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event reports

Earthen Plaster Workshop (in early May)

Since late last year there has been much activity taking place in one particular corner of Chōjamachi, Isumi.
Renovations were begun on a kominka (a traditional-style, wooden-built Japanese home), with the plan to eventually make it the center of a retreat at which peace activists can explore permaculture and other practices aimed at achieving positive change in the world.
One of the core objectives of the project is the building of community through working with and for the benefit of others.
The process of repairing and reconstructing the Permaculture and Peace Dōjo (as the kominka is known) therefore incorporates events at which members of the general public are able to participate in the renovation, learn about the project and meet others.
In early May, I was lucky enough to be a part of the earthen plaster workshop held at the Dōjo. In this post, I’d like to explain just a little about what we got up to.

The day began at 10am under brilliant sunshine with participants making their way down the tree-lined path that leads to the secluded Dōjo, entering the building and seating themselves on the newly-laid wooden floor that provides an inviting meeting and greeting place.
The coordinators of the Permaculture and Peace Dōjo project, Kai and Nao, had invited Kyle Holzhueter, a ‘straw bale builder’ and earthen plasterer, to lead the day’s activities.
Kyle began things with a short lecture on the history and intricacies of plastering in Japan. This included an account of how many of the motivations for particular design choices in Japanese building are founded in the nation’s geology (the prevalence of earthquakes necessitating ease of repair, for example) and culture.
He also introduced us to some of the properties of the material that make it practical and efficient as a resource in construction. This was brought home to me particularly clearly when he revealed that the plaster we would be using had as a primary constituent the decades-old plaster that had been stripped from the very walls that surrounded us.

Kyle, delivering his lecture

Once the mini-lecture was concluded we then set to work on the various tasks necessary to prepare for the application of earthenware plaster. These included:

•Removing loose and damaged plaster from the walls. Dusty work!
•Breaking down the old plaster and mixing it with fresh soil sourced from nearby.
•Adding water and straw to the mixture in order to bring it to the correct consistency that would allow it to bind when applied to the wall.

While all of these tasks were in themselves interesting, perhaps the most fun was had in mixing together the various ingredients of the plaster.
In order to do this on a large scale, a tarp was laid out and four walls created so that we could step inside and stamp, walk and dance it smooth.
And it is no exaggeration to say that the plaster was danced smooth, as there was an impromptu Bon Odori performance that took place, complete with music!

Breaking down soil and recycled plaster for the mix

The mixing station/stage (sans dancers)

It was around midday when we all broke for lunch. As is normally the case at events held at the dōjo, in order to encourage sharing and foster a sense of comradery everyone brought with them one item of food to distribute amongst the whole group – potluck style.
This resulted in a great array of foodstuffs, many of which were handmade by those that brought them. From organic onigiri to homemade bread, and pickled vegetables to fruit salad, it was a veritable feast!
Lunch also gave everyone the opportunity to chat and get to know each other a little better, as well as grill Kyle further on the art of earthen plastering. I wouldn’t say I was uneager to get back to work but it was certainly difficult to pull myself up and away from the delicious food and banter.

Healthy food and hungry workers

Once the afternoon arrived, it was time to start applying the first base-coat of plaster to the walls. Carried out either by hand or with the aid of a trowel, Kyle showed us how to work the dark, coarse, muddy mixture against the bamboo slats that lend the walls structure.
This was perhaps the most satisfying and yet difficult part of the job, as for every handful of plaster I managed to attach to the wall, another handful seemed to fall to the floor.
It appears to me at least, that it is one of those tasks that can look incredibly easy but in fact requires hours of practice in order to get the angle of your hand or the trowel just right and the pressure against the slats correct.
Nevertheless, with a little instruction we managed to complete an amount we could all be proud of.

Kyle applying the plaster to the bamboo slats of the wall

So, with mucky hands and some tired muscles, I left the Permaculture and Peace Dōjo with a greater understanding of a little of the work that goes into renovating a kominka and the satisfaction that can be had in working with others outdoors.
I’m happy that living in Isumi will give me a chance to hopefully meet many of the friends I made that day again, while also seeing the dōjo project develop and grow over the coming months.
It’s incredible learning of the resources that surround us, and how sharing time and knowledge can build something amazing.

From this… …to this!


Making Bamboo Charcoal

I was recently invited by a friend and member of Isumi’s takezumi kenkyūkai (bamboo charcoal research group) to help out in the making of a batch of bamboo charcoal. Having never previously had the opportunity to see how it is produced, though having sampled many delicious foods grilled over it (yakitori, for example), I leapt at the chance. And so, with clothes that I could stand to see get filthy, a pair of thick gloves and a towel, two weeks ago I set off to a property hidden within a deep thicket of that most-impressive of grasses*1.

The takezumi kenkyūkai functions in and around Isumi. The group provides assistance to those in the area who wish to clear land that has become overgrown and unmanageable due to fast-growing and difficult to control bamboo. Members and volunteers meet to cooperatively cut down the bamboo, gather it and burn it in order to produce the useful resource. This is an especially valuable service inland, where many older residents may find cutting back vegetation encroaching on otherwise useful property particularly difficult. The charcoal itself can then be used as an ideal fuel when cooking over a grill or have its nutrient-rich qualities exploited as a soil additive by gardeners and farmers alike.

When I arrived at the property being cleared, I was met by my friend and several of the organization’s other participants. They had been at work for much of the day and had cut and gathered what seemed like a huge quantity of bamboo into several piles. Still, there was a lot still to do, with many plants with stems thicker than my leg and standing several meters high waiting to be harvested.

When collecting bamboo, it is necessary to be aware that doing so presents several potential hazards. Stems tend to grow very close to their neighbors and this can result in them being under a great deal of tension. Cutting a stem that was forced to bend even slightly as it grew might result in it springing away dangerously at the stump when cut – so stand well back! Splinters from bamboo also seem to have a special knack for causing scratches – so consider protective eyewear! A final note of caution, gleaned from painful, personal experience, is that the stumps of bamboo are excellent for tripping people up – so watch where you tread! Until all of the stumps have been removed or decayed, crossing a former bamboo grove may mean hopping around like Indiana Jones avoiding boobytraps. On this particular day, I made it home with only a mildly grazed knee after tumbling forward thanks to one of them.

The beginnings of the bonfire

Once a sufficient amount of bamboo had been gathered to make a batch of charcoal, my friend set about lighting a fire within a pit created with metal plates. Starting with the driest and slenderest of the bamboo, it was not long before the flames were raging while we placed more and more of the material on at a faster and faster rate. I was shocked by the heat it produced and the speed at which the bamboo burned. Sudden changes in wind direction caused the flames to leap this way and that, and would likely have resulted in singed eyebrows had we not all been very careful. We tore through the piles incredibly quickly as a lot of hard work went literally up in smoke.

This picture doesn’t give an accurate enough impression of the heat of the fire!

Unlike other methods of producing charcoal with which I am more familiar, that require the careful stacking and burning of wood over many hours, it was barely two hours before we had exhausted our stockpile and much of the bamboo had burned down to a size sufficient to be collected. Before that could be done, however, it was necessary to extinguish the fire and rapidly cool the charcoal to prevent it breaking down any further. This is done by spraying a great deal of water onto the bonfire using a pump, a procedure that results in an incredible amount of steam and really something to behold! Everything went white briefly as we were enveloped in a great cloud, making the rush to turn the burned wood with long-handled shovels (necessary to ensure all of the precious charcoal is extinguished and made ready for bagging) all the more exciting.

At this stage the fire is ready to be doused

At the end of the day, in spite of my amateur attempts at lending a hand, I was lucky enough to head home with an informative and enjoyable experience under my belt, some new acquaintances, more exercise than I have had in a long time and a bag of freshly-made bamboo charcoal to use in my garden. I can’t wait to see how this year’s tomatoes taste!

Takezumi scattered amongst my tomato plants and carrot seedlings

*1.Despite its impressive size, bamboo is actually a species of grass and not a tree.


A Farming Experience in Isumi

Thanks to the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line, Isumi is easily accessible by both car and bus to people living in Japan’s two most populous cities, Tokyo and Yokohama. This proximity, combined with Isumi’s abundance of farmland, make it an attractive destination for those wishing to have a taste of an agrarian lifestyle. Nōgyō taiken (farming experiences) are run by a number of organizations in the area, as well as by private individuals, and give members of the public a chance to try out a little of the work farmers engage in throughout the year. With the weather now warming, the rice-growing season has begun; and eager to have a go at tanemaki (seed-scattering) myself, last week I took part in an event run at Tsurukame (crane and tortoise*1) Farm.

The day began at 9:15am with my and my family’s arrival at the farm, where we were met by owners Tsuru and Shūko-san. The two of them have been running a farm share program for a number of years catering to both locals (some of whom participate annually) and those arriving from further afield. The first order of business, once everyone had arrived, was a lecture given by Tsuru-san on the process of sorting and germinating rice grains prior to sowing them.

Listening to Tsuru-san's lecture with sorted rice in the foreground.

Listening to Tsuru-san’s lecture with sorted rice in the foreground

It was fascinating to learn how saltwater treatment is used in selecting which seeds to use. Tsuru-san demonstrated how unripe grains or those that have been damaged tend to float in certain densities of saltwater, thus providing a useful means of seperating them from those that will produce a good crop. Heating can then be used to start the germination process, leaving the farmer with grains that can be scattered and grown into healthy seedlings. Having prepared a batch ready for us, Tsuru-san then led us to one of his barns where we were able to take part in the filling of the seed trays ourselves.

Much experience has led to the formulation of a tried and tested method for producing the best seedlings. The depth of soil the seeds are sown into is important, as well as the number scattered in each tray. Too many means there is a danger they will be overcrowded and unable to thrive, where as too few risks them growing too sparsely, which makes them prone to falling without the support of their neighbors. For that reason, once we had laid a good bed of soil in each tray, we all tried our best to scatter our pre-weighed seeds as evenly as possible. I found it surprisingly difficult!

Tsuru-san showing us how it's done

Tsuru-san showing us how it’s done

Once that is done more soil delicately scattered over the grains and levelled off. Each tray will then be laid out for an even watering and over the next 40 days the plants will sprout and grow into healthy seedlings ready to be transferred outside to waiting rice fields.

Following the morning’s work, we all then returned to the comfort of Tsuru and Shūko-san’s home and ate a delicious meal consisting of organic dishes prepared with Tsurukame Farm’s rice and miso, as well as additional items each participating group had brought with them. Both relaxing and delicious, the meal provided an excellent opportunity for us all to get to know each other and question our hosts a little further about their farming methods and objectives. Nōgyō taiken a great means of educating yourself on how food is produced, trying your hand at a little satisfying work, and meeting new and interesting people.

Tucking into some delicious, organically-grown food

Tucking into some delicious, organically-grown food

*1 The crane and the tortoise are symbols of longevity in Japan.


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