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town events

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.


Collaboration between industry, government, academia and citizen. “Isumi city originating Boso lifestyle project” commenced.

On November 11, 2015 (Wed), we participated in the workshop of a collaboration project between Isumi city and Musashino Art University Design lounge (D-LOUNGE) in Akasaka, Tokyo. (Event site: Isumi city hall)

This workshop was a part of the project in which they unearth and inform the public the attractiveness of Isumi and find out issues and solutions.
As this was a project among industry, government, academia and citizen, backgrounds of participants were varied.

Academia: Musashino Art University Design lounge (D-LOUNGE)

Government: Isumi city and Community-Reactivating Cooperator Squad

Industry: Concent, Inc., a design company that design the “shape of communication” (Dr. Atsushi Hasegawa, President, is a lecturer of Musashino Art University)

Citizen: Isumi Lifestyle Laboratories and Isumi citizens

Staff member of Concent, Inc. acted as facilitators.

Participants were divided in 3 groups and had group work.

Member of Community-Reactivating Cooperator Squad, Isumi citizen, or staff of Isumi lifestyle Lab joined in each group.

They exchanged information, discussed opinions, and considered ideas.

While participants were doing group work, Professor Inokuchi (left) from Department of Design Informatics as well as Director of D-LOUNGE had a pleasant talk with Mr. Hayakawa (right), Councillor of Isumi city.

Participants presented results of each group work.

After they shared the discussion details, they had a further work to link them to the field work, and the task was finished for the day.

Starting with this workshop, they will have interviews with citizen and further workshops, and the final result presentation will be held in March in D-LOUNGE at Akasaka, Tokyo.

As collaboration projects with universities, we have accepted some students for field work in the past. This time however, we support the previous step, in some ways, support development of teaching material or development of basic research. It is the first experience for us Isumi lifestyle Laboratories and we are excited.

( Zackey / Yasuko )

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