Japan from the inside out

Archive for December, 2007

Shogatsu: Stretching soba over to the new year in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 31, 2007

ONE THING IS CERTAIN: At some time over the course of New Year’s Eve, most Japanese will eat a dish of toshikoshi (year-crossing) soba, or buckwheat noodles. The long-established custom of eating soba on the evening of 31 December derives from the hope that it will extend a family’s health and fortune over to the coming year.


Someone has to fill the demand for all that soba, and one company up to the task is San Shokuhin of Itoman, Okinawa Prefecture, which shifted to 24-hour operation on the 28th with 180 employees, nearly half again their usual number. Until early this morning they kept the conveyor belt running while everyone was busy packing boxes with the freshly made, air-cooled product.
Over those four days they produced enough noodles for an estimated 700,000 meals, 80% of which will be consumed in the prefecture.

It’s reported that when people in Okinawa began eating toshikoshi soba on New Year’s Eve, they slurped down the variety from the main islands. They started switching to the Okinawan variety circa 1974, however, and that type became the established custom around 1982.

Hokkaido Hoedown

For an idea just how much soba means to the Japanese everywhere in the country, let’s jump from the far south in Okinawa to the scene in the second photo in the far north—the Sengen district of Fukushima-cho, Hokkaido.


The photo shows a scene of junior high school girls serving as miko, or shrine maidens, as they perform the local Matsumae kagura, a Shinto dance, to the accompaniment of taiko drums and flutes before an audience of about 200 in a 2.5-hectare field of white soba. The performance was staged as an offering for peace and an abundant harvest.

The community became involved in growing soba as a way to promote the local economy, and the Matsumae Kagura Preservation Society presents six types of the Shinto dances on a temporary stage in the soba fields early every autumn. This year’s performance was the sixth.

Sorry to run off so abruptly, but I’ve got a bowl of soba waiting!

Posted in Food, Holidays, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , | 7 Comments »

Ichiro Ozawa’s love call to the Social Democrats

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 31, 2007

WHAT SORT OF POLITICIAN is Ichiro Ozawa? This report from Kyodo should answer the question: Someone more interested in building power structures, no matter how unstable, than in building a better form of politics and government.

Kyodo says that Mr. Ozawa, the president of the Democratic Party of Japan, the country’s primary opposition party, convinced executives of the All-Japan Prefectural and Municipal Workers Union and the Japan Teachers Union to coax the Social Democratic Party, the remnants of the former Socialist Party, into integrating with the DPJ.


The DPJ president’s plan failed to get off the ground because shortly afterward, his talks with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party for creating a grand coalition blew up in his face, nearly taking Mr. Ozawa with them.

The SDP didn’t care for the idea either, calling it arrogant. But the two labor unions think the merger will happen eventually, and Kyodo says Mr. Ozawa is still interested in it.

Here’s the tastiest morsel:

The proposal was presented by Ozawa to the top leaders of the two unions at a meeting at a Tokyo restaurant Oct. 29, the sources said.

In short, Mr. Ozawa was trying to cut a deal with the unions at the same time he was trying to cut a deal with the LDP to create a grand coalition and install himself as Deputy Prime Minister. It’s as if he were the political equivalent of the man in the circus trying to balance spinning plates on the ends of sticks.

For the last two months, speculation has been rampant that Mr. Ozawa’s goal for the next lower house election is to gain enough seats to form a government in coalition with either the New Komeito Party (the LDP’s current partners), or a splinter group from the LDP. With this report, it would seem that rather than a big tent, his concept of a political party more closely resembles an outdoor swimming pool.

What does he stand to gain? It’s difficult to see how it would be a lot. The SDP now has only seven members in the lower house and five in the upper house, and they’re unlikely to improve on that total in future elections. It would require a very narrowly defined set of circumstances for those numbers to tip the balance of power.

The DPJ would get the benefit of labor union muscle during election campaigns, but it has union support already.

What does he stand to lose? Perhaps quite a lot. It would be more entertaining than professional wrestling to observe meetings of the DPJ brass trying to iron out a coherent platform while the irresistible forces met the immovable objects in the same room. The SDP is still stridently pacifist and left-wing, and the DPJ contains a few comfort women/Nanjing Massacre deniers more extreme than any in the LDP.

That’s not to mention those party members who still back former party president Seiji Maehara, a supporter of robust Japanese defense capabilities and the amendment of the Constitution’s Article 9, the peace clause, to realize that objective.

Could it be that Mr. Ozawa’s ultimate goal is similar to that of former Prime Minister Koizumi: Forcing the two parties to break up and reconstitute themselves along more sharply defined ideological lines? (Or, to put it less violently, conjugate like two paramecium, exchange nuclear material, and swim off again.)

It’s worth remembering that Mr. Ozawa has pulled these particular strings before. He was the puppeteer in 1993 when an eight-party coalition replaced the LDP in power for the first time in 38 years, and the SDP was one of the eight invited to the party.

They were also the first to leave when they became uncomfortable with the puppet master’s insistence on a more internationally assertive Japan. That led to the coalition’s demise and the return of the LDP to power.

Why should anyone think it will be different this time?

Somebody needs to take Ichiro Ozawa aside and explain to him the differences between politics and statecraft (as well as strategy and tactics), and why those differences are important. But it’s unlikely that a man with a political career stretching over four decades would begin to listen.

Japan today is in desperate need of a new vision for government and a new political paradigm for making it happen. It is clear that the DPJ has an essential role in formulating that new vision.

But it is also becoming increasingly clear that Ichiro Ozawa is a man trapped by his own past and his retrograde view of politics. He will have little of substantial value to contribute to that effort, any future electoral success nothwithstanding.

Posted in Politics | Leave a Comment »

Shogatsu: Pounding Mochi for New Year’s Day in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 30, 2007

NOW THAT the Christmas decorations have been taken down, Japanese attention has turned to the real yearend holiday, which is the most important holiday on the calendar—New Year’s Day.

Though Christmas has become a part of life in Japan, it’s little more than a festival of light and a commercial opportunity. It may be a pleasant diversion for children and young people, but unless it falls on a weekend, 25 December is still a working day here.


One of the perennially popular seasonal songs in the US is I’ll Be Home for Christmas (written in 1943 at the height of World War II). But the yearend holiday the Japanese come home for falls on 1 January, and that’s the day everyone around the country has been getting ready for.

Just as there are many traditions associated with Christmas in Western countries, there are also many traditions associated with New Year’s Day in Japan.

One such custom is mochitsuki, or mochi rice pounding, which is performed to produce a traditional food. Mochi is a type of rice cake made from a very glutinous form of rice, and in the old days people made it by hand using a mortar and a wooden mallet. Steaming rice is pounded into sticky whole and then formed into either rounded cakes or sheets that are cut into squares.

Mochi has long been an essential part of some religious ceremonies, and none are more important than those held at yearend. Three mochi cakes of different sizes, called kagamimochi (mirror mochi), are displayed as a decoration in both homes and shrines. The cakes themselves are also eaten in zoni, a kind of soup that can be made in several different ways. The most auspicious food eaten during the season, zoni is thought to have originated in the 15th century in a ritual for partaking food with the divinities.


Those people who still pound mochi for tradition’s sake do it out in the yard at their home with family or friends. But the custom is also performed at other sites. One example is the mochitsuki shown in the first photo at the municipal offices of Mima, Tokushima Prefecture. The city employees of Mima hold the ceremony annually to mark the end of the work year, but they add a twist—they swing their hammers in time with music played on shamisens.

Twenty members of Udatsu, a shamisen mochitsuki preservation association, work the mochi while music is performed in the background. This year, they hammered out 36 kilograms worth. Other city employees formed the rice cakes, which were distributed to people who came to the offices that day. The custom in Mima of combining mochi with music predates City Hall–it has 420 years of history behind it.

Mochi demand is much too great to fill completely by hand, however, so even as you read this small businesses throughout the country are operating round-the-clock to put a smile on the faces of mochi lovers nationwide. The second photo shows the mochi made at Co-Op Kobe in the city of the same name, which began production this season on the 26th. Their small plant employs 230 people, including students hired just for the season, and the work will go on 24 hours a day for a six-day period until the 31st.

This year, they expect to make about 10.5 million cakes weighing 40 grams each. The reports cheerfully inform us that if the Co-Op Kobe cakes were piled one on top of another, the stack would be 210 kilometers high, or 56 times higher than Mt. Fuji.


The folks in the previous two examples are making mochi to be eaten, but third photo shows the miko, or shrine maidens, at the Suwa Shinto shrine at Nishiyama-machi in Nagasaki City making two giant kagamimochi for decoration.

The two bruisers they’ll be slapping together are made with mochi rice grown in Isahaya and will weigh 30 kilograms each. After they finished the pounding, they let the mochi set until the 30th–today!–and then put the two huge cakes together. One miko said the more she pounded, the more she enjoyed the sensation of the rice sticking to the mallet, though she still wound up with callouses. (And probably sore shoulders, too.)

Not all mochi rice is used for food. This is Japan, after all, so some of it is diverted to sake production, as you can see in the fourth photo.

The Aso Shinto shrine in Aso, Kumamoto Prefecture, makes sweet sake to distribute to the people who visit the shrine on New Year’s Day. They finished the job on the 21st, and are letting fermentation work its magic until New Year’s Eve.

They use rice donated by parishioners. The reports say that sake made with mochi rice has a more full-bodied, sweeter flavor, but I’ve never had any, so I can’t confirm that.


Sometimes at this time of year people in Japan ask me if I’ve got that New Year’s spirit, but I always have to disappoint them by saying no. The New Year’s spirit, much like the Christmas spirit, is the result of holiday experiences accumulated from the age of zero, and the American New Year’s holidays of my childhood were too boring to create nostalgic memories. All the fun came during Christmas, it was too cold to go outside and play, and television, with college football games morning, noon, and night, was even more boring than usual.

I did pound mochi once during my first year in Japan. Rather than put me in the New Year’s spirit, however, it just reminded me how lucky I was that I don’t have to make a living from manual labor. It’s a lot of work swinging that mallet, and it took a lot longer than I thought for the rice to congeal into a whole. I enjoy the taste and consistency of unpounded mochi rice, but don’t consider mochi rice cakes a treat—too gummy and hard to chew—so I’ve politely declined invitatations since then. The enjoyment came from the sweat-based camaraderie developed with the other people who worked just as hard as I did.

For a video of mochitsuki, look in the third column from the right on the list of this page of Brovision videos of life in Japan (link also on the right sidebar). That’s exactly what happens!

Posted in Food, Holidays, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The media’s anti-Japan bias: Nothing new under the sun

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 29, 2007

AS THE TWIG IS BENT, so grows the tree, goes the old saying, which might explain some of the recent hostility shown toward Japan from those in Britain regarding the whaling controversy.

Reports have emerged that the late Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, father of the current prime minister, was livid over the 1970s Granada TV documentary Eastern Promise in its World in Action series produced when Hitachi wanted to open a plant in England to manufacture television sets. Mr. Fukuda even summoned the British charge d’affaires for an old-fashioned diplomatic dressing down.

Some of the problems with the program included:

  • The opening scene with an animated graphic showing a Trojan horse cut open with a samurai sword to reveal the names of Japanese companies competing with European businesses
  • An excerpt from a wartime movie showing a POW with Japanese guards (For a documentary about a factory?)
  • A scene with Americans wearing anti-Japanese T-shirts protesting at a Japanese factory. Granada TV admitted it staged the scene for the program.
  • Alleged “punishment rooms” in Japanese factories to shame workers, including a scene with a room that had distorting mirrors and dummies of the boss
  • The ending scene, in which a Japanese businessman swinging a golf club morphed into a samurai swinging a sword

Granada later said it made errors in judgement, and specifically mentioned the punishment room scene and the American demonstration scene.

Considering the ongoing failure of the world’s media to produce anything resembling an accurate picture of Japan, the negative images of this country held by the public at large elsewhere should be no surprise.

And considering the nature of the news media itself–which presents little more than entertainment for people with an interest in current events–this state of affairs is unlikely to ever improve.

Posted in Mass media | 11 Comments »

Matsuri da! (64): Frat party or Japanese religious rite?

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 29, 2007

IT’S A FESTIVAL conducted by a Shinto shrine, which makes it a quasi-religious ceremony, but one could be forgiven for thinking it more closely resembles a fraternity party from the movie Animal House.

That’s the Amazake (Sweet Sake) Festival, in which young men dress up as monkeys and have a high time by drinking locally brewed grog and then splashing it on each other. This year’s version was held on the 16th at the Sanno Shinto shrine in Uto, Kumamoto Prefecture.

They didn’t get the idea from watching a movie, either. The Sanno shrine has been conducting this festival every year in mid-December for the past 700 years.

Here’s what happens: 29-year-old men in the Sano district of the city are designated “parent monkeys”, and men aged 18 to 28 are assigned roles as their children, who have to serve them.
This is no ordinary drinking bash—it’s also a costume party. For the past 700 years, dressing up as a monkey has meant donning a red kimono, yellow sash, and white head covering. You’ll get the idea from the photo accompanying the post. The lads also go barefoot, but fortunately they aren’t required to pin a tail to their backsides.

There’s nothing particularly complicated about the concept. Similar shenanigans occur every weekend during the school year at universities around the world. The simians for a day meet at the shrine and start to drink. As the sake is passed around, they begin to chant “Ho-rai, ho-rai!” The more they drink, the rowdier they become, and eventually they start snatching away each other’s white sake flasks.

One thing always leads to another at affairs such as these, so it doesn’t take too long before they’ve graduated to splashing the booze on each other instead of drinking it. According to local custom, getting drenched in sake prevents illness in the year ahead.

That’s as good an excuse as any!

Not everyone is anxious to receive the health benefits to be derived from the drenching, however. Boys will be boys, and once they get to drinking and throwing sake around, it’s inevitable that a few of them will get carried away, start chasing the onlookers, and spill the wine on them, too.

One reporter interviewed a native of the area who works as a company employee in Tokyo, but comes back every year just to participate in the festival. He’s probably as healthy as a horse!

Another reporter covering the story spoke to 10-year-old Nakayama Takuro, who said he looked forward to being old enough to join in too. Now isn’t that part of what a religious institution is supposed to do—present a positive example for children to follow?

Take a look at this photo for another view of what’s been going on in Kumamoto since almost 200 years before Christopher Columbus set foot on the Santa Maria.

According to Christian tradition, Jesus fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish.

Just imagine the bash they could have thrown if he had come to the Sanno shrine in Uto!

Posted in Festivals, I couldn't make this up if I tried | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Shogatsu: Japan’s spring cleaning in December

Posted by ampontan on Friday, December 28, 2007

MANY PEOPLE IN WESTERN COUNTRIES would enthusiastically welcome the adoption of some Japanese customs, such as the practice of removing one’s shoes before entering a house. For example, I’ve heard more than one housewife in the United States express the wish that they could enforce the no-shoe rule in their own home.


One local tradition I am not enthused about, however, is the timing of the major housecleaning at the end of the year. I understand the principle behind it, but I’d prefer to go outside and wash the windows in April, when the weather is warmer, instead of the last week in December.

Nevertheless, Japanese throughout the archipelago have been busy this week making sure their homes and business offices are clean and fresh for the new year, inside and out. (At the coffee shop in a small museum I like to visit on Friday afternoons, one of the employees today was taking out and dusting off every CD in the rack, as well as the exterior and interior of the rack itself.)

It’s often observed that the Japanese devotion to cleanliness borders on the religious, and that devotion might be more literal than some suspect. For example, the miko, or Shinto shrine maidens (roughly equivalent to altar boys in a Catholic church), shown in the photo are removing the cobwebs at the Terukuni Shinto shrine in Kagoshima City during the annual susuharai. (That literally means cleaning away the soot, though the word harai also has religious overtones of purification).

This ceremony-cum-shrine cleaning combines the practical with the religious by dealing with the dust and dirt that has collected over the past year near the roof of the main hall, which at Terukuni is six meters high. The six miko are wielding four-meter-long bamboo brooms, the tool used at shrines for this particular chore. When they finish this job, they’ll get to work preparing the amulets, hamaya arrows, and other good luck charms that will be sold at the shrines during the New Year’s holiday.

And I’m not joking when I say it’s the spring cleaning in December. The New Year season in Japan is sometimes referred to as shinshun, or new spring, based on the tradition that considers the first, second, and third months of the year as spring.

It might not be the most pleasant of tasks to dress up in those outfits and clean the shrine exterior in December (even down south in Kagoshima, where it’s warmer), but they still have it easier than these folks. I’m glad I’m not part of that work crew!

Posted in Holidays, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

You are what you eat

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 27, 2007

READER TWO CENTS provided a link to an excellent BBC report on eating habits around the world, hung on the peg of whale as food in Japan. My hat’s off to the reporter for a well-done piece, and to Two Cents for sending it in. It’s too good to be buried in the Comments section, so I’ve made it more widely available here.

Posted in Food, Foreigners in Japan, International relations | 44 Comments »

The Marmot and the foreigner

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 27, 2007

WHAT IS IT ABOUT FOREIGNERS in Northeast Asia? Judging from this post at The Marmot’s Hole, called Foreigner Learns About Prostitution, Writes Letter to Editor, the outlanders in South Korea are every bit as clueless as their cousins in Japan.

Adding to the amusement is that the foreigner in question tries to act as if he is knowledgeable about Korean customs despite the fact that he is clearly oblivious to his surroundings. Factor in his deadly earnest attitude and a whiff of priggishness, and that wraps up the package.

It’s worth reading to see how deftly the Marmot handles it.

Posted in Sex, South Korea | Tagged: | 6 Comments »

BBC: Inciting racial hatred of the Japanese?

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 27, 2007

Preach not to others what they should eat, but eat as becomes you and be silent.
– Epictetus

THE UNITED KINGDOM HAS A LAW known as the Public Order Act of 1986. This website describes the intent of the law as follows:

The law covering criminally racist material makes it an offence to stir up racial hatred against a group of persons in Great Britain defined by reference to colour, race, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origins.
This act makes it an offence for a person who uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, abusive or insulting, is guilty of an offence if –
(a) he intends thereby to stir up racial hatred, or
(b) having regard to all the circumstances racial hatred is likely to be stirred up thereby.

The website notes that the government has not put the text of the law online, though it does sell hard copies.

The British Broadcasting Corporation, commonly known as the BBC, is based in the United Kingdom and is the largest broadcast organization in the world. The BBC motto is, “Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation”.

They operate BBC News, which is the world’s largest broadcast news organization. They present news stories on television and radio, and place the text and audio of some of these stories on their website.

One such story is “Can Whaling Be Justified”. For this story, BBC correspondent Jonah Fisher—an appropriate name for a journalist covering a whaling story–will report on the Japanese whaling expedition from the Greenpeace ship Esperanza.

The BBC allows its audience to comment on the stories it places on the website in a feature called Have Your Say. This feature has been activated for Jonah Fisher’s reports on whaling.

Posters must follow certain rules when commenting in the Have Your Say area. Some of them are as follows:

No defamatory comments. A defamatory comment is one that is capable of damaging the reputation of a person or organisation.
Do not incite people to commit any crime, including incitement of racial hatred.
Do not post messages that are unlawful, harassing, defamatory, abusive, threatening, harmful, obscene, profane, sexually oriented, homophobic or racially offensive.

When they refer to the crime of racial hatred, they are referring in part to the activities prohibited by the Public Order Act of 1986, as explained above.

To make sure that posters abide by the rules, the BBC moderates this message board. There are two types of moderation. The type of moderation in force for the whaling story is “Fully Moderated”.

Here the BBC defines Fully Moderated:

This is also known as pre-moderation. Every comment submitted to a fully moderated discussion has to be checked by a BBC moderator before it is published on the site.

The readers of the website can complain about comments the moderators have allowed. The BBC explains the purpose of this option as follows:

It is only for serious complaints about comments, namely that they are obscene, abusive, threatening, unlawful, harassing, defamatory, harmful, profane, racially offensive, or otherwise strongly objectionable.
The Have Your Say moderators will decide whether the comment breaks the House Rules. If it does, they will remove it. If it doesn’t, it will be allowed to remain on the site.

The following comments were posted on the Have Your Say area of the BBC website in regard to the whaling story. Because this is a Fully Moderated topic, the BBC moderators read each one first and thought that racial hatred is not “likely to be stirred up thereby”. Also, if any of the posters complained, their complaints were rejected.

I leave it to the readers’ judgment to determine whether the following comments comply with the law of the United Kingdom and BBC standards.


  1. The names and countries of origin of the posters have been removed. However, the posts here were sent not only from Great Britain, but also continental Europe, North America, and Asia.
  2. The posts are copied exactly as they appeared, including punctuation and spelling.
  3. They are displayed here in alternating italicized and bolded text. This is only to facilitate reading and is not intended to imply a special emphasis on my part.


two words….. Enola Gay. Worked last time.

How about we harpoon a few Jap Whalers to let them know how it feels to have an exploding warhead tearing through them.

Are we allowed to hunt Japanese? Seems only fair.

Would anyone shed a tear if the whaling boat had an accident and sank it? Not me.

During the second world war propaganda said the Japanese were a cruel barbaric race…maybe it wasn’t propaganda

It is barabaric and wrong and any nation that undetakes it under any pretext demonstrates its savagery and lack of civility.
No need to say more.
Or should we hunt nips for research?

maybe they would feel a bit differently if we said we wanted to continue our scientific pursuits on nuclear fision by droppin a bomb or 2 on hiroshima or nagasaki again?

so those Nipponese love whale, some love other fish and they eat them. now i heard that some cannibals love japanese, they have less hair and smooth skin and can be easily consumed. i heard they are easily digestable too.

the Japanese have a long histroy of hunting things to extinction. 1000 whales for “research” who the he*l do think they are kidding. A barbaric culture that care for NOTHING but themselves.

Japan, you are whale and dolphin murderers and we still see you as sneaky liars.

It also used to be part of the Japanese culture, that a member of the samurai class had the right to kill anybody non-samurai jhust for the hell of it, if they so wished. “I’ve just bought a new sword I need to test its edge, you peasant come here and bow your head” SWOOSH, THUD “Ooooh lovely sharp sword”, “You peasant remove that unsightly headless corpse and clean up the blood, unless you wish to go the same way”
The Japanese have always been a brutal race, just ask any former Allied POW.

Japan never did care much about life anyway

…can the Japanese justify the slaughter of whales for research that never gets published? Then again, some of them can justify the treatment handed out to WWII POWs and ‘comfort women’ so who knows what goes on in their minds?

Whales are not a necessary foodstuff. Why doesn’t Greenpeace buy an old russian sub and torpedoe the greedy people who want to do this? Seems an infinitely more civilised use for them than their original purpose. “You want to go whaling? Die then.” Easy.

Its surely time that we boycotted all products form Japan until they start behaving a little less like the savages that they obviously are!

It is not just the Whales. The Japanese are a bestial nation as proved over and over in World War 2. Look at what they did to prisoners and the nations that they occupied.
Their whole creed was that the Japanese nation was superior to all others and therefore could do what they wished.
We stopped that nonsense the last time with two buckets of instant sunshine at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Obviously time for another one – perhaps on Tokio? Or are they going to learn?

Maybe we should start eating Japanese; it could become part of our culture.

Would the Japanese feel that it was okay to hunt them for food? Their numbers have been replenished since 1945.

If the Japs carry on with the hunting of the other two species of whale, gunboats by the international community must be used to sink the whalers. Any deaths of humans is purely by the by.
We have a duty to protect any species under threat

I wish the slowest and most painful death possible for whalers. ME ME ME is all humans think about. We should be extinct.

Japan is, and always will be a boil on the backside of the earth.
It is a country steeped in brutality, and covered in the blood of the innocent. I cannot understand why we have anything to do with these people. I would rather shake hands with Mugabe.

Maybe seeing as whales are quite big we could start whacking a few torpedoes into Jap fishing boats as I suppose subs look like whales from a distance and they may steer clear of harmless mammals in case they get blown up. Just a thought.

The time has come to make an example “pour encourager les autres”. Target practice the odd torpedo on a whaling ship. Forget the toothless old UN.


The BBC notes that they’ve rejected 192 comments on this topic as of the time I wrote this post. If this is an indication of what they think is acceptable, one can only wonder about the content of the rejected comments.

“Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation” indeed.


I offer the following comments here for your entertainment. Some of them might leave you laughing so hard that your navel could boil tea, as the Japanese would say. Note the sheer number of errors regarding easily verifiable facts.

Reading them calls to mind the observation by former American Vice-President Hubert Humphrey: “The right to free speech does not include the right to be taken seriously.”


Our planet is on overheat, rain forests are fading away, acid rains are common, animals are going extinct by handfulls and the Japanese continue hunting down whales like on a picnic.

Save the whales, the planet, yourselves. Use birth control.

What is it with Asians and their culinary fetishes to eat certian species into extinction because it will give them sexual fortitude?

Mankind is so brave that it has to destroy beautiful and harmless creatures who were here a longtime before we were and have more rights to belong on this Planet.
Sometimes I wonder if humans belong here at all.

How would we like it if whales hunted us, and we were powerless to stop?

Has anyone ever tried Sushi made with Spam? Would be a more ‘environmentally friendly’ alternative to whale meat. Prefer to see whales in their natural habitat than used for humankind’s greedy purposes.

White Neocolonial masters&their mobs are responsible, for all the above harmful effects ,in the WORLD, ever since evil white terrorist colonila thugggery genocide living mobs, drifted out of their slums in europe.

Do whales have large or small brains?
Whales actually have fairly large brains compared to humans. Whether they are large overall depends upon how you look at it. That is, compared to the size of the whale’s body, the whale brain is similar in size ratio to human brain-to-body. Especially the toothed whales whose brains are largely built to process sound. By the way, they have no sense of smell!

Leave the whales alone.
Do not ignore climate change.
Be nice to your neighbour.
Do not drop litter.

I think Japan should be HEAVILY punished for its dishonesty. It disgusts everyone. I think the controled whaling of certain species is great! I use expensive cream made from whale that is not synthesized by any company – because an equivalent formula is not available. Doctors are amazed at how well my skin is doing. I use this cream rarely. Greenpeace is doing a good job hasseling the sneaky whalers. We need controlled whaling. Eat organic beef – hug a cow today. Mostly, be real.

The Japanese claim they ‘have’ to kill whales for ‘research’.
What utter poppycock!
They like to kill these magnificent creatures because they want a gourmet food!
These are the same people who catch sharks, rip off their fins, & throw their (sometimes still living) victims back in the sea to die in helpless agony – and for what? A bowl of SOUP!
And what happens when the whales run out?

I’m not in Japan, but am very surprised at the Japanese…they’re so conscious about life, and health, even to point of not using the term “nuclear” (using isotope, instead), yet would consider slaughtering whales. I’m shocked!

The Japanese don’t study whales, they eat them, to study an animal it has to be alive. Iv’e never studied my dinner.

How can it be justified so Japanese men can have an aphrodisiac?
Give Greenpeace Haproons so they can sink the Whaling boats.

Don’t sperm whales eat giant squid?
If I was a giant squid I’d want all sperm whales wiped out.
By saving sperm whales we are condemning squid to death.
makes you think…..

I highly recommend that all commentators watch Star Trek: The Voyage Home to see the potentially devastating impacts of not having any whales on the Earth….Analysis and reflection: these form the basis of SF and is no different then Shakespeare.

What a lot of drivel on here about the sentience, IQ, free-spirit etc of whales….If they are so clever why do they spend all their time swimming around sucking up plankton? They’ve done nothing in the way of art, literature, science or technology. They just swim around and can’t even breath underwater like fish, they have to keep coming up for air. Stupid animals that belong on my dinner plate. Yum yum!

Most civilized nations revere cetaceans, but a few nations massacre them under the pretense of science. The Japanese revere the crane. What if an Asian nation decided to do “scientific craning” and invaded Japanese airspace to harpoon cranes to satisfy their drooling barbaric instincts?. Japan- clear up your act of continuing sadistic, primitive, caveman-instinct-driven behaviour.

Killing whales could have a positive impact on global warming.

And when the Greenpeace ship reaches the hunting ground, they will be pinging the oceans with their sonar equipments to find out where the humpbacks are. They will ping so hard and so furious that the humpbacks will go berserk. And then some of them humpbacks will commit suicide.

I have committed my life to making the world a better place because of what the country of Japan allows so that their restaurants can serve what they consider a delicacy. Sadly, they often discard most of the whale except the fin. What a shame!

Dogs aren’t even safe over there…they eat them too.
Actually, it’s not the Japanese but the Chinese who eat dog meat…

I mean, like, the Japanese live in a really sick society? one that eats whales ? like, every day whales are, like, murdered so that people can eat their filthy raw whales, and, like, society is immune to that, so it’s just a short step to killing people? i like screw you, i’m killing whales today so i’m killing people tomorrow?
i campaigned and gave a flyer to a guy, and i’m like, “hey dude, like boycott Japan?” and he asks if I’m gonna protest in front of halal butchers so i said “you racist”


“Just because your voice reaches halfway around the world doesn’t mean you are wiser than when it reached only to the end of the bar.”

– Edward R. Murrow

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Posted in Environmentalism, Food, I couldn't make this up if I tried, International relations, Mass media | 101 Comments »

Japanese high school boys: Coming in on a wing and a prayer

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 26, 2007

WE’VE ALL SEEN the goofy films of aviation pioneers and their comical failures to fly using man-powered aircraft. Did people really have to try it for themselves before they understood that attaching big wings to their arms and flapping like a bird wouldn’t work?


After a century of engine-powered flight, however, some students at the Higashi Okayama Technical High School in Okayama Prefecture discovered that man-powered flight has its uses after all when eight of them in the Machinery Department built a man-powered aircraft and successfully flew it on school grounds on the 18th.

Third-year students in the department have been building these models since 2001. The wings on last year’s model, which was the third, bent badly when they tried to get it off the ground, so this year’s group of seniors added some pipes for support. They’ve spent about five hours a week on the project since April (the start of Japan’s school year).
The aircraft, which is a biplane, is seven meters long, 2.5 meters high, and has a 20-meter wingspan. The wings are made with aluminum pipe and Styrofoam to keep it light, and materials from an old car were cannibalized—well, recycled—to build the pilot’s mount. The propeller is turned by operating foot pedals. With the pilot on board, the plane weighs about 100 kilograms.

The lads got up bright and early on the 18th and began assembling the craft at 9:00 a.m. After a third-year student crawled into the cockpit, the other members of the project team pulled him and the plane with ropes to give them a running start. It got two meters off the ground and flew for a distance of 20 meters.

No, it didn’t alter the course of human history, but it sounds like a fun project for boys at a vocational high school. I would have gotten a kick out of doing it when I was 18.

Besides, they have something in common with the Wright Brothers—their first flights took place in a December!

Posted in Education | 1 Comment »

Nippon Noel: Japanese Christmas tree finale!

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 25, 2007

MOST OF THE JAPANESE CHRISTMAS TREE designs we’ve seen over the past few days have been recognizabe as Christmas trees, albeit from a unique perspective. This Christmas night post, however, features three trees that really stretch the envelope for Yuletide design.

The arrangement of lights shown in the first photo isn’t even called a tree, though it is conical in shape and definitely suggests a Christmas tree. The creators refer to it as an objet, however, and it has been on display in a park in Sumoto, Hyogo Prefecture all month.


As with two of the PET bottle trees shown in the previous post, this is also a project of the local JCs. The group has been involved with public lighting displays in the city during the Christmas and New Year’s season since 1999, but they substantially changed the exhibit’s design this year.

The tree–sorry, objet—is 15 meters high and five meters in diameter. An estimated 10,000 red, orange, and yellow LEDs were used in its creation. There is also a tunnel created by lights nearby, and both are surrounded by a 1.5-meter wide path, along which are hung 6,500 PET bottle lamps carved by local kindergarten students.

The object at the top of the objet is what appears to be an upside-down human figure, but none of the reports I saw included an explanation of what it was supposed to be doing. If we let our imaginations roam freely and look at the exhibit upside down, we could say it resembles the Spirit of Christmas from Outer Space beaming his Noel Ray down on the people of Sumoto.

Whatever it is, it will be lit every night from 5:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. until 6 January.

The next tree doesn’t need electricity to create a glow—a subtle illumination emanates from it naturally. That’s because it’s made out of an estimated 10,000 cultured pearls.

On display at the Japan Pearl Center in Kobe, the two-meter long tree is worth about 30 million yen (about US$ 263,000).


Assembly of the tree required about three months. The pearls, which range from eight millimeters to one centimeter in diameter, are hung like chandeliers on 400 threads from the ceiling and illuminated vertically. The creation–pearl objet?–is said to shine with a mysterious milky white color when viewed in a dimly lit room.

The pearl tree (on which no partridge could roost) was made by the Pearl City Kobe Association, a group that consists of 70 companies in the industry. Their objective was not only to celebrate Christmas, but also to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the development of the Akoya Cultured Pearl technique, which was the key to making pearls more inexpensive and therefore accessible to the public at large.

The Akoya Cultured Pearl technique for coaxing oysters to create pearls on demand was invented by two Japanese, Tokichi Nishikawa and Tatsuhei Mise, and successfully commercialized by Kokichi Mikimoto. The story is fascinating, and you can read more about it at the bottom of this page. Mikimoto had a long history of creating elaborate structures with pearls, so it is likely the association did not come up with the idea of making a large pearl Christmas tree on the spur of the moment.


The next tree is my personal favorite for the sheer brilliance of the idea alone. This Christmas tree is located in the Omotesando Station in Minato Ward, Tokyo. In Japanese, a subway is literally an underground railroad (chikatetsu[do]). Since the station is underground, it only makes sense that the portion of the tree visible there would be the roots. Therefore, this decorated Christmas tree is not the part above the ground, but the part below the ground—the Christmas roots.

The tree—sorry, roots–are in the Echika Omotesando section of the station, which is a commercial area with restaurants and shops. Instead of giving the tree’s height, the reports say it is “two meters deep”.

The pink ornaments hanging from the tree are actually Christmas cards on which messages can be written. Every Friday for the past month, the nearby shops have distributed the cards to customers, who jotted down their Christmas wishes. The cards are then placed on the tree.
Japanese readers and those familiar with Japan will recognize this as a custom borrowed from Tanabata on 7 July, during which people write their wishes on colored pieces of paper and hang them from a bamboo tree. For as often as it is claimed that the Japanese are an insular people with a tendency toward xenophobia, there are in fact more spontaneous expressions of multiculturalism here than people think–and this represents another one.

Finally, lest you think the country has floated over the edge into the Christmas twilight zone, here’s a more conventional decoration on a more conventional Japanese piece of architecture.


That’s the Megane Bridge in the Isahaya Park in Isahaya, just outside of Nagasaki City, shown in the fourth photo. The word megane in Japanese means eyeglasses, and the reason the bridge was given that name is obvious once you look at the photograph. Built in 1839 in imitation of the older and smaller Megane Bridge in Nagasaki City, which is reportedly the oldest stone arch bridge in the country, it has been designated an important cultural treasure by the national government.

This year the city decided to festoon the bridge with lights, and they used an estimated 5,000 of them for the project. They’ve been on from 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. every night since the 15th. The bridge has been decorated in conjunction with a larger event that also involves a 10-meter-high light tower and roadside bushes and trees hung with another 25,000 lights. (This is what the bridge looks like when it’s not decorated for Christmas.)

The show will last until 14 January, after which the lights will be removed, the objets will be dismantled, the PET bottles recycled, the roots restored to the dirt, and the country again returns to normal!

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

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Nippon Noel: PET bottle Christmas trees!

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 25, 2007

POLYETHYLENE TEREPHTHALATE—or PET for short—is a type of polyester used to make fibers, bottles and jars, and injection molding parts. Synthetic fibers account for more than 60% of the world’s PET production, and in that application the material is called polyester.

Because it is clear, safe, light, and recyclable, as well as excellent for maintaining product integrity and creating containers of various designs, 30% of the PET produced worldwide is used for bottles or other containers.

And the Japanese have employed their ever-fertile imaginations to find a new application for used PET bottles: Decorations for Christmas trees and the Christmas trees themselves, particularly for public display. The results, as you are about to see, can be visually stunning.

The first place we’ll visit is the last place you’d expect to see a tree made of recycled trash—Fukuoka City’s Tenjin district, Kyushu’s largest shopping and commercial area. Every year, the Daimaru department store erects a large Christmas tree for exterior display, and last year they came up with the idea of using PET bottles to make the tree. They did it again this year, too, incorporating 6,000 bottles in the 14-meter high tree shown in the first photo.

Store workers cut open the bottles to create an estimated 1,000 flower ornaments in 290 different designs. To make the tree more attractive at night, they also trimmed the tree with 30,000 LEDs in three different colors. The tree will be up through Christmas day.

The Tenjin tree is a part of a commercial enterprise, but just as often, the creation of PET bottle trees is the work of a civic group. One example is the trees shown in the second photo, which were put together by the Hamasaka JCs of Shin’onsen-cho, Hyogo Prefecture, and placed in front of the JR Hamasaka Station. The trees are illuminated from the interior, which creates a floating effect that viewers are said to find attractive.
The JCs hoped their project would attract people to the shopping district near the station and raise local awareness of recycling. They put together a total of 14 trees ranging in height from one to three meters by using 340 two-liter bottles and 830 500-milliliter bottles

Not content to do things by halves, the JCs also held a lighting ceremony to present their handiwork. During the ceremony, parents of students attending the Hamasaka Kindergarten sang Christmas songs and performed music with hand bells. The tree will be lit from 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. every day until the 26th.

The creation of five-meter PET bottle trees made with 600 bottles each in Toyosato-cho, Shiga Prefecture, is another JC effort. They were erected in the parking lot front of the town’s municipal offices and are lit every evening at 5:00 p.m.

For the past four years, the JCs have been holding classes for kids to provide instruction in building PET bottle rockets. (I’d like to take that class myself!) This year, however, they decided to do something different and created the trees instead. Each of the trees has conical bases and eight large light bulbs inside.

The groups started collecting used bottles during summer vacation, and the whole project took about six months to finish. The trees will be lit until 11:00 p.m. on the 25th.

The last PET bottle tree is the result of a much larger project in which the whole town participated. The bottles were collected in special boxes placed in front of the local primary school, post offices, and other locations throughout Geino-cho, Tsu, Mie Prefecture.

The tree is 25 meters high and required an estimated 10,000 PET bottles to make. It too was first presented with a lighting ceremony, dubbed Geino Christmas 2007. Performing Christmas songs during the ceremony was Geino Brass, the brass band from the local junior high school. The event also featured a parade with seven cars, which carried smaller trees, reindeer and a sleigh, and model houses with chimneys.

The tree will be lit every day from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m. until the 25th.

Lest anyone misunderstand the intent of this post, be assured that every aspect of this activity has my admiration. Though a mere handful of Japanese are Christians, their own traditions have given them a complete understanding of and appreciation for festivals derived from religious ceremonies, not to mention how to conduct those festivals to promote public enjoyment and civic unity. A quick scroll through the Festivals category on the left sidebar will attest to that.

The Japanese have taken the Christmas tree, one of the symbols of what is now a secular global winter festival, and turned it into a public art form. The examples described in this post are made from a recyclable industrial product that has been disposed of after its initial use. It has been employed as the art material to create objects of beauty in public places.

All but one of these exhibitions were created by volunteers with the intention of adding brightness and cheer to their communities during the dark winter months, and they were presented in those communities during ceremonies that offered volunteer entertainment provided by the members of those same communities.

You can call it what you like, but I call that the Christmas spirit!

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Nippon Noel: Let them eat Christmas cake!

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 24, 2007

There were plums and prunes and cherries,
There were citrons and raisins and cinnamon, too
There was nutmeg, cloves and berries
And a crust that was nailed on with glue
There were caraway seeds in abundance
Such that work up a fine stomach ache
That could kill a man twice after eating a slice
Of Miss Fogarty’s Christmas cake.

Miss Fogarty’s Christmas Cake
Words and Music: C. Frank Horn, 1883

THE ONLY CAKES I ATE during my American Christmases were fruitcakes, and we children didn’t care for them any more than Mr. Horn cared for Miss Fogarty’s creation. They were dry, lacked icing, and had strange gummy things baked into them that didn’t taste like fruit at all.

Even at a young age we suspected they were made more for the sake of tradition than for delectation. Luckily, not every family served them and they weren’t an important part of the day. I’ve never met anyone who says they enjoy eating them, though fruitcake aficionados must exist, as they’re still baked and sold. Perhaps it helps to be nutty.


Shortly after we were married, my Japanese wife saw an advertisement for a bona fide fruitcake available by mail order, and she was curious enough to try one. Well, curiosity didn’t kill the cat, but it almost killed me. She didn’t like it at all, and I wound up eating most of it because I dislike throwing away food. My fruitcake quota has now been filled for the next three lifetimes.

And that is the extent of my connection with Christmas cake or its related traditions. As many people now know, the Japanese have their own Christmas cake tradition, and most Japanese are surprised when they discover that Americans don’t. (There is a tendency here to think that all imported customs are American and all loan words originate from English.)

There are as many Christmas traditions as there are ethnic groups, but perhaps the Japanese borrowed the idea of Christmas cake from England and the Commonwealth countries. There, fruitcake seems to be (or to once have been) a regular part of the day.

The Japanese do not prefer heavy cakes, however. The French influence is apparent in most of the pastry dishes produced and sold here. But I’m not sure that the French would want to claim parentage of the Japanese Christmas cake, as it more closely resembles an American strawberry shortcake that uses limp sponge cake instead of the firmer, more masculine variety. Though it can be as large as a regular cake, it’s probably more accurate to think of it as a glorified pastry.

There is some debate about when Christmas cakes became popular in Japan. Most people seem to agree that the confectioner Fujiya Co. came up with the idea, but the attributions for their time of introduction range from the 1920s to the 1950s.


It might be that they were first sold in the 20s, but became popular in their present form in the 50s and 60s when most households had refrigerators. Before then, sponge cakes had butter cream icing that didn’t need refrigeration.

The first photo shows a special Christmas cake made by Radishbo-ya, a Tokyo-based company that sells additive-free food products for home delivery. This year, they began sales of Christmas cakes without allergens to meet the demand for the estimated 330,000 Japanese children with food allergies.

Radishbo-ya (or Radish-boya—their Japanese website has both spellings) has developed 12 Christmas confections that use no dairy products, as well as three products for the traditional New Year’s dinner. One way they pull this off is to substitute pumpkin cream for fresh dairy cream. Cake prices range from 268 yen ($US 2.35) to 1,512 yen ($US 13.26), tax included, and they also sell the ingredients separately for the do-it-yourself bakers.

Perhaps you would prefer the Christmas cake–actually, the news report called it a “monument”—in the second photo, unless you are allergic to ostentation and conspicuous consumption. The lady in the picture leaves no doubt about what her choice would be. The photo was taken during its display at the Osaka branch of the Takashimaya Department Store. It’s not designed for eating, however. Rather than toppings, it is garnished with roughly 300 million yen (more than $US 2.63 million) worth of gemstones.

Well, to be accurate, it’s partially edible. The base is a confection made with the sugar used for baking. This Christmas cake was created by a young Kansai-based artist named Rei.

Takashimaya says it is displaying the monument to get everyone into the Christmas spirit, presumably because coming down to the store for a look will cause customers to splurge once they see all the other wonderful merchandise available. Following its presentation in Osaka, the monument was sent to the Takashimaya Kyoto store, and it’s now at the JR Nagoya outlet until the 25th.


In keeping with the traditions of the season, you can buy it if you really want it. A Takashimaya spokesman said that anyone was welcome to come in and talk turkey about the price. Perhaps they would have found takers during the Bubble Period about 20 years ago, but I’m not so sure about 2007.

And what would an Ampontan Christmas post be without another great tree? The one in the third photo is on display in the lobby of the JR Marugame Station in Marugame, Kagawa Prefecture.

The tree itself is trimmed with 250 uchiwa, or hand fans, made using traditional techniques. No, they are not leftover giveaways from summertime promotions. They are originals created by a local design studio, so it’s a shame we can’t have a close-up of the illustrations on the fans themselves. The report says they mesh well with the lights on the tree.

The tree itself is four meters high, 1.6 meters in diameter, and made with a bamboo framework to which have been attached leaves of the hinoki, or Japanese cypress. It will be up until the 25th, so if you’re taking the train to or from Marugame today or tomorrow, don’t pass up the chance to see it!

Posted in Food, Holidays, Popular culture, Traditions | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

China credits Japan where credit is due

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 24, 2007

THIS IS ALMOST A MAN-BITES-DOG STORY: The People’s Daily of China ran this article about a new yen loan agreement with Japan for environmental projects, and it sticks to the truth from beginning to end!

It reports that:

  • The loans will help six cities and provinces in central and western China build six projects to reduce air pollution and deal with urban waste.
  • The 46.3 billion yen ($US 420 million) loan for FY 2007 will bring the total amount the Japanese government has lent to China since 1979 to 3.316 trillion yen.

(These are de facto war reparations, though the article doesn’t go so far as to admit that.)

  • Yen loans are part of Japan’s official development aid, and are used on environmental projects and infrastructure.
  • Japan has been reducing its official development aid to China from a peak in 2000/2001 in view of its fast-developing economy.

It’s good to see Japan get credit where credit is due, though the Chinese will of course pitch the propaganda the other way whenever it suits their purposes.

But if the People’s Daily can play it straight every once in a while, why can’t the Western media?

Posted in China, Environmentalism, International relations | 1 Comment »

Nippon Noel: Eco-candles, chrysalises, and seashells!

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 23, 2007

IT’S FASCINATING TO SEE the many ways that Japanese have taken the foreign concept of Christmas and made it their own. Here are three more examples.


The Yubara hot springs district in Maniwa, Okayama Prefecture, has been presenting the Candle Fantasy in Yubara since the 20th. The organizers display what they call eco-candles: they were made with used cooking oil received from local ryokan (Japanese inns) and restaurants.

They were even clever enough to get other people to do the work for them. The 6,000 candles were made by an estimated 300 people, primarily area children and tourists staying at local lodgings, since last October. They will be lit from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. until the night of the 25th.
The first photo shows a scene from the Candle Fantasy. It’s unlike any of the images that I associate with Christmas from my childhood, but the combination of hot steam, candlelight, and Japanese design in a spa resort on a cold winter night does create a memorable sight.


How would you like to see a Christmas tree in which the decorations are suddenly transformed and fly away? That’s not a Science Fiction Fantasy—that’s the reality of the Christmas tree displayed in the Itami City Museum of Insects in Hyogo Prefecture. As you can see from the second photo, the 1.5 meter-high Christmas tree is decorated with chrysalises of the tree nymph butterfly, which are naturally gold. The tree has been set up in the museum greenhouse, where an estimated 1,000 live butterflies dwell. It will be on display until 24 December.

The tree nymph butterflies, one of the largest butterflies in Japan, inhabit the southwestern islands below Kyushu. The butterfly itself is known for its black and white speckled wings as well as its gold chrysalises, which are four to five centimeters in length. The butterflies hang them upside down from tree branches, and the museum has utilized this to decorate their Christmas tree for several years.
They’ve also placed green and pink chrysalises from other butterfly varieties on the tree. It takes about two weeks for the butterflies to emerge, and the museum encourages people to visit by reminding them they might get to see it happen if they’re lucky.


And it’s no surprise that an island country would find a way to celebrate Christmas with a maritime theme. The Sea and Shell Museum of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, is holding its special Shellfish Christmas 2007 exhibit until the 24th. One of the features of the exhibit is a Christmas tree trimmed with seashells, as you can see from the third photo.

The tree is 3.5 meters high and is decorated with 150 shells of 55 varieties from around the world, in addition to the usual lights.

The museum has a collection of 110,000 shells, and it is also exhibiting another 150 shells of 28 varieties whose names are derived from the word snow. The curator said there were a surprising number of shellfish from the South Seas whose names are derived from the word snow, despite the fact they don’t have any there.

Well, there are very few Christians in Japan, but that doesn’t stop the Japanese from having fun at Christmastime!

Note: I’ve added the link for the website of the Itami City Museum of Insects to the right sidebar.

Posted in Holidays, Popular culture | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »