The Best of Koriyama, Japan

A hung wooden mask and Wisteria at Asakakunitsuko Shrine, just off the main Sakura dori in Koriyama, Japan

A hung wooden mask and Wisteria at Asakakunitsuko Shrine, just off the main Sakura dori in Koriyama, Japan

During my few years teaching ESL, I’ve encountered the same lessons again and again – comparatives, conditionals, relative clauses, and so on. Although it might sound monotonous, it’s a fun and rewarding challenge teaching the same topics over and over, each time tweaking what didn’t work the last time and adding more creative touches for improvement. As a teacher and a traveler, though, the best lesson topic is superlatives; there are loads of creative ways to teach such a subject, and the information you can mine from students regarding the best local digs and sights is, and has been, immensely valuable.

Another favorite shrine of mine, unmarked and derelict, not far from my former Koriyama apartment

Another favorite shrine of mine, unmarked and derelict, not far from my former Koriyama apartment

In my final days of teaching in Japan, my students asked me what I would miss most about Koriyama. It was a good chance to thank them for all of their recommendations over the year I had the privilege of being their teacher.

Thanks to their thought-provoking question and a recent serendipitous Sunday drive with a former coworker, I found myself again in Jodomatsu Park, undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and peaceful places in the city. Although it’s quite some distance from downtown, the park is dear to me because it is, in fact, not very “park-like” compared to Koriyama’s other green spaces. You’ll find few paved paths, most of which look like gullies cut deep by years of rainfall down their steep, loose-soiled slopes.

A tree adapting to the slowly eroding soil near the mushroom-shaped hoodoos in Jodomatsu Park

A tree adapting to the slowly eroding soil near the mushroom-shaped hoodoos in Jodomatsu Park

The park is namely famous for its mushroom-like stone structures, known as hoodoos – although in this case, “was” would be more appropriate, as many of the hard-rock caps were toppled by the 2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake. Along the way, you’ll find wide, shaded areas of Epimedium (Viagra plant!), with its charming heart-shaped leaves and strangely gorgeous dangling flowers, and be rewarded for your uphill troubles with a scenic topiary of pastel pinks among the green.

Another favorite of the Koriyama countryside is Miharu (三春). As I wrote about before, this area in Tamura district is worth visiting just for its simple, rural beauty. Attraction-wise, it’s home to Takizakura (三春滝桜) and famed for Deko-yashiki, shops specializing in hand-carved wood products including Daruma dolls, wooden horses, long-nosed tengu masks, and other folk crafts. Here, you can watch as the artisans whittle away and delicately paint these unique figurines. In May, the town holds the annual Children’s Day parade, at which participants clad in colorful kimonos and period clothing stroll and dance down Miharu’s main street.

The beautiful and strange purple flower of Epimedium

The beautiful and strange purple flower of Epimedium

To top it off, Miharu Herb Hana Garden is a pleasant stop for plant and ice cream lovers (though my gluten allergy prevented me from indulging, my friend said she enjoyed her light-purple lavender cone).

For someone with time to kill in Koriyama but not enough to journey far from the city center, there are two short walks I recommend and which I’ve highlighted on the izi.Travel app. One of these tree-lined, creekside paths stems from Kaiseizan Park and meanders past Koriyama Women’s University. Lilacs, Daphnes, and Wisterias color and scent the way in springtime, leading to bursting blue and purple hydrangeas in summer, and deep-red, downy Japanese maples in the autumnal months.

One of my favorite creekside paths beginning to flourish with Cornus, Rhododendron, and Cotoneaster

One of my favorite creekside paths beginning to flourish with Cornus, Rhododendron, and Cotoneaster

Also within walking distance of downtown is a favorite sacred place of mine which I visit nearly every day – Atago Shrine. Although small, the shrine is sheltered by a far more impressive presence, a massive tree smoothed down by the ages and shrine goers. Another favorite shrine, which I visit seldom as it’s quite some ways from downtown, is Otsukikasuga Shrine. This shrine is impressive not only for its location, the pristine neighborhood of which is the dream of gingko nut lovers (or the nightmare of gingko nut despisers), but also for the impressive height of the numerous cedars that dominate the small hillside on which the many komainu–guarded shrine itself rests.

Cherry trees along Abukuma River last year

Cherry trees along Abukuma River last year

Not far from Atago Shrine is the second longest river in the Tōhoku region of Japan, Abukuma River. The shallow waterway hugs around Koriyama’s inner belly and is flanked by rows of cherry trees fluttering their pink petals in spring. I often run on the riverside paths or spend some time in one of the adjacent parks, watching the fisherman and cranes, both of whom never seem to catch any of the massive carp lolling about along the river bottom.

A komainu guarding my favorite Koriyama shrine in front of my favorite Koriyama tree

A komainu guarding my favorite Koriyama shrine in front of my favorite Koriyama tree

I have little in the way of food recommendations, but a recent obsession of mine has been Kappazushi, a chain of conveyor-belt sushi restaurants (kaiten-zushi) in Japan. After a sushi order is placed via touch computer, a model bullet train (shinkansen) whizzes out along the top track with your dish. Endless joy for a child like me. For all-you-can-drink (nomihoudai) establishments, I recommend the eclectic Hanbe, while Toranokaze is a pleasant place for a drink, small pizza, and smoke stench requiring at least two laundry washes.

Last, and perhaps most obvious, on the list is the Koriyama Big-I, the large gray orb on the top floors of which is a planetarium and a damn good view of the city and its surrounding mountains. I admit that I wasn’t entirely impressed on my first ascent, looking out on the sprawling city, but after my year spent here, I’ve found the best places can only be found either with patience or the help of some truly excellent and kind people.

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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.

Botanical Book Review: Hothouse, The Long Afternoon of Earth

“Where are your empty-headed heads, you creatures of the darkling plains? You have toads in the head, not to understand my prophecies where the green pillars grow. Growing is symmetry, up and down, and what is called decay is not decay but the second part of growth. One process, you toad-heads – the process of devolution, that carries you down into the green well from which you came…I’m lost in the mazes – Gren! Gren, like a mole I tunnel through an earth of understanding…Gren, the nightmares – Gren, from the fish’s belly I call to you. Can you hear me? It’s I – your old ally the morel!”

 

The first chapter was agonizing: the text was coarse, awkward, and unintelligible, and the names and descriptions silly and often beyond imaging. As the characters are split up or otherwise “fall to the green”, the reader finally follows a select few on an unceasingly violent series of mindless events. These few make a doomed but decisive venture and are about to return back to the familiar albeit danger-filled forest that is their home, when along comes the morel.

In Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse, or The Long Afternoon of Earth, we eventually are left with two main characters, who travel through a hostile environment overtaken by highly evolved plants; an Earth in locked rotation with a dying Sun forces plants to cleverly – and horrifically – adapt, while mammals are quickly driven to extinction.

The deep-throated Digitalis, or foxglove, reminds me of some hellish mutation that might be found in Aldiss's book. Not only that, but it's poisonous to boot.

The deep-throated Digitalis, or foxglove, reminds me of some hellish mutation that might be found in Aldiss’s book. Not only that, but it’s poisonous to boot.

Yattmur and Gren, both humanoid but from different tribes, meet sometime after Gren’s encounter with a sentient parasitic fungus, “Morel”, which latches onto his head and gives him intelligence. However, Morel’s true aim is to find more species like himself, use others to absorb all information he can, and reproduce anywhere and everywhere.

At first a promising guide to a way out of the steaming and murderous forest, Morel starts to control Gren, forcing him and, indirectly, Yattmur to do things they didn’t sign up for nor fulfilling his original promises in keeping them and the company they keep safe. Gren futilely struggles to fight off Morel’s grip on his mind, while Yattmur tries, with mixed success, to care for the friends they have met along the way.

In the end, Yattmur, along with Gren, return to the hot world not because she has to nor due to any kind of gross negligence; the morel’s machinations, schemes, and overbearing need to propagate and control is simply not the current she chooses to get swept up in.

The above quote by Morel, that treacherous and insular yet driven scum, is his last attempt to occupy Gren’s already diseased mind, who has escaped Morel’s mad schemes and for which he is no longer a vessel.

These writhing beauties, the photo of which was snapped at Miharu's famous herb garden, bring to mind Hothouse's Urn-Burns, plants that use the sun's rays to focus fires on their enemies.

These writhing beauties, the photo of which was snapped at Miharu’s famous herb garden, bring to mind Hothouse’s Urn-Burns, plants that use the sun’s rays to focus fires on their enemies.

Morel is a fascinating character among the many otherwise interesting but mindless botanical monsters mentioned in Aldiss’s novel. Yet, de-evolved as they were, as spoken by Morel himself, the humans become wise enough to leave his party in the end; Yattmur feels remorse for the deaths (all directly or indirectly caused by Morel’s selfish decisions) of those with which they crossed paths, whereas Gren is simply tired of the Morel’s tricks and literal mind control.

The clunky wording at the beginning becomes prosaic and plumbing towards the end, an end which is abrupt and hardly uplifting. And yet, the madness of it all, as they watch from a distant mountain the forest writhing in thick steam and lightning uncontrollably up toward the doomed Sun, can now be appreciated.

While sakura (cherry blossom) trees are meant to be beautiful, I've found myself comparing their contorting trunks and branches to those of the king banyan tree in Aldiss's work.

While sakura (cherry blossom) trees are meant to be beautiful, I’ve found myself comparing their contorting trunks and branches to those of the king banyan tree in Aldiss’s work.

It’s beautiful, foreboding, clarifying, unpredictable, and unforeseeable. Nevertheless, in a way thanks to the morel, we’ve found each other and have come out of the forest, only to go back in. But, as the saying goes, we’re all the wiser and more prepared for having done so.

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.

New Japanese Flora Foodie Frontiers (For Me, Anyway)

Too many a-travelblogpost gush on about the writer’s profound new experience — hitherto largely explored by the common, housebound masses – daringly testing out the local cuisine of whatever continent on which they’ve landed and decided to insult with their presence. Poosts (a new word I’ve coined, one which I’ll leave you to figure out) prattle on about how aMAaaaZing, followed by a head-shaking number of exclamation points, the food is, and how they’re soooo blessed by Hayzeus Agatha Christi to have had the experience. Following this, the viewer is shown frustratingly unperceivable photos of said food and perhaps feels the dooming sense that this person will someday either be the President of the United States or of a hippie drum circle in North Carolina.

I shall do the same here, but with more flair, finesse, and alliteration.

Konnyaku (こんにゃく)

A squishy block of konjac. Source: Wikipedia

A squishy block of konjac. Source: Wikipedia

Recently, I’ve become bold in my efforts to expand my palette in Japanese plant-based foods. On recommendation by my students (I’m an English teacher, if you haven’t been ardently following this fascinating blog), I recently tried the squishy gelatinous konnyaku, or konjac, or voodoo lily, snake palm, or elephant yam. Amorphophallus konjac, as it’s known botanically, comes from one of my favorite subfamilies of plants, Aroideae, under which can be found Arisaema triphyllum, or jack-in-the-pulpit.

For those unfortunate souls whose teeth have never worried away at a strip of this popular (not to mention incredibly healthy) Japanese staple, do not shy away from this for appearances’ sake. I cut thin strips of the dead, graying carcass of Flubber and fried them in oil along with a few eggs. As I myself am a bit blubberphobic, I fried the strips until they were quite tough (as one with an aversion to extremely soft tofu would do), and – voila! – tastes of bacon, sir.

Still good!

Still good!

Renkon (レンコン)

A lot of recipes call for lotus root, pronounced ren-kon in Japanese-speak, to be stir fried with soy sauce and sesame seeds. Me, I just slapped this baby onto the skillet and fried it in good ole-fashioned watery oil (I had very little oil left and needed some for my hair the next morning), and BANG, I had extremely plain lotus root to go with my equally plain rice. My experience with this typical ingredient in Japanese cuisine was complete, and I subsequently forgot about the remaining hunk of root, which is still rotting in my mini refrigerator to this day.

Kabocha (カボチ)

Some days, I wonder what on earth I’d do without this squash, and then I realize in a panic that I’ve run out and make a dash for Family Mart before the old people, who are so fond at poking at sweet potatoes at the mall, clean them out. In my sad Koriyama dwelling, I steam kabocha nearly every day, often with a pinch of cinnamon, and add it to any rice dish. Despite my seemingly newfound obsession, I was actually unwittingly introduced to this fruit by a former Chinese student of mine in Pennsylvania over a year ago.

Daikon (大根)

I kept hearing “radish” being thrown around, especially when it came to sushi and sashimi, but not once did I see the cherry-sized and -colored snack veggie I was so used to seeing in my parents’ refrigerator in Pennsylvania.

The radish I speak of here in Japan (aokubi-daikon) is long and white, much like an icicle or an albino carrot. Agriculturally, it seems that this crop is sometimes left to overwinter, as some persimmon trees, so they can decompose and release growth-stimulating nitrogen for the next crops in the rotation. Otherwise, I’ve experienced the root grated on salads and next to slices of ginger on sushi plates. I myself have lightly sautéed it, as one would a leek or spring onion, and added it to rice-based dishes for some added crispy freshness.

Satsumaimo/Yakiimo/Sweet Potato

Not just another tuberous root. The tuberous root. I can recall one bitter cold night, not long after arriving in Koriyama this time last year, and hearing the eeriest sound between the slaps of hard winter winds on my window. I peeked out from the covers on my bed just in time to see a glowing red object slide beyond a garden wall, down the alleyway, and out of sight. I shoved on my shoes and ran outside, following the sound, but the wind was taking it every which way. I walked and walked but never found the source of the mysterious music that night.

Sometime in October or November, perhaps, that same noise drifted over my neighbor’s low, gabled rooftops. This time, my friend and I discovered the source – the yakiimo truck (to which I refer as the “yakiimo lady”, as the recorded, looped song is sung by a woman). Sweet potatoes are a popular treat in the winter time here, although they can be found in supermarkets year-round, their sweet scents pervading the entire store. Unfortunately, they attract the older clientele, who poke and prod each yakiimo, despite the fact there’s a wrapper, with their shriveled, bony, gross, germ-infested fingers.

According to the fascinatingly named The Economic Aspects of the History of the Civilization of Japan, Volume 2, sweet potato was introduced to Japan in the early 1700s. So far, I’ve seen it used as the main ingredient for bread, as the aforementioned delicious treat, and as a substitution for rice in shochu, a Japanese spirit. It has also made frequent guest appearances in my kitchen skillet, coated in cinnamon.

On my hit list

It’s unbelievable that, during my unregrettable year here in Japanland, I’ve not yet tried takenoko (bamboo shoots) nor the common gobo, both the root and plant itself I’ve seen growing in the very city in which I currently live. I shall endeavor to try and savor these and more in my time here now, and, subsequently, shall bloglish my hereforthto unique experiences.

The Winter Warriors of Tokyo

Every month, I have the enviable opportunity to travel to Tokyo, and, during my four-day stay, I’m well-able to spend my time ambling about the city’s pocket places of nature. Hoteled in a new neighborhood upon my most recent visit, I was just a hop, skip, and a Google-Map search away from Koishikawa Botanical Garden. Besides various winter-dead plants, here’s what I found within and just without…

Camellia with nectar

In a grove of camellias (a genus of flowering plants including that which produces our teas), I tasted the uber-sweet nectar oozing down from this gorgeous flower’s stigmas.

Chinaberry fruits

Underfoot on a pine-flanked path, malodorous Chinaberry fruits littered the forest floors.

Chinese Lanterns with Aloe vera

Just outside Koishikawa Botanical Garden, many gardens outside quaint Japanese block houses featured wild-looking Aloe vera beneath (perhaps) deep-red Chinese lanterns.

IMG_2858

The hardy, aquatic Thalia dealbata, or appropriately nicknamed Alligator flag, has purple blooms in the summer and can even be found in my home state of Pennsylvania!

Koishikawa Building

Within the park is the former University of Tokyo’s Medical School building.

Koishikawa Davallia mariesii

Koishikawa also has a fern garden, in a sense, which includes Davallia mariesii (squirrel’s foot fern), a species of epiphytic fern native to Japan and eastern Asia.

Koishikawa Fatsia Japonica

Leaves of a favorite of Japanese gardens everywhere, Fatsia japonica.

Koishikawa Artists

Artists in Koishikawa sketching the old university building and garden.

Koishikawa Greenhouse

A seemingly neglected greenhouse (speculation) in Koishikawa — no entrance admitted.

Liliodendron tulipifera

A leafless Liriodendron tulipifera, or tulip tree, which was gifted to Japan from the USA during the Meiji (1868-1912) period!

Nipplefruit

Behold, the hilariously named nipple/titty fruit, otherwise known botanically as Solanum mammosum (Japan: fox face).

Pasona Plant

An inescapable landmark of Tokyo, as it’s next to Tokyo station, Pasona Group Inc. is famous for its indoor urban farm.

Pine Tree at Korakuen Amusement Park

Pines adorned with LED-lit globes beneath the rollercoaster at Tokyo Dome City.

Crocus flowers IMG_2861 Koishikawa Garden and Cinnamomum Korakuen Amusement Park Trees with Globe Lights at Korakuen

Biodiversity from Pennsylvania to Fukushima

It’s astounding to imagine the mass extinction brought on by the asteroid thought to have smashed into the earth 66 million years ago. Since then and especially since 2010, the year impressively dubbed the “International Year of Biodiversity”, it’s been reassuring to see news and reports highlighting even the smallest loss of or decline in biodiversity.

A small loss—in size rather than implications, that is—has been in the number of monarch butterflies migrating to Mexico. According to a 2012 study, the big ones – climate change deforestation – were cited as causes but also, surprisingly, the loss of a field favorite of my native Pennsylvania.

Monarch butterfly

Monarch butterfly

National Geographic’s article published in fall last year focused on a tie between monarch butterfly decline and the disappearance of the milkweed plant, the insect’s host plant for its eggs and larval food, due to pesticide use. The study cited stated that “between 1995 and 2013, [their] model estimated that 149 billion individual milkweed stems were lost, representing a 21% decline in milkweed abundance.”

As the plant is so important for these butterflies and as butterflies are vital to our ecosystem, there has been noticeable attention given to the matter lately. A Google search on the subject returns an overwhelming number of sites supporting both monarch butterfly and milkweed colony rehabilitation.

Living in Fukushima, I can’t help but think of the two big ones here that affect biodiversity and on which I’ve already written: kudzu and radiation.

Yet one I didn’t consider is stalked, similar to milkweed, and spread all over Pennsylvania and now, unfortunately, all over Japan.

A goldenrod plant with a gall on its stem

A goldenrod plant with a gall on its stem

Goldenrod is beautiful, and it’s amazingly hardy, often one of the first to colonize an area after soil disturbance or fire. There are plenty of blogs and reports bashing goldenrod for its allergy-inducing pollen (apparently unfounded) and its tendency to take over and crowd out other plants. Still, others laud it for its edible parts and medicinal properties.

While I haven’t noted them in Pennsylvania, the Golden Rod Fly, Eurosta solidaginis, depends on the plant for a year-long larval home. A search yields little information on efforts to control the invasive plant in Japan, so perhaps its effect on biodiversity has been too insignificant to note.*

In Japan, the loss of biodiversity has not only been linked with invasive plants and climate but also population decline in rural areas. While less people = less biodiversity might sound strange, it’s the practice of satoyama – forest and rice paddy management – that has always played a key role in plant biodiversity.

Slivers and copses of forests punctuate the numerous blocks of rice paddies throughout Tohoku, and these forests have been kept from growing out of control by the locals for hundreds of years. Now, as the population gravitates towards large cities and leave the countryside, large trees have taken over and inhibited other plant growth, much like goldenrod and kudzu.

In response, areas in Japan have, in the past two years, started to take advantage of biomass energy. In Maniwa, Japan, a lumber company has been using “offcuts, discarded bark and shavings produced in lumber production to create wood pellets for boilers that can produce electricity and dry wood.”

IMG_2651Still, it’s hard to ascertain how biodiversity is affected as well as the effects of large-scale efforts being put into motion to promote it, such as those of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and Nagoya protocol. With the exception of a few specific aims, both have been criticized for their vague wording, ambiguous aims, and unclear ongoing status.

Although the efforts mentioned above are few and small in scale – including ones such as encouraging gardeners to plant more milkweed to save the monarchs – it’s nice to see local efforts and successes let alone interest in preservation.

*A blog with some helpful advice to rid gardens of goldenrod: http://www.coldclimategardening.com/2008/10/09/goldenrod-this-native-plant-should-be-kept-out-of-the-garden/

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.

Hydrangea

Hydrangea

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.