Issue 090
April 18, 2024

Smelting in the New York Times

Checking out the tatara-ba in Shimane

Roden Readers —

It may not feel like it, and I may not be sticking to the schedule, but in theory this is a monthly newsletter. It is I, Craig Mod, writing from a near constant state of frazzle and delight that has been this year. The cherry blossoms have come and gone for most of central and southern Japan, and now those cherry trees are back to their most-of-the-time totally unremarkable, goofball greenness.

What has been going on in my world? Well, most pertinent to my sending this today is that I have a new piece out in the New York Times: “A Japanese Village Wants Tourists to Come for Heat, Soot and Steel” (gift link — share away!).

Last October I went to Shimane to witness / wonder at the smelting of some so-called jewel steel from iron sand. It was pretty incredible. I didn’t know I was going to write about it for the Times, but they seemed keen on the pitch when I sent it in November. Unfortunately, my editor there greenlit the piece just as I entered the gauntlet that was 1) Launching TBOT Fine Art Edition, 2) leading a walk in Thailand with Kevin Kelly, 3) ushering my parents around Japan, and 4) getting a MRSA bacterial infection in my arm as a Christmas present. So, needless to say, writing this Times piece simply wasn’t on the cards.

Finally, finally, finally I got to it in February after having mostly recovered. Then my editor was bursting with other things to edit. And now, today, it is out. Phew. So it goes with these things! Glad it’s out, I think it turned out well. (Big thanks to Stephen Hiltner, as always.) And what they’re doing up there in Shimane — a prefecture I’m sure most of you have never been to — is pretty fascinating. Japan is filled with these kinds of local-specific cultural / historical nuggets of interest. Are they enough to help revitalize some of the more remote parts of the country? Very TBD.

The initial trip was setup by dear friend John McBride, with whom I’ve walked and travelled extensively these past fifteen years. He had a relationship with the Shimane smelter by dint of planning some tours for Walk Japan in that general area, and he was helping Veritasium coordinate a short documentary about Japanese swords. (I took Derek, the Veritasium founder, for a walk along the Ise-ji in October 2022; John joined us the first day and dazzled with a trenchant distillation of the entire history of Japan.) The resulting episode is a great companion to the Times piece. I went along because I had never spent much time in Shimane before, and was curious to see what was shaking up there. I didn’t necessarily think there’d be a story worth writing up, but in the end there was. (Weirdly, randomly, about a month ago Mark Zuckerberg also visited the same sword smith in Saitama I write about in my piece.)

taking the cover off the kiln

Otherwise I’ve been neck deep all February and much of March in Random House rewrites, edits, and expansions on TBOT. Pub date is set for spring 2025, so we’re focused on locking this new edition in the coming weeks. It’s nearly 2x the length of the Fine Art Edition — lots more personal context, history, and kissas. (I forget, most everyone who encounters TBOT in the Random House form will have never read any of my work, so cutting kissas — as we did for the fine art edition — isn’t strictly necessary? Anyway, there are some fun new vignettes queued up for this edition.)

I took a short 80km walk back on the peninsula, partly in service to this Random House edit. Partly just to get out of my house with a couple good friends. At the end of March I popped over to Yamaguchi City (Nytimes “52 Places to Visit 2024” #3) to meet with the mayor and governor (who were both lovely and gracious), and field a bunch of media queries and interviews.

Kitchen Arts & Letters, beloved Upper East Side indie cookbook haunt and more, bought a slew of Kissa by Kissas earlier this year (thank you!!), and the owners interviewed me about bookmaking a couple weeks ago. I wrote about the interview from a Kengo Kuma library in the hinterlands of Kochi Prefecture. Upon announcing that interview in Ridgeline, my inbox was flooded with notes by longtime fans of the bookshop. Turning me on to the mensch that was Nach Waxman, founder of the shop. Sadly, he passed in 2021. I wish I had known about the store earlier; I would have liked to have met him. But now I’m even more honored to have my books in his shop.

I’m planning a big, Uninterrupted Continuous Solo Walk in May (because, sure, a 500km walk is probably what I need right now), and wrote about why such things are important to me over in Ridgeline.

All the while, my members-only Nightingalingale newsletter continues; we’re up to issue … 231.

Busy, yes. Very busy? Yes. Set to be even busier? Yep. But, goddamn if I’m not grateful for the books and projects I get to work on and the kind and generous people I get to spend my time with. I don’t take a second of this for granted (for being able to publish with the Times, for being supported by my membership program SPECIAL PROJECTS, for being able to release fine art editions of my books and then rework them for mass market publication). Which is why my days are so full right now (and why crowbar-ing a big walk into such a schedule feels so important) — I want to both be present for all of this, and say yes to as much as possible.

Speaking of which: I have a 30-minute, monthly J-Wave FM Japanese radio show starting next week. The Japanese edition of Kissa by Kissa is set to be published come fall. Alongside which I plan on doing a country-wide independent bookshop tour / adventure, which may itself end up becoming a book.

It’s one a.m. over here. That’s all I got right now.

Just to amplify a little note I snuck in at the end of a Ridgeline about big walks I sent yesterday:

Apropos of this moment (or any moment, really), is the recognition of — and gratitude for — the peace within which I find myself living, a peace that enables me to even consider such a thing: A walk like this. All the more reason to be doing it — as a kind of genuflection towards peace, and acknowledgment of the fragility of all the things past which the walk takes you.

Anyway, my heart is as full as my schedule. Thanks for all your support. More soon. Back to the (delicious, Maldon) salt mines (I know their salt doesn’t come from mines) of getting this new edition of TBOT done.