Spirit ~ Art ~ Countryside ~ Gardens ~ Birds ~ Home


The Countryside

Rural Japanese gardening and agriculture in the West Central
mountain valleys

A panorama of Takeshi-muri, Chiisagatagun, a town of about 12,000 is seen from the foothills of the mountains that surround and define this community. November color glowed and deepened in just the week we were in the area. Maple trees provided the deep reds and ginko trees (native to China) provided vivid golds in yards and along city streets.

Japanese lanterns dot the countryside...ancient ones are found in cemeteries and temples, and modern versions are found in public spaces and in family gardens. They were designed originally to hold a candle or lamp to light the dark night landscape. They are engineering and artistic marvels that balance huge boulders on thin necks, and still maintain design and functional integrity. I tend to think of larger ponds with koi and lanterns when I think of water features in Japanese landscaping...but these reflecting pools in large natural rocks are popular at homes and in public spaces. They hold special significance and wonder as a natural work of art. This museum garden also showcased the carefully sculpted shrubs and trees that are so popular in home gardens and along streets.
The Black Castle is one of the oldest remnants of ancient culture in Japan. We climbed the unique steps to look out the narrow windows at the moat and the surrounding countryside -- now grown into a thriving modern city. The unique story of the steps is worth sharing for the ingenuity they represent. The shogun who were housed in this military housing added an extra "inside" barrier to invaders. They made the steps very narrow...and about 18" tall! And that was verrrrrry high steps for the ancient warriers, who tended to be on the short side by today's standards. These steps were even very challenging for us tall Americans!!


David, my nephew, teaches English to children in the Obuse elementary schools and also to private students.This "White Balloon" song was used to teach colors, directions/heights, and pronunciation. Music is a wonderful way to learn language! Even children in rural towns are being taught the "international language" -- English. David is part of an innovative test program that is introducing 3 year olds and up to English through songs and simple phrases.

Here David shows the one to one bonding that make him a special teacher...he says "Goodbye" to each student individually so they can practice their new words one more time :-) Children in Japan are cared for with great attention. Teachers are highly respected members of the community and are well compensated for their dedication to the community's children.
The aging population is very active in Japanese society. ALL people have work to do -- some are crossing guards, some rake leaves from public properties, and others are "National Treasures" who pass on their cultural knowledge to the younger generations. This retirement home for the infirm incorporates this "inclusive" concept by including playground equipment that is available not only to people who come visit the residents, but is available to the neighborhood children, as well.
One of the highlights of our visit was this new arboretum located in Obuse. It housed an extensive orchid collection, and plants native to Japan, as well as specimens from around the world. It was a treasure of ideas for landscaping, and was housed with a garden nursery that sold a wide range of plants, tools and gift items with a gardening theme.

The museum garden displayed a wonderful selection of traditional Japanese constructions to help visitors enjoy nature. The covered bench surrounded by the flaming fall colors was protected from the mountain winds and sprinkles for year round enjoyment.
The unique fountain catches the imagination of young and old because its subtle beauty is the quiet sound it produces. When you dip a ladle of water and pour it on the black pebbles, the water drips ... one drop at a time ... into a deep barrel. The gentle echo you hear focuses your attention, and delights the musically inclined!

Everyone asks if Japan is clean...expecting the polished order associated with design and urban spaces. While it tended to be neat and orderly in public places (no trash on the streets or sidewalks, etc), rural living is typical rural living! Weeds do grow. Buildings weather over the years, and little outbuildings are a common part of the working farm. This suburban farm at the edge of rice paddies shows the history of its development. The old red-roofed building on the right was joined by additional buildings through the years to meet family and production needs. The farmer is busy hauling his farming supplies in a wheel barrow...and the little green speck in the bottom right corner of the photo shows a strategically placed composting bin -- a very common part of the Japanese garden scene.
Gardening was very popular in this small town nestled in the mountains west of Tokyo about 2 hours by bullet train. This foot long vegetable is a white radish...delicious in a variety of dishes. The gardener, Mr. Koyama, is proud and delighted with his second garden's produce. He and his wife maintain this vegetable garden as well as a small orchard. Both are on community gardens shared by several neighbors.
Ahhhh, the grape vineyards... one of the most fascinating aspects of the journey. I grew up on a farm in Arkansas and spent many hours helping prune, hoe and pick grapes in our vineyard. So I know grapes... :-) and these grape vineyards were something else! The vines themselves must have been 50 years old -- the diameter of some plants were almost a foot. The vines were supported by a network of "roof" wires and the entire field was one large "umbrella" of interwoven branches. All this to allow the clusters of large grapes to hang down for easy picking. The only problem is that the younger generations are getting taller -- and they don't fit under the 5' ceilings created by these trellised harvests! I guess our "fence row" designs of 2 wires with vines attached to each wasn't such a bad idea afterall!
I have to admire the Japanese apple orchards. Not only do they reduce reliance on chemical pesticides by covering apples with paper bags (see the photo), but they thin the fruit by hand to made that apple grow to extraordinary sizes. To lengthen the growing season in these mountain valleys, they spread aluminum foil blankets on the ground to reflect as much sunlight as possible, and to chase away birds they use very loud "bird poppers" -- tall poles that hydraulically shoot a ball up the pole to made a shotgun sounding bang! What a way to wake up to the crisp fall morning! Pop pop, pop...pop, pop, pop, pop, pop...from about 6:30 till 10 am every morning!
Persimmons were ripening across the countryside during our early November trip. And everywhere we went, people were drying these huge, luscious, sweet fruit on their back porches. This photos shows two uses of the clothes poles...both the daily laundry and drying the persimmons on striings tied to the stems. Clothes drying on the outside pole was a daily event because electricity is very expensive, and air drying is not only free, it is handy! Even in Tokyo, almost every porch or deck had clothes drying.



And of course -- rice. The rice harvest fascinated me because here, the tools used were different than any I was familiar with. This utility wagon was fitted with "treds"...like we have on large bulldozers and land moving equipment. The racks used to pile the straw on for drying was also intriguing -- reminded me of the saw-horses my Dad use with his carpentry. And of course, the rubber boots! Even though the fields were dry at harvest time, the little irrigation ditches were reminders that rice fields are flooded during part of the growing season.
Rice fields were a common sight at the edges of these small mountain towns. Most were now mere stubbles of their former selves :-)... the rice stalks neatly bundled or hung on the racks to dry. The fall harvest was being finished in the brisk late October season, and the shocks of rice were carefully cut and tied, then hung over a wooden rack to dry. The orderly rows of plant stubbles were beautifully geometric, and the irrigation ditches flowed with water from the nearby crystal clear mountain streams.


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