Hannah KirshnerNov 8, 2021
Water, Wood, and Wild Things
Learning Craft and Cultivation in a Japanese Mountain Town
Water, Wood, and Wild Things: Learning Craft and Cultivation in a Japanese Mountain Town (Viking, 2021) is memoir, ethnography, cookbook, and sketchbook rolled into one." This is the Princeton Independence's description of the polyvocal and artistic text, written by Hannah Kirshner. I cannot agree more with the following review they made on the creative quality of the book: "It evokes the best of the nature writing of Rachel Carson and Wendell Berry, as well as the food writing of M.F.K. Fisher and craft writing of Edmund de Waal." It is certainly a great book to read if you are traveling to Japan or to buy as a gift if you know someone who might be interested in Japanese culture but does not where to start.
An immersive journey through the culture and cuisine of one Japanese town, its forest, and its watershed–where ducks are hunted by net, saké is brewed from the purest mountain water, and charcoal is fired in stone kilns–by an American writer and food stylist who spent years working alongside artisans
One night, Brooklyn-based artist and food writer Hannah Kirshner received a life-changing invitation to apprentice with a “saké evangelist” in a misty Japanese mountain village called Yamanaka. In a rapidly modernizing Japan, the region–a stronghold of the country’s old-fashioned ways–was quickly becoming a destination for chefs and artisans looking to learn about the traditions that have long shaped Japanese culture. Kirshner put on a vest and tie and took her place behind the saké bar. Before long, she met a community of craftspeople, farmers, and foragers–master woodturners, hunters, a paper artist, and a man making charcoal in his nearly abandoned village on the outskirts of town. Kirshner found each craftsperson not only exhibited an extraordinary dedication to their work but their distinct expertise contributed to the fabric of the local culture. Inspired by these masters, she devoted herself to learning how they work and live.
Taking readers deep into evergreen forests, terraced rice fields, and smoke-filled workshops, Kirshner captures the centuries-old traditions still alive in Yamanaka. Water, Wood, and Wild Things invites readers to see what goes into making a fine bowl, a cup of tea, or a harvest of rice and introduces the masters who dedicate their lives to this work. Part travelogue, part meditation on the meaning of work, and full of her own beautiful drawings and recipes, Kirshner’s refreshing book is an ode to a place and its people, as well as a profound examination of what it means to sustain traditions and find purpose in cultivation and craft.
During the interview, we talked about Hannah's process of creative writing and its symbiotic relation with accompanying illustrations. Our discussions quickly led to a series of episodes, which described her cross-cultural and cross-linguistic interactions with others (including humans, animals, plants, art crafts, and natural surroundings) in the wonderful mountain town, Yamanaka, in Ishikawa Prefecture. This book is not only a great invitation to the magical experience of living in rural Japan and becoming a part of satoyama, but also an indispensable contribution to our ongoing discussions on the larger problems of "sustainability," "decline of rural economy and tradition," "ecology," and the negative aspect of "urbanisation" or of "ageing rural society" in Japan among others.
Hannah shared with us a great insight: we should spend more time with our local culture and economy (wherever we are) and pay a closer attention to how things are done for our life and our self-betterment in nature. The best word to describe this practice of mindfulness would be "cultivation." This book shows that this type of self-awareness or mindful practice could be done in such a beautiful and enjoyable way that could be natural to our way of being. Author's hope is my prediction: after exploring the deep forest of this book, readers will be encouraged to learn how to enjoy practicing this "cultivation" and see the beauty of their natural surroundings that could impact their lives and their children's onwards.
Takeshi Morisato is philosopher and sometimes academic. He is the editor of the European Journal of Japanese Philosophy. He specializes in comparative and Japanese philosophy but he is also interested in making Japan and philosophy accessible to a wider audience.