Dreaming Big in Japan

Sunday, September 4, 2011

We're off to see Dream Seed Farms

Where it's compost and wood chippers and tool sheds...

...oh my!

Hidenka Reizouko

非電化 冷蔵庫

What do those six kanji above and the six materials below have in common?

Driftwood, insulation and recycled water bottles

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Guess What

RXVTe1 on Make A Gif, Animated Gifs
We have a zip liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiine!!!

Just behind the old elementary school that was converted to the island's hospital there lies an abandoned playground...


The Source

Late last week we received word that our water supply might run out. It seemed that the underwater pipeline from Ayukawa on the mainland might give at anytime, and our lifeline was further compromised by a looming hurricane. We stockpiled as much water as we could in the bathtub, thermoses and old fish tanks. 

Almost a week and half ago we were warned that a hurricane was heading our way. Either it was the slowest moving hurricane I have ever seen or the monitoring systems have gotten much better at detecting and projecting their paths much earlier. It ended up sweeping inland south of Tokyo and is currently meandering towards the Sea of Japan, so we were spared the brunt of it. 

We have had much less rain and wind than during previous hurricanes this season, but the sea has been choppy with five to six meter swells I watched from the port down the road. The twice-daily ferry was canceled last Thursday (grocery delivery day!) and has been docked in Ishinomaki since then. We have eaten everything from our grocery delivery two weeks ago, but thankfully we have some dry goods and a few choice veggies from our garden. It won't be gourmet, but we can definitely survive for a while. The best news, however, is that the island's water supply seems to be safe.

Our friends snapped this picture from their side of the island. The grey water pipe that winds out of that concrete service box used to be buried two meters underground. Ayukawa, a small village within Ishinomaki City lies to the north in the background.

The Source of the Source

After March's earthquake and tsunami, Ajishima sunk a full meter into the sea. This brought the water line inland quite a ways in the low lying areas. The past six month's worth of waves lapping at the newly inundated shore have washed away the protective layer of earth over the water line. I imagine they will be able to get it under protective covering before to long.

This will be made much easier given that work crews have recently cobbled together a higher portion of dock on the main wharf.

The new approach atop the old sunken dock (pic: our friends, again!)

From the other side

Basically just a concrete box with rock and sand infill

Yup! The seagulls where here...

Before the hurricane du jour we even had road crews from Ishinomaki surveying the damage to the one road that runs down the center of the island. Things will eventually get back to a comfortable place for everyone here. In the meantime, what an adventure it is getting from here to there!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Out of the Loop


2Dk6wL on Make A Gif, Animated Gifs
How are things?

So, last month, after I summoned all the motivation I could muster and finally convinced myself to start writing about stuff again, my computer crashed. I had to send it off to get fixed. Since I got it back I have just been tickled pink, or maybe a fuzzy shade of lime green.

Anyway, expect more to come, as long as all the doodads and whachamajiggers inside this little plastic box cooperate with the program...

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Breathtaking Views of Ajishima

So...it's been about a month since my last post. We have been busy, but I have been lazy too. Plus, our internet connection is intermittent at best. I can promise that I have a lot to write about, but I cannot promise that I will get around to writing about any of it!

We found the following pictures in the waiting area shelter at the docks in Ishinomaki City. They are of the main harbor and docks on Ajishima at various times throughout the tsunami back in March. They were taken by a one Mr. Shiraiwa, printed, laminated and hung in the shelter. We took pictures of his pictures and share them with you now:

The entire harbor empties, feeding the tsunami as it hurls itself towards the mainland

The water returns; this is when most of the damage was done

A few days later all looks calm but everything has changed

These scenes are awful in every sense of the word. It must be about twenty feet from the dock landing to the bottom of the seabed. For all that water to be sucked out in an instant and vanish for who-knows-how-long must have been an incredible site to behold. The rushing water returned after laying waste to Ishinomaki, washed ashore and wiped out many houses in the low-lying areas of the island. 

The last picture doesn't hint to any of damage done, but just outside the frame, it looked like a war zone. It still does! With the exception of the debris that washed up on the beach having been collected and burned, nothing else has been cleaned up yet. While this entire region of the country is still reeling from the disaster, and while resources are spread thin, the main reason so little has happened over the past five months is that the whole island sank over a meter into the ocean! 

The tsunami undermined the very structure of the docks and washed away most of the substrate under the concrete pads, causing the main landing to collapse and sink into the harbor. Thankfully, a slightly higher but woefully narrow stretch of the dock survived, which is where the daily ferry docks and unloads its cargo (including all of our weekly grocery deliveries). The limiting factor to the island's recovery is that while the ferry can haul all the necessary supplies and even vehicles and heavy machinery, the dock is too narrow for them to drive off the boat.

There were already a few steamshovels on the island, and they have been put to good use rebuilding one small section of the dock. However, we learned today that they ran out of rocks to fill in under the concrete slabs. They have built a meter-thick concrete retaining wall that will get back filled with more concrete to form a new, higher dock. It will be wide enough to offload everything we need. But we need more rocks that require a wider landing to unload but the landing cannot be finished until we have more rocks...

I am sure they will figure it out eventually. In the meantime, some folks keep cleaning up the beach as little bits of debris wash up. I tried to pitch in with the cleanup operations, but I was not allowed to. As part of the recovery package paid for by the government, members of the local fisherman's union who lost their boats and their livelihoods get about a hundred dollars a day for their efforts. As a non-member and non-fisheatingman all I can really do is glean the few choice bits of debris that I fancy when no one is looking. They will just burn it anyway if I don't!

One good stroke of luck came two weeks ago when the repair crews were able to reconnect the underwater power lines ahead of schedule. We were operating on gasoline-powered generators for months. Now we have heavily chlorinated drinking water on tap and all the (very likely nuclear) energy we can waste. Things are finally getting back to normal!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Seed Balls and The Lazy Man's Garden

Well, it is not really all that lazy, it did take some time and a dash of physical exertion to make a boatload of seed balls. Check out the process over at Dream Seed Farms...

Heckuva lot easier than pulling sukanpo roots!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Adventures in Raising an Earthbag House

Check out the earthbag house we started to help build at our Permaculture teachers' place in Nagano Prefecture. You can read more over at Dream Seed Farms...

Six days and more than half way to the roof...

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Week of Work, a Week of Rain

I used to pay lots of money to go really fast on the shinkansen (bullet train) when I traveled around Japan. For my last trip to Nagano, I left about a week ahead of Michie, who would follow in a nicely appointed rent-a-car. I took the BUS! Many, many buses to be precise.

I only travel by extraordinary means
And I only take extraordinary snapshots at extraordinary rest areas.

Yuu Hime, is that you?
No. It's me, Yamamoto Kansuke. Duh!
Once I overcame the inevitable roadblock that always pops up whenever I travel from Point A to Point B, the rest of my trip was pretty smooth: I rolled into Sendai around 7pm and had about 5 hours to wait for the night bus to Tokyo. I tried to check in at the bus counter but it had just closed minutes earlier. Usually, in Japan, you can pay for bus fare in cash on the bus, just before your stop. One of the employees was leaving the counter and locking up the front door, so I asked him if this was the correct bus stop, and he said yes, and then asked me if I had a 'reservation.' 'Great,' I lamented! 

I found a pay phone and called Michie at home and asked her to try to reserve a ticket online for me. She worked her magic, and when I called her back, she gave me with a confirmation number and very detailed instructions on how to redeem the number for an actual ticket at a nearby convenience store vending machine.

I walked around for a while but could not find the right store. So, I went into a totally different store, that had a totally different ticket vending machine with totally different Japanese characters on it. I just started pushing buttons, not even knowing if I would end up with a bus ticket or an ice cold can of pop, which would have been welcomed too as it was rather warm out that evening. I recognized the two Kanji for 'number' and typed in the reservation number. Then I recognized the 'telephone number' prompt, and thought that Michie must have used our cell phone to get the ticket, entered those digits, and hit enter. Lo and behold, an image of the ticket popped on the screen and it had all the right info, as far as I could tell, and read from Sendai to Shinjuku Station in Tokyo and at the right time, etc. I even recognized the Kanji for 'passenger = man,' and knew that had to be me! I confirmed the whole thing and tried to print the ticket, but the machine could not accept cash at that moment. It printed a really long receipt and directed me to the cashier at the front of the convenience store.

I handed the receipt to the cashier, and said 'please' with a great big smile. She must have been new, and if I had bothered reading (as if I could) the sign in front of her I would have pieced it together, so she had to ask for help from the manager. They were both super nice and asked me to wait while this old dot matrix printer churned out a four page bus ticket. With ticket in hand, I called Michie back, recalled my adventure, thanked her profusely, grabbed some rice balls and some beers, sat in the park and watched a movie on my computer until my midnight departure... 

I got to Shinjuku around 5:30am, and it was a bit eerie with almost no one about. When I used to have "business trips" to Tokyo, I wouldn't even leave the karaoke bars until later than that. Maybe that's where everyone was! Even the coffee shops were closed...

This would have been quite apropos...three years ago!
I was meeting a friend to travel the rest of the way with in a few hours. In the meantime, I lurked about the neighborhood, bought some rations at a convenience store and found a small park plagued by lots of crap on the ground.  There I ate my tofu which had cost 129 yen.

Uncanny, although no bread was toasted in the fabrication of this side story
From there it was another bus, with our tickets this time on my friend's cell phone...the wonders of technology. And, a few hours carpooling the rest of the way to Nagano with another guy volunteering just like us.

I was volunteering my expertise in lifting heavy objects in exchange for learning how to build an earthbag house. All told there were over 25 volunteers at the Permaculture center throughout the week. You can read more about it over at Dream Seed Farms. Then, Michie came for our regularly scheduled PC class. Once the weekend came, the volunteers left, and we 20 or so PC students got a couple hours of work in on the house which brought us to this point:

Six days, twelve courses, and a few sore muscles later

So, that was last week. This week it rained. All week. Every day.

Back in our garden, during a brief respite from the rain, Michie and I worked on clearing the rest of the weeds from her mandala. Thankfully the rain refreshed all of our crops and also softened the soil enough for me to pull out meter upon meter of intact sukanpo root.

6ft or 2m? Who cares! It's on the burn pile now!
We did get a little break from the soggy weather, well more of a break from cooking and doing the dishes at home: The Japanese throw official parties for just about any occasion, which I totally support and condone. Thankfully, Michie had her welcome party for the hospital this week. It was held at our friends' guest house, and there were speeches, music, singing, raffles and eating galore.

And tasty adult beverages too
After the back breaking work at the earthbag workshop, I was totally raring to go on a laundry list of projects around our home and garden. The rainy season is upon us, though, and will last about a month if not longer. The trade off is fabulous produce from the garden later in the year, cool days now for stifling humidity later, pest free living for swarms of mosquitoes, and lots of time to refine ideas in our minds for projects we can implement once the sun shines again...And it will shine again...

Sunday, June 12, 2011

What's Happening Now

We have been busy and not so busy over at Dream Seed Farms. Click here to see what we have been up to...

I also got my first freelance gig working with our friends on the other side of the island. One of their neighbors, a nice little old lady, had her roof crumble during the earthquake 3 months ago. Someone must have replaced it with a new sheet metal roof, and tossed the broken roofing tiles to the side. Our job was to pick it all up and haul it off to the junk yard (our home improvement center!) in the middle of the island. 

Cement roofing tiles, nails and lot's of sun

We worked for just under three hours with most of that time spent driving to and from the junk yard. It took us 6 loads in the toy pick-up truck.  Actually, we only had two shovels, so my friends used them, and I scooped of the fragments with my hands! Thankfully we had the baskets, or there would have been a load more shoveling all around.

I was rewarded handsomely, and had lunch with them too. Our friend's mother-in-law dug up about half her garden and gave me all kinds of veggies and herbs to transplant to our garden. I also scored an old aquarium from my friend. I plan to disassemble all the glass panes and use them in various things like a solar oven, solar dehydrator, and maybe even a cold frame for starting veggie seedlings and/or extending the growing season. Stay tuned for those adventures...

In the meantime I am heading to Nagano Prefecture later today to volunteer at the Permaculture center where we are studying. Michie will be joining us later in the week. They are building an earthbag house, and will hold a work camp all this week on laying the foundation and building the first courses of the stem wall.

Absolutely awesome design, incorporating my spiral wall and others' ideas too

I plan to write a bit more about the house design later on, but the coolest thing is that it was designed by all 20+ participants, the teachers and the carpenter, all in concert with each other. We were in sub-teams and presented our ideas (my group settled on the spiral concept, and I built a miniature model). The various sub-teams presented their ideas at the beginning of the weekend seminar and before we left, we were presented with a unique design that incorporated all of our various ideas.

The living roof with herb spiral idea they synthesized is exceptionally brilliant. They even included my ideas for a spiral shaped wall and a rocket-stove-heated-cob-bench inside. I am excited to start working on it tomorrow! Hopefully, I can learn a ton, and apply it later to our own home...when we finally get to building it. At least up until the roof, the design is practically identical to mine, so this will be a good blueprint and practical experience in building a structure just like one in which we will, in all likelihood, wind up living.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Road Trips, Gardens & Hurricanes

We came back from our Permaculture class in Nagano Prefecture earlier last week. The drive was much better this time, 8.5 hours driving time one way (not counting naps or pit stops) instead of 19!

We were totally stoked for this road trip!
Well...at least one of us was! Cool rest area nevertheless.
After our first trip in April we learned that the toll-highways we had been avoiding are only 1000 Yen (about US$10) per direction on the weekends. So we waited until midnight Friday night and hopped on the highway and drove as far as we could until we fell asleep, after stopping at a rest area of course. We finished the trip the next morning and made it to the workshop just in time. As long as you do not exit the highway you could ostensibly drive the entire length of Japan for 1000 Yen over the weekend. If you did it any other day, it would cost hundreds if not over a thousand dollars to do so. Outrageous, like so so many things in this country...

The cool thing, though, is that as long as you start driving before Sunday midnight, you can drive into Monday morning and still only pay another 1000 Yen when you leave the toll booth. So, we rented a huge one ton six wheeling diesel cargo van. It had ample room to stretch out in when we slept, plus we were able to drive a extra few hours to Michie's mom's house to pick up almost all of our remaining belongings to bring back to the island with us.

Once we got back to the island, everyone was talking about the hurricane that was coming our way... 

See that yellow spot to the right of Japan? You cannot miss it!

The hurricane, or typhoon, season has started, and what an opening day it was. Actually, it did most of its business south of Tokyo. Up where we are near Sendai, we had rain practically all week, with the last three days in particular raining continuously, amid some of the strongest winds I have ever experienced personally. The wind was looping up around the whole country and blowing down on us from the north, even though the typhoon was coming from the south. That is how massively expansive this thing was.
I made it outside, on the worst day, of course, and was jostled about by the wind. I went to the coast about a two-three minutes walk from our house, nestled into a nice windbreak in a small grove of bamboo and watched the waves pound the shore.

Cresting at about 3 meters during a calm spell...
After getting thoroughly drenched from all sides and angles, I squished my way over to our garden to see how all our little seedlings were doing, with my fingers crossed that our compost bin was still there. The four nails and four screws holding the roof on put forth a herculean effort, and it survived, at least up until I saw it yesterday...

The path to our garden looks like a bubbling brook.

Bend, don't break.
Everything was having a hard go at staying upright. Our neighbors' gardens were totally flattened, but ours fared a little better despite being buffeted about by the wind, due in largest part to the fact that we built raised beds and mulched them over with cut weeds and left substantial swaths of weeds standing as a boarder and natural windbreak instead of clear cutting everything.

This has been quite a year already, here and around the world, and we are not even half way through it yet. I guess the reassuring thing is that no matter what happens, life finds a way to persevere. Life in some form or other goes on, even if it is not exactly the way it was before.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Permaculture Galore!

Great news from the little island that could...water service was restored a couple days ago. This means more showers, though any amount is greater than zero! I still find myself heading to the well to draw up water, but then remember I can just flush the toilet and get this, it refills itself...who would have thought!? One great thing from this experience is that it has shown us the necessity of a rainwater harvesting and greywater system. It has also really reinforced the idea for us that reducing consumption is the best way to live within one's means. This applies to water, energy, food, entertainment, etc, and is suitable for individuals, families, communities, countries and beyond.

Click on the headers or pictures below to see what else we have been up to at Dream Seed Farms...

We are heading to the mainland for our next Permaculture class later today. We haven't even finished our homework yet, though we have no excuse, a month is ample time to do one assignment, I am sure!

More to come when we get back, hopefully with new ideas for the garden...

Sunday, May 15, 2011

11 Days in 11 Pictures

We have been on the island for about a week and a half now. So much has happened but today was the first real chance for us to take stock of it all.

The island still has no running water. We have received relief supplies of 10 liters washing water and 5 liters drinking water twice. We scavenged buckets and pails from the beach to catch rain water and have been using that for washing and gardening. There is a well behind our house with fairly murky water that we haul up daily to flush the toilet (I see the benefits more and more of using a composting toilet instead!), and there is a much cleaner well near one of the ports that our neighbor draws water from with an electric pump. He delivers that water around the neighborhood and even to the hospital for bathing. We have received two bath-fulls which ended up as laundry water and finally going down the toilet.

We have electricity from a generator truck a few hours in the morning and then again at night. It just went black here a few minutes ago. Thankfully, there is a cellphone signal roughly a half hour after the power goes out, so hopefully this gets posted!

We heard the news this weekend that the water line from the mainland should be fixed in a couple days. Plus, they will increase the hours we get power so it lasts all day from 6 am to 9 pm. We do not have a fridge, and we basically turn in when the lights turn off, so the lack of electricity is not so hard to deal with. I will be much happier and much less stinky, though, once the water starts flowing. We have only had to get by this way for a few days, but the islanders have been in survival mode for two whole months, so we are so happy to see them getting the tools they need to get their lives back in order.

Anyway...on to the pictures...

Moving Day 2.0: The Last Load for a While
Meet the Neighbors and Get a Pile of Veggies!
Shopping at the Lumber Yard
The Pathway to Our First Ever Garden
We Were All Ready to Start Farming, but then...
...Our Friends Took Us Wild Veggie Picking!
Wild Orchids + Bamboo Shoots + Fiddlehead Ferns = Dinner!
Finally, the Next Day We Got Down to Farming...
...and I Met My Arch Nemesis: SUKANPO ROOT!!!
My Motto: Work Smarter NOT Harder!
Relaxing on a Bench I made from Drift Wood

There will most certainly be more coming from Ajishima, time, electricity and sukanpo roots permitting!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Almost There!

Only one month behind schedule...

Michie and I finally moved the first load of stuff to Ajishima yesterday. We had planned to go earlier last week, but there was a severe thunderstorm and none of our boxes would have survived the hour-long ferry ride in those conditions, if it even sailed at all. Thankfully, our patience was blessed with a bright sunny day and only slightly choppy waves! By the time we got on the return ferry, it was raining, so we lucked out there as well.
Ishinomaki City in the Background
Half of Our Worldly Belongings under One Tarp
Ajishima in the Distance
Once we arrived at the island, our friends were waiting for us and helped us load our stuff into several of their vehicles. We drove across the island to the other side (about 2 miles!) and unloaded everything into our new house:
Not Bad for a Rental!

Seven Tatami Rooms, Kitchen,  2 Half Baths & Sun Porch
Well, it's not really a porch, but there is a an outer hallway that wraps around the inner rooms separating them from the outside. The row of sliding glass doors in the picture of the house above conceals the hall way and leads to the toilet at the far end. The bathtub (kerosene heated) is off the kitchen, and both are floored with linoleum. The rest of the rooms are laid out in tatami mats (woven rice straw) and the hallway floor is hard wood.

With seven rooms, I think we will sleep in a different one everyday. And the quasi sun porch will make a great place to start seeds before we take them out to the garden leased to us by our friends on the island for a few vegetables' recompense.

The island is still without water service as the pipes washed away in the tsunami. Ishinomaki city sends a tanker truck twice a week with drinking water. There is a diesel generator truck parked in the middle of the island jerry-rigged to the power lines that provides a few hours of electricity in the morning and then again at night. We have one of the few flush toilets on the island, and just so happen to have a small water well behind the house. We will have to draw up a bucket and carry it inside and fill the tank for every flush, but it is doable. I still might do a composting toilet down the road.

I would rather be without electricity than without water, but I am certainly happy we have some conveniences. We can still use the washing machine with the morning's installment of electricity and a few buckets of rain water, though only until the rinse cycle since there is no more water or way to pump it in further. Then in the kitchen we have a propane stove standard in most Japanese homes, so cooking should not be a problem.

We are thinking of a couple designs for a non-electric fridge and even an outdoor rocket stove for boiling rainwater for drinking and cooking. All along the beaches mountains of debris have floated up with each successive tide. There are heaps of wood and other building materials to build just about anything we could want...even a whole house! Now, only if we had our own land...That will surely come down the road...

For now, Michie and I are so happy to finally take the next steps in moving to the island. Her mom will probably take us to the port so we can sail to the island later this week. After that we are on our own! We will have to leave some stuff at her mom's house for a while, but I will be back for the rice harvest in the autumn (since I won't actually be there to help her family with the rice planting in a couple weeks...bummer).

After all that has happened, what's a couple more days' wait, right!?!