The first thing that strikes you about Mrs Okayabashi’s sitting room is that there’s nowhere to sit. The only furniture is a low table and a large flat screen TV. There are no chairs or sofas. The room is also completely bare of any ornamentation or clutter. There are sliding doors opening onto a wooden terrace which looks onto a narrow strip of formal Japanese garden. Next to it is a room of the same size, with the same outlook, with no furniture in it at all. There’s a small recess in the centre of the floor which holds a stove on which sits a large pot with a lid. This is the room where Mrs Okayabashi conducts her Tea Ceremony.
In England there are certain rules which every well brought up person observes when drinking tea. The include not putting the milk in first (Nancy Mitford called the lower orders Mifs on account of this habit); not sticking your little finger in the air when holding the cup; and not pronouncing the word scone as if it rhymed with Joan. But these have nothing to do with etiquette and everything to do with snobbery. In Japan etiquette is everything.
Shikoku is so far off the beaten track that it doesn’t even have a bullet train service. And Kochi, a small city on the island’s south coast, is cut off from the rest by a huge range of mountains. This is wild country. 84% of the land is covered in forest and the forest is home to bears and monkeys and wild boar. Kochi is surrounded by small farms, thousands of them, growing mainly vegetables, but also rice and tobacco and citrus fruits. I’ve come to Kochi to see the Sunday Market. Kochi’s Sunday Market has been going for 300 years and stretches for half a mile through the city, with 400 stalls. The market is vibrant, noisy and colourful and gives every sign that it will go on for another 300 years, even though the city, like everywhere in Japan, is modern and neon and high rise. This is the Slow Life living in harmony with the high life.
What, I wondered, have the people at Slow Food Japan to worry about? Surely their food is fresh and locally produced? Unlike in Britain, supermarkets in Japan aren’t monolithic monsters and they aren’t packed with processed adulterated foods; in fact up to a third of the total space will be devoted to fresh fish. What worries the Japanese, it seems, is that they’ve seen what’s happened in Britain and America and it scares them stiff. Slow Food is big in Japan. I’m given a glimpse of their enthusiasm at an event in Koenji, a suburb of Tokyo, where they installed a temporary outdoor market to promote food from the tsunami stricken area of Fukushima. Their mission is to persuade the people of Tokyo that the food from Fukushima is good and safe to eat and that they should support their farmers. What’s impressive to me is that, unlike in England, where Slow Food supporters tend to be middle-aged or more, who are intent on turning the clocks back, here, the stalls are manned by young enthusiasts. The organiser, the indefatigable Toshiya Sasaki, took me for lunch to a traditional sushi restaurant a few streets away from the event. On the way there we passed a McDonalds, a KFC and, to my amazement, a Tesco Express. These young enthusiasts have a fight on their hands.
“In this ever changing world where mountains crumble, rivers change their course, roads are deserted, rocks are buried, and old trees yield to young shoots, it was something short of a miracle that this monument alone had survived the battering of a thousand years.” - Matsuo Basho- The Narrow Road to the Deep North, 1689
“All of Ehrlich’s grim predictions had been decisively overturned by events. Ehrlich was wrong about higher natural resource prices, about “famines of unbelievable proportions” occurring by 1975, about “hundreds of millions of people starving to death” in the 1970s and ’80s, about the world “entering a genuine age of scarcity”. In 1990, for his having promoted “greater public understanding of environmental problems”, Ehrlich received a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award.” Simon always found it somewhat peculiar that neither the Science piece nor his public wager with Ehrlich nor anything else that he did, said, or wrote seemed to make much of a dent on the world at large.
As I strolled through the garden this evening I spotted a snail on the path and stamped on it thinking, as I always do, “That’s another of those pesky creatures out of the way”. Of course, my random act of violence won’t make the slightest difference. This was proved 134 years ago by a resident of Bristol, who shared his experiences with the readers of The Garden magazine in July 1878. He wrote that 20 years previously his house had looked onto open farmland with only 3 neighbours and the bird population had kept down the snails.
If someone in the Government says “all scientists agree” you can be sure of two things. First, that all scientists don’t agree – there will be some holding out against the official line – and secondly that sooner or later the orthodoxy will be overturned. For years officialdom has been saying that we should eat less saturated fat because it causes heart attacks. The evidence for this was shaky in the first place and has now been disproved, following a number of studies both here and in the States.
The very least that the public can expect from those who have misled us so badly for so long is an apology, but not surprisingly we are still waiting, and in fact those in charge are rather hesitant about even admitting the truth. But the facts are being acknowledged, and celebrated, by nutritionists and food writers, not least by the wonderful Joanna Blythman.
One of the best things about having a garden which is surrounded by woodland is that we are constantly treated to the sound of birdsong. The only jarring note is the rat-tat-tat of the woodpecker, but that’s made up for when the woodpecker flies into view. One of the many reasons to be cheerful now is that the bird population is thriving here – in fact there are now more species of birds breeding in this country than ever before. Cranes, egrets, avocets and marsh harriers are all back, some of them in large numbers.
“But the people that didn’t develop their id, that were too exposed to the influence of the sun, they were like plants: They produced far too much carbon under their skin – and became black. That is why the negroes are black.” - Rudolf Steiner, Geisteswissenschaftliche Menschenkunde, 1908–1909, s. 5:9 The full moon today set me wondering which are the looniest garden practices. Talking to plants has to be up there among them, not least because plants don’t have ears, although one of my children pointed out in fact that corn does.
“To me there is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all. The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past; perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was” - Pablo Picasso, 1923
My golden rule when I’m interviewing someone is that their personality is much more important than their qualifications or experience. I might get excited to see that someone’s spent three years at the Savoy in London, only to discover that the Savoy spent three years trying to find ways of getting rid of them. A sunny disposition and the ability to smile readily is far more valuable than an impressively long CV. And so, on Maundy Thursday, when the papers are full of doom and gloom, as they are every day, what is there to be cheerful about?
All keen vegetable gardeners, including me, keep a diary because we love to compare crops from year to year and especially to take pleasure in the knowledge that we’ve broken a record, even if we can’t take any credit for it. I think a record may have been broken today because spears of asparagus have started to emerge from the ground. I usually only record the date when we start eating asparagus (the average, taken over ten years, is April 24th) but I’m always on the look-out and saw several emerging shoots today when I was picking some broccoli. I’m certain that they’ve never emerged as early as this before. Once it gets going asparagus can grow 6 inches in a day, but it won’t grow at all if the weather isn’t kind. This afternoon the rain was beginning to turn to snow. It may be a while before these incipient shoots are long enough to pick.
I’ve been growing Aeonium Zwartcop’s for ten years now and I’ve got about 50 mature plants, but this is the first time I’ve seen one in flower. As it happens, two adjacent plants have come into flower at the same time. They’ve been kept in the Orangery over the winter (they are definitely not hardy) and the warmth of the last couple of weeks must have encouraged them to produce these branches of lovely yellow flowers. I’m told that when the flowers have died down the branches will die, but the plant itself will survive.
I didn’t expect to be fending off wasps while I was dead-heading a camellia; but it wasn’t just wasps which the warm March weather brought out – there were bumble bees and butterflies as well. And so, for the first time, it’s been worthwhile to prepare a slide show of the garden in March. The warm spell has brought spring forward by a fortnight so that we’ve had a good crop of early tulips from the cutting garden, with plenty more to come. In the greenhouse the cannas are a good 9 inches high and, best of all, in the orangery the banana are growing strongly and the tree dahlias are springing into life. So far, so good.
The idea of Slow Life is to take the principles of Slow Food, which are “good, clean and fair”, and extend them to life in general.
Here in the Lake District, the air is clean, the pace is slow and the atmosphere is calm. If we don’t grow food ourselves, we can buy it in friendly small shops, where you know the quality is going to be the best.
This blog is a celebration of the Slow Life, with forays into the world of design, music, the arts, gardens, and my particular weakness, Japan.