Higan-the Autumn Equinox

The day of the autumn equinox is a holiday here and I’ve always loved that because Autumn is my favorite season.

There is a saying in Japan:

“The summer heat or winter cold doesn’t last after Higan.”

Higan is said to be a turning point in the season and it is- as far as I have observed.

Higan or Ohigan is actually a Buddhist tradition observed on both the spring and autumn equinox. It is similar to Obon. It’s a time when families visit cemeteries to pay their respects to ancestors.

I’ve noticed that it is also a time when merchants turn the tide from summer to autumn wares.

I love it simply because it is the official start of Autumn.

The equinox, when summer officially hands over the keys and bids a final farewell. The last threads of summer were washed silently away in the mist. Not even a leaf stirred. There was no sound except for the ever present caw of the giant crows-karasu.


Even the scarecrows stood reticent guard over the elementary school rice field as  giant black karasu sat perched above on the electric lines…. eyeing up the persimmon trees that were now dotted with orange fruit.

As I walk about town I see that several of the persimmon trees have already been ravaged by the birds. During this time of the year it’s best to avoid walking under a persimmon tree. There are several that grow up over the walls above the sidewalk. Smashed fruit and bird-droppings smear the old concrete walks beneath them.



It seems that Higanbana have sprung up everywhere over the past few days. A sure sign that autumn has truly arrived. In ditches, lining the edges of rice fields and poking up in clumps in hedgerows and road-sides. Their spindly red blossoms add bright autumn color to our landscape.


This is also the time when moon viewing is at its best.


There is actually a moon-viewing festival here. Everywhere actually. It is a Japanese traditional festival called Otsukimi that usually takes place on the 15th day of the 8th month of the traditional Japanese calendar which is different from our modern calendar.

Otsukimi dates back to around the year 710 and was mainly celebrated by aristocrats who held moon viewing parties and read poetry, drank sake and generally had a great time out in the cool autumn evening.

Observing Otsukimi is wonderful. Traditionally round white mochi (rice dumplings) are eaten during this time and it is common to see decorations of the full moon hanging in the night sky while rabbits below pound rice into mochi. Americans talk about the “man in the moon” but Japanese say there are rabbits on the moon. I had no idea until some friends in ladies group explained the meaning of the rabbit/moon motifs.

first day of Autumn
my heart is pounding wild
Ah! The full moon

Matsuo Basho

The big cemetery across the valley reminds me that Higan is here. A week before the spring and autumn equinox the huge Kanji character “dai” is illuminated on the mountainside.

I can see it clearly from my back garden.

The “dai” blazes across the valley as the harvest moon illuminates the tops of now fading azalea leaves. A slight cool breeze gently stirs the faded bamboo sunshade as crickets chirrup from one side of the garden to the other. Sitting quietly in the dark I smell the earth and the tangy aroma of autumn fruit.

It is good to be alive but it is good to be reminded that everything changes.

Cooking Gobo

Gobo- burdock root in English- is one of my favorite root “vegetables”.

I remember the first time that I saw it. A long thin, brown root wrapped in cello lying on my mother-in-law’s kitchen floor under the ledge at the bottom of the sink counter.

Puzzled, I picked it up, smelled it, tried to figure out what on earth it was. Mother in law came into the kitchen. While opening the cabinet to take out the tea cups- she glanced at me.



She placed the tea cups on a tray.

“Hai, gobo”.

Later that evening she showed me how to prepare gobo for cooking and together we made a traditional “every-day” burdock-root dish for dinner. This dish has become one of my favorites.

Gobo comes packed in cello bags in the supermarket .


It’s a member of the thistle family as you can see by the top most photo. When it flowers it blooms purple thistles.

It’s interesting how they harvest gobo. In order to make sure that the roots are not broken during harvesting they dig a deep trench and take the roots out from the side. These photos were taken from a Japan farmer’s co-op website.

Mother in law taught me not to peel gobo instead, it’s scrubbed clean with a small bamboo scrubber.


Then you slice the gobo root sideways almost like you are sharpening a pencil the old-fashioned way.


When you are done with the root, thinly slice some carrots and throw everything into a frying pan that has been heated with a little oil in it.

In the photo below I added some precooked potato noodles but you don’t need to add them. Some people throw in a little dried pepper, occasionally I add some.

I also sprinkled some sesame seeds into the pan. img_5185

I saute the mixture for about 5 minutes or so to make sure the gobo is cooked and then I add my seasonings.


My main cooking base is kombu-dashi which is a stock made from seaweed. Kombu is seaweed. The bottle in the middle is a type of kombu dashi we order from a supplier. It’s low salt and all natural. It is a little on the expensive side but we buy it by the case. I use it daily for many dishes so I want a good quality product. I almost never use salt when I cook -or sugar for that matter.

I added about a tablespoon of kombu-dashi to the pan.  I drizzled a little sesame oil into it also. That was all the seasoning that I added.


After cooking, the dish was garnished with a few more sesame seeds. Simple. Delicious. It has kind of a nutty flavor and retains its crunchiness after cooking.

Burdock is super nutritious and it has been used as a medicinal plant for a long time. You can check out the nutrition facts here.

Mrs. N to the Rescue

Wednesday was one of those perfect autumn days when I wanted nothing more than to be outdoors. It was a good thing because I had garden clean-up scheduled for that day.

The tomato plants were done producing and it was time to cut-down the vines. Actually, I didn’t realize how big they were until I started cutting them. I couldn’t just rip them out and pile them up, my garden area is too small for that. I have to cut everything up into smaller pieces and stuff them into the regulation trash-bags.


The front bushes got a trim, weeds were pulled and the rose bush was pruned. It’s not a very nice rose bush. I am definitely not a good rose gardener.

I gave the entire garden a good clean-up…..spent eight hours working outside .

I love this season of transition. I don’t mind the pulling up and ripping out to prepare for new growth next spring. I always look forward to that.

We can grow autumn and winter vegetables here but I choose not to. I like spending the cold months inside writing or working on crochet and sewing projects. I would like to plant some flowers though so, I think I’ll look around and see what I could put in the little bed in front. Something low maintenance.  I don’t want to fuss with it too much.

I harvested my peanuts. Don’t laugh too hard. Don’t worry-I won’t quit my day job to become a peanut farmer. I doubt these will even be enough to make a decent peanut butter sandwich.


I used my “wearable” mosquito coil smoker. You can get these in most any home and garden center. They hold a lit mosquito coil. While they do work, by the end of the day I could not get the smell of the smoke out of my nose. It irritated my throat and I was coughing. I guess I’ll use OFF spray next time. I hate the sprays because I have to spray my entire body including spraying my hands and wiping my face, ears and neck with the spray. Our mosquitoes are ferocious. The smoker kept them at a distance. They didn’t even come near me. Too bad the smoke is so irritating.

I had to go down to the street and clean the weeds and leaves along the length of the our brick wall. Most people here clean the street in-front of their home. Those that don’t are frowned upon by the others in the neighborhood. It doesn’t matter that the leaves and such that you clean up don’t come from your trees. What matters is that you keep the road around your home clean.


The opposite side of the street doesn’t get cleaned anymore because my neighbor died last year. Her home is all but hidden by the bushes that I’m sure will swallow it give them a few more months. It never looked like that when she lived there. All those leaves constantly blow over to my side of the street and clog up the road next to the wall. Part of the little things that make up life here.

It’s funny though, every time I’m down there cleaning I remember her. Maybe the leaves blow over to remind me that she’s not here anymore. As soon as the sun was up she was outside cleaning up the leaves and around her home every single day.

Cleaning around the outside of your home helps you meet the neighbors. Many times when I’m puttering around outside I’ll have the opportunity to chat with someone who is hanging their laundry or slinging futons over their wall.

Old ladies carrying parasols and bulging reusable shopping bags, patched and worn, will walk slowly by and smile when I say a cheery-good morning, or afternoon.

I’ve gotten to know the neighborhood’s activity. It’s fairly quiet, predictable, routine.

So as I was enjoying the peace and quiet of our neighborhood I was startled by a voice calling my name for help!

“Mrs. N! help me! Please help me!”

I thought, good grief! What on earth is going on? I knew the voice, it was my neighbor. She had been outside cleaning up just like I was. She had tried to go into her home and found that the rolling genkan door would not open more than a crack.  The door was open just enough for me to press my cheek against it and see what the trouble was. A walker had tipped over and was jammed against the frame of the door.

My poor neighbor was in a panic. After reassuring her I told her not to worry, I’d get the door open. I really didn’t know if I could but I would give it a good try.

I needed a tool…something to push, pull or yank the walker out of the way. She handed me a very short handled broom. Nope-that was not going to do it.

Idea! I told her to hang on…I ran to my house and grabbed an umbrella with a curved handle, ran back and crossed my fingers that my idea would work.

The hard part was trying to squeeze my face and arm into the door enough so that I could hook the walker and yank it out of the way. Two tries and that walker was moved enough so that I could roll the door open.

She was so happy she actually squealed and hugged me. Hugging is not a normal activity between neighbors in Japan. She hugged me several times. I was just happy that I could help her.

This is not the first time neighbors have come running to my door for help.

Have cats that need a rescue? Run to Mrs. N’s house. Get locked out of your house? No problem-Mrs. N can help. Natural disaster got you in a panic? Don’t stress… Mrs. N knows what to do.

I was talking about preparing for disaster in our ladies group and I asked Mrs. NS what she plans on doing in case of disaster. Without hesitation she said ….run to your house!!

Oh boy.



The Local Gym- What A Surprise

Several months ago I decided that I wanted to do more to try and keep myself fit and healthy. I looked around our little town for some sort of gym or health club and I found that we had one. Just one. The facility has a gym and two pools so I thought okay, I’ll go have a look. 

Hubby and I ran over there on a Saturday afternoon to ask about pricing and to have a look at the facilities. 

I have to say that I choked a bit when I saw their price chart. They have a strange system here. The plans that were affordable for me were set up with strange hours- you had to choose a certain three hour block of time in which to use the facilities. Thing was they have all manner of classes and programs running so, on certain days, you might not be able to swim ( that’s really what I wanted to do) because there was a class being held in the pool. 

After some hemming and hawing I ended up choosing the ” eight days a month” plan. I can use the facilities at any time of day for a total of eight days a month. They threw in Sunday’s as a free day. So basically I can go three times a week- if they aren’t closed for cleaning or a holiday. 

I used to go to Gold’s Gym in Saipan – any time any day for $35 a month. I’m paying double here for eight days. 

Anyhow- I got a membership and I love being able to use the pool and gym again. 

I was a ” gym rat” and if you know anything about being a gym rat you know that there is a whole other culture in the gym. You worry about having the right clothes and accessories. Everyone is strutting around showing off their muscles and such. 

I didn’t really know what to expect and I was in for a total surprise. 

That first day that I walked into the gym I looked around and thought- humm, must be senior citizen’s day today. I seemed to be the youngest person there and I’m over fifty. If I took a guess I’d say the general age group present was between 60-80. I noticed that they were a pretty spry bunch! 

There were several grannies walking side by side on treadmills watching a local sports event on the huge wall mounted screen. A couple of grandpas were laughing and joking while leisurly pedaling stationary bikes. 

In the corner of the gym a stretching class was being held and a mixed gender group of elderly folks were concentrating on the teacher’s instructions. 

I wandered back to the free weight area and thought about my routine when I noticed a man with one leg on the press machine. When he was done he grabbed his walker and made his way over to the next machine. 

I felt like I was in the twilight zone. The only gyms I’d ever been in were filled with young, scantily dressed patrons. That fit the description of no one in this gym. 

Actually- it was such a relief and I thought- I’m always coming on senior citizen’s day! 

After my workout I wanted to try the pool . They have a fantastic walking pool. I watched as about a dozen or so elderly folk walked, bobbed and floated around and around the 19 meter pool. 

I was kind of self- conscious walking across the mat floor to the pool as everyone was watching me. I could hear whispers of ” gaikokugin” ( foreigner). I made my way gingerly down the steps into the pool and was greeted by several folks saying ” Konnichiwa”. I nodded and returned the greeting. 

I walked round and round with the group – surreal. Not a young person in sight. 

Soon everyone started gathering in the corner of the pool. I had no idea what was happening so I just kept right on going round and round. About the third time ’round a little old lady in a flowered bathing suit and pink swim cap flagged me down and said to get ready for ” teacher”. Teacher? Yes, teacher, it was time for walking class. 

Walking class? As soon as I asked ” teacher” came bounding into the pool and after greetings and bowing we commenced ” warming up” for walking class. 

Walking class was like nothing I’d ever participated in before. ” Teacher” led us is a series of various walking exercises with everyone going at there own pace. There were some who bounded right along and others who gently floated doing the best they could….at 82 years old. 

One old man, I call him the smiling ojiisan ( grandpa) – he just bounced and bobbed along with the biggest grin on his face! You could tell that he was having the time of his life! You could also tell that he was popular with the little old ladies… 

At about the third set I was pushed ( gently) to the front of the line because I was faster than everyone else. 

Class ended and after cool downs and bows and thanking the teacher for teaching -we were dismissed. 

I left feeling amused, surprised and relieved because I found out that it wasn’t senior citizen’s day. This was a normal day! 

As I left the facilities I saw the pool group sitting at the tables in the lobby eating bento lunches. 

My husband said young people don’t have the time nor the finances to go to a health club.  Wow, well… Okay then. He was right- the gym and pool are always crowded with seniors. I’m the young person! 

Now I have many friends at the ” club”. I’ve gotten to know the ” smiling grandpa” and many little old ladies. All lovely people! It’s no longer a strange place for me. It’s become familiar and part of my life here. A place where I’ve met friends and have integrated just a bit more into the community. 

I had quit going for a time but realized that was a mistake. I do much better when I stick to a regular exercise program. 

Favorite Things …

I had some extra time today and while I was loafing (as opposed to cleaningcookingdoingthelaundrywalkingtothestorepreparingforclassteachingworkingonacrochetorsewingprojectgardening…etc)

I decided it would be a great time to call my friend whom I have sorely neglected over the past few months. Life got in the way I guess. But really..is the above so terribly important that we can’t lay it aside for a while to keep in touch with dear friends and nurture relationships?

We talked for over three hours. It was awesome! I helped her learn how to use her iPad and now the super awesome thing is that she can use email and read my blog-two things she has always wanted to do! Technology can be really daunting for older folks but with patience and gentle instructions they can learn. Even over the phone across the miles!

One of my favorite things to do…help someone. Help them and teach them something that will improve their quality of life.

I guess I was thinking about favorite things in general today while I was thinking about being thankful.

One of my favorite meals is yakinikku-table top grilling of vegetables and meat.


This was our dinner two nights ago-really simple. On the grill are tomatoes (from the garden), shiitake mushrooms, onions, shishito peppers (from the garden) and chicken. There was also grilled eggplant and about to be grilled beansprouts and Australian beef.

That small mason jar is filled with homemade red-hot pepper  paste from Saipan that we mix into the citrus soy-sauce for a dipping sauce. Add a steaming hot bowl of rice from the farm and an ice-cold beer (non-alcoholic if you prefer)….super simple-totally delicious.

Another favorite is watching the big white herons on the river. I caught this one as it was taking off.


They are so graceful. Sometimes I stand quietly on the river’s edge and soon one of these beautiful birds will come gliding right past my nose-flying low over the river. So close that I can hear the whoosh of wings.

Another favorite is seeing priests standing with their begging bowls. It’s part of their spiritual practice to stand humbly with a bowl in their hands -waiting for people to drop alms into it. I always put something in the bowl and I have many reasons for doing that.

Each time the priest will say-may I pray for you? I always say -yes and I always hear “may God bless you”. The first time I was surprised because the priests aren’t from the Christian tradition, they are Buddhist. It made me smile and sometimes I cry….not sure why. But it touches me deeply that they acknowledge my faith.

If we go someplace where I might see a priest standing with his bowl I try to keep a 500 yen coin in my wallet to drop in the bowl.


I also love the smell of incense that floats up from the altar bowl.


We traveled back and forth to Japan for over 14 years before we actually moved here. Each time we came to visit my husband’s parents they would pick us up at airport and as soon as we got to the in-laws house my husband and I would go directly into the Butsudan tatami room and pay respects to the ancestors. It is traditional to light a stick of incense, place it in the bowl, hit the little gong-bowl with a padded mallet and then pray.

Smells are very important to me and invoke feelings and memories. I would buy Japanese incense- joss sticks (called senko here) and bring them home to Saipan. Whenever I’d light one I would immediately be “transported” to Japan and recall instantly all the wonderful memories that we made throughout the years.

I have hundreds things that are my “favorite” but I’ll add just one more.

I adore the artful way food is arranged and decorated according to the seasons.


I had a ladies get-together at our home last autumn and this was a dish that one of the ladies brought. It was a dish of sauteed seasonal root vegetables. She had decorated it with little autumn leaves and I almost didn’t want to eat it because it was so pretty!

What are some of your favorite things? Everyone has favorites…..


Appreciating Ordinary days

Many times I find that some unpleasant experience comes along that serves to kind of clear my senses kind of like wasabi clears my sinus.

Since Friday we had been tracking what could have been a very mean and nasty typhoon that was on course to bull-dose through our region. The Japan Meteorological Agency has a great weather website that’s useful for tracking storms. We were on it every three hours tracking typhoon Namtheon as it crawled towards our area. It was one of the slowest storms that I’ve ever seen. Like a little old lady riding a jitensha up here.

Almost two weeks ago a typhoon hit the Tokyo, Tohoku and Hokkaido areas causing chaos and widespread destruction. They are still reeling from that storm.

Since we have lived here we have had several storms but they all kind of fizzled upon approaching our area but, you never know. The terrible disasters that we lived through in Saipan have taught us that the best thing to do when a storm is approaching is- prepare. So, we did.

We put quite a lot of energy into preparing.

While we were hauling our potted plants indoors and storing everything else in the crawl space under the house I was thinking about the terrible storm that had just hit north of us. I recalled the photos I’d seen on internet-bridges washed out, houses under water, landslides….

I stood outside in the yard and looked lovingly at our old home. I appreciated all the wonderful memories it had given us these past five years and I wondered…would this be it? Would the wind come and tear the roof off of it and destroy everything inside?

I wondered if anyone else was thinking the same thing.

As we were trying to prepare the inside of our home by securing big trash-bags over our computers , plastic bagging books and packing important papers and documents in ziplocs, I remembered my ordinary day last Wednesday. The weather had been so nice that I decided to take a long walk over to Daiso and get some things for my grand kids.


I stopped by the local shrine just because I love the old buildings. Somewhere a mosquito coil was burning- filling the air with the scent of fading summer. Mingled together with the the scent of old wood I felt comforted because I’ve come to associate these smells with normalcy.

The semi have gone silent now and the only sounds were the ever present crows calling to each other from the old cedars towering above me.

I hung out at the shrine for a few minutes just enjoying the quiet. While I was up there I thought about the fact that I was very fortunate to be able to have these experiences.

Walking through town that day I was keenly observant of life going on around me.


People out tending their cottage gardens. Wash drying in the sun. A stray cat grooming itself on top of a stone wall.

I noticed that the sunflowers were drying. I wondered if people collected the seeds like we used to do back home when I was a kid.


Walking down the sidewalk it was evident that autumn was here. The shadows fell differently and autumn wildflowers were peeking out here and there between the clumps of now dried summer grasses.

I walked through several swarms of friendly red dragon flies that were hanging out near the river. Stopping for a moment I leaned over the rail to watch a bright blue one hovering over the water.

I lingered for a bit in front of one of my favorite houses on the block and noticed that the momiji was already turning color. How often I’ve wanted to walk right up to that gate and grab hold of it like a little kid, pressing my face against the wood slats to peer inside the garden.


I was startled out of my daydreaming by drums and what sounded like three-hundred kids shouting.  Just up the road was the high-school and as I walked past I saw that there were about three-hundred kids shouting in unison as they exercised together. I think they were warming up for a sports event.


All these things going on in our community. Every creature going about life as usual.


From old ladies tending their gardens to white herons fishing the rice fields for their lunch.

Trucks and cars roared past me. The postman weaved crazily through the Family Mart parking lot and an old man bent almost double over his cane made his way slowly down the opposite side of the street.

As we packed and prepared our home for possible destruction I remembered this ordinary Wednesday and I deeply appreciated it.

As the storm made its way up the coast towards our town we spent the night with Okasan and Ottosan (my husband’s parents) as they can no longer cope with these sorts of situations alone anymore.

I lay on the futon in the butsudan tatami room in the dark listening to the sound of the wind gust. Again I savored the ordinary around me….years of burning incense on the butsudan altar had left a permanent sweet smoky aroma that permeated everything in the room and mixed with the smell of moth repellent that wafted from the kimono cabinet.

I think I fell asleep for a few hours. The early light of dawn filtered through the rice paper shoji screens and woke me up. Everything was calm. The storm had passed without incident. We all breathed a sigh of relief.

Today, as I unwrapped my books and returned the potted plants to the garden and bit by bit got things in order around the house I thanked God several times for being able to return home and “back to normal”.

You do not know when “normal” will be pulled out from under you and crisis and chaos become the new normal for you.

Really appreciating the ordinary today.