Hannah Kirshner’s plunge into traditional Japanese country life began in 2015 when she accepted an invitation to visit Yusuke Shimoki, a sake specialist in the tiny mountain town of Yamanaka, Ishikawa Prefecture. A friend-of-a-friend, Shimoki was staying with Kirshner at her home in New York City, where he shared a sampling of his favorite sake during a dinner party. Kirshner was hooked.
A few months later, the Brooklyn-based writer, artist and food stylist found herself working at Shimoki’s sake bar, Engawa, serving food and drink to guests, and absorbing some of Shimoki’s vast knowledge of sake and all things related to it.
“I am his disciple,” Kirshner writes in the first chapter of her book, “Water, Wood, and Wild Things: Learning Craft and Cultivation in a Japanese Mountain Town,” available March 23 from Viking, “and I know he hopes I will bring his teachings back to New York with me. … I haven’t caught Shimoki’s single-minded zeal (for sake), but I’ve fallen for Yamanaka.”
Something between memoir, travelogue, ethnography and cookbook, Kirshner weaves together local history and profiles to explore the intricate connections between craft and the natural environment of a town that balances traditional culture with modernity.
Experience fuels each turn of the page as, alongside Kirshner, readers practice the magic of traditional papermaking; hunt wild boar and duck using time-honored traditions; walk deep into the mountains to harvest sap for lacquer; or apprentice with Shinichi Moriguchi, a master wood craftsman, and learn to carve a tray using a near-extinct technique.
Moriguchi’s wagatabon wooden trays are named for a now-submerged village near Yamanaka. The unvarnished, rectangular pieces are made from a single piece of wood carved with a distinct design. Moriguchi, a sculptor by training, learned about wagatabon by accident and became obsessed with the craft. Kirshner describes how the “tools and materials tell you how they want to be used” and how the craft is about more than “thinking about what we’ve been told,” and placing emphasis on your own senses instead.
Grounding herself in hands-on experiences was pivotal for Kirshner as a writer and researcher.
“When you actually do something, you learn it in such a different way. When you work with somebody, you get to know their personality in a completely different way than if you just do an interview,” she says. “How they are in the world tells you things that they might not say. I wanted as much as possible to write about things by actually doing them with people or by observing or tagging along with them over a long period of time.”
That time afforded Kirshner a doorway into appreciating the unique qualities of Yamanaka, but it also revealed something universal. One thread woven throughout the book are memories of her childhood in the United States’ Pacific Northwest.
“I’ve lived in cities all of my adult life, but my childhood was in an old logging town in the mountains,” Kirshner says. “It was so relatable for me. It’s just sort of a country thing to fix stuff yourself or keep around old junk that might be useful someday. In spite of being from different countries, there were common points I shared with a lot of these people: making things by hand and being from a rural place.”
The similarity of trees, plants, topography, scent and even people sparks recollections that make Yamanaka feel even more relatable to Kirshner. Small town life is small town life, no matter what language it speaks or where it is on the map.
“I think that was part of why I was so drawn to Yamanaka from the first time I came here. I’m a cook and an artist, so I have that drive to make things,” Kirshner says. “I also find that the best way to do something is not always the fastest. There is an emotional value in taking time and care with something and having a relationship to it that you don’t when the process is mechanized.
“In modern society all over the world there is such a drive toward the most efficient way,” she continues. “In some ways that’s great, but sometimes I think we miss that things feel more satisfying and fulfilling when they are handmade and have an intangible quality that the user of that object also senses.”
Kirshner also makes a point of exploring the rich tapestry of local history that spurred the evolution of Yamanaka. She enlisted the help of Yu Mizukami, a Japanese anthropologist from Ishikawa Prefecture, to read relevant essays, historical texts, white papers and books written in Japanese.
Kirshner reached out to Mizukami because, she says, “I knew so little about Japanese history going into it so I assumed my reader would know even less. It was my job then to include (that history and context) and not skip something because I couldn’t read the Japanese well or because it was outside my expertise.”
“I was surprised by so many things we found,” Mizukami says. “For example, there was the relation of history and charcoal production and the origins of vegetables grown there. It was very fun work because we can reorient our view of culture and the environment.”
By the end, her intimate portrait of Yamanaka anchors readers to the people and place. Kirshner has gone so far as to work at the sake brewery again, and is getting a house in Yamanaka. When asked if her kominka (traditional farmhouse) daydreams mentioned in the book were foreshadowing, she laughs. “It was a dream that gradually became more serious,” she says, “and we started looking for one to renovate.”
While Kirshner is quick to point out that her myriad experiences are not necessarily replicable by others, she also believes that readers shouldn’t feel pressured to copy her. “Those experiences were founded on trust built up over time,” she says. “I really want people to realize that while Yamanaka is very special, there are countless other places like it out there. Go and find one and spend some time (there) or look closely where you already are.”
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