Facing the COVID Pandemic in the Heat of Summer


As Japan’s annual June monsoon breaks up and high summer approaches, Nikkei News (Nikkei.com) reports on June 28 that a recent survey by medical instruments maker Tanita shows that over 75% of Japanese will continue to wear masks throughout the hot months.


Much of the Japanese archipelago experiences stifling heat and humidity from early July thru mid-September, making heat stroke and related illnesses a topic of national concern in the summer season.
The same survey reports that 60.7% of those surveyed intend to wear masks even when temperatures exceed 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit), and that 45% said they would wear masks while jogging and doing other types of exercise.


The survey notes that Japan’s Ministry of Health recommends removing masks in hot conditions, when adequate social distancing can be maintained to protect from heat stroke, etc.   45% of those surveyed said they were not aware of the Ministry’s recommendation.  (Deaths have already been reported among those exercising with masks.)


The Tanita survey was directed at Japanese aged 15 – 69 years.

Modern Tatami Design

Pawprints for Petlovers?

Have you ever dreamed of building a Japanese tatami room in your own home?  A tatami room is more than just a beautiful accent to your home’s interior; it’s a personal expression of who you are.

Tatami Kobo Noguchi
Photo by Tatami Kobo Noguchi. See products at https://i-love-tatami.com/

Genuine tatami mats are made of igusa, Japanese rush, woven and stretched over tightly bound straw wadding, and they are always adorned with a thin strip of fancy border cloth. Though it is the natural padding and rush cover that make the tatami so comfortable and healthy, it is this border fabric – the tatami-beri, as it is called – that gives each tatami its special look.

These ornately patterned strips of cloth can be made of cotton, rayon or synthetic textile, and are sewn with durable colored thread (often of gold color) in jacquard relief that will never fray or fade. Although there are countless traditional patterns for the tatami ‘hem’, recently the rather monomaniacal Japanese are designing all kinds of new themes – one of the more popular being paw prints for pet lovers (see below.) So remember, if you decide to create a tatami room in your home, choose a motif that reflects your ‘beri’ taste and lifestyle!  (Believe me, if you can think of of a particular hem design, I’m sure Japan’s tatami makers can create it!)


The Motomachi Buddha of Oita


A Fading Beauty in Stone

Oita prefecture is the unrivaled heartland of Japan’s magaibutsu (Buddhist stone reliefs.)  While the old fief of Bungo is famous today for its plentiful hot springs (onsen), it is also home – somewhat mysteriously – to the largest number of lithic carvings in the country. Included among these are the twelfth-century national treasures of Usuki, in the south of the prefecture.

A Little-known Urban Relic

I recently went in search of one of Oita’s lesser-known reliefs, the Motomachi sekibutsu (stone Buddha.) Unlike most of the region’s carvings, which are found outside of small towns in the countryside, this stone deity is located in Oita City suburb of Furugo.  But don’t ask a local for directions to it; this neighborhood, thought to have been the capital of this land more than a thousand years ago, is a long walk from the central station, and hardly a well-known tourist destination.

I went there because longish walks attract me, and soaking in hot springs is nice, but not my raison d’être.  To my mind, pondering a thousand year-old work of art adds a bit of dimension to the day.

The Setting

The Motomachi relief is housed in a temple-like shelter on a dead-end street just a stone’s throw from the tracks of the Kyudai railway.  There isn’t much around, houses and a highway, though just around the corner is an old tumulus (but don’t expect much there.) As you enter through the gate and approach the shelter you notice to the right an exposed stone cliff; it appears that carvings might have once adorned this outcropping, but are now gone.  On the double doors before you hangs a sign that says they shall be kept shut; but the doors are unlocked, and there is no fee to enter.

The Characters in Question

Inside the doors is the central carving of the Yakushi Buddha.  It is nearly three meters in height, larger than most reliefs, with a face quite serene but also sadly deteriorated. According to the literature the damage to the carving is the work of salts that have soaked into the volcanic rock over the years.



Yet it is surprising that so much of the central figure still exists; the attendant deities on either side, Fudo Myoo (the Warrior King) and his disciples Cetaka and Kongara, on the right, and Bishamon (the God of Wealth), Kissho and Benzaiten (I think), on the left, are largely disintegrated, far beyond the point of restoration.  (Nor can I understand how the identities of the deities on the left were construed; they are no more than fragmented, ghost-like outlines on the stone.)

An Enduring Image

The oldest photo of the central (Yakushi Buddha) figure, dating from 1915, shows it protected within an open shed under a bulrush roof.  Indications are that as early the Edo period efforts were made to protect the central figure, with plaster added in the Meiji or Taisho era to repair the worst damage.  Still, it is amazing that the original carving endured as well as it did for so long; the work is believed to date from the middle to late Heian period (795 – 1185), and clearly reflects the Jocho school of carving, with obvious similarities to Jocho’s Amida Buddha of the Houou-do (Phoenix Hall at Byodo-in.)

A Treasure Worth Preserving

In recent decades concerted efforts have been made to save this treasure from further deterioration, including the construction of tunnels under the surrounding rock to divert water, and the injection of resins into the carving itself to slow its disintegration. Sensors have been placed on the effigy, as well, to detect and record changes in the rock substrates. In 2012, UNESCO designated the site for further study and preservation.

Once a Splendid Thing

Yet it appears that nothing will stop the continued dissolution of this old religious icon, which must have been a splendid sight for several centuries after its creation.  In those days there would have been nothing to block an expansive view of the wide Oita River and distant mountain ranges beyond.  Given the natural positioning of the figures, and the unique mise-en-scène, the entire stone retinue would have appeared fluid and lifelike.  Among the many reliefs of Oita, it was probably once the most beautiful of all.

The Motomachi magaibutsu is a 40-minute walk from Oita Station, or a 16-minute walk from Furugo Station (but not many trains stop here.)  If you are good with the bus system it is a two-minute walk from Yakushido stop.  Use your GPS to locate ‘Motomachi Sekibutsu’; hopefully your internet connection is good.



Dreaming at Groom Expo West

Last week Domo Communications assisted pet grooming scissor and accessory manufacturer Dream Industries (from Wakayama, Japan) at the Groom Expo West, in Pasadena, CA (Feb. 14-17), where Dream shared booth space with longtime U.S. partner Healthy Spot, a leading L.A. area dog daycare and grooming provider.

As trade shows go Groom Expo West is a small one, but the level of excitement was high, with the ambience akin to a combination canine fashion show and red carpet event.

Billed as “the West Coast’s Most Illustrious Grooming Show,” and sponsored by the American Kennel Club (AKC), the venue included a center-stage grooming competition that ran all day each day, showcasing new and veteran groomers, including such industry celebrities as master groomer Kenichi Nagase (of Tokyo, Japan), who appeared in the recent Netflix docuseries “Dogs.”

Master groomer Ken Nagase demonstrates his style of grooming at the Healthy Spot booth at Groom Expo West.


Dream, which specializes in high-quality grooming scissors, thinners, blenders, brushes and related products, is a prominent player in Japan’s pet care industry, and also enjoys a dedicated following among grooming professionals in the U.S. By minding and incorporating the specific demands of America’s elite master dog groomers over the years, Dream has developed a wide variety of well-received shears, including high-cobalt steel models of exceptional durability and precision.

Dream blending and thinning shears made with high-cobalt alloy steel.


Videri, Smog City Win Good Food Foundation Awards



The good people at Videri Chocolate (Raleigh, NC) and Smog City Brewery (Torrance, CA) have won awards at the 2019 Good Food Foundation Awards, held in San Francisco, CA, on Jan. 11, 2019.

Our friends at Videri won for their delectable 70% Classic Dark Chocolate (we’ve been fanatics of this one for years!!) and Lavender Black Pepper Carmel, while our neighbors at Smog City Brewing Co. earned a prize with their Kumquat Saison. We’ve tasted this lovely brew, as well, and can attest to the superb craft that has gone into all of these products.

The Good Food Foundation gives awards in over a dozen categories of artisanal foods (snacks, spirits, coffee, confections, oils, to name a few) that meet its stringent standards, including locally and responsibly sourced ingredients, socially responsible and sustainable practices, no GMOs, organic ingredients, low or no chemical production, and other guidelines specific to each category.

The Thatched Roof Farmhouses of Tamba

Although thatch is the traditional roofing material of many Japanese structures, it is most often seen today on homes in Japan’s remote rural villages. Well-preserved hamlets such as Shirakawa-go have become popular destinations for tourists seeking a unique lodging experience.  One of the greatest concentrations of thatched-roof dwellings in Japan is found in the Kyoto district of Tamba.

For thousands of years, the homes of Tamba were roofed with kaya (a term for miscanthus, bulrush, and pampas grass), or wara (straw harvested from rice or other grains), both materials readily available in and around farms. Not only was it free; after serving for years to protect the home, it could be returned to the fields as compost.

While thatch was also widely used as roofing material in Europe and England, the Japanese thatched roof has many characteristics that make it unique. Most notably, the rush reed – preferred over straw for its greater longevity and insulating properties – is bound to bamboo crosspieces to erect a steeply-pitched, sometimes slightly curved roof. This sharply-angled roof was essential in a land of frequent rains and heavy snowfall.

As mentioned, the commonly used kaya lasted much longer than straw, due to its higher oil content, but it offered another important advantage to the Japanese dwelling; the hollow stems of the rush provided excellent insulation in the hot season. This consideration cannot be over-emphasized. For instance, the homes of Tamba are oriented with their gables facing into the prevailing valley breezes, for optimal ventilation, a further measure to keep them cool throughout the hottest summer months.

The Japanese thatched-roof farmhouse is a testimony to the sustainable culture of rural Japan. For anyone interested in this subject a day-trip to Kyoto Tamba, where the craft of thatching lives on, is highly recommended.

The Kofun Dilemma


When archaeologists recently opened a 4,400 year-old tomb in Egypt, revealing its beautiful reliefs to a curious world, there was no outcry against the desecration of someone’s final resting place, no concern about an eternal journey being rudely interrupted by 21st century antiquities hunters. Egyptian tomb exploration has been a form of world entertainment for a long time.

Not so with the royal tombs and tumuli of Japan. Today in Japan almost no archeological investigations of the large kofun (burial mounds) are allowed, even though these sites might provide significant insights into the life and development of Japan’s early Yamato civilization (250-710AD.) The reason? The Imperial Household Agency controls all access to these tombs, and forbids it.

It Wasn’t Always the Case

There have been investigations of Japanese tombs (including ones presumed to be of imperial descent) in the past, and these excavations have been of great value to the study of early Japanese culture. Often, the evidence unearthed predates the earliest extant historical records, which are in any case of questionable historical facticity.

One of the most remarkable discoveries was made at the Takamatsuzuka Kofun, which was excavated in 1972.


Takamatsuzuka – A Farmer Strikes Gold

Discovered in the village of Asuka by a farmer who hit quarried stone while digging into a hillock, this modest tumulus was excavated without much fanfare by a local Archaeological Institute. In spite of being in a cluster of significant tulumi, and though it was thought for centuries to be the tomb of Emperor Monmu, no one moved to halt the work.

Within a few days, researchers had revealed a narrow stone crypt, which medieval thieves had chiseled into some 700-800 year ago. The stone chamber still contained bronze and iron artifacts, but also something quite unexpected – plastered walls with well-preserved frescoes: detailed color images of a dragon, a tiger, a mythical tortoise, and groups of men and women dressed in the fashion of the times; the moon and sun were rendered in silver and gold flake, and Chinese constellations adorned the ceiling.

Nothing in the vault, including the remains, proved definitively who was laid to rest there, but it was clearly not Emperor Monmu. In any case, after preservation work was completed, higher authorities sealed the tomb, and it has never since been reopened.


Illuminating Finds, and a New Royal Dig

While the Takamatsuzuka crypt left many questions unanswered, all agree that its discovery aimed a beam of light upon the influences and beliefs of Japanese nobles of the late 7th to early 8th centuries. Its contents have engendered speculation and debate ever since. And it has begged a much bigger question: What might the undisturbed crypt of a real emperor reveal about the past?

Maybe Just a Peek?

In October, 2018, a rare exception to the policy of no intrusion on royal burial grounds was made at the Daisen Tumulus, Japan’s largest burial mound.

The Daisen Tumulus was constructed in the early to mid 5th century, and is the presumed resting place of Emperor Nintoku. Under the auspices of Sakai City and the Imperial Household Agency, archaeologists are now digging at this famous keyhole-shaped mound, which covers an area nearly twice as large as the great pyramid of Cheops, Egypt. The Daisen mound is over 800 meters long and over 600 wide, and was originally surrounded by three moats of different heights.

To date, researchers have laid bare stonework and clay cylinders, known as haniwa, at just the edge of the southerly, squared end of the mound. This is a very long way from the presumed crypt of Emperor Nintoku, and is unlikely to shed much new light on the mysteries of early Japanese civilization. But we shall see.



For now, they rest in peace

Like the tombs of Egypt, and burial sites throughout the world, Japan’s large tumuli were looted centuries ago. A bronze mirror from the Daisen mound, possibly cast in China, has been owned by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for many years, having been acquired in Kyoto in 1908.

But while the Imperial Household Agency might fear the removal of more artifacts, by prohibiting investigation of the tombs it also effectively protects Imperial history from any inconvenient revelations. Whether this is intended or not, it means many intriguing questions about Japan’s earliest influences will remain unanswered.

The Final Say

But suppose that somewhere in Japan, in the tomb of a greater or lesser Yamato king, a telling trove of artifacts lies undisturbed. It seems quite likely that such treasures exist, either because they have never been found, or because they have been protected.

Then this: as much as we would like to examine them, and know their provenance, is our old habit of digging into tombs really the right thing to do? Should our thirst for knowledge trump our respect for the dead?

Hmm. For now, the Imperial Household Agency has the final say on that.


Sources: 古都飛鳥保存財団 (Kotou Asuka Hozon Zaidan), Asashi.com, Mainichi.com, ja.widipedia.org


The Culture of Yamato

For a period of over 400 years Japan’s royalty and nobles were buried in tumuli, or large burial mounds. This period in Japan’s history spans both the Kofun (Tumulus) Period (250 – 538AD) and the Asuka Period (538 – 710AD), and is best thought of collectively as the Yamato period.

Though Buddhism was introduced to Japan during the 6th century, it did not take the country by storm. For hundreds of years Japan remained largely an animist, with royalty much under the influence of the court cultures of Korea and China – as the Takamatsuzuka frescoes indicate.

Imagine the world of King Arthur’s England, obsessed with magic, demons and warfare, engaged in tenuous trade with distant empires – some crumbling, some greater than itself. This was the Japan of the Yamato period.

The Roofer

Have you ever looked at a Japanese tile roof and thought “what a fine thing!” Just kidding. I have, for much of my life.

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This month Yamamoto Kiyokazu, the founder of roof tile manufacturer Yamamoto Kawara Co., Ltd., passed away at the age of 86. He was the master foreman on the large-scale roof restorations of such historical structures as Todai-ji Temple (Nara), and Himeji Castle (Hyogo.) In his position as touryou (棟梁), a term composed of the characters for roof ridge pole and beams, he was the man at the top of these operations.

This was important work.  These and other restorations he supervised, such as Houryu-ji Temple (Nara), which is one of the oldest wooden buildings in the world, are designated world heritage sites, and among Japan’s greatest treasures.

Mr. Yamamoto, you had quite the resume!

Sometimes, when I look up at a fine Japanese roof, I ask myself “How did it get there?” and “Who will take care of it in fifty or a hundred years?”

Well, this master roofer worked hard to promote an appreciation of tile roofing, spending many years of his life lecturing on the subject around Japan.



Thank you, Mr. Yamamoto.

The Spirit of Benkei

Of Ramen and Road Warriors


Here is a story steeped in the broth of legend; a tale of loyalty, gratitude and – I vouchsafe it – some very good noodles.

Just Another Lonely Noodle Shop

Many years ago there was a ramen shop in Horikiri that brewed an especially rich pork bone soup. The place had a following – truckers, night owls and the like – but traffic was never heavy.  It was on the outskirts of town, far from the nearest train station, with nothing separating its counter from the street but six or seven rickety stools, an old noren and the sidewalk.  Like the famous warrior monk of old, the shop was named Benkei.

A Lucky Driver

One day, out of the blue, a cab driver domiciled nearby was invited by a popular TV station to be the host cognoscente of a daytime docu-series on preferred eateries of the local working folk.  How he was selected for this distinction is a mystery, but who knew him agreed he was perfect for the role.  When asked to produce a list of his favorite food stops, he did so with little hesitation, and one of them was – you guessed it – Ramen Benkei.

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Under Hot Lights

There’s no need to describe in detail the events that followed.  I won’t recount how, under a hot strobe, with the videocam rolling, the cabbie hunched over a bowl of his favorite miso chashumen, sucking down that thick miasma of crushed garlic, diced green onions, sliced pork and egg noodles with the facedown determination of a sumo wrestler.  Grunting caveman responses to his  interlocutor, he remained focused on the bowl until, with his last slurp, he pushed it away with both hands, belched and calmly wiped the sweat from his brow.

The Buzz

One day, many weeks later, in this land where no one pays their public television fee collector a plastic penny – but still watches NHK daily – a gaggle of utter strangers formed a short line on the sidewalk outside that little ramen shop.  Street traffic slowed and clotted, with rubbernecking, and even some honking.  A hedge of bicycles grew helter-skelter along the curbside.

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The Boom

As days passed this phenomenon only intensified.  Within a fortnight, Ramen Benkei had swarms of hungry bodies waiting outside, waiting patiently to taste the storied fare.  Word spread like wildfire, and Benkei was suddenly catapulted from serving a few dozen customers a day to feeding hundreds and hundreds.  (The occasional female was even spotted in the crowd!)  Pundits claim that this was the exact moment when Japan’s ramen “boom” was ignited; MSG stock tripled in value overnight.

Remembering a Loyal Customer

All this occurred some 35 years ago, just about the time the above-mentioned cabbie became my father-in-law.  By then, the owners of Ramen Benkei were already sending him gifts of gratitude each summer and winter, something they have done without fail ever since, even as they have opened new locations in old Tokyo.  In fact, after being implored countless times by the cabbie to desist from their kindness – and even after learning from the driver’s wife that her husband had departed for that eternal noodle stand in the sky – they continue to honor their benefactor’s widow with delicious o-chugen and o-seibo gifts to this very day.

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Where It’s At

Benkei has locations in Horikiri, Asakusa and Monzennakacho.   Only downtown Tokyo is the real deal!  Everything west of Shinbashi is fake news!  So slip into your geta, and go get some real ramen now!

Historical Note:

It is said that the warrior monk Musashibo Benkei singlehandedly battled a force of three hundred attackers while defending his beleaguered master, Yoshitsune Minamoto.  Refusing to retreat, he made a stand on a narrow bridge, and fought to the death, annihilating great numbers of attackers while Yoshitsune calmly committed ritual seppuku.

In the proper posture of a true noodleman, Benkei died standing up.

This all happened a long time before the invention of the ramen shop.  May it never be forgotten!

Bessho Onsen

Soul-Cleansing for the Tokyo Day Tripper

Although Bessho Onsen is a quaint hot spring town with an impressive history, it’s very small, and very quiet. (Don’t get it mixed up with Beppu Onsen, Japan’s thermal wonderland, in Kyushu.) If you visit Bessho on a weekday, when no events are scheduled, you might want to bring a friend.

Goto Onsen and others 057 - Copy

Get Ready to Slow Down

From Ueda Station (the Hokuriku bullet train stop) take the Shinano line for Bessho Onsen.  Some of the stops along this thirty-minute, double-car ride amount to little more than a block of cement by a cabbage patch.  There might be seven half-asleep people slumped on the benches with you.  This single-track chugger, arriving at the empty wooden station that is your destination, seems like something straight out of Spirited Away.

If you’re thinking this place is just what the doctor ordered, it could be that you, too, are suffering from TTSD (Tokyo Traumatic Stress Disorder.) You should check this place out.



Don’t Call a Taxi

From the station, just walk.  Take it slow. If I forgot to mention it, this place is pretty small.  The temptation to find a map, and do something ambitious, like exploring in the hills beyond town, disappears quickly.  Why bother? For soaking there are several public baths (the ¥150 kind), a few small inns to consider (in case you want to stay longer), and plenty of history to take in.   Just unwind.  There’s zero noise pollution; the air is pretty fresh.



A Wealth of History

These springs had already been settled for centuries when the fierce warrior Yoshinaka Minamoto galloped into Shinano to muster forces against the Taira, in the year 1180, and burned the original Bessho temples to the ground.  Long before, Sei Shonagon had referenced the town (by an older name) in her famous work The Pillow Book (c. 1010.)

Miraculous Waters

In fact, Bessho is said to be one of Japan’s oldest hot springs, and Nagano’s oldest, known at least from the time that nearby Zenkoji Temple was founded (c. 625.) Rebuilt in 1252 (after Yoshinaka’s unkindness), it became popular in later centuries with betrothed ladies because (take note) its thermal waters were said to make a woman’s skin more beautiful. After a dip in one of the public baths – and a non-descript bath, at that – I noticed that even mine was greatly improved!

The Main Attraction

Bessho’s “North-Facing Kannon” temple is a rarity in Japan, as few Japanese temples are built facing north. It is said that praying at this temple will remove evil from your life. Far across the distant valley, low on the horizon, is a range of mountains, snowcapped in winter. Somewhere out there is the “South-Facing Kannon,” at Zenkou-ji Temple, harkening from beyond the swift-running Chikuma river. If you really want to expel your demons, you must pray before the deities of both temples.



Scarce Amenities

There are just a few places to eat in Bessho, much more local in vibe than touristy, and the favorite dish here is buckwheat noodles. Simple fare. People out here are polite, but also just plain people. There’s a visitor center, and a souvenir shop or two, on your way back to the station.



Good for a Day, or Longer

This is an easily missed corner of Nagano, with a colorful history and countless places to explore. You could visit nearby Unnojuku after your foray to Bessho, if you want to see some fine old architecture, and still get back to Tokyo in time for dinner. Zenkou-ji is not too far for a quick visit (and that second prayer!) Much better, you could treat yourself to a really nice hot spring bath at one of the venerable Bessho inns, and make it an overnight affair.

And feel that TTSD just dissolve away.