The Patient Nature of the Japanese, the Patience of Japanese Nature

Although I’m no expert on travelling, I can imagine there are varying difficulties from place to place when it comes to making and keeping friends. I thought about this while I walked along a forest path flanked by woodland mounds of purple and green in Miharu, Fukushima.

A woodland slant filled with Erythronium.

A woodland slant filled with Erythronium.

Controversially regarded as a vulnerable species, Erythronium japonicum – katakuri in Japanese, generically known as trout lily in English – can take some years before it blooms and seeds. It’s also fairly needy, preferring slightly acid and well-drained soil and precisely the dappling light I felt that day in “Three Springs” (Miharu was gorgeously and aptly named for the three major trees that pop up sequentially in Springtime: plum, peach, and cherry).

An ume, or plum, blossom in Miharu.

An ume, or plum, blossom in Miharu.

When it comes to years of cultivating, however, the monolithic mother of cherry trees, Takizakura, or waterfall tree, deservedly takes the cake. She’s over 1,000 years old and attracts hundreds of thousands of nature-lovers each year.

Takizakura, mother cherry tree of Miharu.

Takizakura, mother cherry tree of Miharu.

While it’s unthinkable that the government and gardeners here would ignore such a threat, it concerned me – and my excellent guide and friend that day – that the cherry and plum trees lining the backroad to Mama-zakura are all infected with the same disease affecting those on Hanamiyama in Fukushima City. The same black rot that starts within and eats its way out.

A field of nanohana, or rapeseed, in Miharu. It's been studied for some years as a veritable bioaccumulator.

A field of nanohana, or rapeseed, in Miharu. It’s been studied for some years as a veritable bioaccumulator.

While everyone in the know about the quickly spreading disease here would love to see a cure-all rather than a cut-down-and-wait-and-see method offered by a plant pathologist expert, this is clearly something inevitable as well as something that will take some time to fix. Given the importance of cherry blossom viewing in Japan and the love of nature here, one can hope this fix will come before the disease sinks in too deep.


Another Whodunnit? Cherry Blossom Blight

Hanami, or cherry blossom viewing season, is nearly upon us. But already in full form is a nasty disease I encountered for the first time on Fukushima’s most famous cherry blossom viewing hill.

Hanamiyama BridgeHanamiyama Park, located a few minutes’ drive across the river from downtown Fukushima City, is a privately owned property, the owner of which planted a variety of cherry and plum blossoms, Mahonia japonica, and other local flora and graciously opened the park to visitors for free in 1959.

Although the majority of trees had not yet blossomed during my visit with some friends a week ago, a few, including the yellow-flowered Chimonanthus praecox and white-petaled plum, had bloomed in rows along the spiraling path we trekked.

Tree diseaseIt was the bare cherry blossom trees, however, that caught my attention; a black pitch, sometimes in globby clumps and most often in smooth, evenly spread patches, appeared on the bark. We walked along, and the tar-like substance became more prominent.

My Japanese friend asked one of the garrulous (rarely an opportunity to use this fantastic word!) caretakers setting up ladders for pruning if this plentiful black mold, as it were, was some equivalent of a Band-Aid or cosmetic cover-up for damaged trees. He motioned to the line of trees abutting the path we had walked down. “There’s nothing we can do” was the only Japanese I could make out, but it was clear that the dark marks were no bueno.

Fukushima City from HanamiyamaNo good, but no explanation, either. The caretakers said although they didn’t know what was causing the problem, it did start from within, decaying the branches fully from the phloem to the bark.

Possible culprits include pathogens such as Septobasidium (velvet blight) or, less convincingly, Leptographium.

Until the staff figures out the cause of the blight, it could spread to the hundreds of other gorgeous cherries and plums on the hill that gardeners have clearly tended so well since the park’s opening.

A Who Dunnit? Correction: Plants, Not Pesticides

A morning glory showing interesting effects NOT from heavy pesticide spraying

A morning glory showing interesting effects NOT from heavy pesticide spraying

A previous post including the photo above suggested in its caption that the abnormal spiraling effect of the morning glory glower was due to pesticide application.

Thanks to a generation of farmers far more schooled and knowledgeable on both pest and plant, a startling correction can be made, albeit stemming from information that’s been around for over two years now: the plant itself did it.

An aphid’s main mission is to locate the phloem, sugar conveyor belt of a plant as it were. It does this by puncturing the plant tissue with its sharp stylet. In response, the plant’s genome undergoes an amazingly speedy change, recent studies have largely attributed to Jasmonate (JA). Many plants release JA in response to such things as nasty aphids chewing on its leaves.

Up until now, such phenomena as the one quoted below, taken from Aphids As Crop Pests, have been studied in detail, including the amazing mechanism used by pitcher plants, which produce a waxy, “slippy” surface causing bugs to slip and slide right down into their acidic “guts.”

“[Aphids] prefer settling on the lower surface of the leaf… Plant morphology sets the conditions for these movements, and mechanical obstacles such as hairiness and the structure of the epicuticular wax may constitute mechanical problems for walking aphids.”

And, of course, plants’ mechanisms of toxic defense have been studied for years.

Never, though, have I seen the phenomenon I witnessed with my own morning glories, which exhibited the odd physiological characteristics they did some months ago. To reaffirm the aforementioned studies’ conclusions, said morning glories are faring better than ever, in full, normal bloom with deep-green leaves.

Unfortunately, as Aphids As Crop Pests goes on to say and as has been documented, aphids, too, can adapt quite quickly. Something that’ll be mentioned in a future post regarding sticky, black mold produced by aphids on vegetables here in Japan.

What’s very exciting about all of this, disgusting aphids aside, is two-fold. The first, hinted at by a study done by DNRF Center DynaMo, is the (already-under-current-discussion) possibilities of using plants’ amazing abilities to fight cancer.

The second is Paphiopedilum. Far from being a plant that preys upon our children, this is actually a species that, according to Physiology and Behaviour of Plants, has spotted translucent bottoms. “This speckling mimics a flower with an infestation of aphids. Certain species of flies which lay their eggs amongst aphids are attracted to the flowers and enter the pouches.” The technique ensures the orchid’s pollen is transferred to other orchids.

However, to recapitulate: although pesticides had no hand in the trippy, yet unusually beautiful appearance of my bay-window morning glory vine, I’m hoping the spiders I’ve employed as biocontrollers will do me the favor of ridding the apartment of these gnat bastards.

Snow Falling on Japanese Cedars — and Asthma

It is not until Japanese cedars are 30 years of age, that they release their greatest amount of pollen.

The quote above was taken from a study done in the 90s, which attempted to explain the rapid spread of seasonal allergies in relation especially to Cryptomeria japonica as well as pollution*. But for some, the real issues begin as the Japanese cedars and cypresses are dusted themselves with the first snows of winter.

Persimmon trees in a shrine courtyard

Persimmon trees in a shrine courtyard

The causes of winter asthma are myriad and complex. Past studies have pointed to chemicals known as endocrine disruptors (EDs), one of which – DEHP – has gotten some bad press for its possible association with asthma and wheezing, particularly in children.

Also on the ED hit list of health organizations such as the Breast Cancer Fund and Silent Spring Institute are alkylphenols, industrial chemicals found in plastics, detergents, and pesticides, to name a few.

Japanese cypress trees (sugi) standing before a shrine in Tamura

Japanese cypress trees (sugi) standing before a shrine in Tamura

According to a roundup of several studies done on incidences of asthma in Japan associated with these contaminants, alkylphenols and other EDs are fat soluble; when they reach the ocean, they are easily absorbed by fish, particularly salmon. The land bioaccumulators tend to be poultry. Whether in fish, chicken, or beef, the chemicals can begin doing their damage, whatever and however bad that might be.

A good place to start would be in pregnant women, who can be exposed daily to phthalates (used in plastics and including DEHP) in the air. It all sounds gloom and doom, and there are plenty of other harmful things being accumulated in Japan – be it by seaweed or abandoned cattle – but an interesting study caught my eye, assessing lifestyle behaviors associated with exposures to endocrine disrupting chemicals in a Mennonite population.

The study, far too small to provide concrete evidence, suggested that such contaminants could be avoided through “consuming mostly homegrown produce…[using] no cosmetics and limited use of personal care products, and…[using] transportation primarily by sources other than automobiles.”

The first piece of advice has been bolstered by other studies investigating the link between antioxidant-rich diets and reduced rates and degrees of asthma.

A morning glory showing interesting effects from heavy pesticide spraying

A morning glory showing interesting effects from heavy pesticide spraying

Not just fruits and vegetables were suggested for daily consumption, but whole fruits and vegetables.

That being said, some I’ve spoken to in Fukushima prefecture since my arrival have avoided local fruits and vegetables. In any case, wild vegetable foraging, a popular pastime as I’ve come to understand, has completely stopped.

With the worries over plants that have accumulated radiation in my prefecture and the widespread use of inorganic pesticides – paired with other rising issues such as that of poor cardiac health due to the popularity of Western fast food chains – a nice white blanket that appears fresh and clean might be a welcome change for a while.

Go here to see WebMD’s advice for those who suffer from winter asthma

*Much like the television forecasts for cherry blossom viewing season, pollen prediction maps and charts are broadcasted by some Japanese tv networks.

Plants, Death, Japan

IMG_2625I’ve been feeling overdramatically depressed recently, so, on my unseasonably warm day off, I ran 20 kilometers southeast to the Tamura District to either totally change my life by getting the ultimatest runner’s high or just fold my hand and die from exhaustion. I did end up in a cemetery, but not dead-like.

A cemetery in the Buda hills of Hungary

A cemetery in the Buda hills of Hungary

I think everyone has a bit of an obsession with cemeteries, rightly so, I think. Cemeteries are pristine and peaceful, well cared for and respected. I visited the most gorgeous cemeteries in Europe, including the staggeringly crowded dead cities of Paris and the seemingly never-ending cemeteries rising up in tiers on the numberless hills of Buda in Hungary.

But hells bells, the best of them are here in Japan, surpassing all others in both tranquility and beauty. As mentioned in one of my earlier posts going on about plant-this and plant-that, the plantlife chosen for Japanese gardens is very specific, and cemeteries are no different.

A mat of fallen Japanese maple leaves at Koriyama's Kaiseizan Park

A mat of fallen Japanese maple leaves at Koriyama’s Kaiseizan Park

A common denizen found throughout many of the cemeteries surrounding the small hamletshire of Koriyama is Lycoris radiate, otherwise known as the Red Spider Lily and, as it is in who-named-it-first taxonomy, a bazillion other names. It’s stark-red umbel, supported by a long stalk projecting abruptly from the earth, reaches up to the sky like a bloody hand of a demon determined to escape Hell.

According to the fantastic new book I’ve taken out from the Koriyama Library and am currently considering doing a cut-and-run from Japan just so I can keep it, spider lilies are actually planted to lead the dead to their appointed destination.

Cemetery offerings of Asahi beer and the favorite beverages of the deceased

Cemetery offerings of Asahi beer and the favorite beverages of the deceased

Most interesting, however, is that the book, Nature in Tokyo by Kevin Short, mentions the unusual nature of the spider lily in itself here in Japan, which is that the color red is not so common here. I quote:

“Red is thought to fall outside the color spectrum seen by most insects. Many red flowers are thus pollinated by birds, especially hummingbirds, which can see the red colors. Yet hummingbirds are not found in Japan, and red flowers might therefore have a hard time getting pollinated here.”

Other flowers such as the camellia, another common plant found in Japanese cemeteries, bloom quite late so as to stand out clearly against a white background of snow.

IMG_2618Among the other flora in cemeteries, I found Fatsia japonica, a name I weirdly fantasize being connected to a Buddha-like Fats Domino having a massive, eight-fingered hand and slapping the bejesus out of anyone who sneezes near a Shinto shrine. In fact, it’s really connected to a legendary creature known as the tengu, birdlike yokai (supernatural beings) who used Fatsia’s huge leaves to fly about the forest.

Towering above the ubiquitous fringing hydrangeas and pond-side ferns are three titans of Japanese scenery and legend: Cryptomeria, Acer palmatum, and Bamboo.

IMG_2627Bamboo I’ll cover later, but Cryptomeria, weirdly called Japanese Cedar despite being in the cypress family, really captivated my attention during my first few months here. It’s very present around shrines and in cemeteries, often the tree chosen to represent a dwelling for spirits and seen with a rope tied around its trunk.

Acer palmatum, the Japanese maple, is a tree I’ve known since I became familiar with the Tale of Genji when I was a teenager. I saw it referenced in so many works of Japanese art, and now that I’m here in Japan, I understand that – much as it is with fall foliage viewing in Pennsylvania – going for a drive out of town to see the changing of the maples is on par with waiting for the cherry blossoms to fall in Spring.



The Cryptomeria trees will persist throughout the winter as will the dark green leaves and red berries of the American Wintergreen that spread over the ground below them. Now that I’ve found a tentative reason to stay in Japan, I wonder how I’ll hold up through the cold season.

A Common Problem: Slappin’ Butts From Your Face

Having been in New York and Hungary the past few years, I got quite used to the prevalence of non-smoking restaurants and cafés. In fact, during my first week, I nearly knocked the cigarette from my coworker’s mouth when he began to light up at the counter of an izakaya in downtown Koriyama.

Yet, although many places in my city and Tokyo allow smoking indoors – or at least have “designated” sections for smoking – the sidewalk is a different matter entirely. Painted on many of the more high-traffic pedestrian ways throughout the capital, you can see “No Smoking While Walking”.

According to its prefectural website, the government of Kyoto has banned smoking while walking on many streets and has made it clear that its citizens should be able to avoid the negative effects of second-hand smoke.

When I first noticed the signs in Tokyo, I assumed this was because smokers were more likely to toss their cigarette butts on the ground rather than seeking out a proper receptacle or ash tray, despite the number available outside business buildings.

After all, Sierra Magazine recently addressed a question regarding the environmental impact of discarded cigarette butts. The article expressed concerns over the toxic chemicals in the discarded filter and their negative effects on aquatic life. Two studies from 2009 and 2011 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health cited cellulose acetate as one of these harmful chemicals, which is diluted into the water or soil and can kill marine life.

As for the original reason banning smoking while walking, second-hand smoke, I’m about as huge a fan as fashion model Nanao Arai, who cheekily suggested free slaps for smoke blowers on the sidewalks. Otherwise, it’ll be a long time (or maybe never) until Tokyo adopts Bloomberg New York’s strict measures on smoking in public. So free slaps all around it is!

A Month of Impatience

IMG_1383I’m currently reading Japanese Garden Design by Marc P. Keane. And what a fascinating read it is. Although I’m the last person who anyone would consider someone capable of following the tenets of Zen, a practice which involves deep introspection and a patient, reserved nature, I’ve learned a few things or two from Keane’s descriptions of gardening throughout Japan’s most notable periods and my own exploratory bouts about Koriyama.

While I’m primarily interested in the specific plants used in Japanese gardens – Japanese maple trees, ferns, etc. – I’ve begun to grasp the use of rocks as well as sand in said enclosed areas.

IMG_2241Perhaps most importantly, however, is the principle of patience. Something of which I have little. A book such as Keane’s is difficult for me to read without smirking or consciously rejecting upon first perusal. The notion of exploring the world of the garden mentally and the long and drawn-out routine of cleansing—or combing—the sand of leaves and debris for the purpose of contemplation, detailed in Keane’s book, made me scoff at first.

IMG_2274I’m a thing of reactions and actions. With Japanese gardens, it’s careful, forethought placement. The islands of rock symbolizing an ancient legend while also being aesthetically pleasing. The rocks that at first glance are casually and oft haphazardly placed atop one another to create the illusion of a waterfall which could allow for carp to ascend through wrought determination to become a dragon. The two-poled entrances and plants themselves, symbolizing not grand entrances but reminders of humbleness.

IMG_2284Despite my frustratingly unreignable nature, the nature of Japanese gardens demands incredible detail, patience, and knowledge. I understand this when designing gardens online; I may know what plants to consider for drainage, soil retention, etc., but when it comes to aesthetics, I still have so much to learn.

Black Ginkgo Nuts


Collected ginkgo nuts in their fleshy fruit form

Collected ginkgo nuts in their fleshy fruit form

Last week, I tried my first sautéed gingko nut. A very, very sautéed ginkgo nut. My coworker and I spent the better part of an hour boiling, picking apart, washing, and simmering the nuts I’d collected that week; after our efforts of tediously removing the thin outer covering, we set the range on low and retired to the study (aka my room) and drank wine and talked about everything under the sun.

Ginkgo Nuts with hard shells

Ginkgo Nuts with hard shells

Whether it was the wine or the chatting, I do not know, but after hearing a few pops and noticing the smoke beginning to billow in small furls from the pot, we rushed to the kitchen and snapped off the burner.

Beautiful ginkgo nuts lining a sunny street in Koriyama

Beautiful ginkgo nuts lining a sunny street in Koriyama

And so it is, my first attempt at cooking ginkgo nuts failed. Sort of. We tried one each, hoping we wouldn’t be found two days later foamy mouthed and lying cold on my kitchen floor. They were rock hard – the nuts, that is – and tasted a bit like popcorn. Not entirely a failure, and we survived to boot.

Since that night, I’ve gone on many runs to try and forage for more nuts, but it looks as though the old ladies have beaten me to it. And those that do remain have been smooshed by pedestrians or turned rotten in the cold air.

Nevertheless, it was great fun in the kitchen with my coworker, and I’ll now be better prepared for next year!

Positive Thoughts & Ginkgo Nuts

Ginkgo biloba fruits

Ginkgo biloba fruits

This week is an exciting week. Although the weather’s turning nasty, with threats of sleet and flurries, I’ll join the old ladies of Koriyama in the age-old tradition of Ginkgo nut foraging.

If you’re not familiar with Gingko biloba, it’s a strange and beautiful tree. A living fossil (e.g., old as hell), the Ginkgo has veined, fan-shaped leaves with varying sized lobes and which sometimes look like chubby, poorly drawn cartoon hands. In Spring and Summer, the rough leaves are a gorgeous emerald, whereas in the Fall, they become pleasantly soft and turn to a striking golden yellow.

Tricky dicky

Tricky dicky

After reading about its potential yet-entirely-refuted-by-many-scientific-studies health effects, I began combining my morning runs with Gingko leaf foraging, picking them up along the way and afterward steeping them in hot water with green tea and the questionable mint I found down by the nearby Sasahara River.

While these trees are shedding their foliage for the winter months, the female species in particular are also shedding their nuts. And girl, do their nuts smell awful. People have described the odor of crushed Gingko nuts as rancid butter, dog poop, hot garbage, bad cheese, rank body odor, etc. I personally agree with the declaration that they do, undeniably, smell of an accumulation of college-years’ vomit.

BbdUzw4CIAAoFB5This will not be my first time collecting these nuts; I went on a short foray some weeks ago that ended stupidly. After my run, I washed off the globular, orange fruit and popped it into my mouth. Unfortunately, I had chosen the only article to have incorrectly advised just how to prepare a Ginkgo nut, which was not at all – just pluck and pop.

How to prepare Gingko nuts

Luckily, this mishap wasn’t fatal, and I had a good laugh about it with some of the students.

Alas, my mistake of cutting this marimo ball in half may well have cost its life. That is, if it's real...

Alas, my mistake of cutting this marimo ball in half may well have cost its life. That is, if it’s real…

Making mistakes is a beautiful thing, as long as it’s not fatal, of course. In the classroom, I try to be a positive teacher, encouraging students to try using the language creatively. Sometimes, though, it comes down to the students themselves. There must be a willingness to slip up, go wrong, goof, make a boo-boo or a hash of things.

During my Japanese courses in New York, I was incredibly nervous to use the language in front of my peers, but they and the teacher were kind and nonjudgmental. I made countless blunders and my pronunciation was doubtless horrible, but the fact is that I tried and had fun while doing so. Not putting forth the effort or at least trying to join in on the classroom frivolity would’ve been a detriment not only to me but my classmates and teacher as well.

With my knowledge now of how to properly eat Ginkgo nuts, I’ll try again this week and see how it goes.

The Season of Fall

The last month has been a time of gains and losses, like a long, drawn-out chess game in which I’m blinded and the opponent is permitted to intermittently slap me in the face, taunt me, and reverse the game board. Worse still, before the blind fold, I was foolishly optimistic, despite former beaten players on the sidelines warning me of the opponent’s tricks. To have built up so much, only to have it all fall down.

Which reminds me of this ole’ horrifying gem.

Which reminds me of this ole’ horrifying gem.

Even the weather last weekend lured the Koriyama locals with a surprising heat wave. I watched as my neighbors took the opportunity to cut down the orange persimmons (kaki in Japanese) that decorated the nearly bare trees like small, squat Halloween pumpkins.

One of the streams and adjacent footpaths snaking through Koriyama

One of the streams and adjacent footpaths snaking through Koriyama

Of course, my disappointments are nothing compared with the disappointment and frustration of the staff at Kew Gardens’ Princess of Wales Conservatory. Sam Knight of The Guardian wrote an especially enthralling account of a thievery perhaps not all too significant to those outside the realm of botany. In January this year, one of the conservatory’s Nymphaea thermarum, the world’s smallest water lily now extinct from the wild, was filched unnoticed, a crime considered by the staff to be carefully calculated.

A massive tree towers over a shrine guardian statue

A massive tree towers over a shrine guardian statue

Now, facilities like the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, have installed CCTV cameras, after an unfathomable crime in which “someone hacked and burnt eight of the Botanic Gardens’ most important trees in a vicious overnight rampage” in 2013. According to the report, vandals also destroyed dozens of rare cacti in the arid garden.

One of the most interesting points of The Guardian article is that these collections were built up by poachers themselves, botanists who travelled and uprooted and removed – at gun point, if need be – plants from their natural habitats. While we’re doing a fine job of ripping up things in the name of science and quickly consuming and destroying the land around us, it sometimes makes the effort of conservation and biodiversity maintenance of plants pointless efforts.

A neighbor's beautiful backyard garden with tufty chrysanthemums

A neighbor’s beautiful backyard garden with tufty chrysanthemums

“They are the most relevant things to humans really, even though humans don’t realise it,” a horticultural scientist of Kew said to Knight. “Most medicines come from plants and algae. Most new technology is going to come from plants and algae. The basis of antibiotics is plant and fungi, and what do we do? Nothing. We don’t give a toss.”

One of my favorite riverside parks, in which are many pines, jack-in-the-pulpits, and pond lotuses

One of my favorite riverside parks, in which are many pines, jack-in-the-pulpits, and pond lotuses

Meanwhile, The Plant Press published an insightful – and not very uplifting – account of the downsizing of botanical institutions and research centers over the past few years.

Although it’s overwhelming, I realize it’s not all gloom and doom. The Japanese, from what I’ve observed here in Koriyama, are very much in touch with nature. Despite the unfortunate number of parking lots suddenly appearing where lots of Herb Roberts and Blue Fleabanes once stood, I’m surrounded by a bounty of gorgeously maintained garden plots filled with Cosmos, Commelinas, and Chrysanthemums, and the countryside spills over with wild mints, thyme, yomogi, and more.

Another of my favorite shrines behind a gargantuan tree

Another of my favorite shrines behind a gargantuan tree

Especially encouraging are the protected trees surrounding the many shrines in and around Koriyama. On an isolated hill west of downtown Koriyama, my favorite shrine, Otsukikasuga Shrine, is enveloped by seemingly legendary cedars. I can imagine some of these giants have been around for some time and can only hope they will continue to be. It took so much time for them to grow up, and it would be a shame to see it all hacked down.