A walk in the woods

Before embarking on my cycling-tour-stroke-endurance-test to Sado Island last summer, I decided to build up my stamina with a spot of hiking. On a typically sweltering August afternoon, I parked the car at a michi-no-eki (道の駅 / roadside services), took a precautionary photo of the route – as displayed on a nearby information board – and headed west along a narrow valley road. The footpath I wanted was so well hidden that I walked straight past it the first time, and having doubled back, found it to be overgrown and strewn with fallen branches. Fortunately, a local hiking group had been considerate enough to tie lengths of day-glo pink ribbon to trees along the way, so the main obstacle to my progress was the enormous number of spider’s webs, seemingly all of them at head height. To be honest, apart from swatting away at these with a makeshift walking stick, there wasn’t much to keep me distracted, and in well over an hour of yomping the only thing I found worthy of a photograph was this mushroom – quite an impressive mushroom, it has to be said, but a mushroom nonetheless.

I passed the highest point on the trail – the 275-metre peak of Mount Shirazawa-fuji – almost without realising, and soon arrived at the Shirayama Jinja (白山神社 / White Mountain Shrine), which was as shrouded in foliage as everything else in the vicinity.

While its surrounding stone walls – well, they were more like battlements – had tumbled over in the earthquake, the shrine itself was perfectly intact: originally erected in 1515, Shirayama was burned down in a forest fire in 1862 before being rebuilt in 1880, and there appeared to be at least 132 years’ worth of dust on the floors and furniture inside.

The front steps were the first place I had found that offered enough space to sit down, so I dug out the carton of tea and peanuts choco I had brought with me and took a break. And that would have been it, had I not discovered another, much smaller shrine a few hundred metres further along the trail, tucked away in the mossy recesses of a rocky outcrop.

Konsei-shin (金精神) is a Shinto god of fertility, safe childbirth and happy marriage, and making an offering at a konsei-jinja (金精神社 / konsei shrine) reputedly works as a miracle cure for STDs (thank you, Wikepedia Japan). The kon of konsei means ‘gold’ or ‘shining’, and the sei means, among other things, ‘sperm’ or ‘sexual stamina’. So in the same way that the kintama are one’s ‘golden balls’,  the konsei are, so to speak, one’s ‘golden tadpoles’. Not that you need to know any of this to identify a konsei shrine, as its centrepiece is normally a large phallus – or phalli – made of wood (no laughing at the back there, please), stone or metal.

This tiny shrine had three of them, and while I hadn’t thrown any money into the collection box at Shirayama, I felt that this was too good an opportunity to miss, and tossed a hundred-yen coin into the cave-like cubby hole before saying a prayer.

At the time, Mrs M and I were just about to embark on our first attempt at IUI, and whether or not this unplanned pilgrimage helped things along, I don’t know. Still, the coincidence had a karmic feel to it, and as if to emphasise my good fortune, not long before rejoining the main road to the michi-no-eki, I was finally rewarded with a view.

As a footnote to this story, a couple of weeks later I came within a few hundred metres of a much more renowned konsei shrine, which is apparently a short walk from the Konsei Pass between Tochigi and Gunma Prefectures. While I didn’t realise this at the time, the road from the pass did take me through the Konsei Tunnel – or if you prefer, the Golden Tadpole Tunnel – an act that for its sheer Freudian symbolism must surely have done Mrs M and I some favours.

Karoh-shi 過労死

Many of us have had reason to complain about our job at some point or another, but the next time you feel like handing in your resignation and storming out of the office in a huff, spare a thought for the subject of this recent news story:

Death by overwork: only three days off in thirteen months – charges filed against presidents of confectionery company

The supervisory office for labour standards in Mito City and the Mito City public prosecutor’s office have filed charges against the 69-year-old male director and 54-year-old female president of Japanese confectionery manufacturing company Hagiwara, which is based in Kasama City, Ibaraki Prefecture.

The suspects are being prosecuted for contravening a labour and management agreement by granting one of their male employees – a resident of Kasama City – just three days off in the thirteen-month period between 1st August 2010 and 31st August 2011, and for making him work on his days off a total of fifty-three times during the same period. They also failed to notify the labour standards office of the contents of the employee’s contract.

According to the labour standards office, the member of staff, who was working as ‘general director of manufacturing’ and in control of shipping at the company, collapsed after arriving home on August 30th last year and died two days later. He was thirty years old and died as a result of ventricular fibrillation, although in February of this year, his death was officially recognised as being due to overwork.

It was recorded on the man’s time card that he did more than one hundred hours’ overtime per month for every month of the thirteen-month period, although the company could not confirm this, and said, ‘the employee in question was taking breaks’.

Citing the man’s status within the company, the suspects are refuting the allegations, saying that ‘sections of the rules regarding labour standards law are not applicable to such a supervisory position’. The labour standards office, however, ruled that ‘the employee was responsible for shipping, and as such, his role did not constitute a management position’.

(Various sources, including the Mainichi Newspaper, 1st October 2012. Oh, and in case you hadn’t already cottoned on, karoh-shi / 過労死 is the Japanese word for ‘death by overwork’.)

Shiohigari / 潮干狩り


Okah-san grew up by the seaside, so from an early age she would go foraging for shellfish and crustacea, an activity that is known as shiohigari (潮干狩り / literally ‘tide hang-out-to-dry hunt’). While the in-laws live a few miles inland these days, okah-san still tries to go shiohigari-ing at least once or twice every summer, and last week she took Mrs M and I along to show us how it’s done.

With their combination of rock formations, pebbles, sand and not too many concrete breakwaters to disrupt the natural order of things, the beaches between Ajigaura and Ooarai are an ideal spot for shiohigari, and okah-san said that today’s tide would be unusually low (I once heard from someone living in a coastal village in Hokkaido that when the tide is pulled way out before a tsunami hits, brave and / or foolish locals will use the opportunity to grab whatever seafood is left exposed, although given recent events, I can’t imagine this story is really true). When we arrived there were only four or five people on the beach, and the attendant at the public loos near the car park said that during Golden Week the place is normally packed, but that things were different this year because everyone was worried about radiation travelling down the coast from Fukushima. Okah-san isn’t too fussed about radiation one way or the other (when spinach from Ibaraki was banned from sale at the end of March, that was exactly what she served us for our welcome meal), and quite frankly, the longer I stay here and the more I read, the less concerned I have become, so we went ahead and clambered down to the beach with our shiohigari gear. This consisted of wellies, plastic bags, buckets, rubber gloves, cotton gloves, udé-nuki (腕抜き / tubes of material with elastic at each end that are worn on the forearms to stop your cuffs from getting grubby) and a selection of tools, including something called a kumadé (熊手 / bear’s hand – if you look at a picture of a kumadé, you’ll see how appropriate the name is) and kama (鎌), small sickles that have recently become a trendy gardening accessory in the UK. The kumadé is used for raking away pebbles and sand, and the kama for prising shellfish off rocks – particularly limpets, which Mrs M and I were keen to try again, having eaten them in Madeira a couple of years ago.

The key to bagging a limpet, we soon realised, is speed: as soon as you touch one, the limpet will squirt little jets of water from the sides of its conical shell and sucker itself to the rock even more firmly than before, so you have to slide the kama beneath it quickly or you’ll be hacking away at the shell for the next five minutes. Also clinging to the rocks were bunches of blue-black mussels, and beneath the loose stones at our feet were crabs no bigger than a commemorative Royal Wedding coin, which at the first sign of daylight would scuttle off in that ever-so-slightly sinister sideways way that they have. While okah-san had never bothered with these before, I figured they might be good deep fried (soft shell crab are often used as a filling for sushi) and braved their little pincers to capture a few. There were starfish in the rock pools, too – bright orange on one side and a glowing ultramarine on the other – along with large, slug-like umi-ushi (海牛 / sea cow) and uni (sea urchin), which are a delicacy, but which like the mussels were not yet big enough to eat.


We reconvened after an hour or so to compare catches, and okah-san pointed out that several of the spiral shells in my plastic bag contained hermit crabs – good for lining up on a rock and watching as they come alive and run for cover, but not much else. Over a packed lunch of nigiri (握り / rice balls), we watched as a woman walked away with a large bag full of brown seaweed, one family put their more interesting finds in a mini-fish tank for taking photos, and the mother from another family arrived wearing a huge golf visor-style hat, surgical mask, calf-length blue plastic mac and red wellies, as if we really were inside the Fukushima exclusion zone.

While okah-san would happily have stayed there all day, we compromised on another half hour or so, during which she decided to look for asari – small clams that are often served as an ingredient in miso soup. Following her lead, I worked my way inland from a rock pool, setting aside any larger stones and digging into the sand to a depth of ten or fifteen centimetres, and by the time we finished I had caught about ten: not bad for a beginner, and probably worth a couple of hundred yen on the open market.

Okah-san rinsed the worst of the sand from what we had caught, and we filled a couple of bottles with fresh seawater, as the trick with shellfish (including shop-bought mussels, seafood fans) is to leave them in salt water overnight before you cook them, thus ensuring that the rest of the sand gets filtered out and you are not crunching away on grains of it as you eat. As expected, the asari were the most edible, but the limpets in garlic butter weren’t bad at all, and deep-fried crabs make a decent bar snack, even if they can be a bit prickly when you crunch into one.


Soba-uchi 蕎麦打ち

The kocho-sensei at my junior high school was originally a science teacher, and under his guidance, the four special needs students do more gardening and botany-based activities than anything on their official timetable. A few weeks before Christmas I joined them in the school allotment to help harvest the soba (蕎麦 / buckwheat) crop, which was then left to dry in the sun. A few days later the soba seeds, which are wrapped in shiny black husks, were separated out and spread out on a tarpaulin on the classroom floor, and come the spring term the laborious process of transforming them into soba flour will begin.

The next step – known as soba-uchi – is to make noodles from the flour, but with barely enough seeds to produce a single portion of noodles, kocho-sensei went to a nearby farm shop to buy a job lot of flour (which incidentally is expensive stuff: a kilo will set you back more than 1000 yen / £5). With the students still on their winter vacation, he then invited the staff from two nearby elementary schools to join us for a kind of soba-uchi group bonding day.

When I arrived in the morning, kocho-sensei already had a towel tied around his head, something that seems to be a pre-requisite for any activity that might be considered bloke-y. A towel is the headgear of choice for most builders and carpenters, for example, not to mention anyone firing up a barbecue, mowing the lawn or taking part in those festivals where groups of men march through the streets carrying extremely heavy replica shrines. S-sensei – who is my point of contact at the elementary school where I teach once a week – turned up similarly attired, and turned out to be something of a soba-uchi expert.

‘What ratio are you using?’ he asked kocho-sensei.
’Go-wari,’ replied kocho-sensei (go-wari means 50%, and while you can buy juu-wari – 100% – soba at some restaurants, those in the know say that if you mix in a certain amount of wheat flour, it makes the noodles easier to make and tastier to eat).
‘Go-wari?’ said S-sensei. ‘That’s not soba at all, it’s udon!’
‘I’m just trying it out to see what will happen.’
‘Well, it’ll certainly make the dough easy to work with. Not sure what they’ll taste like, though. How much are you making?’
‘500 grams of soba flour and 500 grams of udon flour, so that makes a kilo.’
‘A kilo? That’s way too much!’
‘Don’t worry, I’m going to divide it in half before I roll it out.’

We were soon joined by kyoto-sensei (教頭先生 / the deputy headteacher) and both the kocho and kyoto senseis from S-sensei’s elementary school, and for the first half hour or so I hovered in the background while they got a production line up and running. S-sensei had finished a pristine batch of noodles within about fifteen minutes, and I was surprised to see kocho-sensei struggling somewhat with his, despite being in possession of a brand new soba-kiri hoh-choh (蕎麦切り包丁 / soba knife – these are similar to a meat cleaver but more rectangular, with the handle in the middle as opposed to at one end).
‘Nice knife,’ said elementary kocho-sensei. ‘How much did that set you back?’
‘It was supposed to be 25,000 yen, but it was the last one in the shop, so I managed to haggle him down to 15,000.’

‘I’ve got to go to the staff room and meet someone from the board of education,’ said kocho-sensei after completing his own batch of noodles, ‘so it’s your turn now. Do you fancy having a go at foon-zuké (踏ん付け)?’
‘What’s that?’ I asked him.
‘You put the dough in a plastic bag on the floor and knead it with your feet.’
‘I don’t think we’ve got time for that,’ said S-sensei.
‘True. Well, I’ve measured out a nana-wari (70%) mix, so have a go at that.’

Once you’ve measured out the flour and sieved it into a wide, shallow lacquerware bowl, you gradually pour in one part water to two parts flour and work this in with your fingertips (in this case we were using 250ml of water to 500g of flour, which appears to be the standard amount, and produces enough noodles for about five portions). The mixture gave off a tremendous earthy aroma, and while at first it resemled breadcrumbs or the topping of a fruit crumble, once all the water had been added it soon congealed into a lump of dough about the size of a grapefruit.

The uchi part of soba-uchi means ‘hit’, and I assume refers to the next stage of the process. While you don’t leave the dough to rise as you would for bread or pizza, it still needs to be softened up, which means repeatedly turning it over and squashing it with the heel of your hand: kocho-sensei said that about four hundred ‘hits’ is about right, which takes about ten minutes and requires a fair amount of elbow grease. (The owner of a restaurant in Hokkaido once demonstrated the process to me, and after years of making soba by hand, his forearms resembled Popeye’s in their post-spinach state.)

Contrary to S-sensei, kocho-sensei preferred to add warm water to the flour instead of cold, which made the resulting dough comparatively easy to work with, and I was soon ready for the next step. Again using the heel of your hand, you roughly flatten out the dough on a large chopping board – about 75cm square – and roll it out using a long, thin rolling pin called a menboh (麺棒). Getting the dough down to the correct thickness is easy enough; the tricky part is rolling it into a square instead of a circle.

Elementary kocho-sensei was the expert at this, and explained that once your dough has reached about half the size you want to end up with, you wrap it around the menboh, roll both across the board six times – gently so as not to flatten the dough too quickly – turn the menboh through ninety degrees, unroll the dough, wrap it around the menboh again – this time from the next ‘corner’ of the square – and repeat the process. At least in theory, this should stretch the four corners of the dough and leave you with a square that is slightly smaller than the chopping board.

Using the menboh to lift up one edge of the dough, you then fold it in half, fold it again lengthways, and once more end-to-end, leaving you with an eight-layered rectangle approximately thirty centimetres long by fifteen centimetres wide. The important thing at this stage is to to sprinkle some uchiko (打ち粉 / spare soba flour) over the dough before each fold – something that I neglected to do on my first attempt, and which resulted in my noodles sticking together in the way that spaghetti can if you forget to stir it as it’s cooking.

Now it was time for the fun part, namely getting my hands on that hefty soba knife. As a rule, Japanese chefs wield their kitchen knives slightly differently from us Europeans, so that rather than using the point of the knife on the chopping board as a pivot and lowering the blade in an arc towards the body, here you hold the knife above and parallel to the chopping board, and keep it level as you cut downwards and slightly away from the body.

To cut noodles, you also need something called a koma-ita (小間板), which is a kind of wooden paddle with a handle on top and one straight edge. Being careful not to exert too much pressure, you place the koma-ita at one end of the dough with a millimetre or two of dough exposed. Using the straight edge as a guide, after each downward cut you keep the blade on the chopping board and lean the soba knife slightly to the left, nudging the koma-ita ever so slightly in the same direction, and leaving it in just the right position to guide you for your next cut.

‘You cut fifteen times for each portion,’ said elementary kocho-sensei. ‘Then you slide the noodles to the edge of the board and pick them up gently with your right hand. Tap them on the board like this’ – lowering one end of the handful of noodles onto the board not only got rid of any excess flour, but also separated any noodles that hadn’t been cleanly cut – ‘then hold the other end in your left hand and do the same thing again. Give them a bit of a twist before you lay them out,’ he said. ‘Makes them look more appetising, doesn’t it?’

At the other end of the kitchen, the tea lady, the school nurse and the home economics teacher had been cooking away for most of the morning, and just outside, the elementary kyoto-sensei was simmering the noodles for a few minutes at a time over a gas burner in a huge cooking pot. They were then rinsed in cold water and arranged on large, flat, basket-like trays before being carried into the next room, where tables had been laid for the forty or so teachers, who by midday had begun to arrive for lunch.

A posse of them soon crowded round to check on my progress, and having concentrated so hard on trying to produce the perfect soba, I was exhausted by the time I completed the final cut.
‘Full marks! Very good!’ said elementary kocho-sensei, and while my noodles weren’t as uniformly slender as S-sensei’s (who did, I was interested to see, have at least one mini-crisis, when a batch of dough became irreparably creased as he was rolling it out and almost forced him to start again from scratch), they didn’t look quite as flat, wide and tagliatelle-like as some of the others that were on show.

As well as being comparatively low in calories, the completed noodles have an attractive, speckled appearance – the tiny black dots are leftover fragments of husk – and today we had a choice of hot miso-based soup with pork and vegetables (kenchin soba) and cold, soy sauce-based soup with wasabi and spring onions (zaru soba) in which to immerse them. One of the teachers at my table told us about a restaurant in Mito where you can order soba sushi, soba dumplings and even soba ice cream, but for the moment at least, I think I’ll stick to good, old-fashioned noodles.