Friday, April 25, 2014

Fans of unusual instruments

Today’s coffee: Tanzania

I rushed off to Tokumitsu to write this morning, and now I can’t remember for the life of me what I wanted to write about… so we’ll start with the basics.

Remember how I was whining about the cold last week? Well, it’s amazing what a difference a week can make. Today is, I think, our first day over 20 (that’s 68 F) this year. By Tuesday afternoon, all the snow in the yard had melted, and we’ll probably have daffodils in a few days. I don’t actually mind the winter; my house is cozy and warm. Still, the long winter makes the coming of spring even better!

Yesterday we had some special guests at our house. Our friend Kyle, who wrote the book my dad used to build my shamisen, came over with his friend, Aki and my shamisen teacher, Masahiro. We have known Kyle for a while on Facebook, and this is the second time we’ve met in real life. I don’t usually get to meet other Americans who play shamisen, or even people close to my own age who play shamisen… I think I have a knack for finding unusual instruments.

Masahiro is holding yet-to-be-named shamisen, I'm holding Kanzo, Aki is peeking out from behind Kanzo, and Kyle is holding the Fair Rose (that's the one my dad built). Yeah... I somehow ended up with 3... not that I'm complaining.
We admired each other’s instruments, and then I showed Aki some books of songs I had received along with my shamisen. I had shown these books to lots of people, but Aki was the first to recognize them. She even sang and played some of her favourite songs for me! Japanese minyo (folk music) is fun, expressive, and beautiful, and I’m feeling pretty motivated to learn more! It’s also a challenge for a classically-trained musician like me, since the sheet music is much less precise than I am accustomed to; without a teacher or a recording, I won’t understand at all how to perform and piece of music.

Kyle and Masahiro are two of the main performers in the concert on May 6; it’s an honour to play in the same concert as these guys! I’m going to play and sing 2 Hauta songs. Yesterday I practiced these in front of our guests… and I realized that I really need to practice more in front of people, since I make stupid mistakes that I don’t make when I’m alone. 1 ½ weeks left! Let me know if you want a private concert!

I almost forgot. My newly repaired 121-year-old shamisen now has a name: 鑑三 (Kanzo). He is named after Uchimura Kanzo.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday

Today’s coffee: Peru

It’s spring in Ishikari. This means that it doesn’t snow (much), and if I shovel the snow from on top of the garden to the sun-warmed driveway, it will melt. Here and there little green points which are probably daffodils (I planted various things last fall) are poking up through the snow, and flowers are blooming in the planter box.

The thyme and lavender plants survived the winter. Looking forward to daffodils!
We looked for stuff other than pansies, but there's not much selection this early (??). Also, the Lenten rose is known as Christmas rose in Japan. It definitely doesn't bloom at Christmas in Hokkaido... and Lent might be a bit early too.
And yet, it’s still very cold. I rode my bike to Tokumitsu today, and I made the mistake of not wearing gloves. I find that I’m making a lot of typing mistakes…

Today is Good Friday, and I’m having coffee. I confess I didn’t give up anything for Lent this year. If anything, I tried to cultivate a heart that listens to God, but that’s something I’ve been wanting for a long time. Another confession: I have struggled with daily devotions for a very long time. Takahashi-sensei made a suggestion that actually worked: no Bible, no breakfast. I thought I couldn’t do it; I like breakfast a little too much… and yet that is exactly why it worked. At first, I was “just reading the Bible so I could get to breakfast,” but gradually I began to enjoy the time spent reading, praying, and listening.

This morning, I read this:
“I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24, NIV).

I’ve been thinking a lot about seeds lately. Takahashi-sensei is preaching through Matthew; in the last few weeks we have heard sermons from Matthew 13 on the Parable of the Sower, the Parable of the Mustard Seed, and the Parable of the Weeds. Jesus grew up in the inaka (that’s the Japanese word for rural area); he would have been familiar with farming customs and techniques. At one recent meeting, we ended up joking around with Takahashi-sensei about which kind of dialect Jesus would have had if he had spoken Japanese. Aomori-ben? Maybe Fukushima-ben?

We’re renting 20 tsubo of farmland this year—I actually don’t know how many square feet or meters that is, but it’s twice as much space as last year. Keith is excited to grow melons. The living room windowsill is filled with tiny pots with tiny seedlings; I’m still waiting for a few, but most have already sprouted. Looking at the little plants is another thing I like to do during my daily devotion time. It’s amazing to see each one changing and growing and putting out new leaves; I am already excited to taste the vegetables which will come from each tiny seed.


“Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.” Of course, Jesus was talking about himself. Today we remember how he died to bear much fruit—the fruit of lives changed and filled with hope, love, and joy. I’m waiting expectantly for that fruit too.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

I can't really say...

Today’s coffee: Kona (yay!)

It’s Saturday night, and I’m at home. Keith, having finished his sermon preparations for tomorrow, is watching some stupid variety show on TV. I’ve been busy with various cooking projects today; currently in progress is a revamp of a couple of our takuanzuke (daikon radish that's been pickling in rice bran since mid-November). Did I mention that they were a success? Third try!

I said last week that I was going to write about something other than shamisen, food, and tea ceremony… and I’m sorry, but that’s not going to happen. I have a lot of stuff that I want to write about, but it’s not stuff I can publicly post on my blog. One of the stories I want to write will probably end up in an upcoming prayer letter, and the other I will probably call up a friend and vent about. We’re fine; neither of the situations directly involve us. However, they involve people I care about. It’s hard, but learning how to appropriately be involved or not involved in difficult situations is also an important part of our training. We’re thankful that we have people we trust around to help us process what we see and hear and to begin to think about how we will deal with such situations in the future.

So, that’s why the “heartfelt reflective posts” haven’t really been coming lately. Instead, enjoy some pictures of takuanzuke. Maybe I’ll post pictures of my miso-making adventures soon.

First step: dried daikon! They were hanging outside until it started snowing; then we brought them in.
Next we pack them tight in a bucket and fill in the gaps with dried leaves.
Add some kombu and dried persimmon peel for flavor. More leaves are packed in around the outside.
Cover the top with seasoned nuka (rice bran).
Fold down the leaves so the nuka is completely covered.
After moving the bucket to the entryway, which isn't heated, I put a couple of gigantic weights on top... 10 kg each. Then they hung out for a couple of months while we ate some other pickles (in the buckets in the foreground).
Opening up the bucket in early March...
... and success! But really, we should have started eating them sooner. Then I wouldn't have had nightmares about them getting moldy, perhaps.
Let me know if you want more details, since it's not exactly a recipe. Also, I'll probably tweak some things for next time.

Also, it was my birthday this week, and I had cake with my April-birthday buddies at Tea ceremony. Yay, cake!

April 3, April 9, April 8! Don't worry, we shared with Keith.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Shamisen, Tsugaru style

Today’s coffee: Kauai coffee blended with Peru and Brazil

Yesterday was a shamisen binge day. I practiced, then had a lesson, then I practiced some more. This lesson was for a different style of shamisen from the one I’ve been learning up to this point. I’ve been learning Hauta, which is a style of playing to accompany singing. I would characterize this style of playing as polite and refined, although certainly full of character. Tsugaru style, on the other hand, is loud and wild; I also use a larger (and louder) instrument. Thankfully the string length is about the same.

Holding the shamisen Tsugaru-style. It's big.
For comparison, this picture was from one of my first lessons in Hauta style, in January of 2012; my teacher took the photo to remind me how to properly hold the shamisen. This instrument is little and cute; as you can see, you don't hold it the same way.
My teacher for Tsugaru style is a friend of ours, about the same age as my younger brother. That’s a first; I’m not sure I’ve ever been taught by someone younger than me. Not that it matters, since he’s awesome. He came to our house; first we chatted about various things, and he admired Keith’s new guitar. Then we started the lesson: the first thing is “how to play loud.” Actually, the word “play” is probably not appropriate here. I would use the word “beat.” (Keith retreated upstairs.)

Since Tsugaru style is much more forceful than Hauta style, I had to adjust to using the weight of my whole arm to play… er… beat, rather than just playing from my wrist, like I would with Hauta style. That led to some flailing around and not a whole lot of hitting the string I intended to hit. After putting on a shorter bridge with more widely spaced strings, I started to do a little better… so why not learn a song?

We played a game of “repeat what the teacher plays” as I started to learn the song—no sheet music. I found more points at which Tsugaru and Hauta technique differ. I also learned the proper use of the word “惜しい” (oshii) which means something like “almost but not quite” in an exclamatory fashion. I took a video so I can remember what the song is supposed to sound like; it’s on my dad’s facebook page if you’re interested.

But the most “oshii” thing was that right after he went home, I started to be a bit more accurate with hitting the right string… I guess I just need some more practice!

I'll try to think of something to write about next week that isn't shamisen, food, or tea ceremony. Actually, I spend most of my time doing other things, even if shamisen is fun and exciting and it tempts me when I'm supposed to be doing something else...