Japan from the inside out

Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

All you have to do is look (119)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, November 26, 2012

The Makurazaki Station, the terminal station on the Ibusuki-Makurazaki Line of JR Kyushu, the southernmost railroad line operated by the JR Group in Japan (Photo by Muyo). Six trains arrive and depart every day.

The woman in the video is a volunteer who greets tourists on weekends.

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Posted by ampontan on Sunday, October 21, 2012

SOME efforts to save endangered species are controversial, some are praiseworthy, and others approach the absurd. One citizen-led effort underway in the hot springs town of Yufuin, Oita, however, is quite reasonable and isn’t causing problems for anyone.

The endangered species in question is a rare variety of the stenothyridae shellfish. This particular variety is the only shellfish in the world whose natural habitat is a hot springs, and it exists only in Yufuin. It also was found in several nearby areas, including the well-known spa resort city of Beppu, until the mid-1960s.

But the shellfish started disappearing when some of the hot springs water was diverted to resorts — the exact cause and effect has never been identified —- and it now lives only in a water course near Lake Kinrin. The water temperature there is roughly 36° C (96.8° F) year-round.

Some local people formed a research group in February to expand its habitat. They succeeded in tripling the local population in just three months. They’ve also kept some alive in tubs of heated water to show school children. That was enough to convince the prefecture and city governments to provide a modest amount of funding, and the group is now conducting water quality tests in different locations to find the most suitable spots that might work as a new home.

Give them credit for even knowing about the creature to begin with. It’s naturally a bright gold color, but it eats moss and usually winds up covered in the stuff. It’s also only 4 x 2.5 millimeters in size, which works out to 0.15 x 0.09 inches. You’ve really got to be looking for it to find it.

If you’re ever in the neighborhood and enjoy soaking in hot water, by the way, Yufuin’s an excellent choice. I’ve been there twice and would find it very easy to live there year-round if it came to that. It’s a small town near the mountains, and it’s quite attractive as the picture above shows. (The photo is from a Japanese website called Muru’s Log.) The main street is perfect for walking, has excellent views, and is filled with the sort of shops that women like. And the stenothyridae are so small you won’t even notice them sharing space with you in the spa.

There’s also a song called Yufuin. It’s about a woman trying to recover from an unhappy love affair.

Posted in Environmentalism, Travel | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Lanterns, lions, and Taiwanese proto-pub rock

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 25, 2012

OF the many cultural treasures in South Korea, one of the finest is the Gyeongbok Palace in northern Seoul. Built in 1394 and rebuilt in 1867, it was the main palace of the Joseon dynasty. It’s really a complex rather than a single building, and it’s also the site of the National Folk Museum and National Palace Museum. Naturally, it’s a popular destination for tourists, both foreign and domestic. One of the attractions is the hourly changing of the guards, which is more frequent that the similar ceremony at Buckingham Palace. That’s a photo of the Gyeongbok Palace gate above.

Gyeongbokgung is accessible by Line #3 on the Seoul subway, which has a station nearby. Five years ago, the officials in charge of such things came up with the idea of using models of traditional Korean lanterns to light the corridor from the subway to Exit #5.

They used a design identical to that of the stone lantern in front of the Muryangsu Hall at the Buseok Buddhist temple in Yeoungju. The temple was built in 676 and has become another well-known tourist attraction. The stone lantern out front has been designated as National Treasure 17. This is it:

And here are the six models of National Treasure 17 lining the Seoul subway corridor on Line #3.

Aren’t they an attractive addition to the underground corridor? It’s an improvement over plain tile walls. But only photos of the lanterns remain, because the lanterns themselves aren’t there anymore. They were taken out in June.

A group of citizen-activists with the provisional name of The Search for the Location of Cultural Treasures (the actual name is clumsier) decided to get upset about the lantern installation five years after it happened because it reminded them of the stone lanterns that line the main pathway to Shinto shrines in Japan. Therefore, in South Korea, they fall under the category of ilje janjeh (日帝残滓), literally “detritus from the Japanese Empire”. The term is commonly used in the country’s news media.

The head of the group, a Buddhist priest named Hyemun, added that the Gyeongbok Palace is more closely associated with Confucianism than with Buddhism, so it was inappropriate to have Buddhist lanterns in the subway nearby.

The company operating the subway wanted to leave them in the corridor, but then the mass media got involved. That settled that. The company is wholly-owned by the city of Seoul, so they thought their only choice was to bend to public opinion. They weren’t happy about it, however, because the lanterns had to be dismantled by hand to be removed.

Others recalled that the same type of traditional Korean lantern which reminded some people of the detritus of the Japanese Empire also stood in front of the Changdeok Palace in Seoul. That’s another one of the Joseon Dynasty palaces, and this one dates from 1412. The lantern there stood outside, so it was easier to remove in February. At last report, the traditional Korean lantern Japanese Empire detritus at the Cheongwadae, or Blue House, the office and residence of the South Korean head of state, is still there.


Still, the Koreans had it a lot easier than the Japanese would if the same bee were to buzz in their bonnets. The latest expample of purifying their line of sight of the imperial detritus of centuries worth of Korean tradition involved only the removal of six elaborate light fixtures in the Seoul subway and a cultural relic at a palace. So far.

But Japan has more than 88,000 Shinto shrines nationwide, ranging from large facilities with more than a million visitors a year to plain neighborhood wooden structures smaller than the average house. Large or small, almost all of them have a pair of lion-like statues standing guard to ward off evil from the premises. Here’s a photo of one.

They’re called koma-inu, and the name literally means “Korean dog”. The word koma was used in ancient times for the Korean Peninsula.

The Japanese think they were of Indian Buddhist origin, but the models they used came from China through the Korean Peninsula. If Japan were to be seized by a detritus disposal spasm, it would take years to remove these Buddhist images at Shinto facilities that have Korea in their name. Their associations are closer to the unclean than the Korean lanterns.

Not all of the statuary at the 88,000 shrines would be removed. Some of them have foxes instead of koma-inu. And the Mimeguri Shinto shrine, in Tokyo’s Kuroda Ward, has the statue of a real lion.

No one knows when the Mimeguri shrine was founded, but it was definitely there in 1693. The tutelary deity of the shrine is Mitsui Takatoshi, the founder of the Tokyo store in 1673 that later became the Mitsukoshi department store. It was called Echigoya in those days, and it’s shown on the left in this Hiroshige print.

The modern Mitsukoshi was modeled after Harrods in London, and their main store in Tokyo has a statue of the same sort of lion on the first floor. That lion was copied from the beasts that surround the statue of Nelson in Trafalgar Square. The British Empire detritus at the Mimeguri shrine was once on the first floor of Mitsukoshi’s Ikebukuro store. The shrine asked for it when the store closed.

That’s not the only oddity at the shrine. Shinto shrines have a gate with two columns at the entrance called a torii. This shrine has a tori with three columns arranged in a triangular shape.

It was modeled after the torii at the Konoshima Shinto shrine in Kyoto, which has one of a handful of triple toriis in the country. The idea is that the third column connects the shrine to another shrine on the next lot. This one came from the Mitsui estate. In fact, the shrine’s name in Japanese (三囲) can also be read as Mitsui.

There are also stone lanterns of the traditional Japanese Empire detritus variety on the grounds, without any visible connection to the Mitsui family business.

They do look a bit like Korean National Treasure 17, but then the statue of the beast at the main gate of Gyeongbokgung also looks a bit like some of the Korean lions at Shinto shrines. Except those are really Chinese.

Isn’t East Asia fun?

And because it isn’t possible to have too much East Asian fun, let’s have some more! The Taiwanese duo in the video below was known as the King of Kinmen, and the style of music they’re playing is called nakashi. Here’s an explanation of its origin:

(A)ccording to Tsan Yi-cheng (詹益城), who was once one of Taiwan’s most recognized faces on the nakashi scene, the most credible of these stories gives credit to Japanese sailors during the early 1900s for inventing this primitive form of pub rock.

“Nakashi originated in port towns such Tamsui and Keelung. Japanese sailors would come ashore and, being sailors, frequent bars. Of course there were no tape or CD players, so the sailors had to make their own entertainment,” Tsan said. “So they performed music which took on aspects of enka, or Japanese country music and filled it with lyrics about roaming the world and having a girl in every port.”

According to Tsan, the result of this odd musical coupling was unlike anything people in Taiwan had ever seen or heard before. Until the Japanese sailors came along, local pub and teahouse bands were still using traditional Chinese classical instruments rather than western ones.

“With their guitars, accordions and appetite for good times, Japanese sailors revolutionized bar and teahouse music in Taiwan,” the Peitou-based nakashi star said. “They enthralled crowds in teahouses and bars and, of course, drove the women wild with their contemporary musical style.” As Japan’s colonization of Taiwan continued, nakashi slowly became the music of choice for both the occupying forces as well as the Taiwanese.

As more locals began to pick up accordions and guitars, however, nakashi slowly became localized. Instead of drawing on enka for inspiration, Taiwan’s nakashi players added elements of Fujienese and Taiwanese folk to the tunes.

Instead of forming disposal squads of purity inspectors, the Taiwanese turned their detritus of Imperial Japan into a golden good time.

Nagashi with a g, by the way, is the word for the practice in Japan of singers and musicians going from bar to bar at night to perform for tips. That’s probably the origin of the Taiwanese term. When I first arrived in Japan, I knew one old nagashi singer who accompanied himself with an acoustic guitar, but I haven’t seen him or anyone else do it in quite a while.

Here’s what it looked and sounded like in Taiwan during a nagashi renaissance.

Posted in Arts, History, Music, Popular culture, Religion, Shrines and Temples, South Korea, Traditions, Travel | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

We know what you want

Posted by ampontan on Friday, August 10, 2012

HOSPITALITY in Japan means anticipating what your guest wants before the guest expresses a preference for something (though guests in Japan refrain from directly expressing preferences anyway.)

The city fathers of Himeji, Hyogo, have amplified that cultural trait and automated it. Working with Glory, a company that makes cash processing machines for banks and other companies, they’ve developed a device that uses face recognition technology to identify the sex and general age of tourists and to use that data to offer sightseeing options. The machine has been installed in the JR Himeji station.

Here’s how it works: Tourists stand still in front of the camera for a face scan that lasts just a few seconds. In addition to making gender distinctions — no, there was no mention that it was equipped with an odor sensor — it makes a rough division by age: teenagers, 20s, 40s, and 60s and above.

The folks who want more detailed information, can’t stand the idea of being scanned, or would rather deal with a human being can speak directly to tourist personnel at the counter or get a brochure.

The Himejians say the objective wasn’t just to automate the procedure or to cop some PR. The old castle in town is undergoing repairs, and the number of annual visitors is down to 700 thousand from the normal level of a million. The new machine gives the city’s tourist bureau the chance to plug the local art museum and the City Museum of Literature. The information they provide also changes seasonally.

It would be fun to know how they programmed it. What are the physical criteria for recommending the literature museum? Do they also recommend eating and drinking establishments? Say, where does a guy go in this town for a good time?

Here’s what Tachibana Hajime recommended for Two Egyptians. That’s got to be Suzuki Saeko playing the marimba.

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Back to front

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 4, 2012

ALL of the following stories appeared yesterday in the back pages of newspapers or the less well-traveled sections of websites. All of them present aspects of a reality quite different from the narrative of major news media outlets outside the region.


The National Institute of the Korean Language conducted a survey of the Korean language ability of foreigners in South Korea married to Koreans, based on the results of a language competence test conducted from 10 September to 20 October. The highest score possible for the test was 100.

The institute broke the results down by nationality and found that the Japanese had the best results, as 62.8% of that group scored 90 or better.

They were followed by Chinese of Korean ancestry at 55.7% and Mongolians at 45.6%. In last place were natives of The Philippines at 21.3%.

They also broke down the results by region of residence. (They do things like that in East Asia.) Foreign spouses in Daegu did the best with 45.5% scoring over 90 points. By province, Gangwon was at the top of the table with 40.8%, closely trailed by Gyeonggi at 40.0%.


Speaking of Daegu:

Daegu City and Yeungjin College jointly launched an investment seminar on Dec. 8 for 11 invited Japanese-member companies of the Technology Advanced Metropolitan Area (TAMA)….

The investment seminar catered to 14 to 19 attendees representing a total of 11 Japanese companies. In addition, officials from Japan’s Kanto Economy and Commerce Department attended the event, with the number of participants estimated at 20. Another 30 local companies from Daegu participated in the seminar, providing one-on-one consultations with Japanese companies on technology and business partnerships.

The participating Japanese companies are located near Tokyo and specialize in electronics and mechanical metal parts. The participants were able to look forward to possible exchanges and cooperation with established auto- and machinery-parts manufacturers in Daegu and the North Gyeongsang Provincial region. According to Daegu City, the occasion paved the way for some Japanese companies to consider entering the Korean market.

The governments of Japan, South Korea, and China are talking about having talks about a free trade agreement, but local governments and the business sectors in both countries aren’t futzing around. Similar articles appear nearly every day in the middle or back pages of the Nishinippon Shimbun, with reports of South Korean and Chinese businesspeople coming to Kyushu for discussions and signing business agreements. Governments and business associations in Kyushu, the southern Korean Peninsula, and Northeast China have been working together for several years to create a de facto free trade zone.

Oh, and if you hit that link, you’ll see a photo of cherry blossoms in Daegu.


Seoul-based Harmony Cruises has begun sales of cruise packages to Kyushu that will call at Fukuoka City, Beppu, Nagasaki, and Kagoshima (as well as Jeju) from home ports in Busan and Incheon. The initial sales are for 19 cruises between February and April. The company plans to offer almost 100 cruises per year. The Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport says they will become the first South Korean company to operate cruises to Japan.

There’s also been a sharp increase in the number of Chinese cruises to Kyushu over the past five years. They already call on six Kyushu ports 118 times a year, and more are planned. The Kyushu Economic Research Center says the economic effect for each city of each port call for each cruise is JPY 44 million.

There are plenty of things to do and see in Fukuoka, Nagasaki, and Kagoshima, ranging from theme parks to historical and cultural attractions. Beppu is famous for its hot springs, and many Koreans like to come to Kyushu to play golf.


Low-cost carrier Jeju Air of South Korea announced plans to inaugurate regularly scheduled daily flights between Fukuoka City and Seoul this year, beginning sometime after March. The number of flights and their times are undecided, pending authorization by South Korean authorities. (If the project has gotten this far, however, they’ll get the authorization.) Jeju Air has been operating three flights a week between Kitakyushu (Fukuoka City’s neighbor) and Seoul since March 2009.

Said a Jeju Air spokesman:

The Fukuoka Airport has many users from both Japan and South Korea, and it has excellent access because it is close to the city center. (It’s 10 minutes by subway.)

Jeju will be the second Korean LCC to operate flights to Fukuoka; the first was T’way, which also flies to Osaka and Nagoya.

And that’s in addition to the Japanese LCCs and the major Japanese and Korean airlines flying the same route.

Read the primary articles in the English-language media about Japan-South Korea relations, and you can’t get past the second sentence without them dipping into all the bad blood. Oh, it’s there all right, kept at a boil and stirred by the politicos and their Greek chorus in the commentariat and academia.

But read the newspaper back to front and you see that it’s a different story altogether on the ground.


The Daegu story is a couple of weeks old, but I found out about it yesterday in an e-mail alert from the Korean Herald.

Happy New Year is a Matsutoya Yumi (“Yuming”) song, but here she performs it in a duet with Suga Shikao

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Language, Social trends, South Korea, Travel | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Thousand islands

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 15, 2011

THEY’RE not foolin’ when they call it the Japanese archipelago — the textbook boilerplate is that the country consists of four main islands, though it’s becoming more politically correct these days to include the main island of Okinawa as the fifth. But few people, even among the Japanese, are aware the other roughly 1.000 islands, both inhabited and uninhabited, give the country an Exclusive Economic Zone of about 4.46 million square kilometers. That’s the sixth-largest EEZ in the world.

Of the inhabited islands, the westernmost is Yonaguni and the southernmost is Hateruma, way down south near Taiwan, both part of the Yaeyama Islands (English-language website on right sidebar). Of those on which only seagulls reside, Okinotorishima represents the extreme southern edge of Japan, and Minamitorishima the farthest point east.

Some of the better known among the rest are Tsushima in the Korean Strait, which some excitable Koreans like to pretend is theirs; Tanegashima in Kagoshima, the site of the first recorded contact between Europeans and Japanese in 1547 and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Tanegashima Space Center; and Sado in Niigata, the sixth-largest island in the country and the authorities’ choice from roughly 700 to 1700 as just the place to send the dissidents and disgraced into exile. In fact, Charles Jenkins, the U.S. Army deserter and husband of North Korean abductee Soga Hitomi, could be considered a voluntary exile there now, though it is his wife’s home town.

That’s not to mention the Senkakus, on which the Chinese and Taiwanese have designs; Takeshima, which the South Koreans occupy; and the four islands off Hokkaido referred to as the Northern Territories, which the Soviets seized after Japan surrendered in 1945.

Awareness of these outlying islands is growing in Japan, particularly the semi-tropical warm ones, as pleasant places to visit. The inhabitants also are developing an awareness of their own. For example, the fourth annual national tournament for junior high school baseball teams from the outlying islands was held this year, and a team from Kamijima, part of Ehime, took home the trophy. (Most of the inhabited islands have junior high schools, but not as many are large enough to have high schools.)

Japan Hands will not be surprised to learn there is a National Institute for Japanese Islands devoted to promoting interest in and the interests of the one thousand. Earlier this month, they published a map that squeezes every last one of them on one side of an 80 x 110-centimeter sheet. That required a scale of 5 million to one to accomplish. The other side features larger maps of regional island groups on a scale of 750,000 to one. The map also includes a list of their names and all the air routes to make it handy for visits. At JPY 525 plus about JPY 180 for domestic postage, that’s cheap even at twice the price for a fanatic such as me.

Said the institute:

We hope that people look at the map and get a real sense of Japan as a country made up of many islands.

If you live in Japan and are interested getting a real sense of the island nation Japan, here’s the institute’s Japanese-language website where you can order one for yourself. Scout around on the site and you’ll also find a page that sells food and liquor from the islands, too.

And if you don’t have the time or the money for a trip, here’s the next best thing — a YouTube tour of Yonaguni with a local folk song as accompaniment.

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Streetcar century

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 4, 2011

STREETCARS still wend their way through 19 Japanese cities, with the system in Hiroshima being the most extensive. Even Tokyo, better known for its urban rail network, has two or three lines. Osaka, Japan’s second city, has only one, the Hankai Tramway between southern Osaka and Sakai, and local residents celebrated its centenary on Thursday.

On one of my rare forays outside Kyushu, I rode the rails of the Hankai line on a trip to Osaka with my wife 11 years ago. It was great fun and as funky as the dickens — and if the car was 100 years old, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit. We took the tram from the Tsutenkaku tower, an Osaka landmark, to the Sumiyoshi Taisha, which will mark its 18th centenary in 2013.

Just as worthwhile as the visits to the tower and the shrine was the ride between the two. The tram passes through the back roads and back yards of southern Osaka, so there’s no quicker or better way to get a feel for the daily life of Taro and Hanako in the ‘hood away from the shopping districts and tourist destinations.

One of the sports dailies did us a favor by filming the small anniversary celebration and putting excerpts on YouTube. Excellent stuff! Reading the video captions, it turns out that the company’s oldest streetcar still in service dates from 1928. They’ve gussied it up quite a bit, however. It’s a lot prettier than the one I rode on, and that didn’t have a pink roof, either!

The station shown is the one at Ebisucho, a three-minute walk from Tsutenkaku. When I was there, the bulletin boards had small posters advertising a dodgy-looking punk rock/death metal nightclub nearby. That’s a model of Tsutenkaku behind and to the left of the first woman speaker. And danged if that violinist doesn’t sound as if she’s about to break into a version of The Orange Blossom Special.

If so, it speaks to her diversity. It’s Asai Sakino, a member of Japan’s Colegium Musicum Telemann.

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Posted in History, Popular culture, Travel | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »


Posted by ampontan on Sunday, September 18, 2011

PEOPLE who think they have to go out of their way to find current events-based political or social satire just don’t know where to look. Alert observers have long understood that actual events and their presentation by witless media jesters contain more real mirth than anything contrived for a mass audience. Why buy a ticket or sit through commercials to consume the humor of expensive gag writers? Pay attention and the comedy comes to you.

And here comes example number one from USA Today Travel:

North Korea’s first cruise ship set sail last week with 130 or so passengers, most of them Chinese tour operators and foreign journalists traveling on a junket, an attempt by the poverty-stricken pariah state to woo visitors – and foreign currency.

See what I mean?

“A lot of people like going to obscure places. And this is the most obscure part of a very obscure country in tourism terms — the least visited part of the least visited country,” Simon Cockerell head of the Koryo Group, a Beijing-based tour operator specializing in North Korea, told AFP.

I’m willing to bet cash money that the intrepid travelers flush enough to make this trip to Obscuria and fork over their foreign currency to the Kim Family Regime are the same sort of people — if not the same people and their children — who insisted on economic sanctions of the South African government a generation ago to prevent them from getting their hands on foreign currency. And I’d wheel a quinella that they’ll use the experience of their vacation cruise as material for an arch monologue at the dinner party they’ll throw when they get back home.

The newly refurbished, yet reportedly rusty, 39-year-old Man Gyong Bong, a former ferry, made the 21-hour cruise from the coastal city of Rason to the resort area of Mount Kumgang.

To get the joke, you have to know that the Man Gyong Bong is the same ship that once cruised between North Korea and Niigata, Japan, until the Japanese prohibited its entry as a navis non grata. But now it’s been refurbished, or “repurposed” as an article in the Huffington Post amusingly had it.

Understatement makes for the most elegant of satire:

The mountain resort opened in 1998 with financing from South Korea and the prospect of thawing the freeze that has existed between the two Koreas since 1953. A series of problems – including the shooting death of a South Korean tourist in 2008 by a North Korean guard – didn’t help business. Then last month, the North Koreans seized the resort’s assets. Now they’re actively seeking Chinese visitors, London’s Daily Mail reports.

Dumb and Dumberer must be one of the Western films in the Dear Leader’s personal library. The North Koreans had an excellent source of foreign currency through a resort at a tourist destination that the South Koreans paid for because many South Koreans were willing to pay to visit. But killing a tourist and nationalizing the facility is not the sort of hospitable welcome that will attract well-to-do Chinese and Americans with money to burn for trips to obscure locations.

Americans comprise a tiny segment of foreign visitors to North Korea, whose tourist scene isn’t exactly robust. But 2012, the 100th anniversary of the birth of “Eternal President” Kim Il Sung (which could spark some spectacular public spectacles) could be an opportune time to visit.

One wonders whether USA Today Travel would have thought the Rally of Victory during the fifth Nazi Party Congress in Nuremburg — recorded for posterity by Leni Riefenstahl — was another spectacular spectacle that could have been an opportune time to visit.

The English-language edition of the Asahi Shimbun was just as entertaining. Their humor starts with the dateline:


Though the USA Today sensibly stuck with Mt. Kumgang, the Asahi retained the – san suffix, which means “mountain”. In other words, the Asahi journalist is filing a report from Mt. Kumgang Mountain. It’s even funnier when you realize that the same construction is used in Japanese for Japanese mountains. The patient explanations of the redundancy by the Japanese over the past few decades have resulted in smoother usage everywhere but in a Japanese newspaper.

The ship, the Man Gyong Bong, used to ply a route from North Korea to Japan, but Tokyo banned port visits to protest North Korean missile tests in 2006.

To which should be added the Japanese suspicion that Japanese-born Korean nationals with ties to the North were using it to transport hard Japanese currency. And let’s not forget that a former North Korean engineer testified before the U.S. Congress that the vessel was also used to ship missile parts.

Some stories are so good they’re worth repeating.

North Korea, which desperately needs foreign currency, is hoping to woo Chinese to the Mount Kumgangsan resort to fill the void left by South Korean visitors after a woman tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier in 2008.

And the result:

The disappearance of South Korean tourists is believed to have dealt a serious blow to the North Korean economy. South Korean sources estimate that North Korea gained at least $480 million (37 billion yen) from the inflow of South Korean tourists.

Pyeongyang has regrouped by formulating a business plan:

North Korean authorities hope to attract 100,000 Chinese tourists a year.

Here’s how they’ve executed that plan:

(F)acilities on the Man Gyong Bong are pretty primitive. The wash basin did not work most of the time.

Orange-colored lifesaving equipment was manufactured in August 1988, according to descriptions written in Japanese.

It took 27 hours from Mount Kumgangsan to Rason, seven hours longer than scheduled, because of strong winds, according to a sailor.

How long will it be before they decide to speed up the voyage by employing the enormous labor pool at local concentration camps as galley slaves?

The ship was repainted just a week ago and finished trial operations the day before we went out.

Unfortunately, the Asahi reporter didn’t mention whether the entire ship has been painted this time. When it sporadically sailed to Japan, there were reports in the Japanese media that only half of the Man Gyong Bong had been painted — that half of the ship facing the shore when docked.

The North Korean authorities seem to like that half-and-half concept. Here’s the painted side of the resort:

Mount Kumgangsan was almost deserted the day we visited. A bathing resort on a stretch of a white sand beach was desolate, duty-free and other stores were closed, and a beautifully tended golf course was empty.

And the unpainted side of the resort:

Barbed wire lined the roads, and soldiers kept guard. Many districts had signs that they are managed by the military, and there were warnings of land mines.

No wonder the golf course was empty. What duffer would risk life, limb, and his favorite mashie niblick after his drive sliced off the fairway?

A Chinese media representative said, “North Korea has made more progress in opening up its economy to foreigners than before.”

Yes, they haven’t gunned down any tourists for three years now.

Eavesdropping on the arguments between the Joseon neighbors is always entertaining:

Kim Guang Yun, a senior North Korean government official in charge of the Mount Kumgangsan international tourist zone, was scathing of South Korea’s decision to suspend tours to the mountain resort.

“It is the South Korean government that suspended the Mount Kumgangsan tourism for three years for political purposes and broke the long-term contract (to develop the area),” Kim told the participants of the observation tour. “I want you to clearly understand this point.”


According to South Korean officials, North Korea gave 50-year exclusive rights to the Hyundai group and agreed to solve disputes through negotiations and protect investors’ assets. But North Korea announced last year that it would confiscate the assets held by the South Korean government. It also deprived the Hyundai group of exclusive rights this year. Sources said South Korean companies, including Hyundai Asan, invested a total of $320 million in the Mount Kumgangsan area.

Meanwhile, the South Koreans display their own considerable talent for farce:

The South Korean government is considering bringing the case to an international organization to settle the dispute.

When another country steals their steals their property and kills their citizens, they’re hot to trot to an international organization for dispute resolution. When they stole Takeshima from Japan and killed some Japanese citizens during the heist, and the Japanese suggested dispute resolution by an international organization, they just got hot.

Taking the comedy to another dimension is a YouTube video of a report on the cruise. If the scenes of the sink, the staterooms, and the on-board entertainment don’t have you boiling tea in your navel, the narration surely will. The author was shooting for the pose of ironic snark that passes for wit and repartee in some circles these days, but he missed so badly it’s turned into two minutes of verbal pratfall.

And speaking of verbal pratfalls, wait’ll you hear the narrator’s pronunciation of “karaoke”.

Really, this story has more laughs per minute than The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, with the bonus of not having to watch the host mug shamelessly for the camera or playing pretend on different levels.

Finally, if the people in charge of this enterprise are thinking of hiring Western entertainers for the Man Gyong Bong cruises, here’s the perfect match. The combination of performer, performance, and audience are funnier by accident than the previous video tries to be on purpose, and Kim II’s heir apparent Kim Jong-Un could mingle with the other candidates for metabolic syndrome and feel right at home

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Posted in International relations, North Korea, South Korea, Travel | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Still more true facts

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, January 27, 2011

SCROLLING THROUGH the comment section of an American website recently, I read a note in which the author blithely asserted, as if it were common knowledge, that Japanese and Koreans despised each other. There were dozens of other comments on that post, but nobody objected to his. The other readers probably thought it was common knowledge too.

The author of the note knew this, he said, because he lived in Japan for a couple of years. Ah, that explains it. A man of the world.

Meanwhile, here’s some uncommon knowledge about what’s actually been happening in this part of the world, where the Japanese and South Koreans are just a hop, skip, and a 30-minute flight from each other.

So far this month.

* Saga Prefecture and Jeollanam-do Friendship Pact

Saga is a small, largely rural prefecture with a population of about 800,000 between Fukuoka and Nagasaki and next to the Sea of Japan. The prefectural government this month signed a friendship agreement with Jeollanam-do of South Korea. Saga Gov. Furukawa Yasushi called it the first step in the prefecture’s plan to develop greater ties with regional governments throughout Asia. At the signing ceremony, Jeollanam-do Gov. Bak Joon-yung said he believed the agreement will help promote ties between the two countries, not just the two regions. It is Saga’s first friendship agreement with a local government from a foreign country.

* Starflyer Plans Busan Route

Kitakyushu-based budget airline Starflyer announced plans to begin roundtrip flights to Busan in July 2012. There are already many flights between Busan and Incheon in Korea and Fukuoka and Kitakyushu in Kyushu, as well as several high-speed ferries operating between the Port of Hakata and the Port of Busan. Starflyer intends to establish a niche in the highly competitive market with early morning and late night flights.

* Ferry Service Begins between Gwangyang and Shimonoseki/Kitakyushu

Gwangyang Ferry of South Korea will begin ferry service between the city of Gwangyang in South Korea and the cities of Shimonoseki and Kitakyushu in Japan. (Shimonoseki is in Yamaguchi Prefecture, just across a narrow strait from Kyushu.) The ferry will have a capacity of 740 passengers and make two round trips a week to Shimonoseki. It will also sail once a week to Kitakyushu on a trial basis. The operators see the potential for demand from travelers (and freight shippers) from the western and southern parts of the Korean Peninsula to Kyushu. Gwangyang is South Korea’s second largest container port after Busan. Currently, people traveling between the two cities by sea have to go through both Busan and Fukuoka City.

* Fukuoka City Sponsors Educational Homestays with Busan, South Korea

Fukuoka City sponsored 10 first-year junior high school students from Busan, South Korea, for a local homestay for six days through the 17th to provide them with an understanding of junior high school life in Japan. The students attended English and other classes at three junior high schools, and teachers from both countries took the opportunity to get better acquainted. Fukuoka City said its objective is to help foster children with an international perspective.

* South Korea’s Jin Air to Operate Budget Charters to Saga Airport

Low-cost carrier Jin Air of South Korea began to fly regularly scheduled charter flights from Incheon Airport in Seoul to Saga Airport for tourists, which will continue until 1 March. They plan to operate a total of 19 round trips in all. They are the first flights by any low cost carrier into Saga Airport.

* South Korean Baseball Team Shifts Camp from Miyazaki to Beppu

Last year’s foot-and-mouth epidemic among livestock in Miyazaki Prefecture (and the new outbreak of avian flu there last week) could have kept the Dusan Bears of South Korean professional baseball from their annual training camp in Miyazaki, but they came anyway for a shorter session. They’ll move to Beppu in Oita on the 26th.

OK, I’ll cheat. Here’s one from last month

* Record High for Air Busan’s Occupancy Rate

Air Busan, which launched daily roundtrip flight service between Busan, South Korea, and Fukuoka City last March, revealed they had a flight occupancy rate of 83% for the month of November, the highest monthly rate ever on the route. The rate from May to September ranged from the 60th to the 70th percentiles, but the higher yen and lower won began to have an impact in October. The increase came mostly from Japanese passengers.

OK, I’ll cheat again. This one includes China

* Regional Economic Partnership Agreement in Works

Ten cities in Japan, South Korea, and China, the members of a group promoting economic exchange in East Asia, held their fourth meeting in China and signed a memorandum agreeing to create an economic partnership agreement for the Yellow Sea rim region. The group includes four Japanese cities, including Kitakyushu, Fukuoka City, and Shimonoseki; four Chinese cities, including Dalian; and three South Korean cities, including Busan and Incheon. The idea is to create a free trade agreement of their own in the region without waiting for their respective national governments.

We’re going to be reading the inevitable Closed to the Outside World stories about Japan written by the bien pensants in the upcoming months as the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks get serious. Let’s see how many of these stories will be mentioned, particularly the last one.

American journalist P.J. O’Rourke has spent much of his career traveling overseas as part of his work. He once wrote that the best way to improve international relations was to sleep with someone from overseas.

In that spirit…

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, China, Education, Foreigners in Japan, International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, Social trends, South Korea, Travel | Tagged: , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Ain’t no mountain low enough

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and rivers once again as rivers.
– Qingyuan Weixin

FIRST there is a mountain / Then there is no mountain / Then there is, were the primary lyrics to Donovan’s ’67 pop hit that reached #11 on the American charts and #8 in Britain. In those days, no one knew whether he was singing about Qingyuan’s Zen awakening, a lysergic acid-fueled mind jaunt, or both, but for most listeners either one would have been equally groovy.

Mr. & Mrs. 100,000

Visitors to Mt. Benten in Katanokami-cho, Tokushima City, however, wouldn’t have to indulge in esoterica or psychedelia to find themselves wondering if the mountain was playing hide-and-go seek with them. A local society likes to boast that at 6.1 meters high—a skoche more than 20 feet–Mt. Benten is Japan’s smallest mountain. Lest you think no one would go out of their way to visit a glorified hill, be advised that 100,000 souls have braved the Benten trek since 2002 without Sherpas and lived to tell about it. In fact, a group of local Tokushimanians has been issuing certifications to anyone who reaches the top.

The 100,000th person to have visited Mt. Benten was one-half of a married couple (take your pick which one) from Komatsushima in Tokushima earlier this year. The local group held a special ceremony, at which the accompanying photo was taken.

Many visitors think that at first glance, Japan’s smallest mountain looks like a forest next to a wet rice paddy. The folks in Katanokami-cho started promoting it as a mountain as a cosmic joke in 1997, but then the rest of Japan decided yes, there is a mountain there after all, and started coming to see for themselves. Some intrepid travelers have made a point of climbing both the 3776-meter Mt. Fuji, Japan’s highest mountain, and Mt. Benten to receive certification for having been to the highest and lowest, a concept that contains some trippy esoteric elements of its own. Five couples have chosen to hold their wedding ceremony at the summit. Their reason? They think it will be auspicious for their relationship because “we can’t get any lower than this.”

Said the director of the local association:

“We started the promotion in the spirit of a game, and we never thought people would take it this seriously. We hope people continue to develop great affection for the mountain.”

Thanks to the magic of modern technology, armchair trippers don’t have to date the girl named Sandoz to go mountain viewing from wherever they are—there’s an official website in Japanese with a live mini-cam broadcasting Mt. Benten to the world in real time 24/7.

If you have any energy left after you come down, you might want to slip on over to see the mighty Butsubutsu—Japan’s shortest river.

Zen Brazilian style

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Posted in I couldn't make this up if I tried, Travel | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The choices of Korea’s veteran travelers

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 24, 2009

SOUTH KOREA’S Korean Air Lines (KAL) is one of the top 20 airlines in the world in passengers carried. It provides service to 130 cities in 45 countries, and is one of only eight airlines with regularly scheduled flights to all six continents.

Thus, KAL’s cabin crews working international flights have the opportunity to visit the world’s most glamorous cities and popular tourist destinations. Their work takes them to so many different places, it would stand to reason that their tastes in travel have become somewhat jaded.

Last month, questionnaires were distributed to the crews that asked them to rank the world’s cities they most liked to visit. Topping the list of their favorites was Sapporo, in Japan, and Fukuoka City was fourth. The reasons they liked Fukuoka included the local hot springs and the shopping.

This information was included in a short article in the Nishinipppon Shimbun, which is published in Fukuoka City. That’s probably why more detailed information wasn’t included on the crew members’ rankings of other cities, such as the other eight destinations in the top ten. They certainly have a lot to choose from, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, New York, London, Paris, Rome, Honolulu, Hong Kong, and three Australian cities.

Do you keep reading that Koreans dislike Japan? The facts show otherwise.

Posted in Japanese-Korean amity, South Korea, Travel | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Boxers or briefs?

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 1, 2009

JAPANESE MEN have a reputation for disdaining household chores, but even they might think Wakata Koichi went too far—he showed up at work every day for a month straight wearing the same underpants.

Wakata Koichi

Wakata Koichi

It wasn’t as bad or as malodorous as it sounds, though. None of the 12 coworkers in his office complained, which means the experiment for which Mr. Wakata served as the guinea pig was a success.

His u-trou were special–they’re called J-Wear and were designed by JAXA, the Japanese space agency. Going without an underwear change for a month was one of the duties the Japanese astronaut handled while spending the last 138 days aboard the International Space Station. The space shuttle Endeavor gave him a lift back to Earth yesterday. There was no word on whether his underpants started walking around under their own power.

That wasn’t all he did when he was in orbit. As this article in The Scotsman describes:

One had him flying through the cabin standing upright on a white sheet that performed like a surfboard. Another was to administer eye drops in space. That involved him squeezing the liquid into a tiny ball at the tip of the bottle and effectively head-butting it to get it into his eye.

Mr Wakata’s J-Wear included more than futuristic Jockey shorts. JAXA also provided him with special socks, T-shirts, and trousers. He brought all this dirty laundry back home, just as any man on a business trip might do. Instead of leaving the laundry with his wife, however, he gave it to JAXA scientists for study and testing. How’d you like to be one of their lab techs?

And give the spaceman credit, too. Would you want to wear the suit in the photo knowing that you wouldn’t be able to scratch your itchy crotch?

But this wasn’t an outer space first. Doi Takao wore the underpants on the ISS last year, though his experiment lasted for only 16 days. That means a new outer space underwear endurance record has been set!

As chance would have it, I saw part of a television program last night that featured interviews with American astronauts who went to the moon. One described how difficult it was to deal with bowel movements in a weightless environment. Since everything floats, it wasn’t easy making sure everything stayed in the bag without sailing through the cabin.

When people say space is the final frontier, they’re not kidding about the frontier part!

Incidentally, Mr. Wakata made 2,208 earth orbits and traveled for 57,000,000 miles during his more than four months on the space station. The space shuttle has now become a de facto ferryboat, providing taxi service to the station and back.

Perhaps the most newsworthy part of the story is how blasé we’ve become about all this. Mr. Wakata’s adventures didn’t even rate an article in today’s Nishinippon Shimbun.

Afterwords: Here’s what the duds look like.

UPDATE: The coverage of this story by the Japanese media came a day late. It’s on the front page of the newspaper today.

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Fukuoka-Busan: The gateposts of the Asia Gateway

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, July 7, 2009

IT’S A CURIOUS PHENOMENON that the farther people are from Japan and South Korea, the more likely they are to think folks in the two countries get along like dogs and monkeys, as the Japanese say about dogs and cats. If the articles and snide asides that the print media offer as infotainment are to be believed, it’s taken as a given in the West that the Koreans and Japanese can’t stand each other, and it’s mostly Japan’s fault.

But that’s not the picture that emerges in the part of the world where the two countries are closest to each other. It’s a mere three-hour boat ride or 50-minute flight across the Korean Strait separating Kyushu and the southeastern part of the Korean Peninsula. Here in Kyushu, it’s no big deal to eat a leisurely breakfast while listening to a Busan radio station, and then follow that with a leisurely lunch in Busan. In fact, I’ve done it myself.

It’s not as if I’m a trend-setter, either. That trip has become an everyday occurrence for people in both countries. The sister cities of Fukuoka City and Busan know better than anyone that their bread is buttered on both sides, and they’ve been working together to whip up more tempting treats.

That’s why the two cities have embarked on their Asia Gateway campaign for encouraging people in both regions to drop by and set a spell, and in the process drop as much money as they can afford. They took the next step in the campaign today when they launched the joint Asia Gateway website. Their concept for the overall tone of the site is that the two cities are actually “neighboring towns” where people regularly travel back and forth, rather than cities in foreign countries that people visit occasionally for business or pleasure.

Considering the state of modern transportation and the real people I’ve seen traveling across the strait, that’s no exaggeration. For starters, young single women in both countries think nothing of hopping on the boat for a weekend cross-strait shopping expedition.

The website is jointly managed by the Nishinippon Shimbun and the Busan Ilbo newspapers. The homepage is in both languages, and from there visitors can access the separate Japanese- and Korean-language content. The section created in Fukuoka for Koreans contains videos of local attractions popular with Koreans, as well as blogs. There’s also a map of the Tenjin district in Fukuoka City, Kyushu’s largest commercial area, translations into Korean of Nishinippon Shimbun articles, and information on the Kurokawa Hot Springs in Kumamoto, another destination popular with Korean tourists.

The ties between the two areas aren’t PR dreamed up by the respective Chambers of Commerce. Coming soon to the site is an interview with a bi-strait married couple. The husband is Japanese and lives in Fukuoka City, while his wife is Korean and lives in Busan. Now that’s my idea of bisexuality!

Later this month, Busan plans to add more information in Japanese about their tourist attractions and Korean-style fortunetelling.

But you don’t need yuk hak to get a glimpse of the future in this part of the world, and now you’ve got more to go on than the English-language press. Just take a look at the Asia Gateway website and see for yourself.

Afterwords: The interview with the married couple is already supposed to be up there, but I couldn’t find it. Perhaps in the next day or so.

Posted in Foreigners in Japan, International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, Social trends, South Korea, Travel, Websites | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Sea of clouds

Posted by ampontan on Friday, October 10, 2008

IF LIFE IN THE WORKADAY WORLD is polluting your spirit, perhaps it’s time to pay a visit to one of the ethereal mysteries of nature.

The photo here was taken early in the morning on the 9th from the summit of 1,000-meter-high Mt. Azami overlooking the Yoshino River in Miyoshi, Tokushima. When clouds fill the valley below as if they were part of a larger river flowing to the sea, it’s a sign that autumn has arrived in the area. The river of mist returns every year from September through November.

This phenomenon results from the fog created by the combination of radiational cooling at night with cool, windless mornings.

The area is somewhat well known for this—Miyoshi promotes the site as a destination for green tourism. Those for whom an autumn trip is inconvenient might consider visiting in May, when the morning fog also flows through and fills the valley.

Here’s the best part: The Japanese created a word specifically to describe this phenomenon. That’s unkai, or “cloud sea”.

And in a word, that’s poetry.

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Dokdo: Your dream vacation come true!

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, September 21, 2008

HAVING DIFFICULTY selecting the destination for your next vacation? Can’t decide between the surfside fun at Australia’s Gold Coast, the carnival at Rio, the romance and internationalism of San Francisco, or the Grand Tour of Europe?

If you prefer the more rugged and super-cool eco-tourist hideaways, are you torn between diving in Palau, sunning on Costa Rica’s black sand beaches, sailing through the Norwegian fjords, or taking snapshots of lions, elephants, hypertrophied snails, and other exotic creatures in Kenya?

Vacation wonderland

Vacation dreamland

Here’s some good news for those folks who can’t make up their mind. Now there’s another option to consider that will surely be the envy of your friends and co-workers for its sheer exoticism, if nothing else: Relax and enjoy the scenery for two days on Dokdo, and the Korea Times will foot the bill. All you have to do is be one of the lucky winners in the new contest for non-Koreans co-sponsored by the newspaper and the Northeast Asian History Foundation. To enter, write an 800-word essay on the topic, “Why is Dokdo Korean Territory?”

The odds look pretty good. It’s unlikely there will be many entries, and Grand, Golden, Silver, and Bronze prizes are being offered. Here’s what the winners will receive:

Grand Prize: Five two-day round-trip tickets to Dokdo.
Golden Prize: Four two-day round-trip tickets to Dokdo.
Silver Prize: Three two-day round-trip tickets to Dokdo.
Bronze Prize: Two two-day round-trip tickets to Dokdo.

And here’s the clincher: All the prize winners get a plaque.

The sponsors have thought of everything. The winners who live overseas will get a round-trip ticket from their home to Seoul (from the nearest airport with Korean Airlines service).

The Korea Times also says that “Applicants providing new pieces of evidence on Korea’s sovereignty over the islets, including unpublished maps, photos, and documents, will be given high marks.”

One has to wonder what the Korea Times thinks of the existing “evidence of Korea’s sovereignty” if they’re fishing for foreigners who just happen to have centuries-old maps of the Sea of Japan rolled up in a rubber band and stuck in a corner of their sock drawer.

There’s another aspect to consider: A prize is almost certainly assured for foreigners who are not ethnic Koreans, if only because it will allow the sponsors to boast of an international consensus. The stated objective of the contest is “to promote international awareness about the history of the rocky islets.” Now ask yourself how many people who are not ethnic Koreans will be entering the contest. See what I mean?

It shouldn’t be too hard to conduct research, either. Spend an hour sifting through all material the Koreans have dumped on the web over the past few years, cherry-pick the most popular and outrageous arguments (look to university professors for the latter), rework it all with some punchy prose, throw in a reference that the evidence for Korean ownership is so obvious a grade-schooler could understand it, and then mention in passing that the Japanese claim is motivated by a desire to reestablish their imperialist hegemony over the Korean Peninsula.

Really, how can you lose?

Heck, I’m tempted to write an essay myself!

You’d better hurry, though. The deadline for submission is 17 October.

Confidential to Gerry Bevers: You’re disqualified!

Here’s a link to a post about the contest from ROK Drop, which reproduces the ad in full. Thanks to Get a Job Son for passing along the info.

Posted in I couldn't make this up if I tried, South Korea, Travel | Tagged: , | 6 Comments »