When it comes to serving snacks, Hiroshi and Noriko Murao like to offer a health treat to guests at their home in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward: roasted charcoal.
It's a tip they picked up from "grandma." Not from their maternal or paternal side, mind you, but from among the hundreds they have contacted over the years in an attempt to record Japan's old wisdom.
"There's a saying that goes, 'If something makes you ill, make it into 'kuroyaki'--that's about 99 percent charcoal--then eat it.' It will make you better," says Hiroshi, as he offers a small dish of well-toasted cedar florets that he says cured his hay fever.
"I didn't believe it myself at first, but in the first year I started eating these, my symptoms went away. And the next year, too. In the third year I went without them, to see what would happen, and the sneezing came back worse than ever."
That remedy, several more unusual ones (eggplant toothpaste to cure sore gums), tips on scrubbing rust with ketchup and polishing floors with rice water, as well as an explanation of the uses of pickled plums, are among the gems that have been gathered together by Obaachan no chiebukuro no kai (Grandma's bag of wisdom group), the nonprofit organization that the Murao couple organize.
Since 1997 the group, made up mostly of homemakers, has been gathering bits of folk wisdom and sharing them first through a newsletter, followed by five recent books.
The latest, "Natsu wo suzushiku! Obachan no chiebukuro" (Making summer cooler), published by Daiwashuppan, appeared in stores at the end of June and contains nearly 200 tips on ways to beat the summer heat.
Some are perfectly obvious: open a window, turn on the kitchen vent and plant vines on your balcony. But others are not.
Take lots of hot baths with baking soda, for example, or stick sports cooling pads on the soles of your feet.
The ideas come handed down from families, as well as from literature dating from the Edo Period (1603-1867). Not only are the ideas recycled, so to speak, many are about recycling itself.
"Wisdom is about finding all the uses for stuff we'd normally throw out," says Noriko. "A lot of the information we've gathered used to be common knowledge, but now it's no longer being passed on. Many young people don't live with a grandmother, so they don't see these tricks in action. Once they try them, they find they're actually pleasurable as well as money-saving."
The couple's neat home is a testing bed for the various ideas in the books. Instead of a blaring air-condtioner there's a net filled with mint leaves hanging in an open window, its scent carried on the lightest of breezes. They use bagged "genmai" rice husks as soap and rice water as dish detergent and floor polish. In the freezer, they've got two small sacks of "azuki" beans, for use as pillows.
Living the way grandma did may conjure of images of grinding chores to a generation accustomed to living out of convenience stores.
But surprisingly, says the couple, most of their readers are people in the teens and twenties.
"Nowadays people are looking make contact on a more instinctive level with their culture," says Hiroshi. "Probably the most important thing about these old bits of wisdom is that they make you use your hands. Once you start, you become more and more of a maker. They stimulate something in your mind and let you see the world in a kinder way."
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