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Photo: Sustainergy
Solar arrays can reduce a farm’s carbon footprint while allowing room for crops and livestock. In Japan, Sustainergy has designed “solar farms at large scale so that farmers could obtain additional stable income.” Above, cloud ear mushrooms.

When a company solves two important problems with one project, I probably shouldn’t call it killing two birds with one stone. Send me a better metaphor, please.

Adele Peters writes at Fast Company about the dual benefits of a Japanese project that provides not only solar power but also a cozy place to grow mushrooms.

“Small farms in Japan are struggling to survive. Rural populations are shrinking, and the average farmer is 67 years old. But two new farms will test a different business model to try to reinvigorate the sector: solar panels with mushrooms growing underneath them.

“The farms, at two locations in northeastern Japan, will produce a combined 4,000 kilowatts of solar power that will be sold to a local utility, while the mushroom farms will yield an annual 40 tons of cloud-ear mushrooms, a crop that is typically imported from China.

“ ‘The environment needs to be dark and humid for mushrooms to spawn,’ says Minami Kikuchi, who leads the ‘solar sharing’ project that combines agriculture and solar power at Sustainergy, a renewable energy startup. ‘We simply created the suitable environment for them by making use of vacant space under the solar panels.’ ”

As Kikuchi explained to Fast Company in an email, ” ‘We designed the project of combination with solar farms at large scale so that farmers could obtain additional stable income. Of course, this renewable energy technology is contributing to the sustainable development of Japan too.’

“Today, an estimated 10% of Japanese farmland is not in use, despite the fact that the majority of food is imported. Government tariffs have discouraged companies from converting farmland to solar power generation, but a partial change in regulations in 2013 meant that solar power was more viable – provided that it was constructed in combination with agriculture. …

“Sustainergy believes that similar farms could potentially grow other crops that need little light, such as potatoes. In the U.S., researchers at the University of Massachusetts are exploring the possibility of growing a much wider range of crops; a farm in South Deerfield has spent the last two years growing plants like kale, broccoli, and Swiss chard under rows of nine-foot-high solar panels. …

“Farmers also have another option: Grazing sheep or cattle on grass grown under solar panels. Sheep can take the place of lawnmowers, and as the grass sucks up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the farm can have a negative carbon footprint.”

More at Fast Company, here.

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Photo: Wycliffe College/PA
English school girl
Gracie Starkey wrote a winning haiku. Here she is at the prize-giving ceremony in Tokyo.

I’ve always liked the standard 17-syllable haiku poem and taught the form to fifth graders years ago. Asakiyume remembers one I wrote for her at a business magazine where we worked. It was about a dream she’d recounted, and it referred to the moon as “trending downward” (business jargon we heard a lot).

Of course, most experts are Japanese. Until now. Here is a story my husband emailed me about a young girl in England who won a haiku contest.

Steven Morris writes at the Guardian, “A British schoolgirl inspired by an autumnal stroll across a newly mown lawn has become the first non-Japanese person to win a prestigious haiku competition.

“Gracie Starkey, 14, from Gloucestershire, beat more than 18,000 entries to take the prize in the English-language section of the contest organised annually by a Japanese tea company. …

“As she and a friend took a walk after [her school’s haiku] workshop, grass cuttings stuck to her footwear and the haiku came to her:

“Freshly mown grass
“clinging to my shoes
“my muddled thoughts

“Her poem – a non-traditional form that does not follow the classic five-seven-five syllable pattern – was entered into the competition organised by the multinational Ito En, first held in 1989. For the first 27 years the English-language section was won by Japanese people. …

“Gracie said she was amazed when she heard she had won and had been invited to Tokyo.

“ ‘I could only tell my mum and dad and sister and my Japanese teacher at Wycliffe College,’ said Gracie. ‘I told my friends that I was going to Wales for a week and that I wouldn’t have any phone reception.’ …

“As well as winning the trip, Gracie’s poem was rendered by a famous calligrapher, and she received a cash prize. Most thrillingly, her poem is being reproduced on thousands of bottles of green tea. …

“Previously she had little interest in poetry. ‘This has certainly made me more interested in poetry and in Japanese culture.’ ”

More at the Guardianhere.

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Image: Reuters/Denis Balibouse
The World Economic Forum touts research suggesting that “forest bathing,” the act of being among the trees, has health benefits.

We love trees. John, for example, serves on the Arlington tree committee and helps with the town’s efforts to inventory its trees, acquire more sidewalk plantings, and assist researchers studying the role of urban trees in carbon reduction.

A master landscaper I know is also into trees. He shared this story about the health benefits of something the Japanese call “forest bathing.”

Ephrat Livini wrote at the World Economic Forum, “Now there’s scientific evidence supporting eco-therapy. The Japanese practice of forest bathing is proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormone production, boost the immune system, and improve overall feelings of well-being.

“Forest bathing — basically just being in the presence of trees—became part of a national public health program in Japan in 1982 when the forestry ministry coined the phrase shinrin-yoku and promoted topiary as therapy. …

“Forest air doesn’t just feel fresher and better — inhaling phytoncide seems to actually improve immune system function. …

“From 2004 to 2012, Japanese officials spent about $4 million dollars studying the physiological and psychological effects of forest bathing, designating 48 therapy trails based on the results. Qing Li, a professor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, measured the activity of human natural killer (NK) cells in the immune system before and after exposure to the woods. These cells provide rapid responses to viral-infected cells and respond to tumor formation, and are associated with immune system health and cancer prevention. In a 2009 study Li’s subjects showed significant increases in NK cell activity in the week after a forest visit, and positive effects lasted a month following each weekend in the woods. …

“Experiments on forest bathing conducted by the Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences in Japan’s Chiba University measured its physiological effects on 280 subjects in their early 20s. The team measured the subjects’ salivary cortisol (which increases with stress), blood pressure, pulse rate, and heart rate variability during a day in the city and compared those to the same biometrics taken during a day with a 30-minute forest visit. …

“Trees soothe the spirit too. A study on forest bathing’s psychological effects surveyed 498 healthy volunteers, twice in a forest and twice in control environments. The subjects showed significantly reduced hostility and depression scores, coupled with increased liveliness, after exposure to trees. …

“City dwellers can benefit from the effects of trees with just a visit to the park. Brief exposure to greenery in urban environments can relieve stress levels.”

More here. Be sure to watch the video.

Hat tip: Paul Kelly on Facebook.

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Art: Tomihiro Hoshino

For more than 30 years, a woman from Hokkaido, Japan, who stayed at our house while studying the local PTA has been sending me magnificent calendars.

The calendars are from a talented artist and former athlete whose paralysis led him to master holding a brush in his mouth. His name is Tomihiro Hoshino.

An article at AccessibleJapan reports, “Tomihiro Hoshino was an experienced 24-year-old gymnastics teacher with a real passion for the sport. An active mountain climber and gymnastics instructor, his life changed completely as he was demonstrating a double somersault technique to a group of junior high school students. Hoshino unfortunately injured his neck during the maneuver and since that day he has been completely paralyzed from the neck down.

“The accident was a serious blow to this extremely active person who was forced to lay motionless for nine years in a Gunma orthopedic Hospital where he was kept under heavy surveillance for respiratory problems and complications as a result of the injury. He and his family never gave up hope that his physical condition would stabilize and improve. Although it took nine years, and he came close to death many times, there was always hope for the future.

“Many say that this hope came two years after his accident. In 1972 one of the patients that had stayed in the same room as Tomihiro Hoshino was being transferred into a different hospital. He asked that the staff, as well as all of the people that stayed with him, to sign a card as a memento of his time in the hospital. Tomihiro couldn’t come up with a solution as to how he would be able to sign his name for the man but with the help of his mother he was able to hold a pen in his mouth and eventually sign Tomo. This would be the beginning of how Tomihiro would begin his career in writing and painting.

“The second event that produced real inspiration for Tomihiro Hoshino was a time that a friend brought him flowers and left them in the window. …

“He was moved to start expressing what they meant to him. He began to gradually draw flowers and eventually became an adept painter with his mouth. …

“Tomihiro Hoshino has successfully produced hundreds of pieces of artwork, many of his essays and poems have been published and his work is displayed in permanent exhibitions at the Tomihiro Hoshino Museum. …

“If you are interested in Tomihiro Hoshino’s works, you can purchase them on Amazon or visit his art gallery in Gunma, Japan.”

More at AccessibleJapan, here. Read about his museum here. Those who read Japanese may click here.

I feel lucky to have had this decades-long friendship with a woman in Hokkaido. Although we haven’t seen each other since the 1980s, her daughter, Mika, came to visit while living in New York. Mika helped decorate our Christmas tree that year. Nowadays, I never do the tree without thinking of her.

Image: Tomihiro Art Museum

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Here’s a great story from the Japan Times about a theater group for people over 60. Where do I sign up?

Nobuko Tanaka writes, “At the age of 91, Saitama resident Izumi Noguchi is speaking at his first press conference — at least as an actor anyway.

“ ‘When I saw an advert in April inviting anyone aged 60 or older to audition for a new project called 10,000 Gold Theater, I just felt like challenging myself to do something I’d never had a chance to try before,’ he says.

“Noguchi is the oldest person to join the 10,000 Gold Theater ensemble. …  ‘Gold Symphony, my dream, your dream’ [is] a staging on an unparalleled scale that features some 1,600 performers (not 10,000 as the name suggests) who are all volunteers and almost all amateurs …

“Arts promoter Taneo Kato came up with the idea [when] he was watching a performance of ‘Hamlet’ in which stage icon Yukio Ninagawa directed members of the Saitama Gold Theater and Saitama Next Theater — troupes made up of older and younger actors that he formed in 2006 and 2009, respectively, after becoming artistic director at Saitama Arts Theater in 2006.

“ ‘Out of the blue, midway through “Hamlet,” veteran enka singers the Komadori Sisters — who are actually twins — appeared and sang “I Want to be Happy One Day,” ’ Kato says, recalling how striking a moment it was to see the women, born in 1938, sing those words.” More here.

I wonder how big an issue memorization is for the performers. My friend Dorothy started a group of older amateur actors in Concord, but they do readings and don’t have to memorize. I have many memorized stories, Bible verses, and poems in my head and can trot them out at a moment’s notice. Not sure if I could acquire new ones to the same extent.

Photo: Maiko Miyagawa
Massive undertaking: Seiji Nozoe directs elderly actors during rehearsals for the play ‘Gold Symphony, my dream, your dream,’ performed in Chuo-ku, Saitama City, December 2016.

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Gudetama, a gloomy egg yolk in a Japanese cartoon series, is one manifestation of an offbeat sense of humor that some observers see as uniquely Japanese.

Patrick Winn wrote the Global Post story.

“Is it possible to market malaise? In Japan at least, the answer is yes. Meet Gudetama, the anthropomorphic embodiment of severe depression.

“Gudetama is a cartoon egg yolk that feels existence is almost unbearable. It shivers with sadness. It clings to a strip of bacon as a security blanket. Rather than engage in society, it jams its face into an eggshell and mutters the words, ‘Cold world. What can we do about it?’

“Gudetama may hate the world beyond its shell. But the world — within Japan’s borders, at least — sure loves Gudetama.

“The misanthropic egg was introduced last year by Sanrio, a Tokyo-based corporation devoted to creating cutesy characters and licensing out their images. Its flagship character, Hello Kitty, is valued at $7 billion and appears on lunch boxes and pajama sets across the globe.

“Gudetama is following Hello Kitty’s lead. Its distressed little face now appears on fuzzy slippers, iPhone covers, plush dolls and even a themed credit card by Visa. …

“Matt Alt, a Japanese-speaking American and specialist in Japan’s pop culture, [decodes] Japan for Western audiences. [He opines that] in Japan, there’s a long history of personifying and anthropomorphizing inanimate objects.

“Gudetama is the most recent of a long, long lineage of mascot characters. Many Japanese mascots will express emotions that Western mascots would not. In the West, mascots are used almost exclusively to cheer people up. In Japan, they’re often used to get a point across or act as mediators in situations where you wouldn’t want to express yourself directly.” More here.

Some US advocates for people with mental illness object strongly to  humor on the subject (even criticizing phrases like “wild and crazy guy”). Others recognize that there are those who use humor to help themselves get well. Wonder what they would think of this egg yolk.

Photo: Sanrio

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Photo: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

So, actually, he was an artist first and only did gardening to support himself as immigrant with no connections.

Los Angeles Times reporter Carolina A. Miranda wrote about him in July, around the time of the “Made in L.A.” biennial at the Hammer Museum.

She says, “When artist Kenzi Shiokava received a telephone call from a pair of curators organizing [the biennial], he says he had little clue of the meteoric effect it would have on his life.

“ ‘I’d never seen “Made in L.A.,” ‘ says the 78-year-old sculptor. ‘I’ve always been off the art establishment.’

“But as he does with anyone who is interested in seeing his work, he invited the curators — Hamza Walker and Aram Moshayedi — to his studio so that they could have a look at his totemic wood sculptures, junk-art assemblages and curiosity boxes featuring orderly, patterned displays of old toys, plastic fruit and discarded religious ephemera.

“Shiokava says he was buoyed by the visit but subdued in his expectations. ‘Lots of shows come and go,’ he says. …

” ‘I didn’t know it’d be like this,’ he says with a resplendent grin. ‘The response has been amazing.’…

“[Walker] says that from the moment he and Moshayedi stepped into Shiokava’s studio, early in 2015, they were sure that this was an artist they wanted to include in the show.

“ ‘It was pretty immediate,’ he says. ‘We were both speechless within 10 paces of the entrance. There were all of these totems right up front and we were like, woooowwww.’ …

“ ‘What’s always kept me going is people coming to my studio and enjoying the work,’ [Shiokava] says in his deeply accented English. ‘But now I know my work will have a legacy. My work will live.’ ”

Read about the artist’s early life as a Japanese immigrant in Brazil, how he ended up in LA, and how he began to develop his art while working as a gardener for Marlon Brando and others (here).

Photo: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Kenzi Shiokava in his studio.

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