Ink and Wash

The landscape in Shiwa in winter is, without exaggeration, bleak. Snow falls and stays. Driveways are trenches. Mountain floors become white and show through leafless trees like the scalps of balding men. Snow hangs on the branches of trees; they sag beneath the burden. Anything aspiring towards the heavens for relief is stopped by the gray ceiling of ever present clouds.

Shiwa is a different place. The vibrant life is buried beneath it—variety becomes sameness. I get lost on familiar roads. I forget the character of the plants that comprise my yard. Even light moves differently—filtered through dark clouds, the sky dulled while the ground glows with the reflections off the snow.

Yet there is beauty. Scenes covered in snowfall take on a sameness of color, like varying shades of the same black ink diluted with water. Shiwa in winter is an ink and wash painting.






The Fiber Optic Ends of a Christmas Tree

Shiwa’s autumn is a time of brown rice fields and brown chestnuts, but it is also a time of colorful leaves and orange persimmons. The persimmons always impress me.

Their fruits can be hidden behind thick leaves or they can be on the tips of branches that have lost all their leaves. Having such a short history here, I don’t have the experienced viewer’s eyes, and so whenever I drive past one of these trees on a busy town road or a highway or in the most remote part of town, they catch my eye as if they are lit.

The orange fruits at the end of sagging branches look to me like the ends of a fiber optic Christmas tree.

The fruits are delicious as well as beautiful. Their appearance on the trees means an appearance on the breakfast table. They’re best eaten when ripe and sweet and possessed of a consistency approaching jelly.

Admittedly, they’re not for everyone, but bears love them. I think. During this time of year, more bear sightings occur as they come down from the mountains to eat persimmons (and other things).

This adds another impressive feature to the autumn landscape: imagine lines of children streaming away from elementary schools with little bells hanging off their blue or pink leather backpacks. The bells alert the bears to the child’s approach. A surprised bear is never a good thing.

I think it’s funny to see the children jingling past the persimmons because they will grow up with the sight, and they will never see persimmon trees as the fiber optic ends of a Christmas tree.









Chestnut Tribbles

In the past five years, I’ve developed a sense of familiarity with changes that accompany the seasons, not only because I’ve adapted to my new home, but also because it brings the most surprising parts of me to the surface.

For example in autumn, burs on chestnut trees all over town start to turn brown. Growing up, I’d never seen this before, but now when I see these porcupine like fruits weighing down branches or accumulating in communities on the street or in the grass at the foot of the trees, I feel an odd sense of nostalgia. 

Green, they belong to the scenery as any other fruit or plant part or weed, but when they turn brown, the chestnuts look a world apart from the trees that created them, animal like yet alien.

Only gradually did I realize why they seemed familiar. From a distance they look as furry and warm as Star Trek tribbles-seemingly unable to move and without hint of how they got there. Yet they are always mysteriously procreating, becoming a danger by their sheer number alone. They’re but slightly useful (certain dishes use them), yet consoling. I can almost imagine them purring.





A Beautiful Wash of Vicious Green

I grew up in a dry place hostile to plants, so when I see the forests and unkept plots of land around town, I see a wall of green made up of parts that are hard to differentiate. I feel I lack the familiarity required to discern the varieties of plant-life, but I get the sense that all of Shiwa’s nature is in a struggle.

The vines, of which there seem to be several kinds, are best suited for this environment. They climb anything that isn’t moving and conquer more secure structures-both human made and natural. They climb old trees, large stumps, rocks, fences, power lines, and even sheds. On their own, they build nothing upward, but by twisting and strangling, they remake the landscape–the forest and everything humanity has forgotten–until it becomes the same, a beautiful wash of vicious green.




Close Enough, Far Enough

Shiwa is geographically big, and it has nine districts, each with subdivisions. Some are flung far from the center of town, and people there live in relative isolation. Yamaya is one example. It’s a small community in the Kitakami Mountain Range, where the nature around the houses and shrines seems untouched.

The roads often seem built on cliffs with views of tall cypress trees standing over blue tin roofs. These roads can be convoluted as if  old village roads grew together and were eventually paved. Maps are provided on the road to help, but the one I saw had two places marked as “You are here.” The roads, terrain, and distance create a labyrinth that’s best overcome by familiarity.

Perhaps that’s why the people in Yamaya seem proud of their community. They work hard to keep old traditions and festivals alive. Every spring they invite people from neighboring communities to visit their “Mizubasho Festival,” and in fall to their “Yamaya Furusato Festival.” Certainly, they often hear, “What a beautiful place,” and “I had tough time finding you.”

Plus their isolation isn’t complete. The people work in Morioka, the nearest big city, or in the central part of town. Their children go to school there. Families shop there. The distance isn’t unassailable. The people are as much a part of town as others. They just happen to be located close enough to town to enjoy its comforts and far enough to enjoy nature.






Autumn Chills

Today the autumn chills were strong even in the afternoon. The sun shone, and warmed things up enough, but undoubtedly the season’s equator has been crossed. Warm weather will soon be gone.

The weather also meant that summer’s pale, overcast sky changed to deep blue. It stretched over terraced rice fields in every direction. Giant clouds looked small. The immense forests were reduced to dark shades, the inverse of the colors all around.

All over town rice was being harvested, the grains hung to dry, and straw left standing in bunches in the fields. They represent humanity’s efforts to survive winter and another year while the next crop grows. Yet beneath the blue of a magical jewel sky, such concerns would seem trifle if not for the chill reminding us how real they will soon become.