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



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

Tokyo Event

December 9, 2011

Returning to the Way of Nature

A workshop facilitated by Dion Workman and Takuya Sasa.

Nerima-ku, Tokyo

17th Dec. Sat. 10:00~17:00

Donations appreciated. Please bring food for a shared lunch.

RSVP required: tabi0419[at]gmail.com

Returning to the Way of Nature

A presentation and discussion about the state of modern society, the destruction of the environment and how we could live in a very different way. A way that is good for ourselves, our children, our human communities and the community of all life on Earth.

Many of us feel a sense of unease about the world today. We feel anxiety for the future, a future where we don’t see opportunities to live healthy fulfilled lives for ourselves and where we see each generation leaving to their children a world in poorer condition. We feel a great sadness for the injustice of our societies and for the way in which our way of life is destroying Earth. And we feel helpless to do anything about it.

In this event lead by Dion Workman and Takuya Sasa, we look at the root causes of these issues and discuss practical solutions. We will look at ecology, technology, economics, community, education, food, health and energy. We will examine many aspects of the world today and ask how can we create the world that our hearts long for. What can we do as individuals and as communities.

Our hearts tell us that another world is possible. It is time to start living in that new world.

Dion Workman was born in Aotearoa/New Zealand and now lives in Izu-hanto. He is a natural farmer, wild food forager, permaculturalist, deep ecologist and writer.

Takuya Sasa was born in Tokyo. He has traveled extensively in 60 countries including one year traveling by horse through central America. Much of this time he has spent learning about the indigenous cultures of the countries he travels in. Takuya also spent one year in Aoteroa/New Zealand learning Permaculture.

Returning to the Way of Nature



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

DIY Kitchen Appliances

June 21, 2011

Living up in the mountains with the nearest road a good ten minutes walk along a steep forest path it is quite extraordinary that we have mains electricity. I imagine that nowhere else but Japan would a utility company go to such lengths to get a house on the grid. Its true this connection allows us some modern comforts – well, three at least: laptop, lights and a refrigerator (whose days are definitely numbered) – but, had we been the original occupants we probably would have opted to stay off the grid. Right from the time we first moved here we have discussed options for generating electricity ourselves, at first in the context of long-term plans but following events at Fukushima these discussions have gained some urgency. Reasons for generating our own electricity are hopefully too obvious to warrant comment but why detach from the grid altogether? Our grid is owned and operated by Tepco (the Devil itself!).

Although the micro-hydro system we would like to have generating the few kilowatts of electricity we need might still be a little way off we have been working on some super low technologies to better align our energy use with our circumstances and needs.

The previous occupant of our house seems to have done most of her cooking by gas. Convenient if you live in a city, or village, or just if there is a road nearby, really. Far less convenient when the gas bottles have to be carried on your back up in to the mountains. Also when you live in the midst of a forest there tends to be an abundance of fuel, everywhere. And, of course, you gotta pay for the gas (and which friendly neighboorhood corporation will be taking your money this time?).

Rice Cooker

To reduce overall fuel consumption the first cooking appliance we built was a heat retention cooker (HRC). These brilliantly simple devices – sometimes referred to as ‘haybox cookers’ due to the insulation material originally used or by us as our ‘rice cooker’ due to what we mostly use it for –  are certainly one of the most effective energy-saving cooking devices around. Using the gas rice cooker that we inherited with the house it took around 35 – 40 minutes of fuel usage to cook one days supply of rice plus another 10 or so minutes each time we wanted to reheat the rice. With the heat retention rice cooker it takes around 10 minutes of fuel usage to generate enough heat to cook the rice and 3 – 5 minutes to reheat it (the HRC will keep the rice warm for the best part of a day but we avoid doing this due to the risks of bacterial growth in a constantly warm environment). Keep in mind the times I have given are for fuel usage not cooking time [see below].

The principle of the HRC is simply that you heat food in a pot then place the pot in the HRC (an insulated container) which traps the heat emitted from the food in the pot and uses this heat to cook the food. Essentially it’s a sort of slow cooker so can be used for anything you might cook in a slow cooker such as grains, beans, stews, casseroles etc., or anything you might  use an insulated box for such as making yoghurt or keeping food warm.

A couple of cardboard boxes, wood ash, a sheet of styrofoam-like material backed with a reflective material (used in Japan for covering bath tubs to keep the water hot), tape, a bag of batting an old blanket.

We used wood-ash as an insulator because we have it but other insulating materials could be corrugated cardboard, old blankets, polystyrene type packaging materials… As most of the heat escapes from the top of the box this must be insulated well hence our two layers of corrugated cardboard covered with the reflective material, the batting inside a plastic bag (preventing it from becoming moist and smelly) and the old blanket over the lid of the cooker (added mainly to hold the lid down but gives one more layer of insulation to the cooker). It is well worth lining the inside of the box with some sort of reflective material as this will reflect the heat emanating from the pot back at the pot.

The model we designed and built might seem a little over engineered but it works so well I would say the little extra effort and materials  really paid off. Before making our HRC we had read that brown rice would require 10 to 15 minutes boiling then 2 hours in the HRC. We boil our brown rice for 5 minutes and after one hour in the HRC it is perfectly cooked (this is only 15 to 20 minutes more than most electric rice cookers!). It’s true that our cooking time is improved because we sprout the rice before cooking but no matter how you cook it brown rice should be soaked for a long time or, better, sprouted.

The Macrowave

Another simple device we have built is a solar box cooker.

Two boxes, a sheet of glass, some aluminium foil, wheat paste, tape and a blackened pot.

We completed the solar cooker just as we entered the rainy season so we haven’t had many opportunities to use it yet. But on the rare sunny days that we have had over the past month it has performed reasonably well. Putting a pot of water on in the morning we have boiling water for morning tea. Nothing but beautiful rays of sunshine…

The dimensions of our solar cooker were determined by the piece of glass we had and it is a little smaller than ideal. Not shown in the photograph is a ‘splash plate’ of aluminium painted flat black that sits under the pot. It’s critical to use blackened pots in solar cookers as they make an immense difference to the cooking time.

For the low down on all things solar cooking including plans: solarcooking.org

The Rocket

Our latest DIY cooking appliance is a little rocket stove. With just a handful of sticks it burns really hot producing very little smoke. Since we introduced the rocket stove to our kitchen set-up we have almost entirely ceased using the gas cooker. [Update, June 2012. Shortly after this post was written we did cease using the gas cooker entirely. It has been in storage for around 10 months and not missed at all.]

An old commercial size soy sauce can, a length of stove-pipe, a stove-pipe elbow bend, a tin can, wood ash.

A rocket stove maximizes combustion and heat transfer efficiency. In a well built stove all the volatile gases released as the wood gets hot will be combusted. This occurs when there is sufficient temperature. To attain the necessary temperatures the stove is insulated with low mass, heat resistant materials (wood ash, again, in our case). The complete combustion of the volatile gases results in virtually no smoke being emitted – a cleaner, more efficient use of wood as cooking fuel.

Rocket stove before the addition of wood-ash insulation

Although our little rocket stove works brilliantly we’re planning a new improved model already: multiple burners with high, medium and low heat, raising it to table top height… At present we use ‘risers’ to elevate our pots above the flame when we need to ‘turn the heat down’ and when we want to turn it right up we have a ‘skirt’ that fits snugly around the pot and directs the heat vertically up the sides of the pot increasing efficiency. [June, 2012. We never did get around to making that fancy new improved model. Instead we learned how to cook well on a single burner. Having the HRC in combination with the rocket stove has worked well as we can keep a dish warm in the HRC as we prepare the next dish on the rocket.]

Video tutorial on making a rocket stove

The Rocket Stove Principle

Ureshipa Farm

May 6, 2010

Ureshipa is an Ainu word that means something similar to Gaia or Nature as all inclusive and interconnected. It is the name given to the Sakawa family farm in Iwate prefecture. We have been at Ureshipa farm for about three weeks now and will be spending a total of two months here.

The Sakawa’s established Ureshipa 17 years ago on 2.5 hectares of leased rice paddy terraces surrounded by conifer dominated forests. Sakawa Toru was an early and enthusiastic advocate of permaculture in Japan and continues to be a key figure in the Japanese permaculture movement. Ureshipa is one of the only permaculture farms in Japan (there are many permaculture influenced home or community gardens) and one of the few permaculture farms in the world that is creating livelihoods for the occupants from farming (that should be a shocking, worrying, and hopefully motivating, statement for all advocates of permaculture!).

Rice seedlings under cover

When we left Tokyo and headed north to Iwate we thought we would be traveling with the sakura (cherry) blossoms but an unusually cold spring kept them at bay. The blossoming of the sakura marks the time to plant rice and the lack of blossom when we arrived had the farmers worried. The rice growing season is relatively short in Iwate and the farmers were concerned they might not get their seedlings out in time. As most of the farmers are rice farmers and growing little else they had every reason to be worried. Toru-san was also concerned about the late spring and his rice crop but as rice is just one of many things they grow at Ureshipa the weight of his concern was considerably lighter.

As well as rice other commercial products grown and produced by Ureshipa farm include: soy beans and miso, soba (buckwheat noodles), sembei (rice crackers), millet, eggs and mayonnaise, pork, shiitake mushrooms and surplus vegetables. They grow and process many more foods and are largely self-sufficient in food.

Such variety obviosuly creates food security and economic resiliency but also makes for very diverse and interesting work.

Making miso

Ureshipa farm is slowly being converted from an organically managed farm to a natural farm. As I have mentioned elsewhere “natural farming” is interpreted in many different ways and at a later date I hope to write about the different types of natural farming being practiced in Japan but for now suffice it to say that here natural farming means simply no inputs. That’s right. Not just no external inputs but no inputs at all! The process of conversion to natural farming is necessarily a very slow one. This land has been continuously farmed for the past seventy years (it has probably been farmed for a lot longer but the existing terraces are known to be about seventy years old) and for all of those years some form of fertilizer, be it chemical or organic, has been applied every year. What Toru-san is attempting is to now remove this drip feeding and reestablish a system so perfectly balanced that fertility is maintained while growing crops that yield enough food to support the Sakawa family and provide them with an income. Both chemical and organic farmers are likely to think this an insane idea but experience has shown it can work and there is growing demand in Japan for food to be produced in this way. This demand for naturally farmed food does not arise from concern for the environment or peak oil as one might expect but rather because a growing number of Japanese consumers are blaming their allergies and increased sensitivity to food items on fertilizers of any sort. Customers that buy Ureshipa farm’s naturally farmed millet claim that they are having allergic reactions to organically farmed millet but experience no reactions with naturally farmed millet.

Toru-san harvesting shiitake

We have already learnt so much from the Sakawa family in our short time here. Its going to be a rewarding two months for sure and I just hope I can find enough time to share some of it with you.