A Fortune in Clamshells?

If I had a thousand dollars to spare, I would have bought it--a thousand dollar lunchbox. It sat on a black lacquer tray inside a glass case. I could hear it calling me, and if I ever win the lottery, it's coming back from Okinawa inside my suitcase.

That kind of box is called a jubako. Ju means layers, and hako (bako) means box. There are three tiny boxes in which fancy food can be arranged. They fit neatly one on top of the other and are covered by a perfectly fitted lid. The boxes are plain black lacquer; the real beauty is in the lid. It is made through a technique known as raden.

Smooth and shiny as glass, but warm to the touch, the lid is also black lacquer. However, it is inlaid with bits of shell that glow like pearls against velvet. The one that captured my heart used bits of abalone shell to depict blue and green flowers and vines. Others used white mother-of-pearl, and they were the kind of objects that, if you have to ask the price, you shouldn't be buying them.

I couldn't look at them without admiring the people who crafted them. What did they use? Wood from a fallen tree. Lacquer distilled from a plant similar to poison ivy. The shells their food came in. That, plus brain power, to figure out how to do the work. That, plus the artistic imagination to make the designs. That, plus a heart open to the potential for creating beauty and value.

Nature plus human beings--what a wonderful pairing it can be!


Rain, Rain

The rainy season front is moving up the Japanese archipelago. It's leaving Okinawa behind and Tokyo's turn for misty, muggy rain has come.

The rainy season has several traditional names: "uki"--literally rain time, "tsuyu", and the more poetic pronunciation "bai-u".

"Bai-u" means plum rain. The story goes that the green plums--about the size of a quail's egg--turn yellow and fall from the trees when the rainy season swings into high gear. Plop, plop! They fall in the night, echoing the sound of big, fat rainy season raindrops.

The timing is certainly right. Although I have never heard the plop of plums falling in the garden, the markets are filled with them when the rainy season is at its height.

First come the bright green ones, hard as stones. They have only one use: you put them in a jar, add rock sugar in a quantity equal to the weight of the plums (people argue about this), and fill the jar with a potent alcohol called white liquor. When the sugar dissolves and the alcohol takes on a golden glow--usually around August, at the earliest--your plum wine is ready to drink.

Next come the softer, yellower plums. These, too, have only one use: to be pickled in salt and eaten with rice. They make the beloved staple food "ume-boshi".

Making ume-boshi is several weeks' work. First you wash and dry the plums, one by one. Then you put them in a jar with salt equal to one-third the plums' weight (people argue about this). As the juice collects in the jar, you roll the jar around, swishing the juice up and down and around each and every plum. That's the easy part. The hard part is coloring them with the leaves and stems of the red shiso plant.

You deal with the shiso by grinding it in a bowl with a serrated surface, using your hands and a lot of salt. Ouch! It stings. When you've got a quart of the maroon-colored glop (sorry, that seems to be the only word that truly describes what you've made from the shiso) you pour it in with the plums. Occasionally, you roll the jar around, swishing the juice up and down and around each and every plum.

By the time the rainy season ends, you are ready for the finishing touch. You need three days in a row of blinding, hot, dry sunshine. You also need a big, outdoor space where you can spread the plums in a single layer to dry. Put them out in the morning, roll them around from time to time during the day, put them back in the juicy jar over night, and repeat the next day and the next.

When they are wrinkled and just dry enough, voila! You have made pickled plums.


Top Ten World Cities

Naha, Okinawa, didn't make the cut. It's not one of the world's ten best cities, but neither is New York or Tokyo.

That's OK.

It's still my favorite, and the reason has nothing to do with the usual criteria like standard of living, housing, transportation, business opportunities and all that. I like it because it has everything you need, plus--in spite of its sprawling size, it feels like a village.

People know each other. Circles of friendship overlap.

The other day, I attended a reception outside of Naha. It was for a marine archaeology research NPO. To my surprise, the guest seated to my right was a bamboo flute maker I'd been eager to meet. The man to my left was the developer of a healing garden I'm planning to write about. Both, it turned out, are friends of the butterfly park creator I met the next day for coffee.

I would like to suggest creative synergy as a criteria for choosing a great city.

Do people talk to each other? Do they inspire each other? In a great city, you can find the time. You can find the place. You can catch up with the people you want to talk with, live and in person, and share the joy of creativity taking wing.


Don't Call Them Herbs

One of the reasons Okinawa is justly famed for longevity has to do with the natural healing power of plants. In an extraordinarily beautiful location overlooking the Pacific Ocean, there is a large-ish garden dedicated to growing native healing plants. It's an added attraction to the popular Kurukuma Restaurant in Tsukishiro City, and I spent a refreshing hour strolling through the grounds in the rain the other day. (It's mid-rainy season now in Okinawa.)

When I called the plants grown there herbs, I was duly corrected. The right word is 'yaku-soh'." (literally, medicine-grasses) Herbs are mainly for adding taste and fragrance to food. Okinawan healing plants are linked to specific medical effects, such as lowering blood pressure. However, just like herbs, they are often added to whatever's cooking or made into tea.

Hibiscus tea for beautiful skin. Mulberry tea to cure a cold. Ukon tea for the liver. That sort of thing.

Surely Okinawa isn't the only place where natural healing plants grow. However, it may be one of the few places where the medicinal uses of leaves, flowers, stems and roots are common knowledge and hold a valued place in daily life.

The environment is so generous, if only we would respect it more and take better care of it. As my niece likes to say: "Save the Earth, it's the only planet with chocolate." Kidding aside, chocolate comes from cacao, and cacao is also a traditional healing plant.