Sole Sister

Cruising in the single lane


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Talking to trees

Apart from slowing down and smelling the roses apparently we would do ourselves a favour if we walked in the woods a lot more. In Japan, it’s already a “thing”. It’s called “forest bathing”, or shinrin yoku – shin meaning forest and yoku to bathe.

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Japanese scientists have researched the reasons why “forest bathing” makes us humans feel so good. The university website The Conversation reports the Japanese investigations identified three major inhaled factors making “bathers” feel healthier in diverse forest ecosystems –  beneficial bacteria, plant-derived essential oils and negatively-charged ions.

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After reading German forester Peter Wohllben’s fascinating The Hidden Life of Trees, a gift from my thoughtful elder daughter, I know why I instinctively feel so upset by the sight of a felled forest giant, or upended tracts of massacred trunks, roots and branches. Wohllben sets out how trees are much like human families, living in communities, bringing up their children, parenting them as they mature, sharing nutrients, helping those who are ailing, communicating, and warning them when danger is approaching. Like human towns forests go through cycles of life, death and regeneration , only on a much longer timescale.

Wohllben talks about how trees isolated from their forest environment struggle to survive, just like abandoned children. And those specimens singled out to beautify our cities, planted individually along suburban streets and city boulevards, are just like street kids, left to fend for themselves. He also described the “pain” caused to a tree by cutting into its bark, rather like cutting into someone’s skin. And we should think of sap as the tree’s blood.

Dr Qing Li is the world’s foremost expert in forest medicine. A medical doctor at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School and a visiting fellow at the Stanford University School of Medicine, he’s a staunch advocate of what forests do for us.  “Forests are an amazing resource,” he says. “They give us everything we rely on in order to exist. They produce oxygen, cleanse the air we breathe and purify our water. They stop flooding rivers and streams and the erosion of mountains and hills. They provide us with food, clothing, and shelter, and with the materials we need for furniture and tools. In addition to this, forests have always helped us to heal our wounds and to cure our diseases.” Now his research is proving how “bathing” in the forest boosts the immune system, increases energy, decreases anxiety, depression, anger and stress and brings about a state of relaxation.

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Dr Qing believes if people were encouraged to visit forests for their health, they would be more likely to want to protect and look after them. Which no doubt would make Peter Wohllben – and the forests – very happy.

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The beauty of a Japanese forest in autumn. 


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Going dotty

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Yayoi Kusama has been called the “Priestess of Polka Dots”. And a few hours gazing at her creations is certainly enough to send you happily polka dotty. The Japanese octogenarian’s most recent Brisbane exhibition, which I just managed to catch before it wrapped up at the Gallery of Modern Art earlier this month didn’t disappoint in the dot department. Spots of all hues camouflaged sculptures, paintings of pumpkins, Picasso-like portraits, lighted and dark kaleidoscopic mirrored infinity installations, all creating a sense of collaboration with kids, Indigenous artists and the avant-garde art world. A visual blitzkrieg.

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Kusama’s dot fetish was said to derive from an early childhood illness with hallucinations impairing her sight with dots in front of the eyes. Another of her themes is the concept of infinity which she represents not only through mirrored installations but infinity “net” paintings of endless interlinked patterns. The artist said this fascination was a result of looking down at the endlessness of the Pacific Ocean on her 1950’s flight from Japan to New York, where she became a leading art scene member. Pumpkins? She likes their shape, their “grotesqueness” and their “homeliness”.

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Yayoi Kusama’s dotty interpretations of Marilyn Monroe (left) and Elizabeth Taylor. 

Mirrored infinity room installations. 

 It was Kusama’s third Queensland Art Gallery-GOMA outing, the first being at the Asia Pacific Triennial in 2002 when she especially wowed the kids with her “obliteration room”. Imagine being a kid walking into a room painted completely white and being invited to stick coloured dots wherever you like to your heart’s content!  The relationship between QAGOMA and Kusama nurtured through the Triennial was rewarded with another exhibition in 2012; the 2017-18 show Life is the Heart of the Rainbow; and major acquisitions making the Gallery’s collection one of the most significant in a public museum outside Japan.

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Infinity nets. 

 

 


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The classic touch

For 15 years I’ve been an enthusiastic subscriber to the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Masterfully lead by the energetic and creative Richard Tognetti the ACO captivates with its eclecticism and daring scope.  While performing under an Australian flag Tognetti has brought together a virtual united nations of performers with orchestra members hailing from French Canada, Japan, Finland, Ukraine, Slovania, Singapore and Romania. Tognetti is not your average chamber orchestra director and conductor, roles he has played at the ACO since his 20s. Still youthful at 52, and until recently sporting a trendy brush-up hairstyle, the world-acclaimed musician likes to take his followers on musical “magical mystery tours”.

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Concert-goers know to always expect the unexpected. During my  time I’ve experienced a full-screen movie of the keen surfer’s wave-hunting expedition to remote Western Australia with the orchestra performing the Tognetti-composed score live; a collaboration with Whitlams lead singer and keyboardist Tim Freedman; an evening of Bell Shakespeare Company readings with ACO accompaniment; and a Barry Humphries Weimar Cabaret evening with the world-famous comedian joined by award-winning performer Meow Meow. Tognetti, with or without the full orchestra, is just as happy performing in ski village clubhouses in Hokkaido, and small outdoor sound shells in rural Australia, as the Sydney Opera House or grand concert halls in world capitals.

But for the ACO’s concert at QPAC concert hall last week it was a return to the classics, a sublime evening of Bach violin concertos rounded off with a Haydn symphony. For the Concerto for 3 Violins in D Major, Tognetti was joined by long-serving and accomplished lead violinists Helena Rathbone and Satu Vanska. Then they were joined by Vanska’s Finnish countryman Timo-Veikke Valvo for a solo performance of the Sarabande from Cello Suite No. 4. No wonder the ACO is often referred to as an ensemble of soloists. Which is exactly what the orchestra’s next national tour is titled – ACO Soloists.


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Summer spectacular

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Jagged rock-islands as far as the eye can see.

The Shakotan Peninsula’s Cape Kamui eases its way out into the Japan Sea like a advancing dinosaur, the howling wind whipping up waves which engulf the rocks at its feet. On its brow sits a lighthouse steering the seafarer clear of danger. Kamui is one of Shakotan’s three capes: the others being Ogon and the eponymous Cape Shakotan. The peninsula is renowned for its desolate sheer cliffs, plummeting into the boisterous ocean, crystal-clear waters and numerous needle-point rocky island outcrops just offshore, the product of millions of years of wear and tear from buffeting and pounding swells eating away at the coastline. Over the horizon lie Russia, and further to the south, North Korea.

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Shakotan’s Cape Kamui eases into the Japan Sea like a giant dinosaur. 

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Enjoy the spectacular views! 

The name Shakotan originates from two words from the Indigenous Ainu languages, shak, meaning “summer”, and kotan meaning “village”.  Its genesis as a region came through the development of the rich herring industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Herrings became such a money spinner that the nearby town of Otaru, “herring central” in its heyday, became so wealthy from the trade, and such a centre of commerce, it became know as the Wall Street of Japan’s North. Overfishing and climate change killed off these marine versions of the goose laying golden eggs around the mid-195os leaving the townships struggling to find new meaning in life.

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The stunning Shakotan coastline.

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Tourism is stepping into the breech with the sea again offering a lifeline. Shakotan is renowned for its uni and ikura, the much-sought-after bowls of ikuradon and unidon a major drawcard in summer and autumn. Tourists who travel to enjoy the old herring warehouses and canals of Otaru are happy to travel the few extra kilometres to savour a bowl plus the spectacular scenery en route. Along the stunning coastline a scenic, 42-km highway snakes along open stretches and through tunnels around the numerous bays and inlets. Dramatic cliffs drop into the ocean with townships, mostly deserted, scattered along the length. The Peninsula is also a stopping off point for Japan’s only national marine sanctuary. A growing attraction is glass-bottom boat excursions into the Japan Sea.  It’s all giving a new lease of life for the “summer village”.

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Anyone for ikuradon? Unidon? 

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Winding roads and tunnels. 

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Lonely Shakotan shacks.

Thanks to Yogi for some of the photographs.

 

 


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Kawaii…..

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The word kawaii, exclaimed with squeals of delight, is ubiquitous in Japan. It means “cute”, or “adorable”, a quality highly rated by Japanese females, especially young women. The use of kawaii goes into overdrive around most of the country on 15 November each year, the designated day of the Shichi-Go-San Matsuri – the Seven-Five-Three Festival – when the year’s batch of littl’uns turning 7, 5 and 3 dress in their sumptuous national costume, have their photographs formally taken, then head off to the local shrine with proud families for even more photographs, and blessings.

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With two grandchildren in those age ranges I was delighted to be personally involved in the most recent Shichi-Go-San in Hokkaido. There, in northern Japan, it’s held a month earlier so the children aren’t subject to the rigours of biting early winter winds and temperatures that can bring snow falls from late October onwards. On the big day, first there’s the trip to the professional photographic studio where formal shots are taken in full kimono, luckily available for rent given the the cost involved in a complete outfit. An astonishing array of colourful gear is jammed into laden racks around the studio awaiting selection.  There are the so many layers that make up the completed attire – inner garments,  outer jackets, sashes for both boys and girls, zori sandals, trinkets for specially coiffed hair,  oversize bows for the backs of kimono, little handbags and props such as “samurai swords” for the boys. After the lengthy photo session, with well skilled photographers (mostly girls!) managing fidgety children with amazing humour, comes the selection of images, a tricky decision indeed. img_5339

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Then off to the shrine for more photos -and given the intricacy, elegance, colourfulness  and sheer charm of their ensembles the children are naturally greeted with many more squeals of kawaii!

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A roe by any other name

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The freshest ikura and kani don at a seaside restaurant on the Shakotan Peninsula. 

The etymology of words is fascinating.  And so it is with that sought-after Japanese autumn delicacy, ikura, – いくら – the glistening omega3-packed sacs of exquisate piquancy that explode with surprise and flavour on the taste buds. Otherwise known as “red caviar” the Japanese word for the salmon roe sounds a natural part of the language. But in reality it’s borrowed from the Russian for “caviar” – ikra – and directly transposed into the Japanese into which it readily fits. A clue that it’s not a Japanese word is that it is written in a phonetic script, rather than kanji Chinese characters. A little research also reveals that in the Turkish word for caviar is kuru, very similar to ikra and ikura.

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Delicacy double dipping – ikura and uni don. 

Each year the salmon river migration takes place in late summer/early autumn in Hokkaido. Luckily for the salmon using every ounce of their strength to get back home, once they enter the rivers and streams they are protected, except for recreational fishermen who apply for a special licence ahead of time. But that it doesn’t count Hokkaido brown bears and eagles. After spawning, the exhausted salmon depart to fish heaven.

The most delicious ikura is said to come from  roe taken just before the breeding season when the outer film is taut and the roe soft.  The thin membrane that holds the roe in a cluster needs to be carefully removed to separate the individual eggs. They are then marinated before being eagerly devoured, usually with steamed rice. My daughter-in-law’s mother marinates her ikura in a 60/30/10 mixture of soy sauce, sake and mirin.

Separating the roe from its membrane sac; marinating ikura; ready to eat!  

A popular dish in Japan is ikuradon – a bowl of rice topped by glistening, deep red roe. Often it is teamed with other treats such as uni – sea urchin – and kani – crab. Sea urchin is a prized luxury in Japan, especially when it’s in season in summer. My son is a great fan and would weep to hear of seaweed farmers in Tasmania destroying sea urchins with some sort of robotic spear because they are a major predator of their “crops”. There must be an export opportunity there!

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Packaged ikura tops Hokkaido souvenirs at New Chitose Airport’s amazing retail mall.

 


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Happy New Year – 明けましておめでとうございます

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Nengajou welcome the New Year for multiple millions of Japanese.

Happy New Year! As millions of lunar calendar followers around the world welcome in the 2017 New year, those following the Oriental calendar are preparing to wave goodbye to that little scallywag the monkey and welcome in the stately rooster.

In Japan, where Oriental symbolism is synced with the lunar calendar the Rooster has crowed his first 2017 morning call. Multiple millions of nengajou, the little symbol cards that friends and family send each other, rather like Christmas cards, are arriving in special postal deliveries through the day. Across the world revellers are waking to sore heads, or the first day of well intentioned resolutions. The rooster will be in hot demand this year, this famous early morning riser credited with being able to foretell the future. Many will hope that he can see an end to the political upheavals experienced in numerous countries in 2016.

2016 calendars will come down and their replacements will go up. I have written before about the attachments I form to my calendars, which usually include one put together by my photographically talented older brother; another which I order specially from Tokyo’s captivating Blue and White Shop in Azabu Juban; and one which arrives every year from a young Japanese woman who stayed with us as an international language student over 20 years ago.

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Hello new Blue and White, goodbye old; and a sad farewell to this Southern NSW egret image. 

This year I’ll be putting up a beautiful calendar featuring Japanese art treasures, given to me by my Japanese family, which has been published by JAL Airlines for as long as I can remember. The pieces chosen for each month are exquisite, of the quality of treasures I’ve seen in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Oriental section. While a calendar’s not quite as good as the real thing it’s an excellent substitute.

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A section from the January illustration from the JAL calendar. 

Whether you’re an Oriental or a lunar cycle person here’s wishing you a very happy 2017 . May the qualities of warmth, generosity, diligence, sociability and excellent communication skills attributed to the rooster be the overriding zeitgeist in 2017.


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Four seasons in three weeks

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Cows graze in bucolic bliss beneath Mt Yotei. 

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Fields lie fallow awaiting winter snows.

Autumn is my favourite travel month. You can’t beat it for cost, crowd and climate reasons. It’s the perfect time to enjoy comfortable temperatures in most countries, without peak season crowds, and travel and accommodation prices. The added bonus in cold climate countries is the spectacle of autumn colours. I’ve not long returned from (what is becoming) my annual sojourn in Hokkaido which happily coincided with the late autumn. And the season didn’t disappoint. Japan’s northernmost island, famed for its incomparable powder snow, managed to give a taste of all seasons during my three-week visit, an opportunity to enjoy what lies beneath the ubiquitous white of winter.

When I arrived in early October the weather was warm, the autumn colours just starting to show. The tip of Mt Yotei’s distinctive volcanic cone had a dusting of white but cows still grazed in bucolic bliss on lush green pastures close by. My first weekend the thermometer sat at about 23 C, ideal for picking grapes destined for crushing for Niseko’s fledgling sparkling wine industry. Sun block and hats were a must.

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Harvesting grapes for Niseko’s fledgling sparkling wine industry. 

By early the next week a trough came through dropping the temperature and hastening the spread of the autumn colours. Soon the surrounding countryside was ablaze, the famous momiji  transforming to their signature shade of crimson – the turning “to flame” that Australian poet Clive James wrote in Japanese Maple. I love the way the Japanese kanji for autumn, aki, is a combination of the tree and fire symbols -秋.

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The rice harvest is completed as autumn sets in.

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momoji turns to flame. 

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Autumnal landscape. 

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A happy conjunction of autumn and Hallowe’en. 

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The ojizosama watches over passersby. 

By late the next week the temperature had dropped further, rain turned to sleet, and by the timeof my departure the landscape had put on its familiar white winter coat. A perfect sayonara.

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Sayonara snowfall.

 


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The view from the window

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On flights, particularly long-haul overseas ones, my seat of choice is an aisle one. They offer a (relative) feeling of freedom, make it easier to take multiple strolls and negate the need to scramble over fellow passengers for toilet or boredom breaks. The exception for this snow-deprived creature of the sub-tropics is flying in and out of Hokkaido in winter, because of the potential for glimpses of majestic Mt Fuji, just out of Tokyo, the towering snow-covered northern Alps of Honshu, and the black-and-white patchwork of paddies nearing Chitose airport. So a window seat must be booked in advance, just to be sure.

My most recent visit was not disappointing…Fuji loud and clear on the port side, minutes out of Narita, and minimal cloud cover offering captivating views of the Alps. And generous snowfalls earlier on the northern island guaranteed a thick blanket of chequered fields, frosted farm buildings and whitened trees glimpsed through obliging clouds.

 

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Approaching Chitose Airport. 

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Yotei, late afternoon. 

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Yotei, early morning.

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Setting sun on Yotei. 

Bucketing down in Niseko. 

Hokkaido does its snow seriously. It buckets or blizzards down, rather than sprinkling politely. Such a thrill for those of us from the subtropics.  And no matter how often you see it, Hokkaido’s Fuji-lookalike, Yotei-san, delights in all its moods.

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No need to interpret the road sign. 

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Tomamu, central Hokkaido. 


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Calendar girl

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Shrine torii.

One of New Year’s Day’s important tasks is to change the calendars. But the “out with the old; in with the new” routine can be bittersweet. Once utilitarian objects, calendars are increasingly personal with daily organisers to suit every known taste and interest, some works of art, making them hard to part with.  I will be sad to take down my study nook calendar gifted last Christmas, a compilation of family and nature images from the beautiful New South Wales South Coast by my photographically talented older brother.  Then there’s the annual calendar, always quaint and unusual, from an Osaka friend, a former exchange student.

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The crane, symbol of happiness and eternal youth. 

I will also regret having to say goodbye to my 2015 Blue and White calendar from the eponymous Tokyo art and craft boutique, with its daily reminder last year to stay genki – healthy, vital and energetic – and a tribute to the richness and artistry of Japanese culture.  But happily the 2016 Blue and White calendar is ready and waiting to take its place, thanks to Santa Claus. This is a Monkey Year and those born during it are said to possess the traits of wit, intelligence and magnetic personality, but are also inclined to mischievousness.

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The mischievous money gets the honours in 2016. 

This year’s calendar acknowledges “40 years of daily blessings” since its first publication, with flashbacks to past editions. The months feature blue and white salutes to an assortment of Japanese symbols including those of the crane, teacups, torii and the ubiquitous jovial Otafuku, the Goddess of Good Luck and Happiness, the shop’s symbol. Which fits perfectly with what I wish for you for 2106!

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The jovial Otafuku…bringing good luck and happiness.