Morimoto and the Natural Beekeepers of Kagawa Prefecture

Morimoto-san and friendsThe Marine Liner train pulled out of Takamatsu station and headed towards the Seto Ohashi (a bridge which stretches across Japan’s Inland Sea for 13.1 km); the day had been a full one.  I could not believe the day had come and gone, but the photos and memories will stay.  Not to mention the friendships that were formed, as well.

Three months prior, when I had booked my flight to Japan, I started thinking about whether beekeeping in Japan would be different from how we in the United States tend, manage and maintain our bees.  Little did I know that an incredibly helpful Japanese teacher my sister knows along with the massive ability of the Internet to connect disparate peoples together would lead to day long meeting and cross-cultural exchange of beekeeping ideas half a world away from my home in Minnesota.

A Google search of Beekeeping in Japan lend me to a BioBees’ article on Syouichi Morimoto (in the photo, above, he is the gentleman standing next me – I am in the orange, if you are wondering).  The article details Morimoto’s beehives and the bees he uses (he is using Apis cerana Japonica, as opposed to Apis mellifera).  I was intrigued by the simplicity of the hives as well as the bees; though, it would be nearly impossible to get Japonica in the United States.

I emailed Morimoto.  No luck.  I wrote a simple note and translated it into Japanese with Google’s Translation Service.  No luck.  My sister was getting excited about my upcoming visit and she asked me if there was anything that I would like to do.  I mentioned Morimoto and his hives.  She said she would talk to her Japanese instructor about writing Morimoto a note.

In the mean time, I started asking random people on Twitter who might have had a contact in Japan about beekeeping.  No luck.  I contacted the  Honeybee Science Research Center at Tamagawa University located in Tokyo.  They replied quickly and were apologetic, but they did not give tours of their facilities to the public.  No luck, again.

Back on the train, passing over Seto Ohashi, I looked at the photos on my camera.  The day had really happened.  I got to hang out with, interact with, and just be myself with seven or eight other guys who, as it turned out, were just like me – mildly introverted, interested in beekeeping, interested in bees, interested in woodworking, kind friendly, and not competitive.  I knew my people existed, but I never thought I would find them in Japan.

My sister’s Japanese teacher and myself worked together on leads.  Hiro, the teacher, emailed Morimoto, but received an email back saying he was very worried about not speaking English and was worried that I would waste my time traveling there if we could not communicate.

Map of JapanMeghann, my sister, set to work finding an interpreter.  Hiro checked with Kanagawa Prefecture’s agricultural department about any contacts for beekeeping groups.  Kanagawa is the prefecture in which my sister and her husband live.  If I recall correctly, Hiro heard back from the agricultural department, but no one in the prefecture was known to be keeping Apis cerana Japonica; everyone was keeping the western Apis mellifera, the same kind that we keep in the United States.

Hiro tried Morimoto, again.  After some prodding, Morimoto agreed, with the condition that an interpreter would be there, to meet.

We had a two hour layover in Okayama where we would pick-up the Shinkansen Superexpress bullet-train to Yokohama – just outside of Tokyo.  I kept thinking about my day and how wonderful it turned out.  The kindness and generosity that Morimoto, Yano, Rocky and the rest of the friends had shown us throughout the day; I was just amazed.

Hiro emailed me – Morimoto wanted to know what were my questions; I told Hiro I would get back to him after some thought.

I keep a multitude of Moleskine notebooks going at any given time.  I generally have one in my Duluth Pack backpack, one or two in our vehicles and one in each of my two jackets.

I jotted down things that would come to mind…

  • Is there a snow-season?  Do you need to “overwinter” your hives?
  • How can you tell when a hive is “ready” for harvest?
  • Why the cross-pieces and not frames like in Langstroth hives?

I had a couple pages of hand-scribbled notes in one Moleskine.  I scanned the pages into images and emailed Hiro.  I worried that my questions would be asinine and simplistic. I am a fatalist at heart; I kept worrying something would derail my two day beekeeping adventure into southwestern Japan.  Would my questions really be good questions?

Meghann, in the meantime, had found an International Society in Takamatsu that offered volunteer interpretation services; you only had to pay for some research time for finding an interpreter, food, and transportation.  Once the Society had lined up an interpreter and had done some legwork for us, it was looking like we would need to pay only ¥8,400 or about $100 US.

Things were falling into place and I only need to get to Japan, and then get to Takamatsu.  Twenty-two hours of travel and I was in Japan.  Now, I just needed for Monday, March 19th, to come up on the calendar.

The Shinkansen Superexpress pulled up to the station and we boarded; finding our seats we settled in for the four hour trip to Yokohama.  Even though the day was long, and there were some language issues with the interpreter, the day was grand and over the top grand.

The 19th rolled in and we headed to the train station in the morning to start our trek to Takamatsu.  For the most part, the trek was uneventful and we wandered the downtown streets of Takamatsu using GoogleMaps to find our hotel.  The next day the fun would begin.

Morning arrived and after breakfast, Morimoto and the interpreter, Toshi, picked us up from the hotel.  We headed to a gas station to meetup with other beekeepers; the plan was to head to Morimoto’s stand of seven hives near an orange grove and give them a look-see.

The hives were much smaller than I had imagined.  They were about a quarter the size of my Langstroth hives.  With only four boxes, they were also shorter than a full Langstroth.

The general idea of the hives is simplicity and the simplicity is where the genus lies.  There are no removable frames, there is no pulling the hives apart for inspection – inspections rely upon a trapdoor on the underside in which you use a digital camera to look up into the hive and tapping on the outside to gauge its fullness of honey and brood.

After visiting the hives, we headed to Morimoto’s workshop.  By workshop, I mean a three story building full of industrial woodworking equipment and lumber.  It was the cleanest, neatest wood shop that I have ever visited.

Morimoto went over my list of questions with me.  He also assembled a hive box for me.  This is about the point where a great day turned into a grand day. Yano, who was a master beekeeper and whose father was a beekeeper pulled out a large knife.  Morimoto sharpened it.  Yano then spoke to the interpreter who then spoke with me; he said, Yano-san wants to give me the knife as a gift.  I was speechless.  I was amazed at the generosity.  Morimoto pulled the interpreter aside to talk to with him.  The interpreter pulled me aside – he was very worried.

“Morimoto-san is wants to know if you would be able to pay shipping on a hive of his if he gave it to you.”

I was dumbfounded.   I said, “Yes, of course I can pay shipping; just tell me how shipping in Japan works.”

Apis cerana JaponicaWe decided the best solution would be to ship the hive and knife to my sister’s house in Zushi where she would then it via the US Postal service back to the United States.

Once we exchanged addresses and phone numbers we headed outside to Morimoto’s ume trees (fruitless plum trees) for some photos.

After a short while, Morimoto and his friend Rocky, who spoke perfect English, took us to the train station.  We bid farewell and headed into the station.

That was the end of a perfect day.

Six Hundred Pound Phallus and Some Mochi

Special Object - Phallus
Six Hundred Pound Phallus

A month or ago, I talked to my sister – “Alex, we are going to a fertility festival in Nagoya while you are visiting Japan.”

After talking with her, I did a quick Internet search to see what I was getting myself into…

The festival itself, held March 15th of each year, is technically called “Hōnen Matsuri” or Prosperous Year Festival.  It is a fertility festival.  People take the fertility part to mean many things; some wish to become pregnant or to have successful pregnancies, others wish for a successful growing season and harvest.

The festival is touted as a “must see” for those happening to be in Japan on March 15.

The trip to Nagoya started by boarding a Navy Morale, Wellness & Recreation bus at 4:00 AM.  Travel to Nagoya would take 4½ hours.   The morning was brisk but those on the bus were warm and friendly.

Once we arrived in Nagoya, four of us – myself, Meghann, and two of her friends – ditched the tour group and headed to Shinmel Shrine where the main object was being prepared for its parade to Tagata Shrine.  The main object happens to be a six hundred pound wooden phallus.

Arriving at the object, we were greeted by throngs of people; among all the people, an older Japanese man, seeing the gaijin (foreigners) and laughed, pointed at the phallus and said, “Japanese big-dick” – this trip was totally worth all the travel time and lost sleep just for that one hilarious moment.

The Japanese man motioned for one of our cameras and then pushed us through the crowd to the object where we had our photo taken.

From there, the four of us wandered through town to where food and festivities were being had; squid on a stick (take note Minnesota State Fair – Japan might have something here) was being prepared over a grill, stick dogs and sausages on sticks were also being prepared.  The smells of foreign food hung heavily in the air.  Children ran around sucking on candies shaped like the object.  Fundamentalists would be mortified.

My sister and her friends bought chocolate cover banana-phalluses and many object suckers.  The food was good and the company we kept was great.

MochiAfter the object was paraded through the town and brought to Tagata Shrine, the Mochi toss began in earnest.  Mochi balls are essentially pounded-rice-pucks that weigh around one pound (½kg).  The toss was a craze-filled fifteen minutes where the town officials throw the mochi into the crowd below.  Catching a mochi is supposed to bring good luck and fertility.

People were bloodied and bruised once the toss finished up.

If you happen to be in Nagoya on March 15 — you must roll up your sleeves and jump into the festivities that are Hōnen Matsuri.



Chasing the Sun

Japanese payphoneUneventful is the best way to best my twenty-two hours (or thirty-three, depending upon how you look at it) of planes and automobile travel (sorry, no trains) to Zushi City, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan – just south of Tokyo.

I flew from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Los Angeles, California; leaving Minnesota just after sundown.  As you travel and chase the sun, you seem to time travel.  The four hour flight to L.A., by the clock, only took two hours.  I could deal with this sort of time travel, then I realized I would be crossing the International Date Line.  My twenty-two hours of travel would time travel out to thirty-three hours and in the process, I would lose Saturday.

On the long-haul flight from L.A. to Tokyo, I sat next to a fascinating U.S. Marine named Leland.  He had been in the Marines since he was about twenty.  He was a chef in the corp; he and his family live on a base on one of the southern islands of the Japanese chain of islands.  Leland’s passion lay in chocolate carving and ice carving (in addition to feeding large numbers of hungry Marines).  He was flying from Richmond, Virginia, where he had had training and ice carving competitions.  He never did say how the competitions went.

From the bit of travel I have done in my life, it is always fascinating to find out what other people do; what makes them get up eat morning.  What exactly is their story.

Now that I have been in Japan for a day, and it would appear that I have missed most of the bad parts of travel (upset stomach, severe jet lag, etc), I can get down to business, err, leisure.  Thus far, Meghann (my sister) and I have visited Tsurugaoka Hachimangu-shrine where, in the Shinto tradition, we washed our hands and mouth before entering the temple grounds.  We also made a small offering of a couple coins to the spirits.  The shrines are beautiful and co-exist wonderfully with the natural hills, trees and ponds.

BlossomsWe also visited a district of small shops (I was excited to find a My Neighbor Totoro – となりのトトロ shop where you could buy all sorts of things related to the fantastic Japanese children’s cartoon), ate at a small ramen noodle shop where you took your shoes off and sat on the floor.  We also visited a honey shop which had dozens and dozens of different varieties of honey.

But, last but not least – the cherry and ume (plum) blossoms are just starting to bloom.  It should be a wonderful sight to see the many, many trees scattered throughout this land that will soon be in bloom.


Off to the Land of the Rising Sun

My sister, Meghann, lives in Japan.  Her husband is in the U.S. Navy, and she said to be me once, “Home is where the Navy sends us.”  The Navy sent them to Japan for three years.

I leave for Japan, to visit my sister and her husband, this evening; it is about 15 to 17 hour set of flights.

On March 19th, we travel to Takamatsu and the next morning, we are to meet a fascinating beekeeper, Syouichi Morimoto; he owns and operates a beehive manufacturing business.  These are not your usual Langstroth hives you or your father or father’s father accustomed to using.  The hives are more Warre-hive like – squarish boxes with cross members for the bees to hang their honeycomb from; there are no frames at all.  Morimoto-san also does not use Apis mellifera or the honeybees that are used throughout North American, instead he uses the native Apis cerana japonica.  

I am not sure I am excited per-se to visit Morimoto-san, but I am looking very much forward to meeting him and visiting his operation.

All that said, it has taken a lot of planning and communication with through a translator/friend of my sister’s – H. Okamoto.  Many thanks to Okamoto-san for all his help on this part of my adventure to the Land of the Rising Sun.

Below, is the note from Morimoto-san on our upcoming visit on the 20th of March.