Tag Archives: japan hemp

Zen Rambling in Japan ~ Originally in Heads Magazine

Authour's intro in Heads Magazine

Authour’s note: This article “Zen Rambling in Japan” by me Dave Thorvald Olson originally appeared in Heads Magazine (now defunct) in the Vol. 6, Issue 4, circa: Spring 2006, as the cover story for the Travel Issue.

The iteration below is a late-version draft rather than the (apparently misplaced) submitted final version so there are some minor errors. This article is also markedly different from my “classic” Hemp Culture in Japan articles (see below) as this all original piece concentrates on modern times and practical tips rather than focusing on history and cultural change.

Heads did a beauty lay-out (excerpt scans included) and added several ancillary articles about Japanese culture in the issue. I’ll try to add in the photos where {indicated} in the article.

Be wary and read all the safety tips and caution closely – neither the Japanese police or Yakuza are to be trifled with but, if you keep it chill the good times are in store.

Ganbatte!

dvo, June 2010, Vancouver.

More Hemp in Japan

Hemp Culture in Japan – a 1992-7 ground-breaking treatise on the history and cultural significance of hemp in Japan is available in .html or .pdf . For alternate versions, visit JapanHemp.org, a site dedicated to Hemp in Japan. Published in Cannabis Culture magazine (#13 & Best of …), the Journal of International Hemp Association (V.4 N.1), as well as excerpted in several books including Hemp Horizons (USA), Hemp for Victory (UK) and “Hanp” from Norway.

Zen Rambling in Japan - Heads magazine cover

Zen Rambling article in Heads magazine Zen Rambling in Japan article in Heads magazine Heads magazine - Dave bio

Forget Everything

Japan can be intimidating, even for seasoned travelers. You arrive to massive sticker shock, tiny octopi in soup and 30 kinds of hot canned coffee which all taste the same in ubiquitous vending machines. You will also find a vibrant underground culture of tokers enjoying quality weed, homegrown from imported foreign seeds in crafty gardens, or harvested from the wild fields on the northern island of Hokkaido.

Japan is a long country with 80% mountains – covering several climates, from frosty Hokkaido in the north, to tropical Kyushu giving adventurous folks much opportunity to head to the outer provinces for exploration of the heady scenery of this varied archipelago. And, while weed is not cheap in cities, and can be hard to find in the countryside, with some planning, politeness and persistence, combined with a little zen, you can find big adventures in the land of the rising herb.

Indeed, it is easy to get lost in the big cities of Tokyo and Osaka – crowded with skyscrapers and twisted alleys, piled high with screaming neon clubs pumping techno, reggae or karaoke and shops piled with futuristic technological gadgets that won’t make it to North America for another decade – but, far away from the expensive hotels and talking toilets of the huge Pacific metropolis, you may find yourself soaking in alpine hot springs on a starry night, drinking sake with strangers crammed into a mountain hut after a backcountry dinner of rice, seaweed, miso and green tea and finishing up with a bowl of wild Hokkaido herb smoked from a long “kiseru” pipe.

Checking the Scene

While cannabis holds cultural significance in Japanese history, all varieties were declared illegal in post WWII by the US occupational government. However, good genetics have existed in Japan for decades, both domestic strains of high-THC fiber hemp THC and imported strains from tourist hotspots from India, Thailand or Jamaica by young Japanese turned on during the 1960-70s when worldwide youth culture turned to individual thought and away from the rigorous norm imposed by society.

In recent years, many young Japanese have traveled to Australia, Canada and New Zealand and brought back seeds, growing techniques and liberal attitudes, and, in the past 2-3 years, growers may legally order the seeds from finest breeders in Canada or The Netherlands. Coupled with access to experienced grow advice via the Internet or myriad books, it is just a matter of time until new flavors emerge from these novice growers.

With the lack of big commercial grow-ops and sketchy quality of imported weed, many experienced smokers either grow their own or make an annual trip to Hokkaido for a harvesting wild cannabis for private stash which, while untended, can be a sticky treat.

Electricity is expensive in Japan so any indoor operation must be efficient and certainly discrete, but close-dwelling Japanese are used carving out bits of privacy in confined spaces and enthusiasts squeeze small, personal-use gardens into apartments, closets, and greenhouses.

greenhouse
In suburban areas, back porch greenhouses gardens with a few plants blend well in with the neighbourhood.

Since you aren’t growing yourself, you’ll need to find some a friend. But, due to the harsh punishments, tokers are obliged to keep low-key and with the city prices at $30/gram, usually aren’t ripping bong tubes all day long if you know what I mean.

Find a reggae club, surf beach, or mountain festival, make some friends and be patient and respectful and follow your nose. In the cities, you may also find open-minded foreigners teaching English or running a street stall who may be able to lend a hand in a hookup.

If you are more fortunate, you may find quality stash illicitly imported from Holland, more common in the last 8-9 years. The strains are different each time and the price is sky-high at $40-$80/gram, but you also may end up with a wild goose chase or a dicey situation.

There is also a busy trade of lower-grade, seedy ganja imported from The Philipines or Thailand, and sold for $15-30/gram by organized crime organizations (Yakuza) at train stations by hired foreigners – along with speed, cocaine and whatever else they have. This is not your best option as you are likely to be ripped off, arrested, or turned-in for reward money. As one Japanese friend in the Tokyo-area points out, “There are many Iranians in Tokyo, they always have hash, not weed. They are usually around the big stations but I think it is dangerous to get in touch with them because police keep eye on them.”

Punishment for growing is harsh in Japan but the police are more concerned about organized crime gangs than personal use or small-scale growers so, as long you are low-key and not disturbing the peace, the Japanese police will rarely bother with you, but remember this is the country that jailed Paul Mccartney for 1 oz. and native rocker star Nagabuchi Tsuyoshi’s (think of a Nihonjin Springsteen) career was almost destroyed when busted with 2g of weed. Same goes with non-fiction writer Nobuhiro Motobashi who was also relegated to a penance of public groveling for minor possession charge.

Trips & Places

Honshu, the biggest and most populous of the four main islands, varies from the pacific-side, which is crowded with cities and fast-paced lifestyles, and the over the mountains running down the spine and life slows down but a little less convenient.

Since you probably arrived in Tokyo, check out the busy urban area of Shibuya to get started. Under Japanese law, it is illegal to possess or import a drug itself but the plant from which it comes, is legal. As such, marijuana seeds, mushroom spores kits, whole peyote cacti and paraphernalia are commonly sold in the hectic recreation areas like Shibuya.

Out of the town a ways, score a quintessential Japanese moment at a now-legal, microbrewpub with a view of the famous Mt. Fuji. If you are gung-ho you can walk up the giant cinder cone with fantastic views, no shade and with yes, … plenty of vending machines near the top. Or cruise over to Yokohama to Blaze pipe to buy a piece and take a roll on their skateboard ramp.

From the busy Tokyo/Yokohama area, high-rollers can head down the idyllic Izu peninsula for surf and boutique hotels, otherwise, grab your stash and head into the hills!

Between Nagano and Tokyo, make your way through Tochigi prefecture where you might meet Takashi Okanuma who is growing legal hemp under a license to make traditional “zouri” sandals and maintain a traditional hemp weaving craft called “nara sarashi.”

The field is carefully administrated by the local agricultural agency and is grown with a low-THC cultivar called Tochigishiro derived from a indigenous strain containing cannabidiol acid and thought to be indigenous to Japan since the Neolithic Jomon period. However heavier THC cultivars also existed since ancient times, likely brought from China via Korea as did rice and Buddhism. At over 15ft, these native varieties of hemp was the tallest tested by the USDA in 1930s and with over 4% THC.

{Picture Caption: In the countryside, a few plants grow from imported seeds grow well – perhaps disguised with bamboo, goldenrod grow – on valley and mountain sides where the only other visitors are likely harvesting mountain vegetables and rare matsutake mushrooms and understand the importance of safe herbs for medicinal use.}

Another hemp farmer in Shizuoka prefecture, Yasunao Nakayama, has worked through the government red-tape and processes his hemp crop into oil for skin products which he sells at a shop called Kaya and, along with other local farmers, hosts a “hemp festival” every August in Shizukuishi village in northern Iwate Prefecture.

Further along, in the fat middle belly of Honshu is Nagano prefecture, with the Japanese Alps and fertile valleys with farms, this is the historic heartland for hemp culture in Japan. Most recently famous for the incident at the 1998 Winter Olympic games in which the first-ever snowboard gold medalist, Canadian Ross Regabiatti tested positive for marijuana and was briefly stripped of his medal. Regabiatti stood his ground and after days of interrogations and hassles, his medal was returned and a cannabis hero was born and the strain Nagano Gold named in his honor.

Just a few kilometers from the historic snowboarding run is the town of “Miasa” meaning “beautiful hemp.” A tiny rural hamlet in this breadbasket area, Miasa celebrates its hempen heritage with a seven bladed leaf emblazoned on the village brochure and the local museum displays scenes of hemp processing techniques common to the area until the 1950’s.

The Nagano area is home to communities of homesteaders who dropped out of city life and moved into abandoned houses in forgotten valleys. Reviving villages after a long slumber of disrepair when a generation went away to war and never returned leaving remote communities occupied with only old folks. Once the prefectural government moved them into apartment homes in nearby towns, the historic homes stood unoccupied for decades until these new residents squatted in to rebuild and keep the old customs alive.

Nowadays, this progressive element combined with the stunning scenery, make the area around the ski town of Hakuba a worthwhile visit. Summer months feature counter-culture music festivals, programs at an alternative arts retreat, plus hiking and/or paragliding through a range of jagged peaks, well-adorned with mountain huts and hot springs. Head up during the O bon holiday (mid-August) – a Shinto festival during which people visit graves of ancestors and generally party down with festivals.

The northern island of Hokkaido boasts wild cannabis, adventurous winter sports, the Sapporo brewery and more hot springs. This wild cannabis is no mid-west ditch weed, instead it is more than folklore that potent weed survives (flourishes in fact) untended in fields around the sparsely populated island.

Crafty stoners head north in early autumn to prospect and harvest quickly at night, filling trunks and driving straight back to city or holing up for a couple of days in a cabin to cure and make the sticky, seedy weed into bubble hash. The police know people do this but, there is so much land to cover, and cannabis disguised growing in so many fields that the yearly eradication and arrest programs hardly make a dent. If you are feeling dangerous, head to Hokkaido during early fall for clandestine harvest but, bear in mind that this is tricky business and not to be undertaken lightly. Otherwise, take your snowboard and enjoy Sapporo’s snow festival and beer instead.

{picture of weed drying in cabin or field with hard to see cannabis plants}

Back on Honshu, history enthusiasts must visit Kyoto, the venerable old capital city of which survived the bombings intact and is now a busy city of temples, museums and nightlife. Poets and philosophers have come here for centuries seeking knowledge and peace through aesthetic arts and meditative practice. Alternatively, Nara is a smaller and more low key city with more history, ancient temples and semi-wild deer wandering the streets and parks.

Heading down the Pacific coast, you’ll come to Okayama, served by the bullet train but cheaper to stay in, this medium sized city is a handy jumping off city for trips to Shikoku and nearby artistic exploration. Sometime called the Venice of Japan, nearby Kurashiki is a town of numerous museums including Japanese folkcraft, archaeology, toys, natural history and a eviable collection of modern modern European masters at the Ohara museum (e.g. Picasso, Pisarro, Degas, El Greco, Cezanne, Monet, Millet and Tollouse-Lautrec). Also near Okayama city is Bizen, one of a handful of traditional pottery centers in Japan with walk-in-sized kilns that look like giant wasps nests are fired for weeks at a time.

Every trip needs a reality check, in Amsterdam it is the Anne Frank House, Japan’s heavy history lesson is the atomic bomb site in Hiroshima. Besides the buzz kill, you may learn something plus Hiroshima is a good city for Okonomiyaki restaurants where you grill your own savory-pancake type creation.

From Osaka or Kobe, hop an overnight ferry to the smaller island of Shikoku featuring a sparse population, surf culture, sacred hemp fields, and the “pilgrim’s path” – 88 sacred sites spread around the island visited by white-clothed pilgrims like an oriental Road to Santiago. On the ferry, dig the Inland Sea, turquoise blue and smattered with tiny islands, while picnicking on the big open floor with new friends. Hitch and hike your way around the coast, pitch a tent on the beach, or use simple pilgrim hostels along the way and you’ll left alone to meditate on what wandering poet Issa Kobayashi meant when he wrote:

The grass around my hut also
has suffered
From summer thinness.
Just when I hear
The sundown bell,
The flower of this weed

Shikoku’s Pacific beaches have great surf and cheap land so attracts surfers and drop-outs who may not fit in with the rigorous Japanese city life, sounds like a good place to meet cannabis aficionados. Head to the south central coast for the surf town of Kochi with a restored castle and surrounded by national parks, this is a great area to let the good times roll and rent a board or explore the sandy beaches, tropical plants and unique coral and rock formations.

Inland, in Shikoku’s farming region, hunt for the clandestine hemp field growing secretly for the Imperial family’s ceremonial use. Once cannabis was made illegal by the US-occupational forces and the Hemp Control act “taima torishimari hô,” this village continued growing to preserve the sanctity of sacred Shinto rites requiring hemp as a symbol of purity including the imperial coronation ceremony several years back when they revealed their illicit field to the relief of the royal folks.

{photo of author hitchiking on Shikoku}

To discover some traditional Nihon, point your thumb towards the San-in coast from Tottori to Shimonoseki on the Sea of Japan side (or Sea of Korea depending on who you ask). A stretch of fishing and farming villages with traditional festivals – drums beaten by drunken farmers and fishermen who are back at toil hangover and all the next morn, men who will be out on the squid boats bobbing offshore with glowing lamps attracting tomorrow’s sushi.

Far away from the tourist track, you’ll find giant sand dunes complete with camels, hidden coves for snorkeling, the finest Asian pears on this planet, open air hot springs and climbing on high empty mountains

Heading further south brings you to the more tropical island of Kyushu, and further yet, the entirely culturally different island of Okinawa.

From Kyushu, catch a ferry to continue your trip to Korea from the closest point between the countries. This same area is site to pre-historic cave paintings depicting what appears to be foreigners bringing a five-leafed plant and horses to Japan. Go find the cave and decide for yourself.

Zen of Travel

Traveling well in Japan is an exercise in simplicity – pack light with versatile clothes and shoes that are comfortable but are quick to take on and off (trust me). Unless you are planning to stay in one place, don’t bring your surf/snowboard because you’ll quick grown frustrated lugging it around in confined spaces, trains, subways, rooms, lockers – everything seems just a wee bit small.

Food

If traveling on the cheap, you can buy most anything from omnipresent vending machines to sustain your journey (including beer) – indeed instant food can be tasty and purchased in the most remote places. Beverages of every description including the aforementioned coffee machine with 30 brands all sweet, milky and strong (served at 110 degrees until one day, all machine magically switch to cold coffee). Look for noodle stands for huge steaming bowls of miso ramen or udon noodles, slurped standing up. Abundant shopping markets sell prepared foods to take away and fill your belly while saving your money.

Take some chances cause you aren’t likely to find Mexican food or peanut butter. Local fruits and vegetables are much less than imported ones. Dairy products are outstanding as is tofu of course. In this land of sushi, killer seafood everywhere and most always safe and clean if sometimes a bit odd (puffer fish anyone?). Japanese beef is famous raised on beer and massage, you can enjoy it in small strips you grill on a hot plate on your restaurant table. When you get serious hungry, find an all-you-can eat curry rice joint for a mound of rice smothered with Japan-ified sweet curry laden with meat and veggies.

Crash space

Most all flights arrive in Tokyo or Osaka, if you are on a budget, get out of the big cities as fast as possible! If you have a friend’s place to crash at and who will show you around, then you’re styling, otherwise, make a smart choice or you’ll spend a lot of money staying in the city.

Besides hostels – which can be rather stale and poorly located in the city but sometimes fantastic in the countryside – you can stay at a Japanese-style “Ryokon” (an traditional bed and breakfast inn with tatami mats, kimono robes and funky food), or western-style chain hotels (some even with a strange Denny’s in the lobby), but the smart late night partier finds a handy gaudy “love hotels” which are rented for a 4 or 8 hour block – usually close by train station. Rooms are ordered in like fastfood – pictures of available rooms are lit up on a board (i.e. jungle room, bondage room), push a button to select and slide money through a window and voila, your heavenly crash pad awaits.

Once in the countryside, you can find accommodations in temples and monasteries if you are looking for some enlightenment or just a memorable night.

Getting Around

Buy a Japan Rail pass to cover the long distances – the trains range from clunky locals and to the warp-speed Shinkansen bullet train, prices range accordingly but all are timely and relatively comfy. Like a Eurorail pass, the JR pass must be purchased outside of Japan and gives you unlimited travel on most routes. Get to know the schedule to make your life easier at the manic stations and plan smart so to catch sleep en route.

The train stations are the hub of activity in any town with myriad restaurants and accommodations close by. Every station offer unique pre-prepared box lunches called “eki-ben” (literally = station box lunch), a great way to sample local cuisine while taking a slow train through new areas. Take a chance and get off at random towns to find family-run restaurants, empty beaches, historic temples and great walks up to samurai fortresses.

The overnight coach buses are another great way to cover the long distances in quiet and comfort. These ain’t no Greyhounds but rather sleek, comfy cruisers whisking you through the night to a distant destination in a whole other climate.

To get off the beaten path, get you left thumb ready to hitchhike. Thumbing around is a great way to meet people and often score a meal, or visit to their village or other adventure. Make a sign of where you are going – write in ABCs or find a friend to write the Kanji characters.

Communication

Everyone studies English for years in school but who remembers their high school Spanish, German or French lessons? Me neither.

Do not fear, with a dozen words (remember the Karate kid), much patience, and a small notebook, you’ll skid along just fine. Japanese are very impressed and grateful when anyone makes an effort to understand their unique culture and difficult language and will respond with kindness to your noble effort.

Hello: Konnichiwa (ko-NII-chi-wa
Goodbye: Ja Nae (Sayonara is more formal)
Excuse me: Suimasen (see-mah-sen)
Thanks/Thank you: arigato – domo arigato (Mr. Roboto)
How are you?: Genki desu ka? Answer: Genki desu!
Yes: Hai No: Iie
Please: Kusasai or Onegaishimasu
Foreignor: Gai-jin (or Canada-jin, American-jin, Nihon-jin, etc.)

Tokers know the word “ganja” or use “taima” (cannabis) or “marifana”
Say, “dozo” for “here you go” when passing the joint.

Arriving & Departing

You’ll likely fly in and out of Tokyo or Osaka and the officers take their immigration procedures very seriously so have your shit together. Clean your pockets and fingernails to prevent stray crumbs from your killer going away party from cutting your trip short.

Under 26-years-old Canadian, Australian and New Zealand travelers wishing an extended trip may qualify for a six-month working-holiday visa allowing you to make some money along the way. You’ll get a Gainjin Registration Card which you MUST keep with you at all times, and turn it in when you leave.

Ganja train

For me, I got caught the ganja-train in Nagano, high in the hills, stuck with a broken down van. Followed unclear directions to third-hand friends, I ended up living with a group of big city drop-outs, reinventing life in the hills. Ended up in counter culture festival in an abandoned children’s ski hill…. Teepes and psychedelics. Drums and tents, fat joints passing around – especially after the very-plain clothes cops went home. That’s when i learned about he wild Hokkaido herb. Seems too good to be true but turned out to be better than believed. I didn’t believe the story of trunk full of potent weed until an afternoon in a teepee in Nagano.

After a festival weekend, I was still in full party mode. Feeling jaded about the look of the weed, I rolled a giant joint of the weed harvested in a clandestine evening operation. The weed was seedy but sticky and dense which seemed a contradiction – thick sweet smoke, couching hard, heavy indica high…. Before I knew it, the teepee was spinning and I wasn’t sure if I channeling the ancient local shogun or the native north Americans. The festival, camping in tents, watching sunrise after all night drumming, I could’ve been anywhere.

Resources

Check out JapanHemp.org for comprehensive list of head shops and news articles and historical research.
Japan Hostel Association: http://www.jyh.or.jp/english/
Official Japan tourism: http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/
Japan CANNABIS CONTROL LAW in English: http://www.unodc.org/unodc/legal_library/jp/legal_library_1994-07-15_1994-35.html

Bio

Dave Thorvald Olson is a North Vancouver-based writer and entrepreneur who also brews up the “Choogle on with Uncle Weed” podcast and made the 1997 documentary film “HempenRoad.” He’s enjoyed herb in fourteen countries on four continents so far.