Climate and Geography

What makes Japan Japan?  What makes Noto Noto?  Part 2
But just how are all those interconnected factors of geography, topography, climate and patterns of weather and everything else modified when we consider people who live on a peninsular.  There is something else to consider, too.  Although the culture of a particular people living in a particular location is also shaped by that all-encompassing environment, culture itself is an influence, so is history, and so is the proximity of other cultures.  Where does it end?  The answer to that question is of course elusive and, if the reasoning is too much of a generalisation, it can be misleading.

Focusing on the people of Noto for the moment, they are Japanese and therefore share a common national identity.  What’s that?  Well, once again borrowing Watsuji’s parlance the Japanese people as a whole are subjected to the rigours of a monsoon climate and must therefore endure heat and humidity.  As mentioned before, this basically means people are tolerant and yet submissive.  Is this too much of an over-simplification?

After all, Japan is a chain of islands spread out over almost 3,000 kilometres spanning 25 degrees of latitude and 22 degrees of longitude.  As a consequence it has a subarctic climate in the extreme north and experiences subtropical conditions in the far southwest.  The mountains of Japan also produce conditions in contrast to their location simply because of their height.  The climate is also subject to rapid changes as well as stable periods of weather.  One thing for sure:  its people must be prepared to endure what nature throws at them.  And that includes, tsunami, typhoons and earthquakes.

Typhoons, tsunami and earthquakes are tracked and recorded. 
It is not unusual for one meter of snow to fall in a night in the mountains of Central Japan.
So while the summers in Noto may be hot and humid, what of the winters?  In a few words they are cold, windy and wet and snow is a constant threat.  While the Pacific coast of Japan enjoys clear skies, low levels of humidity and precipitation during the winter months, in Noto it is often raining or snowing and from November to March the sky is more often than not dull and cloudy.  This has much to do with the fact that it is a peninsula that extends into a cold sea and therefore takes the full force of the winds, which blow from the Asian continent.

The peninsular is well-known for its changeable weather.  This is born out by the saying, “Beware of the mother-in-law’s hoots of laughter and a bright clear morning”.  Of course, this not only tells us something about the weather—it cannot be relied on—but also about attitudes towards one’s spouses mother. 

There is something else, too.  The Japan Sea coast of the peninsula is known as the Sotoura coast.  It is ravaged by rough seas especially during the winter months and the coastline itself is rugged too.  The height of the sea wall along this coast bears witness to the roughness of the sea.  Although crashing waves can be a magnificent sight, people tend to distance themselves from the sea on this side of the peninsula.

The strong winds along the Sotoura Coast in winter whip up the sea and produce a froth, which is poetically termed "flowers of the waves".  Shinji Takagi © Photo Copyright
The eastern, Uchiura coast of the peninsula, however, is far less austere and blessed with a number of sheltered bays and calmer areas of water.  The sea on the eastern coast is calm enough even for oyster farming. The climatic and geographic contrasts on the peninsula are therefore quite extreme.

In fact, some people who visit Japan are prompted to sum up their experience of the country as a whole as one of extremes.  The urban conurbations, for example, are so frenetic and yet beyond them the natural environment is lush, vital and engaging.  Some places are pitifully ugly whereas others are so overwhelming beautiful it is difficult to reconcile.

With Mt. Fuji as a backdrop, Yokohama's Bay Bridge forms a gateway to the harbour. 
Watsuji did not think to include large urban settlements in his catalogue of what kinds of environments affect our very being.  He concentrated on the natural not the man-made environment.  Perhaps Watsuji was right to concern himself so much with geography and climate.

Urban development east of Tokyo is far from inventive.  The
postage stamp layout of detached houses aims to make the
most of the land which is available.
The geography of a country can, of course, produce other effects that impact on our lifestyle and ultimately our attitudes.  As an example of what I mean, take Japan as a whole for instance.  80% of the population lives on 18% of the land area.  This means, therefore, if you live in a built-up urban area in Japan, you have to get used to living in very close proximity with very large numbers of people.  It also means that trains can be very crowded, the traffic murderous and even a shopping trip can be an expedition undertaken with many others, with whom you have little or more commonly absolutely no connection, except perhaps nationality.

Land reclamation in Tokyo Bay began in the early part of the
17th century.  It's still going on here in the port of Yokohama.
This kind of reality, of course, helps to define the situation on the Noto Peninsula.  Shin’ichi Shioyasu, whose family has lived on the peninsula for five generations says, “The peninsula is like a remote island on which the mountains dominate and there is very little flat land.  It makes moving around difficult.  Being so “isolated” would seem to suggest that the people of Noto would shun or would be nervous of outsiders.  On the contrary; they give strangers a warm welcome”.

So, although Watsuji’s thinking on monsoon climate peoples is a useful, meaningful guide, it is never going to be definitive.  It is never going to be right in all situations.  There are always going to be variants due to what we might call micro-climates or very particular circumstances of geography or topography.

Nevertheless, I still believe that Watsuji Tetsuro’s philosophical approach helps to define what makes Japan Japan.  And, what makes Noto Noto.

Should you wish to leave a comment, please do so by clicking on the comment mark at the bottom left of this or any of the other posts.  Thank you.

Except where indicated, all photographs and images by Bill Tingey © Photo Copyright


Climate and Geography

What makes Japan Japan?  What makes Noto Noto?  Part 1

When I was living in Japan every day was an adventure.  After all, I wasn’t born there nor was I brought up there, so even the smallest, relatively insignificant things became part of that bigger adventure of living in what was to me a foreign country, with its very own distinctive climate, culture, history, social structure and, of course, language.  The question what makes Japan Japan was therefore always in the back of my mind all the time I lived there.  Now, of course, because I am writing this blog about the Noto Peninsula, I am drawn to ask what makes Noto Noto.  How has the geography and climate of the Noto Peninsula shaped the lives, personalities and culture of the people who live there?  Few people would question that the natural and man-made environment of where we live gets into our very being.  But what does that really mean? The first time I gave any thought to such things was on a train crossing Siberia.

My wife, Lou, and I made our first trip to Japan in 1974, flying by Aeroflot from London via Moscow to Tokyo.  We spent about six weeks touring the country mainly to look at architecture and craft but we also soaked up life, just as it is lived in Japan.

Through a grimy window on the Trans-Siberian express, March 1976
It wasn’t until we set off to live in Japan for at least a year, however, that we used the Trans-Siberian route.  London to Yokohama by train and ferry took two weeks.  Riding on the train across the steppes of the Soviet Union—yes, it was still a communist country then—we were content to play cards, talk to fellow passengers and to read.  The train moved at a steady pace and also gave us the opportunity to spend much of our time just looking out of the window.  That in itself was an unexpected bonus.

I was not the only one enjoying the view from the window.
The locomotive can just be seen in the first window.
Gazing out at the scenery, which sometimes did not seem to change for very long periods of time, was hypnotic.  It was then that my mind turned to such questions as just how does the geography and climate of where we are born and are brought up shape our very being?  After all, wherever we go on the planet we encounter the same components that make up the landscape and climate.  The only real difference between each place is in the scale, frequency, intensity, volume, shape, colours and juxtaposition of those components.

We arrived in Japan on 9th April 1976.  I enrolled at Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music as a non-matriculated student and began my studies into the history of Japanese architecture.  It was not long after this that I came across the writings of the Japanese philosopher Watsuji Tetsuro and in particular his essay on Climate and Culture:  A Philosophical Study entitled Fudo in Japanese, and first published in 1931.

This immediately reminded me of what I had been thinking about on the train crossing the immensity of Russia.  And I was pleased that someone had literally put my thoughts into words.

Watsuji took a philosophical view of our environment, in the broadest possible sense, and questioned how it shapes who we are from birth to death (Carter, Robert and McCarthy, Erin, 2014).

The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy covers the subject in great detail.  Simply speaking, however, Watsuji divided the climates of the world into three main types—monsoon, desert and meadow.  Based on the conditions in each of these climatic regions, he discusses the fundamental character of the people living in them as well as other important elements of the general environment, including events in nature, for example, that somehow resonated with people.

Although they may not show it outwardly, Watsuji feels that the Japanese respond with emotion and sentiment to certain events in nature in particular.  He cites how much affection the Japanese people have for the cherry, which blooms in profusion with apparent impatience only to wither and fall as if in votive sacrifice.

Wanizuka cherry, Yamanashi prefecture, seen against the snow capped Japan Alps.  April 2000
For monsoon regions he said that the main climatic influences on people are heat and humidity.  In such regions Watsuji reasoned that the refinement of “feeling” is best recognised in a monsoon region and people have a submissive and resigned side to their character.

High humidity helps to keep a garden looking fresh.  And plants
take root on stone.  The term uruoi in Japanese refers to moisture
and also has the meaning of "charming". 
A traditional house in Okinawa has deep
eaves, and an added lean-to roof to produce
shade and the interior is as open as possible
to catch even the slightest breeze when it is 
hot and humid.

In a desert climate, however, dryness is the key which leads to a practical and purposeful character and results in people being protective and particularly wary if not actually hostile toward outsiders.

Dwellings in hot climates have small
openings to try and keep the occupants
Arid landscape in Tunisia. May 1975

In a meadow climate, on the other hand, nature is relatively benign and has an air of logic and rationality born of its dry summers and humid winters.

Meadow climate landscape in England.

Is an English garden a formalised
piece of meadow climate landscape?

It must be remembered that these criteria are not simply applied to human nature and character.  They were seen by Watsuji as affecting everything from the temperament of the people living in such regions to the kind of dwellings they live in.

I must emphasise that these are hopelessly brief explanations of a very complex subject.  My only reason for discussing them here is to ask the reader to do what I initially did, and that is to question just how the geography, climate and general circumstances of where we are born and brought up can shape our very being.  Doing so, I believe, helps us to better understand what defines countries, places, cultures and quite importantly the creative endeavours of peoples.

Should you wish to leave a comment, please do so by clicking on the comment mark at the bottom left of this or any of the other posts.  Thank you.

All photographs Bill Tingey © Photo
To be continued


Starting Afresh

New Year decoration at the Osaki home.
It’s 5th January 2015—well, it was when I started writing this.  Most people in Japan returned to work on 5th January after the New Year holidays.  In the UK, too, this was the first day back at work for some people after a break of almost two weeks.  For me also it was the day to stop simply shuffling papers and time to start putting my desk in order.

I had thought of tackling another subject but that will have to wait.  Why is that?  Well, a very kind person living on the Noto Peninsula has sent some photographs of a wonderful spread of New Year food.

I have already introduced Osechi as prepared by Emi Kimata.  A really elegant arrangement. This time, however, it is Noto-style Osechi.  It was prepared by Etsuko Osaki, who for the past 15 years has been making traditional dishes using fresh produce obtained from the Morning Market in Wajima.

But that is not all.  She is the wife of Shiro Osaki, who heads one of the principal lacquer workshops in Wajima.  Its history is long and reputation second to none, so Etsuko is kept busy in a front-of-house role looking after customers for the made-to-order pieces of finely finished and decorated lacquerware produced under the Osaki Syoemon banner.

The stacking jubako boxes ready to be filled.
These days many housewives go to a department store and order Osechi, which comes already boxed up in stacking boxes made of plastic.  Plastic!  It would be unthinkable for a maker of fine lacquerware.  A good set of stacking boxes or jubako used for New Year Osechi food are as precious as a fine piece of porcelain in the West.  Like such a treasured piece, these finely finished lacquered stacking boxes are handed down from one generation to the next as a family heirloom.

Kagami mochi appropriately displayed in an alcove.
Etsuko began her preparations for the New Year on 28th December by first making rice cakes.  These are made by pulverising cooked glutinous rice into a stiff paste, which is then formed into cakes.  As a food embodying the spirit of rice, these kagami mochi are seen as giving strength and with other decorations are placed on house alters and at other strategic or important places around the house and workshop.

Kagami mochi toward the back along with cut bean-filled mochi for eating.
There are some regional differences in the way these rice cakes are displayed.  Nevertheless, what is perhaps common is the fact that they are not simply a piece of decoration.  Instead they perform a function by being indicative of the hopes and wishes of the people.

In the same way that Christmas decorations should be taken down by 12th Night, New Year decorations in Japan should traditionally be removed by 15th January, although more recently it is by 7th.

Incidentally, 7th January marks another food festival in Japan—the day on which to eat nanakusa-gayu.  This simple Seven-Herb Rice Gruel is served for breakfast in the hope of having good health and prosperity in the year ahead.  The plain, restrained and delicate flavour of this gruel is one of those “healthy” dishes that the palate is likely to welcome after the indulgences of the New Year.

The swelling, opulent form of the kagami mochi inevitably hints at a desire for prosperity in the New Year, too.  Their form, however, is too reminiscent of a stomach before seppuku, that it is thought wrong to cut up a kagami mochi with a knife.  They should therefore be broken up by hand or with a wooden mallet, so that the pieces can be used in soups or even grilled.  Because humidity levels in some parts of Japan are low, the surface of a kagami mochi will soon dry and crack.  Even where the humidity is a little higher, temperatures are usually low enough for the rice cakes to dry out rather than show any real sign of going past their use-by date.

The food in place, the guests are awaited.
The Osaki jubako is as splendid as the food placed in it.  The wooden carcass of each one is coated with many layers of true, natural lacquer before it is decorated.  Each box is water tight and inevitably has four internal corners.  This gives rise to a saying, which in essence means anyone who picks away at any remains of food in the corner of a jubako box with a tooth pick, is just nit-picking.

So, delight in this display of wholesome foods from Noto.  The food will have all been eaten by now and the jubako will be back in their box for safe keeping until the end of this year, when they will again take centre stage.

My thanks to Etsuko Osaki for allowing me to use the photographs.

From left to right: mushrooms, tofu, konnyaku, carrot, lotus root and young fern shoots.

Parcels of kombu.
Top left: dried sardines with pieces of burdock below.  Pink and white cured surimi of fish and finally two pieces of layered omelette sliced ready to be picked out with chopsticks.

Prawns, soused lotus root with chilli rings, and cooked tofu.
The jubako closed up in their own box.
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Girding Up for the Year Ahead

Happy New Year

Having been up at least until midnight and probably much later than that, January 1st for so many people in Japan is a day on which to take things very slowly.  There are too many opportunities to stay up late, very late.  Temples and shrines to visit, people to see, parties to go to, fireworks to see and no anxiety about getting home either.  In Tokyo and other big conurbations the trains run all night.  Then young and hardy types will do their best to see the first sunrise, which was at 06:51 in Tokyo.

The New Year is a time when families in Japan get together just as families do for Christmas in many parts of the world.  Even if they don’t really want to, they do get together, so that’s a common feature.

A family needs feeding.  Some wives and mothers will buy almost everything needed to feed the army of hungry mouths with festive foods.  Others, however, will lovingly prepare what is called Osechi.  Look on the Net and you will see a wonderful collection of what look like bento boxes neatly arranged with various colourful foods.  The boxes are quite often jubako, which if they are not too full can be stacked away until someone feels like eating.

These boxed festive foods are an absolute delight to the eye and contain a myriad of tastes.  Beautiful to look at and tasty too.  What more could be wished for?  Well, apart from being something to stimulate the taste buds, there is also meaning behind each offering.

This tastefully presented selection prepared by the designer Emi Kimata comprises the main components of Osechi arranged in a typically Japanese understated assemblage.

Working clockwise from the top left-hand corner, first there are black beans in a slightly syrupy dressing.  These are eaten in the hope of warding off evil and staying healthy during the coming year.  Their faculty for protection comes from being the colour of the beads of a Taoist amulet.

Matsumae-zuke is a salad-like combination with a sharp dressing of pieces of kelp—symbol of good luck and happiness—and dried squid—dried and will therefore keep for a long time to suggest longevity.

Next are pieces of kamaboko—white fish cured surimi with a semicircular section, suggestive of the first sunrise on New Year’s Day.  The feeling of renewal and anticipation is manifested by the first sunrise, while white is clean and pure and therefore sacred.  Some people use alternate slices of pink and white kamaboko as red—well, pink is nearly red—and white together are colours of celebration in Japan.

Dried sardines fill the bottom left-hand dish.  Because dried sardines and fish meal was used in Japan as a fertiliser, this fact is borrowed to suggest an increase of prosperity and yield.  It’s known as tazukuri, literally “rice paddy maker’.  Such fertilisers were used to dress cotton fields further west along the coast from the Noto Peninsula near Tottori where the Yumihama cotton ikat cloths were woven.

And finally, in the centre is kazunoko, herring roe.  Eggs in vast numbers symbolise offspring and prosperity.

Another Osechi arrangement by Emi Kimata

Osechi is therefore much more than just something to eat.  It’s something to know, too.

What will the people of Noto have been doing today?  Staying indoors I guess, as it is snowing heavily along the Japan Sea coast.  Just how much does the weather affect how we behave?  That’s something to consider later.

Peace, Health and Happiness in 2015
Bill Tingey

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On into the New Year

Prays are offered in the hope of favours
New Year at Zeniarai-benten—people
wash money in the hope that it will increase.  Chains of
Origami cranes hang from the ceiling of this cave shrine.

As I sit here writing this at home on the borders of England and Wales, Japan has marched into 2015.  The New Year in the UK is still some nine hours away but already there are some people who are going to be disappointed.  No, not because it might be raining when the New Year fireworks are let off but because they may be unable to secure an ideal spot to watch the display along London’s Thames Embankment.  Last year there were so many problems with the crowds that the Ambulance Service was stretched to the limit.  So this year the best viewing area is going to be ticketed.

Thinking on this I am reminded of the hundreds of thousands people who are at this moment proceeding in an orderly and yet joyful procession toward Meiji Jingu, one of Tokyo’s biggest shrines, along a wide path between the hundreds of mature trees in this green, city oasis.  Here in front of the Shrine after making a monetary offering they will clap their hands and bow with respect and pray and wish for health and happiness in the New Year.  Or they might even ask for success in an up-coming exam, or simply pray that their choice of partner in marriage was the right one.  Some will just hope to be a better person. The popular reason for ringing the bell is, by the way, just to remind the deity of their presence.

In the dark and cold, people wait in line to offer their prays.
These scenes will be replicated up and down the whole country, at major temples and shrines as well as at more lowly venues in the country-side, where a local temple or shrine still serves the faithful and even the not so faithful within the community.  On the Noto Peninsula, the crowds may not be so large but the spirit with which a visit to a temple or shrine is made is just the same.

Yes, at temples and shrines.  There will be a few Christian churches which hold midnight services, too, but on the whole it is to a temple or shrine and sometimes both that the majority of people in Japan wend their way at the New Year.

Temples for the most part are Buddhist.  Shrines are Shinto.  This means that as a matter of convenience as well as faith many Japanese will profess to believing in both at least in part if not accepting wholeheartedly their ideology and teachings.  As a result, the “religious” population of Japan can be thought of as being double the real population.

A shrine in a house is decorated with New Year rice cakes, bitter oranges, ferns and a shimenawa of rice straw.  All these are offerings to a guardian deity along with paper gohei, symbolic of cloth which was offered to the gods in the past.

There has never really been any conflict between Buddhism and Shintoism.  After Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the latter part of the 6th century, it was decided at the highest level that a shrine should be erected in the grounds of a temple in order to benefit from the powers of the local guardian deity.  So far from rejecting Shintoism as pagan or purely superstition, Buddhism was able to accommodate the indigenous religion and believes without spite or friction.

A family make soba noodles for a seasonal dish.
All major celebrations connected or unconnected with religion are generally accompanied by special foods.  Christmas time in the UK has its turkey, Christmas cake and Christmas pudding—rich foods to mark what is a special occasion.  New Year celebrations in Japan are no exception.  Before the preparation comes the buying of the ingredients.  To a hard pressed housewife the shopping for what is needed may be stressful but, the festive atmosphere helps to alleviate the strain.  The result, as we shall see, is yet another of art to delight the eye and palate.

Cured surimi fish in various colours and octopus
also play an essential culinary role.

Salmon too is another must-have at the New Year.

There seems to be a nostalgic desire to buy traditional toys at the New Year.
Should you wish to leave a comment, please do so by clicking on the comment mark at the bottom left of this or any of the other posts.  Thank you.

All photos © Bill Tingey