From all these trees,
in the salads, the soup, everywhere,
cherry blossoms fall.

—Bashō, trans. Robert Hass

Sakura 2011

This year the cherry blossoms peaked in the cold and rainy final days of March.

Sakura 2011

Two evenings, we walked the tidal pool path surprised to be almost alone with the trees.

Sakura 2011

Yet, after the single Yoshino cherry blossoms have dropped their petals, then in April’s first sunlight and warmth come the frilly double Kwanzans.

Double cherry

And then—

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Japan Society Earthquake Relief Fund

Jun ai shikomi
The label on the neck of a bottle of Sharaku 冩楽 junmai ginjo says: jun ai shikomi [pure love brewing].

In Tokyo on the evening of February 15, I was sitting cross-legged in the private dining room of Takara, a modern izakaya, with John Gauntner and his students taking the 2011 Advanced Sake Professional Course. At the table with us was John’s own sake sensei, Haruo Matsuzaki. The night felt auspicious. We toasted, shouting, “kampai!” Mori-san, the maitre d’, organized the perfect service of numerous courses of food matched to the seven sakes John had chosen for the evening. After we ate and drank ourselves into a happy flushed stupor, people began crawling like babies over cushions on the wood floor to talk to others. The very long table was covered with tall 1.8 liter bottles of sake, many katakuchi (sake flasks with open tops), innumerable o-choko (small sake cups), and the plates from dinner. The conversation was animated, enthusiastic, and a bit drunken. Delight and déjà vu: back in 2005 through 2008 when I lived in Japan, Takara had been the site of nine memorable John Gauntner dinners that had solidified my interest in sake.

One of the sakes on February 15th was Sharaku 冩楽 junmai ginjo from Fukushima, a rich, tingly, and delicious pure rice sake named after the 18th-century ukiyo-e master whose identity is a mystery. The neck of the bottle had a label that read, “Pure Love Brew,” a pun on the word jun for “pure” [100%] rice sake, with a mixed meaning of something like “love of pure rice sake brewing” and “brewed with pure love.” I was so taken with the phrase that I pledged in a slurred voice that I would pursue a jun life, making it delicious and full of love.

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And that is where I stopped writing when I heard the news of the earthquake/tsunami/radiation crisis in Japan. This post was going to be about my love of sake and sake people: my sake sensei, John Gauntner, and John’s coordinator in the sake courses and sake tours (sake expert in her own right), Etsuko Nakamura. I wanted to share photos of the toji (master brewers) and owners of the breweries we visited and the two sake experts that shared their knowledge with us in the class, Shunsuke Kohiyama, and Matsuzaki-san.

Shunsuke Kohiyama
(on right) Kohiyama-san, former brewer, sake industry expert

Matsuzaki-san
Matsuzaki-san, sake expert

After much thought I think that my impulse to highlight the lives of individuals remains the best way we can relate to tragedy. Waves crashing over entire towns can too easily be abstracted in one’s mind as a trailer for a movie about world destruction. But what is lost is moments and memories we can grasp one person, one moment at a time. This is all I can offer today: names and faces of individuals in Japan, some of whom I know are safe, some I hope are. I offer my broken heart with pure love for the the people who died, the people who will suffer, and all that will be lost.

Miyasaka-san
Miyasaka-san, president of Miyasaka Shuzo in Nagano Prefecture, maker of Masumi sake.

Igarashi-san
Igarashi-san, toji of Kumazawa Shuzo in Kanagawa, maker of Tensei sake.

Aoshima-san
Aoshima-san, toji of Kumazawa Shuzo in Shizuoka, maker of Kikuyoi sake.

DSCF7514
Señor, unless I am blind, you are wearing no pants.

Sunday outing with a friend who speaks Japanese, with whom of course I rarely converse in Japanese. We have resolved to do better…sometime. First we have lunch at Mitsitam Café at the National Museum of the American Indian. I quite enjoy a cup of lamb and quinoa soup, a roasted squash side, and a Navajo fry bread. Then we’re off to a lecture by Andrew Maske at the Freer Gallery, “Tracing Tea Bowls: Elite Ceramics in Edo Period Japan,” including the development of Takatori ware. We pause on the way out to ogle the curvy 10th Century Indian bronzes.

At the entrance to the L’Enfant Plaza metro station, we see a large crowd of college-age kids, a Fox News cameraman, and a few photographers with tricked-out equipment. We have no idea why the kids are gathering, but from their voices we feel their exuberant titillation. Always a good sign. Nothing grabs my attention like young, (reasonably) good-looking people skipping along excitedly saying: “Oh my Gawd, look at all the people! When do we do it?”

Katie and I had unknowingly slipped into the Improv Everywhere No Pants! Subway Ride 2011, now in its 10th year. Capitol Improv was the local organizer.

Yellow line heading south, fairly crowded train, people with suitcases headed to the airport, a normal assortment of locals and tourists, except that as soon as the doors closed most people on the train pulled off shoes, unbuttoned and stripped off their pants. We saw lots of costume-ish flannel boxers paired with striped socks. I respected one guy whose worn, gray, cotton boxer briefs indicated he had not indulged in much self-conscious attire planning. A young woman wore a snug pair of panties printed with V-shaped text:

Turn Me
On

I was weighing my options for next year (one should heed mother’s advice to always wear presentable underwear), when it occurred to me that the pantless riders were dressed more respectably and were acting more politely than many of the “IT’S NOT THIS STOP! WE HAVE THREE MORE TO GO! GO SIT WITH YOUR FATHER!” August-sweaty tourists who ride the metro every summer.

Here’s to scenes of chaos and joy in public places. And underwear.

DSCF7466

Crisp, clear winter blue sky. No snow, but a 30 percent chance for Christmas day. We spent the morning rearranging things, weeding our belongings, deleting the dross to accentuate the good, useful, and beautiful in our home. Carlos made me a desk, a useful and beautiful thing where I will reacquaint myself with my Japanese books after much neglect during this harried autumn. As the light turns into sunset gold, the mailman brings the January/February issue of Saveur, the Saveur 100 issue, in which Japanese culinary culture is represented by kombu, Kajitsu restaurant in NYC, Sushi Shin in Tokyo, Nehoni Nenox knives, and yuzu kosho (yuzu-flavored chili paste and salt). Almost lost among the junk mail and supermarket flyers is a handmade postcard with a bunny cartoon: a 年賀状 (nengajo, New Year’s card) from one of my old English students. Reminders of Japan always seem to find me…

DSCF7497
My newest ochoko, a birthday gift from my father. I christened it quickly with a lovely junmai ginjo sake.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year of the Rabbit!

Jon Stewart Rally
The steps of the National Gallery of Art (West Building)

Remarkably genial, polite, and youthful crowd carrying irony-laden signs: a huge gathering of people I would enjoy hanging out with. And so I did for a couple of hours on Saturday.

Jon Stewart Rally
Sign: “Never too angry to spellcheck”

Jon Stewart Rally
Zombie Lincoln

Highlights: Continual low-level amusement reading the “protest” signs. The benediction by Don Novello as Father Guido Sarducci. Yusef (Cat Stevens) singing “Peace Train.” The O’Jays performing “Love Train.” Jon Stewart’s summation speech, which was a feel-good moment, even as a friend standing next to me said, “Jesus, I hope these people vote. They should have made everyone here sign an absentee ballot.”

Jon Stewart Rally
One of many group waves, lead by the “Mythbusters” guys

Jon Stewart Rally
Sign: Jesus cradling a dinosaur T. rex

Two favorite signs I couldn’t get shots of: “God Hates Nags” and a rewrite of the Gadsden flag as “Don’t Stomp Me Bro!”

RallytheCause.com has a “comprehensive” list of the signs. 

Jon Stewart Rally
You get the idea…

Jon Stewart Rally
Around 3 o’clock 200,000 people thought they’d grab a late lunch in Chinatown.

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