time and the resources to preserve the last couple of short streets in the city that provide a window into ordinary life a century ago? In the UK, there are many examples of towns, districts, and buildings of a similar age to Kahoi-dong that are rigorously protected and preserved. The lesson from other countries is that such preservation work can attract tourism, enhance local culture, and make the modern urban environment a richer, more enjoyable place for all.

Earlier this year, an elderly disgruntled Korean man set fire to the 610-year-old landmark that was considered South Korea's top national treasure. The Namdaemun Gate had survived both the Japanese imperial period and the Korean war. The man felt he had not been properly compensated when the city had claimed his property for development.

Do watch the documentary film made by David Kilburn. Korean and English versions here.

I imagine hanoks are models for how we could live simply and beautifully, if we had no access to petrolium products including plastic building materials and paints, and no heating/cooling based on the fossile fuels or nuclear energy that we take for granted today.

(Photo from Hanok-de)

Ota wants greater food self-sufficiency for Japan

NHK says the new agriculture minister Seiichi Ota from Fukuoka "wants to conduct a drastic change in Japan's farm policies to raise the country's food self-sufficiency rate to deal with soaring imported food prices."

On collapsed free trade talks at the World Trade Organization, Ota stressed the need to limit the excessive pursuit of market principles. He also met the Dalai Lama during his visit to Japan on April 10, 2008, showing a keen interest in the issue of Tibet. A real LDP man, not afraid of saying what he thinks, not afraid of abandoning the "liberal" in the economic sense of the old party name...?

Former postal affairs minister Seiko Noda will be the minister in charge of consumer affairs (she also loves sake, and serves as President of the "Sake-Loving Female Diet Members Club"), and Tetsuo Saito (from New Komeito) will be Japan's new environment minister.

That's all we get from NHK, after a very interesting Friday. Stay posted, as Kurashi is trying to keep you up-to-date on current events, and if you don't care to wait for that, do have a look at what other, more clever bloggers, including Jun O and Shisaku, may have to say.