The writing of Water, Wood, and Wild Things: Learning Craft and Cultivation in a Japanese Mountain Town was surely an act of devotion. It is a book that defies easy categorization by genre. Readers who enjoy travel literature will surely love author Hannah Kirshner’s ability to root her writing in a place and a culture. Foodies will find evocative descriptions of unfamiliar dishes, along with detailed, thematically-linked recipes at the end of each chapter—along with instructions for finding unusual ingredients in Euro-American grocery stores. While not an academic tome, Water is nonetheless a well-researched book backed up with the support of an ethnographer and a three-page source list.
Water is also a deeply mindful book, written with humility and concentration. It features, for example, long chapters devoted to “the poetry of fragrance and flavor” of sake. A reader might compare it to a work of “gambaru literature” like Shion Miura’s The Easy Life in Kamusari or Miyashita Natsu’s The Forest of Wood and Steel (now in translation by Juliet Winters Carpenter and Philip Gabriel respectively). All three describe Japanese craftsmanship in exquisite detail; Kirshner makes reading about craftsmanship into an act of meditation.
Kirshner’s book is also part memoir of her as-of-yet brief but eclectic life. She first traveled to Japan as a twenty-two-year-old art school graduate and competitive bicyclist; she arrived with $500 and a bicycle in a cardboard box. Through a friend she made on that trip, she met Yūsuke Shimoki, whom she describes as “a saké evangelist”. In broken Japanese and English, the two agreed she would come to Japan and work an apprenticeship at his saké bar.
Although it isn’t strictly chronological, Water is a more-or-less linear narrative of the four years Kirsher then spends living in two worlds, splitting her time between Brooklyn in New York City and the remote Japanese town of Yamanaka (literally “middle of the mountain”).
In her memoir Fifty Sounds, Japanese translator Polly Barton recalls trying to find a home in Japan. She found that the “muted, austere, monochrome” outside of “Cool Japan” didn’t admit foreigners—the Japan she wanted didn’t want her.
But Kirsher’s book describes a very different experience. Through Shimoki and his saké bar, she meets a number of extraordinary people. New friendships open remarkable opportunities. She seems to take all of them.
She learns woodturning and mountain foraging from local masters. She harvests urushi (a key component of lacquer) and ganpi (a fiber in some handmade papers). She produces traditional charcoal in a kiln. She hunts wild boar. She farms her own rice paddy and vegetable patch. She takes lessons in tea ceremony. Of course she doesn’t perfect any of these skills, but she does become proficient. She explains
My nature is to dive deep into something for a time—roller derby, bicycle racing, pastry baking, cocktail bartending—until I feel as though I understand it enough.
As she becomes more deeply involved in the Yamanaka community, Kirshner even finds herself in spaces where Japanese members of her own gender would not normally be welcome. She becomes the first woman to ever work at a local sakagura—a saké brewery. Later, she is an invited guest at an all-male duck-hunting club. It isn’t just their gender that bars Japanese women; the cultural expectations of house and home would make jobs and hobbies like these almost impossible for Japanese women to manage.
It isn’t easy for Kirshner to settle into these male spaces. She is ambivalent about being where almost all other women are excluded—and to be in those spaces without advocating for other women. She ultimately accepts that she is “here to learn about what they do and not to change them. Fair or not, the rules are different for men and women.” (She hopes that demographic shifts will force some arts and crafts to admit women, if only “to slow the decline of something they hold dear.”)
Kirshner is consistently sensitive about her role as a foreigner in Yamanaka, as someone who is there “to learn” and “not to change”. She’s even willing to play accept her role of “novelty foreigner” with good grace:
Sometimes they [bar customers] don’t even want to talk to me. Looking is enough to tell their friends about. It gets worse when the regional paper comes to interview me. Foreign woman works at sake bar, they report.
She guesses that “much is forgiven because [she’s] a foreigner” and attributes her success to her “perceived temporary status as a white American woman”. While her privilege is undoubtedly real, it is also clear that Kirshner becomes a part of Yamanaka by the time the book closes. In accepting that she will never completely fit, she somehow finds a real place in the community of artisans.
Perhaps the most enjoyable feature of Water is that it is written by a consummate artist—and one with real joy in her subject matter. That joy especially comes across in the audiobook, which the author reads herself. Listeners can hear the smile in her voice when she describes her favorite memories. She chokes up when, late in the book, she has to describe the death of a friend.
Deeply honest, Kirshner never softens her descriptions to make them more romantic or palatable. She grew up on a farm and knows not to idealize pastoral settings or farm labor. (Her descriptions are detailed enough that sensitive vegetarians might find chapters on hunting a bit too graphic.)
And she never fetishizes Japan. Kirshner celebrates Japan’s traditions and craftsmanship as a living tradition. It is not a paean to the past, but a work of love to a people—a community. She quotes the woodturner Nakajima-san, one of her new friends and mentors, speaking about about his place in the culture: