On the Road

January 3, 2013

Well look at that…The end of the world has come and gone (again) and we’re all still here! With the latest apocalypse/salvation distraction behind us we’re back to the reality of the slow catastrophe daily unfolding and the responsibility for doing something about it.

While the Japanese have just voted in a right-wing, pro-nuclear nationalist “strong leader” to end their woes (not that there was much of a choice – being a modern democracy an’ all) Asako and I have a different idea. In January we’re hitting the road (well, the tracks actually) to propagandize the people and hopefully inspire a little action.


During January 2013 we will be giving presenations in Hamamatsu, Nagoya and Tokyo about our life and work at Shikigami. Through photographs and stories we will discuss our approach to permaculture, deep ecology, forest gardening and gift economics.

Hamamatsu Wednesday January 9, 13:30. Payaka: 4-19-12 Kamoe, Naka Ward, Hamamatsu Permaculture Chubu, Hamamatsu

Nagoya Sunday January 13, 14:00. Tokurinji: Aioi-28-341 Tenpakucho Oaza Nonami, Tenpaku Ward, Nagoya Permaculture Chubu, Nagoya

Tokyo Friday January 18, 19:30. One Kitchen: 3-26 Arakicho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo


1月9日(水) 13:30 Payaka(パヤカ) 静岡県浜松市中区鴨江4-19-12  詳細はパーマカルチャー中部

1月13日(日) 14:00 徳林寺(本堂裏のギャラリー・ハスタクティ1Fにて)  愛知県名古屋市天白区天白町大字野並相生28-341 詳細はパーマカルチャー中部

1月18日(金)19:30 One Kitchen  東京都新宿区 荒木町3−26 サウスウィング荒木町2F奥




Basic Skills for Simple Living

August 11 & 12
A two day workshop on rocket stoves, composting toilets and summer wild foods. Making, using, doing. Participants will camp on site. More info in English or info in Japanese


Open Day

August 18
A guided tour of our site and explanation of our approach to forest gardening, natural farming and various aspects of living simply. For more info in English see here or for Japanese info see here.

New website

May 4, 2012

We have finally launched our bilingual website shikigami.net.
Info on all the mischief we’re up to plus much more to come over the next few months.
If you happen to be checking it out and notice any spelling mistakes, broken links or if it looks funny in whatever browser you’re using please drop us a line and let us know so we can tidy it up. Enjoy!

kumagaisou flower

It’s coming up for ten months since we moved into these mountains and already great big tap roots have sprouted from the soles of our feet and sunk deep into the earth. As our roots grow and spread we proceed lightly and slowly, finding our way of inhabiting these forested mountains, becoming forest people, mountain people.

Food is a very direct way to connect to a place. Literally the plants become your flesh, plant cells become your cells, a transference of wild energy.

View to the south east. Fruit and nut trees in the foreground with deciduous forest background left and sugi (Cryptomeria) plantation background right.

The sustenance of food is more than just physiological, it is, of course, economic too. And in a culture where the food has been put under lock and key it is surely liberating to not be paying. Time is liberated, for one. To be here doing this we needed to start producing as much food as possible as quickly as possible as otherwise, food would constitute our main expense. And expenses lead to jobs… In ten months we have been able to achieve a reasonable degree of food self-sufficiency by extensively foraging and establishing a good sized garden of annual vegetables.

Looking south west over the terrace where we have been growing most of our annual vegetables.

Our method of gardening is in stark contrast to the fastidious approach practised throughout Japan. Where the local farmers see a chaotic mess of weeds and crazy plants growing over the top of each other we see lush, natural growth and abundance. And a lot less work! The late Masanobu Fukuoka with his notions of “natural farming” and “do-nothing farming” may have been from Japan but he doesn’t seem to have been of Japan. Nevertheless, like countless others, tucked away in the mountains, up valleys, out of sight of the villages, we keep Fukuoka’s spirit alive.

Tomatoes, hot peppers, basil, shiso, beans, okra, eggplant, cucumber, kushinsai…

Direct sowing winter root crops amongst the summer vegetables

Seedlings of winter vegetables. Asako has developed a great seed raising/potting mix from materials close at hand and our seed raising trays grow in the bamboo grove.

Growing annual vegetables is the most efficacious way of producing food fast. Hence, our first priority was establishing a garden largely planted to annuals. We also utilized open spaces between trees to plant large crops of annuals (in a temperate climate) such as sweet potatoes, azuki beans, peanuts, yacon and ginger. These crops were grown in true natural farming style. That is, no preparation of the soil was done we simply cut the grass and scraped the surface where the seed was to be sown or plants transplanted. Once or twice grass around the young plants was cut and used to mulch the plants.

Azuki beans growing behind a mikan (citrus) with a chestnut and myoga ginger in the background.

Foreground, peanuts; midground, sweet potatoes; background, chestnut with an understory of myoga ginger and tea.

Ginger (the regular kind) with red and green shiso behind, a wonderful Japanese culinary and medicinal herb and excellent attractor of insects. Leaves and seeds of the shiso are eaten.

We are now switching focus to the development of a forest garden where perennial plants and tree crops will dominate. We are very fortunate to have many well established fruit and nut trees here. An excellent foundation on which to develop the forest garden.

With the forest garden we will still maintain some openings where annuals can be grown, particularly self-seeding ones, or sun-loving perennials such as the Jerusalem artichokes pictured below.

Jerusalem artichokes flowering in a nice sunny patch in front of a persimmon.

Pomegranate and kumquat with lemon balm, spilanthes and dong ling cao underneath. In the background to the right are myoga ginger, tea, peach and mulberry.

A large portion of our forest garden understory will be occupied by tea. Contrary to what you might think, if you have ever seen a tea plantation, tea actually thrives in partial shade. In fact, here in Japan, shade grown tea, called Gyokuro, is considered to be of the highest quality. But the plantation mentality has never been about quality, has it. Tea grows wild in the mountains around us but in the full shade of a closed evergreen forest canopy leaf and seed production is considerably less than plants in partial shade. So a great plant for shady edges that are lightly brushed by the sun or for under deciduous trees, allowing for winter sun exposure, when the tea is in flower.

Tea plants seeding as the multi-use kudzu clambers over top.

Tea is also very tolerant of being clambered over by other plants. In the picture above it is kudzu that has sprung out of the forest and is reaching over the tea. From kudzu we use the root medicinally and as a thickener, the vine for basketry and the flowers for making wine or vinegar or eating in salads. We will harvest the kudzu vine before we do our next tea harvest so it should not impede harvesting of the tea. We harvest for tea twice a year, once in spring to make sencha and again in autumn to make bancha. The seeds are also harvested in early autumn to make cooking oil. We shall be doing our first seed harvest and pressing in three or four weeks time. (For those that have read the post from May 17, we will be testing all tea products for possible caesium contamination before consuming in any quantity or selling. The joys of living with nuclear fallout).

A large part of our “work” this first year has been observation. Many of the plants are unfamiliar to us and as we watch them through the seasons we come to learn what they are, what they produce and what their eco-system function might be. A long term project! Attempting to understand energy flows through the land, particularly water, has also been a preoccupation. This is a super charged landscape: steep forested mountains surrounding us, a number of perennial springs and an equal number of ephemeral springs, above ground streams, underground streams, ancient streams buried by shifting mountains, terraced slopes that recharge the land. Feeding this we have the rainy season and the typhoon season. Any attempt to drastically transform this land would be to invite disaster. As I mentioned earlier, we proceed slowly, lightly.

Forest of the eastern slopes

From garden to forest-garden to forest. The realm of deer and wild pig. Of sansai, mountain vegetables like shidoke and wasabi. Of magnificent walnuts and oaks and other-wordly fungi. The forest around us provides our fuel for cooking and heating water, vines for basketry, timber for building, medicinal plants and much food and it charges our springs with pure cool water. But to quantify what it gives us is to miss the point. For the real point is the vision the forest engenders.

Walnut along side a stream

The fall. Losing paradise by clearing the forest to grow fields of crops and domesticated animals and later sub-divisions and parking lots. Cain, the agriculturalist killing Abel, the forager. The story is well enough known but have we grasped the meaning? One vision, carrying the mark of Cain, marches us toward the precipice. In the forest we have another vision.

more images of stuff growing at Shikigami

Monkeys at 5

June 25, 2011

5:00 AM.  Running around the property in my underwear chasing monkeys. Darting about hooting and growling doing my best to be alpha monkey but half asleep with my bandy white legs quickly becoming polka-dotted with sand fly bites I feel less than convincing. The monkeys view me as some sort of minor threat, at least, or maybe more just a nuisance (my view of them) as they retreat to a safe distance – about a metre or two beyond a reasonable stone’s throw. They sit and watch and wait and when I tire of standing under the fruit tree or can take the sand flies no longer no sooner have I gone back to the house and sat down with a cup of tea than the unmistakable sound of a monkey crashing through a loquat tree… Yesterday some monkeys stripped one tree loaded with fruit in about five minutes flat. I hate to say it but the phrase ‘you snooze you loose’ has acquired some sort of meaning in my life.

Turning up at the kind of ungodly hours of the morning as they do the monkeys could, should they wish, go about their business quietly, denude a fruit tree entirely and be on their way with full bellies and not a care in the world. But  that is not the Monkey way, my friends. No, the Monkey way is for one of them to get up into the fruit tree and start scoffing fruit, tossing half eaten fruits all over the ground while a second monkey climbs up on the roof  of the house jumping about making a hell of a racket and waking me in the cruellest manner possible. By the time I come to my senses – or, at least, cobble together enough of them to stumble out of the house and figure out which tree is under attack – the ground beneath is strewn with the remains of half eaten juicy, perfectly ripe fruit. But, ’tis not enough to display the ravaged fruits of the loquat tree on which they have launched their assault. To add insult to injury the little, uhh…monkeys, leave a ‘calling card’ – two half eaten near ripe white peaches. On none of the peach trees in the vicinity (that we know of) are the fruits anywhere near being ripe!

So we go through this routine three or four times of me running out of the house hollerin’ until I’m hoarse and the monkeys retreating (just) into the forest. But with each repetition their retreat loses some urgency and as they make what is to be their final retreat the leader of the band turns and gives me a look that unmistakably says ‘yep, we’re just fuckin’ with ya.’  Or, on second thoughts, maybe the look was actually saying ‘hey, don’t blame us just because your ancestors gave up the easy life for the fools path of sedentary, agriculture and that ultimate folly, civilization.’ And, you know, I gotta give it to them, the monkeys have got a point there.

My relationship to the fruit trees in the area is precisely that of the monkeys: when I’m hungry I go to the tree, harvest fruit and eat. No more, no less. (Although I do have the decency to eat the whole fruit.) And though I have planted many things on this land the fruit and nut trees were already there, waiting, delicious. So, I can hardly be mad at the monkeys for doing only what I am doing. Should we be talking about the monkeys helping themselves to an entire crop of corn I may not have such egalitarian feelings. Ahh, the slippery slope of plant domestication that leads to work, private property, money, hoarding, scarcity…

I have often heard it said that there is nothing more gratifying than eating food you have grown yourself but, I would say, there is nothing more gratifying than eating food that has grown naturally without any need of your work. The Way of natural farming (in the Fukuoka sense) or of forest farming is the slow return to a foraging existence, a re-wilding of our food supply.

It’s hardly surprising the monkeys wanna come hang at our place when most of the natural forest with its abundant fruit, nuts, berries, tender shoots and medicinal herbs has been replaced by a monoculture of timber trees.


After scaring off the monkeys for today, finishing my cup of tea, having a leisurely breakfast, Asako and I harvested as much of the ripe fruit as we could be bothered (yes, there was still plenty left). And I failed to mention that over the past couple of weeks we have been eating plentifully of loquat and making loquat wine. So, we certainly get a reasonable share of the bounty. But, should we be dependant on selling fruit for a living we might be viewing the whole situation rather differently. That is having the monkey on your back.


March 22, 2011

The following post was mostly written before disaster struck Japan on March 11. The situation at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant continues to be extremely dangerous and we are greatly concerned with developments at the plant and in the region. We are not so concerned for our own safety as we believe, given the way things have gone so far, we are a safe distance from the effected areas but, we are gravely concerned for those living in the Tōhoku and Kantō regions (which includes Tōkyō). When we say those living, we mean all life forms. The relief that the winds have continued to send radioactive plumes away from the land and out to sea is mixed with a great sadness for what we are doing to the wider environment. (As I write I am listening to an Al Jazeera report that abnormally high levels of radioactivity have been detected in the ocean near Fukushima. Maybe this answers the question many of us have been asking: What has TEPCO been doing with all the radioactive runoff water created by ground and aerial spraying of the reactors?). The best sources of information about the nuclear disaster at Fukushima are the Fukushima Update administered by Green Action Japan and the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, Tōkyō.

Our wind blown piece of cloth has snagged on the Izu peninsula, south west of Tōkyō on Japan’s pacific coast. We have been caught by an isolated mountain farm surrounded by forest and cool streams springing from the earth. We are occupying a 30 year old farm house, a small log cabin and about 2 acres of tanada (terraced land). From our small clearing in the mountains forest extends in every direction providing abundant foraging and sanctuary for the wild and feral. (See Where Are We At? for a description of our first visit to this land.)

In light of this change and in recognition of entering this new phase in our adventure we are renaming our blog Shikigami, the name we have given to our farm.

Shikigami are invisible spirits that, according to Japanese folk traditions, can be summoned to serve practitioners of onmyōdō, an esoteric practice influenced by Daoism, Buddhism and Shintōism. In western folklore familiars could be considered as roughly equivalent to shikigami and like familiars, according to the mythology, shikigami may be used to serve the onmyōdō for benevolent or malevolent purposes.

We moved on to the land during the winter as we wanted to get a sense of what the winters were like here. We had previously spent time on the property and in the general area in the middle of summer only. What we came to was the coldest winter in a very long time so rather than having a sense of what a normal winter may be like we’re getting a good idea of one extreme end of the spectrum. Useful information in these days of climate change weather weirdness. When we first looked at the property last summer we were shown a photograph of the property blanketed in snow because this was such an unusual occurrence. It has snowed twice in the past month.

The unusually cold weather has confirmed our suspicions that the house would be cold in the winter. Lots of windows, no insulation, large roof overhangs to keep the sun out of the house…Like traditional Japanese houses this house was obviously built with summer comfort in mind.

We have no running water but there is a spring only 30 or so metres from the house so fetching drinking water is no real hardship. There is also a stream that runs within a couple of metres of the house from which we can take water for washing. Gravity feeding spring water down to the house is one of many jobs on a rather long list.

Snowy and rainy days have given us time to slap together a rudimentary composting toilet system, clean mould from the walls, remove the discarded snake skins from the kitchen shelves and pickle some of the wild vegetables we have foraged. On fairer days we are on the land preparing garden beds, planting potatoes, sowing seeds and foraging.

There is a wonderful array of delectable wild foods announcing the arrival of spring. The haru no nanakusa (seven herbs of spring) and a whole host of others, offering timely replenishment and vitality. “[I]t is the wild food that our cells recognize as that which optimally nourishes.” [Pam Montgomery] The abundance of the wild foods here offering assurance to the course of wu wei farming that we are embarking on. That is, an approach to farming where we do not impose our will on the land but rather work co-creatively with Nature to restore the natural abundance of the land. Farming plants with appropriate eco-functions for the land and  appropriate nourishment for us. The farming of non-farming, “do-nothing” farming, natural farming.

I know, its been months since my last post. Far from being idle though I have been back in Aotearoa (New Zealand) preparing for a permanent shift to Japan where Asako and I will be establishing our farm Shikigami, practising natural farming, foraging, simple living, finding the Way…

Well, preparing for the move was the purpose of my return but, actually, I have been involved in all sorts of projects and adventures. No doubt, these would be of some interest to anyone that has been following this blog but, as always, its a matter of finding the time to write about them.

Had I the time I might write about developing a courtyard garden for the Auckland restaurant, Sunday Painters, where salad greens and herbs are grown amongst tree ferns, citrus and berries in a miniaturized food forest… Living in a bamboo hut that I built in the middle of a 400 square meter bamboo grove in an inner suburb of Auckland city and foraging bamboo shoots, snails, taro, mushrooms, loquats, bananas, plums, citrus, wild greens etc… Hitchhiking the length of the country visiting amazing folks living in the embrace of Papatuanuku (Mother Earth) and working hard to re-establish her natural abundance and halt further destruction… Going deep into rainforests to be in the presence of ancient trees and to be breathed by the forest… Inoculating logs for shiitake mushroom production with the wonderful people at Kelmarna Organic City Farm, a lush urban farm in inner city Auckland that provides gardening space and education for “mental health clients”… And putting together a website for the Terraquaculture network, an association of student/practitioners of terraquaculture/natural farming that have been drawn together and fired up by the work of Haikai Tane.

In this last project I believe we have put together a fantastic resource for all those interested in natural farming, sustainable land use, eco-system rehabilitation… Make use of it! terraquaculture.net.

I have also been reading many wonderful books and currently I am in the middle of one that right from the opening lines felt revolutionary. It is called The Secret Teachings of Plants: The Intelligence of the Heart in the Direct Perception of Nature by Stephen Harrod Buhner. (Rochester, Vermont: Bear & Company, 2004). A must read for anyone interested in wild foods/plant medicines it will also be of great interest to natural farmers and environmentalists. The following passage from the book comes from a section where Buhner is instructing the reader to eat the leaf of a plant whilst not necessarily knowing what the plant is and to the typical response “what if its poisonous?” he replies:

One of our greatest fears is to eat the wildness of the world.

Our Mothers intuitively understood something essential:  the green is poisonous to civilization. If we eat the wild, it begins to work inside us, altering us, changing us. Soon, if we eat too much, we will no longer fit the suit that has been made for us. Our hair will begin to grow long and ragged. Our gait and how we hold our body will change. A wild light begins to gleam in our eyes. Our words start to sound strange, nonlinear, emotional. Unpractical. Poetic.

Beautiful! Although, I would have to say, my personal experience has been that the suit was ill fitting and my language strange before I started to eat the wildness of the world… But still, without a doubt, my early foraging forays with “Wildman” Steve Brill in New York’s central park marked a departure on a moss covered meandering pathway that has led me deeper into the forest to taste another world where the rational mind recedes in the direct unmediated experience of Nature. To taste a reality that until very recently was well known to us but which we have been taught is unreal or unrealizable. Taste it. It is real.