Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2009: Year Of Herding The Ox

Wishing you all the very best for 2009! Thank you so much for reading Kurashi - News From Japan, a humble blog that started in 2005 when I was working for a not-so-profitable NPO and had to attend a United Nations meeting in Seoul, South Korea, which was very memorable and changed my life in a lot of ways. In 2008, I have been on my own, working also for Consumers Union of Japan, where I do editing and translation, and participate in meetings about everything from food safety to G8, energy issues and peace activism. I have also been fortunate to start working with, a media-savvy Tokyo-based group with a lot of potential. Through, I got into blogging for Treehugger, the juggernaut US environmental blog, with thousands of readers. (I have also been busy with Kodansha in Gokokuji, Tokyo, to publish a food guidebook in May, 2009) Through it all, Kurashi has been my hibaki (fireplace), a spot of calm (mostly) where I could chat and write and think and present some of my other doubts and inspirations. And all of your comments have been very much appreciated.

Today, on December 31, I posted a small meditation on the ox, and a famous parable called Herding The Ox. Hope you enjoy it and take it to heart. Happy New Year!!

According to the ancient Chinese calender, that is popular all over Asia, 2009 is the year of the ox. This calm and trustworthy animal is a symbol of prosperity through fortitude and hard work. When even the Wall Street Journal follows the lead of Treehugger, and introduces frugal advice for How to Fix Your Life in 2009, it may be a good time to take a moment and heed the wisdom of the ages. Herding the ox:

Herding the ox is a parable for students of Zen Buddhism. The story draws a parallel between the individual path to enlightenment and the story of the herder and his missing ox. There are 10 stages in the parable, beginning with the search for the ox.

Common titles of the pictures in English, and common themes of the prose, include:

1. In Search of the Bull (aimless searching, only the sound of cicadas)
2. Discovery of the Footprints (a path to follow)
3. Perceiving the Bull (but only its rear, not its head)
4. Catching the Bull (a great struggle, the bull repeatedly escapes, discipline required)
5. Taming the Bull (less straying, less discipline, bull becomes gentle and obeyant)
6. Riding the Bull Home (great joy)
7. The Bull Transcended (once home, the bull is forgotten, discipline's whip is idle; stillness)
8. Both Bull and Self Transcended (all forgotten and empty)
9. Reaching the Source (unconcerned with or without; the sound of cicadas)
10. Return to Society (crowded marketplace; spreading enlightenment by mingling with humankind)

But the story also seems to fit with our age, and how we deal with having to live with less, enjoying nature more, and generally trying to find values and ideas that can shape the future. Of course we hope that legislators and bankers will figure out how to fix the global financial system, so we can continue working towards sustainable energy and food solutions. If they can't herd in the Wall Street bull, we will quickly have to find local solutions that work better...

New, Green Economy, Or "Debilitating Ripple Effects"

Yomiuri Online/AP: Japan auto sales plunge as young lose interest

You learn something new every day. Apparently, Japan's car industry is now talking about kuruma banare, or "demotorization" as many young Japanese no longer think owning a car is worth the trouble.

"Young people's interest is shifting from cars to communication tools like personal computers, mobile phones and services," said Yoichiro Ichimaru, who oversees domestic sales at Toyota.

The Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association predicts auto sales in Japan will fall to 4.86 million in 2009 - the first time below 5 million in more than three decades. This year [2008], sales are projected at 5.11 million, the worst since 1980.

What this will mean for the economy is anyone's guess: "Manufacturing makes up a fifth of Japan's economy in gross domestic product. But it makes up 90 percent of its exports, and any faltering in that sector would send debilitating ripple effects throughout Japan. And that's likely to further depress auto sales in Japan."

Read the article for an interesting take on the consciousness-shift that is happening in Japan. What the journalist is not asking is if the automobile industry can survive. What will the collapse of auto manufacturing mean for the new, green economy - will the "ripple effects" punish efforts to reduce CO2 emissions and oil consumption as the global recession gets worse? Or will this mark the beginning of a new way of thinking - will we learn how to live without cheap fuel and mass consumption of imported goods, and with less pollution and environmental devastation?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Downtown Train, Hold On

Tom Waits: Downtown Train. A video from 1985 for all of us who ride the trains into Tokyo on occasion. No car? Welcome to the future. The days of SUVs and zero percent financing and huge Hummers are over. So over. "They try so hard to break out of their little worlds."

And here is Hold On, beautiful video, beautiful song. And here is some fun trivia from Wikipedia:

Waits has steadfastly refused to allow the use of his songs in commercials and has joked about other artists who do. ("If Michael Jackson wants to work for Pepsi, why doesn't he just get himself a suit and an office in their headquarters and be done with it?") He has filed several lawsuits against advertisers who used his material without permission. He has been quoted as saying, "Apparently, the highest compliment our culture grants artists nowadays is to be in an ad — ideally, naked and purring on the hood of a new car," he said in a statement, referring to the Mercury Cougar. "I have adamantly and repeatedly refused this dubious honor."

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Frugal, Happy Holiday

In spite of what they tell you, here is my advice: have a slow, quiet holiday. Don't spend, don't use your credit card, don't waste your precious time.

Read a good book, listen to an old favourite record. Write a letter using pen and paper. Make your own food from scratch, using organic ingredients from farmers you personally know & trust.

Clean the house and think about the amazing year that has just passed. Compare your blessings to those of your ancestors a hundred years ago, and a thousand. And more.

Go out and look at the stars, and try to name the constellations above you. Feel the silence.

(Image from Boing Boing: Fortean artist/prankster Jeffrey Vallance created a Santa Claus Family Tree tracing the genealogy of "wild people." Climb the curious branches over at Cryptomundo. Santa's Family Tree)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

December Food Ranking

Here is what I want to eat on a cold December evening. Let me know if you have anything better to offer.

1) Tendon: On top of the steaming rice, I get the tempura of my choice... Maybe some pumpkin?
2) Mochi: You beat the living daylights out of the poor rice grains, pound away all you like, and all you get it a very stiff and mushy - and square - kind of cake. Then you heat that in the oven: enjoy with nori and soy sauce: wow. Nothing tastes better.
3) Irori: I'm all yours. This is the way to cook, Edo style, and I still haven't found what I'm looking for. Do invite me!
4) Miso soup: At the local kaiten sushi, if I order a steaming hot miso soup, the staff treats me different. It is like they know, that I know, how cold it can get in late December.
5) Mushrooms: Use them for pasta, on your pizza, or just fry them. In Sweden, and here in Japan, people do go out and harvest all kinds of mushrooms in the forest, and they tend to know the names of even the most obsqure varieties. Make sure you avoid the poisonous ones ;)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

"I Have A Love Hate Relationship With Technology"

How I feel about computers, exactly. Eddie Izzard. I must be getting nostalgic about the 1990s (writing in hand).

And since that had very little to do with Japan, I'll add How to choose a martial art as a bonus. Or maybe Baby J and Christmas (sorry, a little early)?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Eco-Products 2008: Asking Difficult Questions About Electric Cars

I loved Eco-Products 2008 at Tokyo Big Sight. There was a lot to see, and a record number of visitors this year. Over 173,000 people compared to 164,000 in 2007. Clearly a trend!

Over at Treehugger, I singled out Subaru's electric car, because of the "System Thinking" - a focus not only on the vehicle, but on where the electricity will be coming from. Subaru also showcased its 80/2.0 wind mills to power the products they plan to profit from.

Great electric cars are indeed available today. The question is how people and nations will change the infrastructure to power them.

If you are a Pokemon fan, you may have seen the early 1960s Subaru 360 convertible, a fun car that never made it very big in the US, after Consumer Reports called it unsafe. For the R1e and Stella electric cars, Subaru cites the 360 as an influence. I like that sense of humour, and the reminder that this is a company with small, strong roots. They think the all-electric vehicle could be available to consumers in Japan as early as 2009...

More about Subaru and wind power on Treehugger:
Photos of Subaru R1e Electric Car in New York City
Subaru Joins Electric Car Race with R1e
Better Place Coming To Japan
Wind Helps Power Our Flagging Economy
Wind Power Beats Nuclear & Clean Coal, Other Renewables As US’s Best Energy Option

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Japan's Economy Needs A Green Revolution

How will Japan get out of the current economic crisis? The recession? The strong yen means exports are down, and major companies are announcing big cuts and layoffs. The car industry reports 30-40% lower sales. Oh, well, what's new.

SO THE GOOD NEWS is that Japan is quietly becoming a more sustainable, ecological country again. I talk to a lot of people who are fond of traditions, and wish for some recognition of the way Japan used to be. Where is the neogambaru? Some would say the Edo era is the model, and others claim that slow life or a u-turn, moving back to the countryside, is the solution. In terms of technology, Japan is still number one, with four Nobel prize winners this year, and the most patent applications of any nation. Japan is indeed a fun place to be if you are a thinker, innovator, designer, or environmental activist. And there is a lot to do!

If only the politicians had a green vision: they could announce a major national reform to deal with Japan's energy dependency, focus on supporting renewable energy like solar and wind power, say clearly that Japan should reduce its reliance on Middle East oil, reduce CO2 emissions, and announce a huge shift for the economy - from heavy manufacturing to services.

Japan already has the world's best internet, with broadband almost everyhere. Iceland and Korea are doing pretty good too, and Japan could announce programs to hook up with other like-minded countries and really start a revolution where the internet-based economy takes off. You would need something like pay-pal to work all over Asia, globally, finally, but much better. You would need banking that didn't charge an arm and a leg when you tried to transfer money from Japan. (A few years ago I tried to wire money from a Japanese post office to Korea, and was told it was impossible: I had to use a bank instead. Wow. Welcome to the 20th century!)

A green revolution in Japan would mean a focus on rural development, on farm stays and forest tourism, on mountain climbing, hiking and skiing (remember all the Australians skiing in Hokkaido? Well done!) and on scuba diving in Okinawa. You would learn survival skills, involving rice farming, making tofu and miso, and how to brew your own sake. This is a country with 60% forests and mountains - where are the tours to the hinterland? Where are the temple stay programs? The ecolodges?

The JR Railpass is great for foreign visitors, but those of us who live and work here cannot get it. Where is the logic in that? And where is the train link to the Asian continent, and the bullet trains to Europe replacing the 100 year old Siberian Railroad? How about the 120 million Japanese people, who would love to get a discount and go on a Shinkansen trip - how often does that happen? Where are the buses? Wait, you want everyone to go on a vacation after they retire??

Support insulation for Japanese homes, make sure home owners get financing for making their homes earthquake proof. Schools should be rebuilt. Start funding organic, sustainable, environmentally-friendly farming instead of the massive pesticide- and fertilizer-based production support, that WTO rules are killing anyway.

You wonder why the birthrate is low? Invest in healthcare and kindergartens and daycare centers, and support local efforts to create bicycle lanes, bus lanes, pavements and sidewalks, and close off streets in city centers from cars (Car sharing? Never heard of it in Japan).

Make Japan safe and friendly for young mothers, and the kids will start coming. Japan doesn't need 100 taxis to idle in front of every train station. Small hybrid buses or electric trams could do the job just as well. A green revolution could make Japan great again. Imagine the pride and joy. Imagine...

Monday, December 08, 2008

Japanese Cut Flowers Getting Milieu Programma Sierteelt Certification

Over at Treehugger, I note that Japanese cut flowers are moving in the right direction: they are adopting the Dutch standard called Milieu Programma Sierteelt, the environmental horticulture certification program that originated in Holland in 1995. In this system, participating growers record and report data on pesticide, fertilizer and energy consumption and waste management.

If you want to give a rose to someone you love, make sure it is coming from growers that care about our precious planet. If you do not ask, how will the flower shops begin to make the change?

As I wrote this blog entry, and tried to find a nice photo, I discovered that Dutch traders have appreciated Japanese roses for a very long time:

In 1696 Plunkenet added R. multiflora (the Polyantha or Japanese Rose) as the Dutch were bringing home varieties of precious East Asian flowers to Europe.

: In the United States, VeriFlora is the label to look for if you are interested in buying cut flowers from growers that use less chemicals. Try the Whole Foods Market, they also have organically grown cut flowers, something I haven't yet seen in Japan.

Friday, December 05, 2008


Japanese Eco-friendly Ideas and Goods, one of my favourite blogs ("Hand made dictionary of Japanese sustainable customs, culture, products and business ideas") introduces issue 4 of the unique Eco+Waza magazine.

Cover Interview
No More Picking Up Trash? Start Reducing
An Interview with Ken Noguchi

A Hint for Sustainability from Awaji Island

Virtual Showroom
1. Biodegradable Detergent
2. Near-infrared Sensor for CCA Contained Lumber
3. Mineral Ion for Water Sterilization and Algal Removal
4. Edo Sensu
5. A Breathing Wall
6. Wall Material Made of Recycled Milk Carton
7. Charcoal Crepe Paper
8. Curtain Hook

To subscribe to the magazine, send an email to subscribe (at) with your name and address.

Let's Enjoy Tokyo Guide Recommends Organic Restaurants

Surprise, surprise! オーガニック料理 Ooganikku ryouri (Organic food) has been introduced as one of the key search terms for Let's Enjoy Tokyo, a popular website for shopping, dining and fun.

They also show ads for certified organic Osechi, the traditional new year's food, but that's way too expensive for me.

Often, I think local food makes a lot more sense here in Japan, and I like the Harajuku Batake in Kita-Sando, where they specialize in foods from areas of Japan that are maintaining and promoting a rural, agriculture-based economy, with many small farms. A lot of their stuff comes from Kumamoto prefecture in southern Japan, where Aso Design Center does a terrific job at luring green visitors. Check out the Aso online broschure (pdf)!

The special online Aso-TV channel has streaming videos with a focus on eco-tourism, farm stays and local restaurants. They recommend that you take the train, and then get a bicycle, because "You won't notice it if you drive past in a car."

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Joseph Mirachi: Fuel Efficiency

Automakers have come a long way to their bailout-begging today since the days when Consumers Union published this (very funny) cartoon. I scanned it from an old issue of Consumer Reports, the April 1963 "Facts You Need Before You Buy" issue with a brown cover and red/black letters. A treasure from a bygone era! This was the auto buying guide for 1963, "including ratings of all makes, 6-year repair records, service notes, checks on safety details, etc., etc." And there isn't a single foreign car listed. Not even one.

Joseph Mirachi did over 500 cartoons for publications like the New Yorker and Playboy. He passed away in 1991.

Update: A post I did on the US bailout did not seem relevant to Kurashi, but you'll be the judge. Today (Friday) we hear them lie about the need to support the car industry. Here is what I posted:

We read that the three big automakers are in Washington trying to get elected congressmen and -women to bail them out, or else. Taxpayers will not get to know the details of the agreement, that is going to be kept secret. I truly couldn't care less about the state of the state of the SUV-making, energy-wasting bastards. Hope they sink into the garbage pile of history just like the sweatshop factories of the 19th Century. Politicians should allocate money to better education for the children of the future, who need new skills to save this precious planet and avoid useless wars for oil and other (scarce) resources.

I'm reminded of a U2 song I like a lot, from 1991, called Acrobat.

And I must be an acrobat
To talk like this
And act like that
And you can dream
So dream out loud
And you can find
Your own way out
You can build
And I can will
And you can call
I can't wait until
You can stash
And you can seize
In dreams begin
And I can love
And I can love
And I know that the tide is turning 'round
So don't let the bastards grind you down

Monday, December 01, 2008

Japan Car in London

London's Science Museum, Design Platform Japan and a host of others are presenting a rather different take on the cultural aspects of state-of-the-art automobiles, including kei cars, in a clever exhibition that started on November 29, 2008.

Japan Car - Designs for the Crowded Globe is an exploration of the car as a "mobile cell" - conceived by two world class designers: Kenya Hara, the man responsible for much of the success of Muji, the Nagano Olympics opening ceremony, and Shigeru Ban, the architect currently designing a new satellite gallery for Paris’ Pompidou Centre, who did the recycled cardboard paper tubes used to quickly and efficiently house disaster victims, having helped earthquake victims in Kobe in 1995...

This is all very timely. The car industry is going through a major shift. Volvo and Saab may have to be nationalized, and who knows if the big three automakers in the Unites States will surivive.


Reuters has also covered the way the US car makers begged for tax payer dollars:

…Automakers pledged during their testimony to spend bailout money on operations and invest in new fuel efficiency technology - like better-performing gasoline engines, hybrids, and new electric cars.

What went wrong? At the Science Museum in London, you can explore:

* Size - small yet sophisticated vehicles and special kei cars, which are both compact and technologically advanced
* Environment – climate-conscious hybrids intended to reduce carbon and other emissions
* Moving urban cells – the future of transport as integrated systems rather than individual vehicles

Alongside Japanese bonsai, art and design, Japan Car is displaying 14 unusual cars from the past decade and conceptual models, including the Nissan PIVO2 and Toyota i-REAL.

View London

"I Have Seen Things" - Japan Car At London's Science Museum

(From Blade Runner, music by Vangelis)