Wednesday, April 5, 2017

more fun with etegami frames

It started with a frenzy of decluttering, except that I got distracted by some old Japanese songbooks that were destined for the recycling bin. Without a clear idea of where I was headed with it, I cut some of the colorful pages into strips, and wove them together into mats. I glued them to pieces of corrugated cardboard cut out in rectangles and circles, trimmed the excess paper, and brushed some glossy sealer over the woven paper surface to anchor the strips. After that, my mind went blank, so I set the project aside for the next two months.

Then, last week, a surprise package arrived from an etegami friend in southern Japan. It was a picture frame she had made from layers of corrugated cardboard. You can see it on my received mailart blog. I was too lazy to imitate her design, but it did give me ideas for what to do with my unfinished paper strip mats. 

My original idea had been to display my etegami on the "mats," the four corners of the etegami held down by elastic string threaded through the back of the mat, much like the typical etegami frames sold in Japanese shops. But now I'm experimenting with the possibilities presented by layering two or more sheets of corrugated cardboard with a window cut into the top layer, giving the frame some depth. 

righthand etegami affixed to top of mat;
lefthand etegami nestled in a hole cut into the mat

Monday, March 20, 2017

an ode to the tax code

Ode to the Tax Code
by V. Patschke

There is hereby imposed
on the taxable income
of every individual
(other than a surviving spouse
as defined in section 2(a)
or the head of a household
as defined in section 2(b))
who is not a married individual
(as defined in section 7703)
a tax
determined in accordance
with the following table.

If your taxable income is:
not over $22,100
Your tax is:
15% of taxable income.
If your taxable income is:
Over $22,100
but not over $53,500
Your tax is $3,315
plus 28% of the excess
over $22,100.

If your taxable income is:
The spectrum of colors in the rainbow
Your tax is:

If your taxable income is:
A 100-piece symphony orchestra
Your tax is:
Flutes and violins

If your taxable income is:
Your tax is:

If your taxable income is:
The gift of superpowers
Your tax is:

If your taxable income is:
A bountiful feast
followed by mouthwatering desserts
Your tax is:
followed by a period of fasting

If your taxable income is:
Eight hours of sleep
with lovely dreams
Your tax is:
Loud snoring
with two trips to the bathroom

If your taxable income is:
Unconditional love from family and friends
Your tax is:
Less frequent letters and
fewer phone calls

If your taxable income is:
Peace and prosperity
Your tax is:
A period of political chaos
and discontent

In applying rulings
and procedures
published herein,
the effect of subsequent
court decisions,
rulings, and
procedures must be
All taxes are due
on the 15th of April.
In the event of late payment
A 25% fee
and 25 grey hairs
will be applied.

Friday, March 17, 2017

the fascinating world of niboshi

You can hardly discuss Japanese cuisine without mentioning niboshi, the dried baby sardines used in making one of the most common varieties of dashi, the ubiquitous soup stock that flavors such a great variety of Japanese foods.

Here's a Wikipedia link, but if you just google niboshi (also called iriko), you'll find so much more information than Wiki offers about this little package of big flavor.

Even so, I wouldn't have been inspired to paint an etegami of these bone-dry, misshapen creatures if I hadn't met someone on Instagram who lives and breathes niboshi.

When I say she lives and breathes niboshi, I mean she's stuck in a room full of them all day, every day. It turns out that she married into a family that produces kanbutsu, a catch-all term that means dried foods used in traditional Japanese cooking, such as vegetables, seaweed, noodles, and fish. I get the impression that the main product her family business deals with is niboshi. For seventeen years she has sorted  thousands of these dried fish each day, picking out the occasional rock or wrong sort of fish that gets overlooked during the several stages of preparing these things for the market.
a typical bag of niboshi

As is true of so many businesses that produce traditional products, the customer base of my friend's company has aged and dwindled without being successfully replaced by the next generation-- a generation that prefers Western food culture. Other companies in the same boat have tried attracting younger customers by developing westernized versions of niboshi recipes and printing them on the backs of their packages. But cooking is not a talent my friend feels she has. Alas.

So. What can she do to help out the family business? She thought about all the funny-looking fish and other odd things she comes across while sorting niboshi every day, and it occurred to her that people might get a kick out of seeing pictures of them on Instagram. At least it would help publicize this traditional food product to those who are unfamiliar with it.

That's how her Niboshi Monster photos were born. She finds fish babies -- not just sardines but other sea creatures that get mixed in and have to be sorted out-- and she arranges them into scenes that tell a story. I'm totally hooked on them, and eagerly await each new photo.

The best I can do is share the following photos-of-her-photos, but you can see them much better if you click here to go to her page on Instagram.

baby sardines attack baby perch of some sort (Apogon semilineatus)

baby perch of some sort (Apogon lineatus?) blowing fish eyeball "bubbles"

baby barracuda with fish eyeball "pearls" on scallop shell

Sunday, March 12, 2017

hokkaido in mid-march

Since you don't look out of my window every day like I do, you probably can't tell that this is a photo of spring. But take my word for it; it contains many significant differences from a photo taken through the same window in winter.

For one thing, the heavy cover of snow has broken up enough that you can see an exposed corner of our garage. For another, the four long legs which hold up the blue-green kerosene tank are still hidden in the snow, but the tank itself is no longer buried.

And most importantly, some of the branches of our huge but temporarily squashed hydrangea bushes are sticking up out of the snow. If you look carefully, you will see that there are leaf buds on the otherwise bare branches. It may be two or more months before the leaves actually unfold, but the buds are definitely there.

Welcome to March in Hokkaido.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

if you look really hard

Our part of Hokkaido is still covered in a white, white, white blanket of  snow. By early April, the snow will have melted enough to make out buds of crocuses and butterbur peeking out through the thinning crust. But for now, there is no sign of anything green, anything growing, anywhere.

Wait! Wait a minute. I take that back. Look real hard. Reeeeeaaaaaal hard. Are those buds I see on the otherwise dead-looking and utterly bare branches of the bushes, half-buried in snow, at the very back of the garden furthest from the window?

Saturday, March 4, 2017

the lost month

I don't know where February went. I can't remember ever missing a whole month of posting on my blog before. I was on a reading rampage-- and when I finally came up for air, it was March. And I feel wonderfully re-charged. 

Oh, by the way, I started an Instagram account if you're interested. @dosankodebbie

Thursday, January 26, 2017

dear calligrapher

Considering that the modern etegami movement was born from a rebellion against the restrictions of traditional Japanese arts-- particularly calligraphy-- I was a little surprised when a website called Beyond Calligraphy asked me for an article introducing etegami to calligraphers. Click HERE to see the result. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

so many elbows

Where I’m From
           a poem by Vicki Patschke

I’m from family 
A family of eight
Or eight times eight 
When you counted the heads
Of friends and visitors
And always the pets —
Dogs, cats, rabbits, 
guinea pig, hamster, mice
parakeets, turtles, snails
and one bow-legged duck

Our family of eight
Squeezed into cars
And crowded trains
Shoulder to shoulder
Elbow to elbow
Heart to heart

At happy crowded tables
We passed the potatoes
Helped with homework 
And dealt the cards

Instant friends
Instant foes 
Always racing
To finish first 
To claim the sofa
To claim the last bite

Always sharing 
of used clothes 
of thumb-smeared books
of opinions and advice

Our family of eight
Now grown and scattered
With empty spaces between us
Separated by gaps
of time and place
of experiences
of philosophy

But wherever we turn
We will always be
From our family of eight
Shoulder to shoulder
Elbow to elbow
Heart to heart

Sunday, January 15, 2017


      a poem by Vicki Patschke

Stepping up 
to the counter 
I declare my 
menu choice.  
“Gorgonzola salad, please.”


“Yes, Gorgonzola.”  

A wondrous word
so guttural 
so satisfying 
on the tongue.  
Sometimes I use my 
deep, throaty voice
ever so 
 “GOR. . . GON. . . ZO . . . LA.”  

Sometimes I 
just one syllable. 

I savor the sounds.  
They tantalize my tastebuds 
and tickle awake my fantasies.  
They are the 
bold brash brazen 
of Greek gods, goblins and 
dragon conquest.

The young barista 
oblivious to my glee
hollers back 
toward the kitchen
“One Gorgonzola salad!”

“With vinaigrette dressing?” 
a voice calls in reply.

“Yes!  Vinaigrette,” 
I say, 
stretching out the word.  
“V I - nai - G R E T T E 
On the side 
of my GOR-gon-ZO-la salad, 

Sunday, January 8, 2017

full of beans

The news and variety shows on Japanese TV today are all showing video clips from the Coming of Age Day (Seijin no Hi ) ceremonies that are being held over the long weekend in cities and wards across Japan. Seijin no Hi is a Japanese holiday held annually on the second Monday of January to celebrate young people who have reached, or will reach, the age of majority (20 years old)  between April 1st of the old year and March 31st of the new year.

Turning 20 in Japan means that young people may legally smoke, drink alcohol, and marry without permission from their parents-- and it also means that if they commit crimes, the law will judge them as adults, without the various protections allowed to minors.

Unfortunately, publicly-held Coming of Age ceremonies are not infrequently disrupted and ruined by drunken and disorderly 20-year-olds. Most years I grumble about the current coming-of-age generation and-- fairly or not-- I lament the plummeting manners and sense of "kids these days."

Today, however,  I am drawn to how full of beans these rambunctious ceremony-disruptors are. By April, how many of them will be wearing suits and grimly kowtowing to their bosses in personality-stifling work environments? How many of them will be able to hold on to their mischievous inclinations and channel them into socially constructive endeavors?

Today I find myself blessing the newly-20 year-olds, hoping with all my heart that they will survive and thrive and deliver way more than anyone ever expected.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

let them eat grass

It's customary in Japan to eat a rice porridge called nanakusa-gayu (literal translation: seven-grass rice porridge) on January 7th, the Festival of Seven Herbs. You can find a chart that lists which seven "grasses" (herbs) go into the porridge at this Wikipedia link, which also explains that "The seventh of the first month has been an important Japanese festival since ancient times. The custom of eating nanakusa-gayu on this day, to bring longevity and health, developed in Japan from a similar ancient Chinese custom, intended to ward off evil. Since there is little green at that time of the year, the young green herbs bring color to the table and eating them suits the spirit of the New Year."

Yesterday it became clear that my husband had come down with a serious chest cold, so I made a thin version of a smooth green vegetable soup I often make for him. And since it also happened to be the day of the Festival of Seven Herbs, I made a game out of including exactly seven green plants in the soup.  Specifically: spinach, shiso leaves, parsley, green onions, celery, broccoli, and iso-nori (a laver-like seaweed that grows on rocks), all blended into a base of chicken broth. It isn't seven-herbs rice porridge, but it's really quite tasty.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

a chicken-y new year (2)

Every year the Japan Postal Service offers postcards pre-printed with specially designed postage stamps and cancellation marks depicting the zodiac animal of the new year. These postcards are meant to be used for the traditional exchange of New Year greetings (nengajou). According to the Chinese zodiac, 2017 is the year of the rooster-- although in Japan, we prefer to broaden the term to include all chickens.

You may remember a post from two years ago about this very tradition. In fact, it wasn't until that year that I began to pay attention to the design of these stamps And when I started paying attention, I began noticing some delightful things that increased my already high admiration for the Japan Postal Service.

This year, my favorite of the pre-printed stamps depicts a rooster taking a selfie with his smart phone, a happy young chick hopping at his side. The cancellation mark depicts the same rooster in a pose of Zen meditation-- seated in the traditional manner, eyes closed and head slightly bowed-- while the chick plays the role of a temple priest brandishing the wooden stick that is used to remedy lapses in concentration. I was impressed with this clever combination of the new and the old in Japanese life, and I hope it amuses you too.

a chicken-y new year (1)

Here are a few of the chicken-y etegami I made to send out in time for New Year's Day delivery. I've written often on this blog of the Japanese custom of sending New Year postcards (nengajou), so rather than repeating myself here, please check out this post for an overview of the history and tradition of nengajou.

According to the Chinese Zodiac, 2017 is the year of the rooster, but in Japan, we don't limit ourselves to roosters. Our New Year's cards and decorations are clucking and peeping with hens and newborn chicks too.  Even chicken eggs, or birds other than chickens.

The photo (below) shows just a few of the big stack of nengajou I found in my mailbox on New Year's morning. Some of the cards depict auspicious subjects other than the zodiac animal of the year: for example, plum blossoms, red-crowned cranes, Otafuku (a plump-cheeked, smiling woman said to bring luck and happiness), and --of course-- Mt. Fuji.

Most of the nengajou are printed on postcards with pre-printed lottery numbers on the addressed side. The post office announces the winning numbers in February. I often have at least one winning number in my pile that qualifies me for the smallest prize of collectable postage stamps.

When I was a child they used to give away television sets and bicycles for the top prizes, but I never knew anyone who was that lucky. The hand-painted nengajou I receive from my etegami friends, which I value the most among all the cards I receive, are not painted on the pre-printed lottery cards (which are not absorbent enough for etegami). But there is a second way to participate in the lottery, and that is by affixing to your own hand-painted card a special New Year postage stamp printed with a lottery number.