Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Fukuoka’

The Korean hue in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 2, 2012

ONE of the guilty pleasures this website provides is the chance to contribute to the disappointment of those people overseas, particularly in the West, who think it is a matter of received wisdom that the Japanese hate Koreans. It would be more pleasurable to think it contributes to their enlightenment, but that would assume they’re interested in being enlightened.

Page 38 of the 1 January edition of the Nishinippon Shimbun (which runs to 40 pages, with page 40 being an advertisement) has an article about the popularity in the Kyushu region of a Busan vocal duo known as Hue. The article reports that the duo, Kim Ji-hyeon (she) and Ryu (or Yu) Mu-yong (he), will make a concerted effort to extend their popularity throughout Japan this year. They’ll start with their first solo concert in the country in Fukuoka City on 6 March.

Once members of the Busan Municipal Chorus, they formed their duo in 2005 to perform what they call popera. Their repertoire seems to consist of pop music that requires sophisticated vocal technique, as well as some opera selections.

Hue’s first Japanese appearance was in Fukuoka City at a Fukuoka City – Busan Friendship Commemorative Concert in 2009. They’ve since performed here more than 10 times, mostly in Fukuoka City. That’s easily arranged, because the city is accessible from Busan by a three-hour jetfoil ship service, or dozens of daily flights that take less than an hour.

They were encouraged to step up their activities in Japan after Yoshida Fumi (56) formed a fan club for them in Fukuoka City. Ms. Yoshida cried when she heard them perform the Japanese song Sen no Kaze ni Natte with Korean lyrics. That’s a translation of the line “I am a thousand winds that blow” from the English-language poem Do not Stand at my Grave and Weep. The song, a tear-jerker suited to a semi-operatic performance, was originally released by the Japanese composer on only 30 privately-produced CDs. It became a national phenomenon in slow motion, however, and eventually inspired a special television drama with that name.

Ms. Yoshida’s fan club, which consists mostly of junior high and high school girls, turned out for Hue’s three Fukuoka City concerts last year, as well as a performance in Busan. Hue returned the favor with an expression of thanks to the club on their newest disc, which was released last fall. They also printed all the lyrics in Japanese and recorded the song Prologue, the lyrics of which are by Ms. Yoshida’s favorite poet, Yun Dong-ju.

Poet Yun studied English literature at two Japanese universities in 1942, but was arrested as a thought criminal by Japanese police and sentenced to two years in jail in 1943. He died in prison in 1945 in — get ready for it — Fukuoka. There’s plenty of information available about him on the Japanese-language part of the Web.

The newspaper report notes that the duo is almost unknown in South Korea.

Now roll all of the above information around in your head one more time and marvel at how amazing life its own self can be.

Here’s a YouTube clip of an appearance they made on Kumamoto television promoting a concert in that city in December 2009. The interview before and after the song consists of the pleasantries you might expect; Ms. Kim (who now has red hair) says she looks forward to seeing the local tourist attractions, such as Kumamoto Castle and Aso. It’s easy to understand why they’re popular. They’re quite talented, though the style of music won’t be to everyone’s taste. But that isn’t the point, is it?

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot: They sing in English.

When they’re not singing in Italian, that is:


Speaking of those in the West who either can’t be bothered or are too thick to get it, BBC introduces a Roland Buerk report this way:

South Korea’s K-pop music has overtaken Japanese music as the industry’s most popular genre in the country.

Relations between the two countries have been difficult after Japan’s colonisation of Korea in the first half of the 20th century.

But with the growing popularity of Korean culture, will attitudes to people of Korean origin, who make up a large ethnic minority in Japan, soften?

Let’s see…in the first paragraph, someone writes that South Korean pop music is more popular in Japan than Japanese pop music, but in the third paragraph asks if Japanese attitudes towards the Koreans living in Japan will change. Spit out that gum before you try walking, son.

Buerk even mentions the growing popularity of Korean restaurants in Japan, but still can’t see beyond the end of his nosenetwork’s pre-packaged narrative.

Further, he fails to provide actual statistics for his claim about K-pop dominance. Taking a mass media report on faith has been a suckers’ proposition for decades. Korean music could very well be the Top of the Pops in Japan, but he has to show us the numbers to be credible.

Finally, he still can’t competently pronounce Japanese place names, despite having lived in the country three years this month. Any native English speaker can learn proper Japanese pronunciation in a matter of minutes. Buerk’s failure to do so demonstrates his level of commitment to his assignment.

If you’re interested in seeing the clip, please hit the search engine of your choice. Links around here are reserved for serious journalism.

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Posted in Japanese-Korean amity, Music, South Korea | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »


Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 13, 2011

FEW outside the country may be aware of it, but archaeological research is a thriving enterprise in Japan. The artifacts from two millennia of human activity lie beneath everyone’s feet throughout the archipelago, and it is likely that most people here have seen an excavation site at least once in their lives. Yoshinogari, one of the most important historical sites (see right sidebar), was discovered when construction work began on a shopping center on the outskirts of town.

Dazaifu dig

The accompanying photo shows just how close the past is to the mundane present. That’s the site of a former Nishitetsu railway switching yard in Dazaifu, Fukuoka. More than a millennium before that, however, from the early 8th to the early 9th century, it was the site of a reception and lodging house for official missions from the Korean Peninsula and the Asian continent. Scholars and officials have been shoveling away since 2005, and last week they confirmed the discovery at the site of Silla-type (i.e., early Korean) ceramics and high quality, metal alloy dinnerware. The spoons are identical to those in the Shosoin repository of ancient cultural treasures in Nara.

There’s another contemporaneous facility for receiving foreign guests in Fukuoka Prefecture closer to Hakata Bay, known as the Korokan. Historians now suspect the Korokan was used primarily for trade negotiations, and the Dazaifu facility was used for more informal interaction, i.e., parties and ceremonies. In other words, they talked turkey at Korokan and ate it at Dazaifu.

The visits of important delegations from overseas are a matter of historical record. The Silla Kingdom on the peninsula sent a delegation to Korokan in 688, 25 years after they and forces from T’ang Dynasty China combined to defeat the army of the Baekche Kingdom, backed by the Japanese. Many Baekche refugees wound up in Kyushu, including those from the royal house. In addition, the Silla prince and a group of 700 people visited in 752, and imperial emissaries from China came the following year. Considering that this Dazaifu site was for eating and drinking, and another site from the same period in the same place coughed up enough dice to gamble away a weekend in Vegas, the ancient Koreans and Chinese probably looked forward to the trip.

Dazaifu continues to offer distinctively Japanese hospitality today, albeit of a more modern variety. Starbucks Japan announced they will open a shop on the sando, or approach path, to the Dazaifu Tenman-gu Shinto shrine on the 16th. It will be the first Starbucks shop at a shrine or Buddhist temple.

Dazaifu Starbucks

The Tenman-gu shrine is a large facility with gardens containing 6,000 plum trees in addition to the buildings. A Shinto shrine was first built there in 905, and the current building, registered as an important cultural property, dates from 1591. It was built on the grave of Tenjin, the deification name of Sugawara no Michizane, renowned for his erudition and learning. They’re opening the Starbucks at just the right time, too, as tens of thousands of people will visit the shrine for New Year’s. The visits will continue into January as students make the pilgrimage to ask the deity for a blessing to pass their high school or university entrance examination. (I could have used some of that juice myself.) Another attraction, the Kyushu National Museum (right sidebar), is within walking distance nearby.

The location demands that this shop not resemble the typical shopping mall Starbucks. It was designed by University of Tokyo architect Kuma Kengo, known for his work on the Suntory Museum of Art and the Nezu Museum (got them on the right sidebar too). That design combines the traditional and the modern with natural materials, primary among which is 2,000 pieces of Japanese cedar obtained by thinning out forests. It will also have two gardens, one in front facing the sando and one inside with more plum trees. There will be 46 seats in the interior and 10 on the terrace.

The coffee and food, however, will be the same as that of other Starbucks outlets.

Said the company’s PR release:

From the entrance to the interior, the distinctive design employs a traditional wood pattern, which has been incorporated both in the interior and exterior. It offers the warmth of wood and the opportunity to spend some time in a luxurious setting while surrounded by the aroma of the highest quality coffee.

There’s more to modern Japanese hospitality than trendy coffee shops, too. Here’s some news that might wake you up faster than a cup of Starbucks espresso: Three Tokyo restaurants were awarded a third star last month in the Michelin guide to restaurants. Japan now has 32 restaurants with a three-star rating, the guide’s highest.

There are 25 in France.

More worthy of note for me is this dambuster-sized preconception destroyer: One of the new two-star eateries in Japan is a Korean restaurant.

Want to take a quick visit to the Tenman-gu shrine without buying a plane ticket? Try this YouTube video. It starts at the Nishitetsu Dazaifu station and walks you right to the shrine. Along the way you’ll see the reason that a Starbucks won’t be out of place in the neighborhood.

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Posted in Archaeology, Food, History, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Matsuri da! (116): One vine day

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 17, 2011

TUGS-OF-WAR are the main event at many Japanese festivals. As with the other competitions held as part of these Shinto rites, the winning person or team is traditionally considered to have earned the favor of the divinities. They or their residential district can look forward to good fortune in the coming year, such as a bumper crop or big haul of fish.

These competitions can be as intense as a street fight or outright gang warfare. The Kawachi Tug-of-War in Kagoshima is modeled after a military operation and originally had martial applications. As I explained in this post, “The rope is 365 meters long (400 yards), 35 centimeters in diameter (13.8 inches), and weighs five tons. About 3,500 men participate. That means the people on one team near the center line can’t see their own team members at the end of the line.”

As with tug-of-war pull-offs everywhere, most of these festival events use real ropes.

But not all of them.

The bravos doing the yanking in the Kazura Tug-of-War held every 15 August in Itoshima, Fukuoka, near the Dainyu Shirayama Shinto shrine use freshly cut vines. (Kazura in Japanese means vine). The Itoshimanians wake up early on the 15th, head to the local mountains for some vine chopping, and bring their prizes back to town for the afternoon event.

The vine/rope they tug is a manageable 37 meters long. About 80 folks showed up this year to watch the two teams, one consisting of seinen (people in their early 20s) and the other of a combination of kids and seniors. There are three matches. The kid/senior combination won the first, the second was a draw, and by tradition, the judge chopped the vine in half during the third match before the winner was determined.

Here’s the best part: The original idea is that one team is rescuing the recently deceased from falling into hell, while the other team are the demons trying to drag them down. Which team is which isn’t determined until the end, when the winners — this year, the kid/senior team — are declared the Buddha-gumi. After the match, everyone heads to a nearby beach. The losers of the demon-gumi throw their half of the chopped vines into the sea, and the Buddha-gumi uses their half to create a sumo ring. Then they have sumo matches on the beach to celebrate the ascension of the deceased to paradise. Gokuraku, gokuraku!

It’s just a small event in one neighborhood of a town of about 100,000, but look at how much they’ve got going on: Heaven and Hell, Buddha and the Demons, redemption and damnation, the mix of Shinto and Buddhism, the young and the old, the mountains and the sea…

And the good guys always win in the end!

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Posted in Festivals | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Ichigen koji (36)

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 2, 2011

– A person who has something to say about everything

We’re based in Tokyo, but we’re concerned it will not be possible to maintain lifeline services there during an emergency.

– Goto Genri, president of health products company, which moved part of its administrative operations to Fukuoka

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Quotations | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

From gray to green

Posted by ampontan on Friday, July 29, 2011

THE CITY OF KITAKYUSHU has long been one of Japan’s major industrial centers. The concentration of industry in the area was the reason the Kokura district was the intended target of the second atomic bomb. Cloud cover on the day of the mission sent the pilots to their backup target of Nagasaki further to the south.

By the 1960s, the city was one of the four largest industrial zones in Japan, and the pollution was horrific. The first time I saw it, through the windows of the Shinkansen in 1988, the smoke and the factories reminded me of Chicago or Gary, Indiana.

But the city had already begun to take steps in the early 70s toward a drastic remedy of its problems, however. Their objective was to become the world capital of sustainable development, and that link describes some of the steps they’ve taken.

The world is taking notice. Yesterday, the OECD announced the selection of Kitakyushu as the first green growth model city in Asia. Noted the Kyodo report:

“It is the fourth city selected for the OECD’s Green Cities Program, following Paris, Chicago and Stockholm.”

The city is also generous with the expertise gained from its experience. People from around the world, particularly those associated with local governments, regularly visit to see what’s been accomplished and what they can learn. Representatives from the city travel throughout Asia, and China in particular, to promote region-to-region ties in the environmental sector. (Of course it’s also good for local business.) A day doesn’t go by without another story appearing in the Nishinippon Shimbun, my local newspaper that covers northern Kyushu, about the city’s efforts.

Those among the all-seeing Western punditocracy ready to declare Japan down for the count might want to glance in the direction of Kitakyushu to discover just what the nation is capable of. These stories are consigned to the back pages or the skipped-over sections of the newspaper or website news aggregators, but they’re often more important in the long run than the ones on the front page.

Kitakyushu’s name literally means “North Kyushu”, but it’s in the south (west) of Japan.

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Posted in Environmentalism, Science and technology | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

White lightning in Northeast Asia

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 3, 2011

IN THE WEST, the primary consumers of sweet alcoholic beverages are usually either young people slightly above or below the legal drinking age, unaccustomed and ill-disposed to the taste of the real thing, or women a few years older. (Southern Comfort was the liquor of choice for the well-known juicehead Janis Joplin.) I’ve never seen an adult male drink a rum and coke. Daiquiris might be an exception, but they’re more tart than sweet. And I’ve never seen anyone drink a mint julep at any time other than the first Saturday of May — Kentucky Derby day.

Sweetness seems to be more to the taste of northeast Asians in their tippling traditions, however. While there are both sweet and dry varieties of Japanese sake, the original beverage was probably sweet. The Japanese version of white lightning, doburoku, is sweeter still. That’s a milky white form of sake that isn’t fully pressed from the fermenting rice solids, which are left floating inside.


Sweet white lightning made from rice is another of the many elements Japanese and Korean culture have in common. The Korean analog is called makgeolli, and it shares several attributes with doburoku: It’s just as white, just as sweet, and just as likely to cause those who consume it to wake up the next morning convinced there’s an axe embedded in their forehead. The background story says it was originally brewed for farm workers to drink instead of water while in the fields, which might be the reason Korea has never been an agricultural superpower. It was originally called nongju, a name that translates as farm liquor. Japanese will recognize it from the kanji: 農酒. Both doburoku and makgeolli are 6-8% alcohol by volume, slightly more than local beers, but less than sake.

There are an estimated 40 different kinds of makgeolli, and rice is not the only farm product used to brew it. When then-Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio visited South Korea in October 2009, President Lee Myong-bak used makgeolli for the toast at the state dinner. That variety, however, was made from a purple variety of sweet potato known in Japan as satsumaimo. The Kagoshimanians of Kyushu use it to make their own hairy-chested version of shochu, which isn’t sweet in the slightest. This particular satsumaimo was created by cross-breeding the Japanese and Korean types. Using that beverage on that occasion was a brilliant idea, and whoever in the Blue House came up with it deserves a toast in their honor.

Most of the doburoku in Japan sits in a corner of the liquor store shelf gathering dust, while the South Koreans have succeeded in turning makgeolli into a popular commercial beverage, as we’ve seen before. Sales have gotten high rather quickly. A year or so ago (there was no date on the article), a Korean outfit called GS25 analyzed liquor sales at 3,700 convenience stores nationwide as of August and found that makgeolli ranked fourth, behind beer, shochu/soju, and whiskey, and one slot ahead of wine.

Those rankings might be a reflection of the type of customer likely to shop for grog at convenience stores. A survey conducted by the Lotte department stores in South Korea of liquor sales at their own outlets for a recent July-September period revealed that makgeolli was in third place behind wine and whiskey, and ahead of beer and Japanese sake. The ranking the year before was whiskey, wine, beer, sake, and makgeolli. Of course, you don’t need to see the stats from the marketing survey division to know that women do most of the buying at department stores. Another factor is seasonal and cultural—chusok, the Korean version of o-bon, falls in September, and makgeolli has become a popular choice for gifts.

Soju distiller Jinro ignited the boom by producing more marketable versions of the beverage. (There’s a good video with details at the link above.) Suntory is trying to do something similar in Japan, as they’ve brought out a slightly carbonated version in a can they call Seoul Makgeolli. It’s safe to assume Suntory thinks the foreignness of makgeolli will hold more cachet for young women than the familiarity of doburoku, the choice of hayseeds.

But before you hard guys snort with derision and reach for something more manly, get a load of this: A team at the Korean Food Research Institute announced last month their discovery that makgeolli has anti-carcinogenic ingredients in quantities up to 25 times greater than beer or wine. Specifically, they mean farnesol, which is also one of the critical elements that add aroma to wine.

The team made a point of examining liquors commonly sold on the market. The amount of farnesol in makgeolli tested out at 150-500 parts per billion, 10-25 times the 15-20 ppb of beer and wine. Their research showed the cloudiest parts of the beverage had the greatest amount of farnesol, so it was best to shake up the sediment before drinking it.

These tidings of good cheer come with the chaser of some bad news, alas. The head of the team said that a real effect would be achieved by drinking three or four cups about twice a week. I had that much one evening in Busan (and a similar amount of doburoku that I bought in Nagasaki and broke out at a party), and I’ll stick to other health maintenance methods. As Voltaire is said to have replied when declining a second invitation by the Marquis de Sade to another orgy after he’d enjoyed the first one: “No thanks. Once is philosophy, twice is perversion.”

That research team seems to have performed their task with single-minded devotion. There’s only a small amount of farnesol in makgeolli, which is 90% water, so it was difficult to extract and analyze. They had to develop new technology just to perform the analysis. Now for the unfortunate news: They used the announcement of their discovery as an opportunity to let their Korean little man complex out of the closet for some fresh air:

“Through this research, we developed for the first time the technology to analyze the farnesol from the traditional alcoholic beverage makgeolli. We thus obtained the basic technology enabling the scientific verification of the superiority of South Korean makgeolli.”

Use your new technology and run the tests on doburoku before you say that, guys. It’s the same stuff, after all.

The Japanese and South Koreans also share a cultural taste for a more sedate beverage — tea, which some of them are using to further cross-strait ties. Chomu-kai (朝霧会), a tea ceremony group in Yame, Fukuoka, (a noted tea production area) last week welcomed the “tea culture research group” Unnim Chahue (雲林茶会) from Gwangju, South Korea, to celebrate 10 years of friendship. The chairman and six members of the Korean group hopped over to Yame for two days of tea parties and planting.

The Yame group was formed to promote interest in local tea using the tea ceremonies of the five major Japanese schools. Bak Guang-sun, the husband of the Unnim Chahue chairman, found out about the group when he taught at nearby Kurume University. He thought hanging out with them would be an excellent way to pursue his study of the tea culture in Japan.

The tea bushes they planted together will take four or five years to sprout drinkable leaves, and when they do they’ll have a friendship party and savor it together. Maybe as the night wears on they’ll switch to makgeolli/doburoku and conduct some research into rice culture while they’re at it!

Those who don’t want to wait that long to conduct their own research can analyze this previous post about a Shinto festival with doburoku, or this one about doburoku ice cream.

Here’s how Jinro is plugging makgeolli on Japanese TV. I’m tempted to buy some and invite the ladies over for a pajama party. That game looks like fun.

Meanwhile, Suntory imported Jang Geun-seok from South Korea to pitch Seoul Makgeolli, as you can see in this ad. The company’s choice in models shows they know exactly which market segment they’re trying to capture. Isn’t he precious? Isn’t that earring just darling? And what an adorable hairstyle!

If you’ve worked up a thirst after all this talk about booze, maybe it’s time to get on the ladder—i.e., go bar-hopping in Japanese—with Sabor de Gracia from Spain as they set fire to a few themselves.

Bar-hop far enough, and you might walk into this joint in England. (That’s a flash file.) Whether you walk out again in one piece is a different matter.

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Posted in Food, Foreigners in Japan, International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, Science and technology, South Korea, Traditions | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »

Yet more true facts

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, January 27, 2011

THE PREVIOUS POST about misconceptions elsewhere of Japan-South Korea relations reminded me of similar misconceptions overseas about a supposed waning of the spirit of Japanese enterprise. That’s illustrated by the recent rash of ADD-impaired stories presenting Japan shuffling off the world’s stage like some forgotten old duffer with hair growing out of his ears.

Oh, really?

Here’s a sample of stories featuring developments that occurred over the past two months in Kyushu alone. Decide for yourself who’s shuffling and who’s strutting.

* Kitakyushu Hydrogen Town Project

Trials of the Hydrogen Town project in Kitakyushu got underway on 15 January and will run until the end of March. The trials involve using underground piping to send hydrogen to individual residences and commercial facilities, where it will be used in fuel cells to generate electric power and heat water. The hydrogen used is created as byproduct at local steel mills. The project organizers hope to resolve any issues regarding consistent hydrogen supply and its safe use. These will be the first large-scale trials in the world for the use of hydrogen in urban areas.

* Nanosatellite Testing Center Opens at KIT

The Kyushu Institute of Technology opened the Center for Nanosatellite Testing, a facility for conducting trials with artificial satellites no larger than 50 centimeters in diameter and weighing less than 50 kilograms. It is the world’s first facility with the capacity to conduct all the required performance tests for nanosatellites, including the ability to withstand temperature changes and vibrations. These satellites, used primarily for taking photos of Earth, have become increasingly popular in recent years because they are somewhat inexpensive.

* New Development in Cancer Stem Cell Treatment

Dr. Nakayama Keiichi and a team of researchers at Kyushu University’s Medical Institute of Bioregulation discovered that a certain protein will change the state of cancer stem cells, which are impervious to chemotherapy and radiation, into a state that allows them to be attacked. Even when other cancerous cells are removed, the remaining cancer stem cells have the potential to create a recurrence of the disease. Converting the protein into a usable medicine might bring a cure within reach.

* Honda to Conduct Electric Vehicle Trials in Kumamoto

Honda announced it will begin trials of new model electric motorbikes, electric cars, and plug-in hybrids next year at its Kumamoto Prefecture plant. The recharging station used in the trials will employ solar power to generate the electricity. The motorbike trials are slated to begin next spring, while those for automobiles will begin in the latter half of the year.

* Desalinization Certification Plant Built in Kitakyushu

Water Plaza Kitakyushu, Japan’s first desalinization certification plant capable of certifying both the conversion of seawater to fresh water and the purity of reclaimed sewage water, will begin operation in April. The plant was built by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO). The operators hope to disseminate the technology and operational expertise gained from the plant both in Japan and overseas.

* NEECO to Make Energy from Chicken Dung in India

Fukuoka City-based Nishi-Nippon Environmental Energy Co. plans to launch a biomass power generating business in India by the spring of 2012 using chicken dung as fuel. If the enterprise is successful, the company hopes to expand the business throughout India and the rest of Asia. The company is using the expertise gained from operating a similar enterprise in Miyazaki Prefecture, which produces 25% of Japan’s chickens.

* Ecogenomics Sells DNA Chip Technology to China

Bio-venture company Ecogenomics is now selling to Chinese government agencies its DNA chips, which are devices for genetic testing. The adhesion and reaction of bacteria and chemical substances on the DNA chips makes them effective as medicine for pathological conditions. They are also said to be effective for preventing cancer and infectious diseases. The company has its own technology for the comprehensive processes from design to manufacture to create products that meet the individual testing needs of its customers.

While putting this post together, I discovered another example from outside Kyushu, as described today in the Asahi:

Researchers at RIKEN, Yokohama City University and The University of Tokyo have uncovered how gut bifidobacteria protect the body against lethal infection by enhancing the defenses of colonic epithelium. Published in this week’s issue of Nature, the finding provides first-ever clues on the mechanisms underlying the beneficial effects of gut microbiota, promising more effective probiotic therapies for a variety of disorders and diseases.

To find this information, however, one has to read Japanese newspapers.

Chemistry is another popular field in Japan.

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Posted in China, Education, Environmentalism, New products, Science and technology | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

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 »

Another way to make lemonade from lemons

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 8, 2010

THE FOLLOWING ARE some excerpts from an article that appeared in today’s Nishinippon Shimbun.
Production of paper diapers for adults is skyrocketing as the population ages, and local governments must consider how to dispose of them as garbage after use. In 2009, paper diaper production was 1.7 times that of 2003. Efforts are spreading nationwide to reuse them as a fuel source to reduce garbage volume, and some local governments in Kyushu have begun recycling them. Potential hurdles to their reuse, however, are the difficulty of separating them from other refuse and the recovery costs.

The municipal government of Hoki-cho, Tottori, teamed with local businesses to begin trial production of solid fuel using a system that processes used paper diapers. If the system is shown to be effective, they envision using it at such facilities as hot spring resorts to heat boilers. Trial calculations suggest the system could result in savings of up to JPY three million annually.

One of the first local governments in Kyushu to become involved is Oki-machi, Fukuoka. They formed ties with the Total Care System company of Fukuoka City, which has a recycling plant for paper diapers in Omuta. The municipality has conducted trials in which the residents collect the diapers separately in special bags and a municipal vehicle stops by to pick them up.

Oki-machi is currently paying a substantial amount of money to neighboring Okawa for the incineration of burnable refuse. Said a municipal official, “Paper diapers account for about 10% of the town’s burnable refuse. Recycling them would lessen the burden on the environment and reduce public expenditures.”

Total Care System also collects used paper diapers from hospitals and long-term care facilities. They treat and process the diapers and recycle them as fireproofing material.

The Japan Hygiene Products Industry Association reports that 5.019 billion paper diapers for adults were produced in 2009, an increase from the 2.996 billion paper diapers in 2003…The association points out, however, that few municipalities dispose of the diapers separately and treat them as burnable garbage…Those local governments with their own incineration facilities find that to be a more efficient and economical method of disposal.

(end translation)

Here’s a Kyodo article on the same subject from April, and another from CNET. Speaking of incontinence, the author of the latter managed to hold in the “Weird Japan” snark for most of his entry, but still wound up wetting himself in the last sentence.

Noborikawa Seijin is 78 years old, but I don’t think he needs special underwear yet. He just released another CD this year.

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Demography, Environmentalism, Government, New products | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Electrons on the barrelhead

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, October 9, 2010

THE BANK OF JAPAN reported this week that the amount of settlements (i.e, financial transactions) for which e-money was used in FY 2009 climbed 54% from the previous year to JPY 1.2549 trillion (about $US 15.3 billion)—the first time the total exceeded JPY one trillion. They also reported that as of the end of March 2010, an aggregate total of 129.89 million of the e-money cards had been issued, or more than one for every person in the country.

The BOJ’s survey covered eight different cards, including those issued by railroad companies and retailers. The most recent stats for June 2010 found a 23% year-on-year increase in the number of cards issued to 137.15 million. The amount of money that changed hands—or accounts, anyway—in e-money transactions this June alone rose 50% from last year to JPY 139.3 billion.

A local example of how common their use has become is the nimoca (the NIce MOney CArd) issued by Nishitetsu, which operates an urban train and municipal bus line in Fukuoka City. Card holders in the region can board a bus, take (some) taxicabs, or ride the subway to a Nishitetsu train station, a JR train station, or go straight into town, visit the huge Tenjin commercial district, shop at major department stores or other facilities, graze at a convenience store, eat lunch or dinner at certain restaurants, and then go back home without digging into their wallets for any currency. The nimoca can also be used for JR East trains in Tokyo, as well as the Tokyo monorail, one of the primary access routes to Haneda Airport.

You realize what this means, don’t you? Pretty soon, you’ll take some money out of your wallet to pay for a purchase, and the clerk will say: Your cash ain’t nothin’ but trash!

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Matsuri da! (114): Angels with dirty faces

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 17, 2010

PARENTS LIKE TO THINK of their children as little angels—until they misbehave. Then they’re more likely to think of them as little devils.

The parents of young boys in Chikugo, Fukuoka, however, set aside one day a year during the O-Bon holidays to turn their sons into demons and made a festival out of it. O-Bon is a Japanese Buddhist custom in which the spirits of departed ancestors return to the family altars once a year, usually in mid-August. The folks in Chikugo take that opportunity to present the Hisadomi Bonzunahiki, held this year on the 14th. Here’s what happens: they round up the imps, paint their bodies black, dress them in straw skirts called mino, and tie some more straw around their heads with the ends loose to resemble two horns. Then they have the lads march around town with a 400-kilogram rope 30 centimeters in diameter and 20 meters long. If that doesn’t keep them out of mischief during summer vacation, nothing will. There were about 50 this year, and they covered roughly 3.6 kilometers in between their start and finish at the Hisadomi Kumano Shinto shrine.

This didn’t start as a Shinto festival, but it’s become an event that reflects the intersection of Buddhism with Shinto throughout Japanese history. It dates from 1626, when the ceremony was conducted marking the completion of the main building at the Tokuzui-ji, a local Buddhist temple. There is the story of the Buddhist saint Nichiren using a rope to pull his mother out of hell, where she had fallen, and the parishioners mimed the act. The Bonzunahiki (Bon rope pull) didn’t become a regular event until 1643, however. It was revived after two straight years of severe plagues and bad harvests left many dead, especially children. It’s been held every year since then, and was designated an intangible cultural property of the prefecture in 1996.

The boys don the black and straw so they can play the part of the guardians of the boiling cauldrons of hell. It’s so hot down there they work without much clothing, and the soot from the fires blackens their bodies. (It’s a wonder the straw doesn’t catch on fire, too.) The idea was that they could pull the spirits of the dead up from the netherworld for consolation, if only during O-Bon.

Though it’s nominally a Shinto festival, the Buddhist origins of the Bonzunahiki haven’t been forgotten. The organizers make a new rope every year, and the process involves suspending the rope from a beam inside a building. The beam used is not in the shrine, but one in the Kan’non temple on the western corner of the shrine grounds instead.

All this probably flies over the boys’ heads. One fifth-grader participating for the first time said he thought it was a lot of fun to get painted black. They also surely enjoyed getting hosed down to wash off the gunk and the sweat after carrying the rope through town.

After all, it’s hotter than hell this time of year in Japan!

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Love Boat on the Korea Strait

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, February 9, 2010

WHAT IS IT with those folks in Fukuoka and Busan anyway? They keep confounding the people whose misconceptions masquerade as conventional wisdom and overturn every tired old cliche of Japanese-Korean relations.

Now they’re at it again. The accompanying photo depicting a traditional Japanese wedding ceremony was taken during the filming of a television drama in the Kushida Shinto shrine in Fukuoka City. The filming, which occurred on the 6th, is for a program being produced by MBC-TV in South Korea. The name of that program translated into English from Japanese from Korean is The Korea Strait Wedding War (玄海灘結婚戦争), while the Nishinippon Shimbun translated it into Japanese as The Great Japan-South Korea Wedding Operation (日韓結婚大作戦).

The groom in these telenuptials is a Busan native, played by Korean actor Im Ju-hwan. In the role of the bride, a Japanese woman from Fukuoka studying in South Korea, is Akiba Rie, who has appeared on Korean television before. Both characters have to overcome parental objections before the (presumably) happy ending. The character played by Im also has to overcome his self-doubt. He bolts during the ceremony at the shrine, declaring, “I can’t go through with it!”

And here I thought women were the ones who usually got cold feet at the critical moment. Most men who bug out hit the road before they show up at the church.

The Koreans say they selected Fukuoka for filming the Japanese scenes because it has close ties to Busan—which will be no surprise to long-time friends here—so it’s the best location for depicting mutual understanding between the two countries. They’ve already done some location work in Iizuka, and plan to film some more at a hotel and the local fish market, a Kyushu version of Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market. (Check the link on the right sidebar.)

Here’s the best part: The program will be broadcast on 1-2 March in South Korea. The first of March is a national holiday in that country commemorating the 1919 outbreak of the local movement for independence from Japan.

Actor and musician Hakuryu (literally, White Dragon), who plays the part of the Japanese father, said:

It is a ground-breaking step to take up the subject of international marriage between Japanese and Koreans in South Korea on 1 March. The show tastefully depicts the tension between the families.

Give credit to MBS for their gutsy move. Not every commercial enterprise dependent on public sentiment would behave that way in a potentially volatile environment.

Chon Je-won, the show’s producer, said:

I want to examine friendly ties between the countries in the future. Let the past be the past.

Said Ms. Akiba:

I hope that Japanese-Korean ties grow closer through this drama.

The program will be broadcast in Japan on the northern Kyushu regional network TNC in April.

While MBC is on the side of the angels here, this might once again be a case in which the big institutions are behind the curve. There were 7,813 marriages in Japan between Japanese and Koreans in 2007, the latest year for which I could find statistics. The percentage of international marriages in Japan is close to 6%, and about 13% in South Korea, so the Japanese-Korean marriage rate in that country might be higher.

It’s a good rule of thumb that the people at ground zero will be way ahead of the folks in the corner offices on the top floors of corporate or government headquarters.


Some people—the usual Diapered Ones, whose preferred form of entertainment is to indulge their coarser emotions—have already decided they won’t enjoy the program. You can have three guesses about the reason, but the first two don’t count.

The main body of the article includes a comment from the Internet that asks: “Do you know how much hurt this will cause for some people?”

To answer with a question: Do you know how little anyone else cares about your petty whining? The world around you isn’t responsible for your failure to control your emotional state, nor is it obligated to modify its opinions or behavior because of it.

The idea that a person’s employment depends on following the party line should have died with the various democratic people’s republics, not to have been preserved in a free market democracy.

A commenter to the main article identified as American Kim provides a more temperate view.

The actor/musician Hakuryu, a native of Imari, Saga, is a second-generation Korean-Japanese. The name on his birth register is Chon Jong-il. He also uses the name Takayama Sadaichi in Japan. Mr. Hakuryu/Chon/Takayama frequently appears on Korean television.

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When a retreat demonstrates an advance

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 6, 2010

SOMETIMES a retreat really represents an advance.

At his first news conference of the year on the 4th, Fukuoka Prefecture Gov. Aso Wataru announced the prefecture would close its office in Seoul, South Korea, at the end of March. The reason?

“There’s no longer any need for the office’s original function of gathering information to provide advice about the country to Japanese. Private sector ties have strengthened, and the office has fulfilled its role.”

The single prefectural employee assigned to the Seoul office will return to Japan, but the prefecture plans to maintain its contract with local staffers to provide tourism information.

In other words, the people of northern Kyushu are now so knowledgeable about South Korea in general and Seoul in particular that it’s no longer necessary for a local government to intermediate for them. With the people now out in front of the public sector, the latter has, to its credit, decided to withdraw rather than perpetuate itself needlessly.

The news has another significant aspect. Japan’s new national government has been trying to sell itself as a group of reformers who would eliminate waste and abuse, yet they will submit Japan’s highest budget proposal ever–with its highest level of debt ever–when the Diet convenes later this month. They claim the expenditures are to prevent a double-dip recession, but that’s no more likely to provide a lasting fillip to the economy than the ocean of debt swallowed by the American government over the past year.

To find that part of the public sector in Japan that is actually cutting taxes and eliminating unneeded services, one has to start by looking at the sub-national governments.

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Nengajo 2010

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 4, 2010

FOLKS IN WESTERN COUNTRIES have exchanged seasonal greetings by sending Christmas cards through the mail for at least 170 years. The Japanese also use the mail to exchange seasonal greetings, but they wait another week for their most important yearend holiday to send nengajo, or New Year’s Day cards. The custom of visiting others to deliver a New Year’s greeting in person began as long ago as the 8th century, according to Japanese historians. About two centuries later, the practice of sending written greetings to people too far away to visit began to take root.

It wasn’t until the creation of the modern postal system in 1871, however, that nengajo started to become part of the holiday landscape. A further impetus was provided in 1873 when the Post Office began printing and selling nengajo as inexpensive postcards. The practice became a general custom after 1899, when the Post Office established procedures for handling the cards separately from individual mail. Nengajo entrusted to the postal authorities by a certain date are postmarked 1 January and delivered on that day, anywhere in the country.

I was busy with one thing and another throughout the yearend period, so I missed the delivery deadline for this website, but here is the 2010 Ampontan nengajo, with best wishes for a ferociously good time in the Year of the Tiger.

Some websites like to offer visitors photos that are Not Safe For Work, but doesn’t happen around here. I’ve always been the type who prefers to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh in the flesh rather than vicariously. Instead of the modern silicone-enhanced attractions, this post contains some of what might be called Shinto cheesecake. Herein are photos and descriptions of the activities of miko, or Shinto shrine maidens. They are analogous to altar boys in Catholic churches, and they also pull double duty as Santa’s elves during the New Year’s holidays.

The Japanese flock to Shinto shrines throughout the first three days of the New Year, and to handle the influx, the shrines hire young women as part-time miko. The successful candidates are young, unmarried women who speak Japanese, but it’s not necessary to be Japanese. Two years ago, we had a post that contained a report on a Korean university student who returned for a second year on the job because she enjoyed it so much the first time, and this year I saw an article about an Italian woman signing up for service as a miko at a Kyoto shrine. As an example of the freewheeling Japanese ecumenicalism, I once knew a woman who was a very serious Catholic—she kept a portrait of Jesus under the clear plastic covering of her desk at work—but who also served as a miko on weekends, mostly for wedding services. No one thought this odd. Nor are any of the following stories.

Shunan, Yamaguchi

The miko uniform consists of a white top with red hibakama, which is a divided skirt. (Those are also worn by men in traditional formal attire, though in more subdued colors.) This isn’t daily attire, so the first order of business is instruction in how to wear the outfit. The Toishi Hachiman-gu shrine in Shunan, Yamaguchi, hired 19 young women this year, and here they are learning how to dress themselves and having a jolly good time in the process. It’s not easy to tie the belt and attach it with special implements, and few get it right the first try. Their duties started on 26 December when they cleaned and decorated the shrine grounds, and they continued during the three-day New Year weekend when they sold amulets, including hamaya, or arrows that drive away evil spirits.

The Toishi Hachiman-gu, by the way, was established in 708; note the three-digit date. Most shrines with “gu” at the end of the name are associated in some way with the Imperial family. In this case, the shrine’s tutelary deity is the Ojin Tenno (emperor), #15 on the list, who is said to have lived in the 4th century.

Dazaifu, Fukuoka

They also took wardrobe lessons on 28 December at the Dazaifu Tenman-gu in Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture. This shrine expected 2.1 million visitors over the three-day holiday period, so they hired 70 young women, mostly college and vocational school students, to serve as miko. They must have needed a large dressing room. One 18-year-old junior college student from Fukuoka City remarked, “I was nervous. I want to be able to make it through without catching a cold.” That’s not an idle concern—it’s winter and most miko spend all day outside or in booths with little or no heating.

Echizen-cho, Fukui

The miko are more than just Shinto shop clerks and yard boys. They also give performances of kagura, or Shinto music and dance, at festivals throughout the year. Here 10 junior high school girls are practicing the kagura they later performed in the main hall at the Tsurugi shrine in Echizen-cho, Fukui. This particular dance took two minutes to present. The dancers performed in pairs using fans and small bells, and were accompanied by taiko drums and flutes.

Though Shinto shrines are as old as Japan itself, and kagura isn’t much younger, the Tsurugi shrine debuted these New Year’s performances shortly after the end of the Pacific War. They are offered with the prayer that all those who visit the shrine during the season will be granted their wishes. The girls had only three days to get it together, so they practiced the choreography for four hours a day. Said 14-year-old Mita Miho, “It was difficult because there was so little practice time, but I hope we can synchronize our breathing and do the dance properly.”

Fukutsu, Fukuoka

Established sometime around the year 400, the Miyajidake shrine in Fukutsu, Fukuoka, has more than two million visitors every year. Roughly half of them show up during the New Year’s period, so the shrine hires about 60 miko to handle the rush. In addition to learning how to wear the costumes, their training includes instruction on how to interact with the visitors. Included in that training is the proper way to offer greetings–the ABCs of interpersonal relations in Japan–and even the proper way to hand over the souvenirs that have been purchased. That requires role-playing, and the Shinto priests play the role of the parishioners. Their first rule for customer contact is same as that for any café or department store, much less a Shinto shrine: “Greet them with a smile”.

Nagaokakyo, Kyoto

The instruction at the Nagaoka Tenman-gu in the Kyoto Metro District even includes the proper way to bow. This year the shrine hired 24 new miko to work with their six veterans, and training started on 20 December. These ladies will work a bit longer than their counterparts elsewhere—the shrine’s events last until 7 January and include a calligraphy contest. Their training is also a bit more detailed. They’re taught some of the shrine’s history, and the proper way to bow when passing through the torii. (Memo to Barack Obama: Observe that no one is shaking anyone’s hand. Notice also that their backs are straight.) They are enjoined to give a proper bow when facing parishioners because their role is that of a surrogate for the divinity.

Hiroshima City, Hiroshima

The miko at the Hiroshima Gokoku shrine in Hiroshima City started their lessons on 20 December. This year the shrine took on 120 miko, of which 36 are new to the job, and their training involves some classroom work. The photo shows the young women listening to an explanation of the names and uses of the various shrine implements, including the miki, or containers for sacred sake, and the items offered for sale.

The Hiroshima Gokoku shrine is relatively new, having been established in 1868. The memorialized spirits are those of the people from western Hiroshima Prefecture who gave their lives for their country up to the Second World War, and the students mobilized to work in war-related industries who died during the atomic bombing. The associations are apparent from the designation gokoku, which means protecting the nation. The idea is that those people who died defending the country will become guardian spirits of the state.

Niigata City, Niigata

One of the items near the top of the to-do list to prepare for the visitors is to make the amulets that will be sold during the holiday, including these hamaya, which were mentioned above. The miko here are pitching in to make arrows at another Gokoku shrine in Niigata City. Five young women were responsible for making 8,000 of them, which cost JPY 3,500 each (about $US 37.60). The local police expected 150,000 visitors at the shrine from 31 December to 3 January, so there’s a good chance they sold out.

As the name indicates, this is another shrine established to honor the war dead, as it was created in 1869 for the commemoration of those from Niigata who died in various wars up to the Second World War. A total of 79,729 spirits are enshrined here. The earliest are those from the Boshin Civil War, which was fought to overthrow the Shogunate and restore imperial rule. That conflict lasted about 18 months, from January 1868 to June 1869.

Toyo’oka, Hyogo

These miko at the Izushi shrine in Toyo’oka, Hyogo, are gathering and sorting the items to be offered for sale during the New Year period. They’re putting the amulets, arrows, ema (votive pictures), earthen bells, small rakes, and other items into bags for package sale to those who will pay their first (and these days, perhaps only) visit to the shrine during the year. During the full three-day period, that’s usually around 23,000 people for this shrine, which is thought to date to the 8th century; the first recorded mention of it is in the 9th century.

The shrine’s tutelary deity is Amenohiboko, who, according to the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicle of Japan, the oldest Japanese historical record), was a prince of Silla. Yes, that was in the southern part of the Korean peninsula. Another ancient record describes him as a divinity. The ame part of the name means “heaven”; when included in the name of an ancient, it usually refers to a divinity closely related to the ancestry of the Imperial house. He is the only prince from a foreign country to have the ame character (天) in his name. If any of the anti-Nipponites who consider the Japanese to be Korean-haters and deniers of their ancient ties to the peninsula are disturbed by this contribution to their disillusionment, consider it enlightenment instead.

Legend has it that the Big A was the guy who fixed up the Toyo’oka Plain for habitation, which was supposedly a sea of mud before he worked his magic on it. That’s why the shrine has traditionally been a destination favored by civil engineers and members of the construction industry.

But there are other reasons people like to stop by. The shrine starts receiving visitors at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and the first 500 receive a shot of sacred sake.

Kagoshima City, Kagoshima

There’s plenty of work to do on the outside of the shrine as well. How to clean underneath those roofs? Instead of rickety old ladders, the priests and the miko make it easy on themselves by using four-meter-long bamboo poles with bamboo grass leaves attached to the end. At the Terukuni Shrine in Kagoshima City, they make a point of doing the spring cleaning every year on 24 December. Well, the name for the New Year season is Shinshun, after all–New Spring.

They also hung a large ema—one meter tall and seven meters wide—in the shape of a tiger at the shrine gate. This shrine, whose tutelary deity is the former feudal lord Shimadzu Nariakira, expected 370,000 visitors over the three-day period.

Fukuyama, Hiroshima

Once they’ve finished with the soot and cobwebs that collect under the roof, they’ve got to sweep the grounds too. But that’s not an annual ceremony—that’s a daily event at most shrines with a staff on the premises, including this one: The Sanzo Inari shrine in Fukuyama, Hiroshima.

This shrine hires six miko every year for holiday duties. They were encouraged to study the procedures well during the instruction period, and the chief priest told them, “What’s important is the issue of spirit.” Isn’t it always? With that, they set to work tidying things up, which is one aspect of the Nippon essence that one wishes they could bottle and export inexpensively. They also spend a few hours learning the proper way to pour the sacred sake and to deal with the parishioners. If they get confused, they can always ask for help from one of the nine regulars.

Speaking of Shinto cheesecake, this shrine sponsors the Miss Sanzo Inari Shrine Contest with the assistance of local corporations during the November festival of thanksgiving. The contestants must be younger than 27 and unmarried, and they undergo two rounds of judging to winnow the field to the final eight, whom you can see here. Three are selected from this group, and one of the honors that comes with their selection is to serve as miko during the New Year period.

Naruto, Tokushima

After the shrine is cleaned, it’s time to put up the seasonal decorations. One of the essential adornments is shimenawa, which demarcate a sacred space. The one hung at the front of the main hall at the O’asa Hiko shrine in Naruto, Tokushima, was 4.5 meters long and 20 centimeters in diameter. The priest and his helpers hung a total of 30 shimenawa of different sizes throughout the premises. They also didn’t forget to install a special collection box especially for the holidays, which was nine meters wide and four meters deep. The parishioners walk up and toss in the money themselves, a method more restrained than that of the Christian churches, which tend to stick the basket in your face. This shrine, which dates from the 9th century, expected 260,000 visitors during the holidays

Proving yet again that there’s no telling what you’ll discover in Japan if you keep your eyes open, the shrine grounds are the site of the Germany Bridge (photo here), which was built in 1917 by German prisoners of war held nearby. No, I don’t think it was a prelude to the bridge over the Kwai River. That same group of prisoners, by the way, is reputed to have given the first complete performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Japan.

Kobe, Hyogo

The kanji used to write the name of the city of Kobe (神戸) are those for divinity and door, or gate. Take a few linguistic liberties and one might parse that as the gateway to heaven, but with Shinto, that’s more likely to be the gateway for the divinities to this earthly plane. There’s a reason for the name; the city’s Central Ward has several very old shrines, one of which is the Ikuta jinja, which dates from the 3rd century.

One New Year’s custom is to place kadomatsu at the entryway; those are decorations made of pine and bamboo that serve as an abode for the New Year divinities. The Ikuta shrine does not follow this custom, however, as it refuses to have anything to do with pine trees. In Japan, that behavior borders on the eccentric, but they’ve got their reasons. Legend has it that years ago, pine trees weakened by floods toppled onto the main hall and crushed it. To make sure that never happens again, the shrine replaces its kadomatsu with a display of cryptomeria branches. Yes, it does look a bit like a Christmas tree, doesn’t it? Thirty shrine employees mustered out at 8:00 a.m. sharp on 27 December and put the 3.5-meter high decoration together with about 2,000 branches.

Instead of an angel, the top is adorned with a eulalia branch, which symbolizes a bountiful harvest, and it is wreathed with a shimenawa. Those who purchase fortunes at Shinto shrines and get bad news tie the slips of paper to pine trees on the site, because the word for pine—matsu—is a homonym for the word to wait. That’s not possible at the Ikuta shrine, however, so they use this cedar decoration instead. If the past is any indication, it will have been turned white by now.

This particular shrine has survived its share of hardships, incidentally, including floods in 1938, air raids in 1945, and the Hanshin earthquake in 1995. The damaged areas have been rebuilt each time, and that’s why it’s become a destination for those Japanese looking for divine assistance to make a comeback from adversity.

Himeji, Hyogo

Young women make any place look more attractive and alive, and that hasn’t escaped the notice of Shinto priests, who are certainly not bound by any vows of celibacy and therefore don’t have to kneel down and pray for forgiveness whenever they think of such things. (Most men would rather pray for something else whenever they think of such things.) So what could be more natural than to have the miko pose under the lanterns at the Himeji Gokoku Shrine in Himeji, Hyogo? The shrine holds the Shinnen Mantosai (New Year 10,000 Lantern Festival) every year from 1-10 January, and here the miko were serving as in-house electrical inspectors when the lanterns were tested on 27 December. It’s not quite as taxing a job as it sounds—they really hang only 2,000 lanterns instead of 10,000. They’re separated into 23 rows, and the entire display is 70 meters wide and 40 meters deep. The switches were turned on from sundown to 8:00 p.m. until the 3rd, and then shortened to 7:00 p.m. until the 10th.

This is another gokoku shrine; the Himeji was built on a site that was employed for services commemorating war dead starting in 1893. It formally became a Shinto shrine in 1938. During the Allied occupation, GHQ made them change the name because they thought it had connotations of militarism, but when the occupying armies left, the Japanese changed the name back. The occupiers should have realized that it’s not possible to hustle The East. Try this photo for a look at the shrine location, next to the Himeji Castle.

Not long ago, calendars were one of the most popular promotional tools for Japanese companies. The English school where I once worked received so many every year there were enough to hang three in every room of the building, fill every room of every employee’s house, and still have some left over. Since the collapse of the economic bubble in the early 1990s, however, budget cutbacks mean there aren’t as many calendars floating around as there once were. (Japan Air Lines distributes one of the most sought-after items. It features pictures of beautiful women from around the world posing in exotic locations, and it makes you want to hop on the next airplane and fly wherever it is they are. JAL still makes the calendar, and the demand is still greater than the supply.)

This post has 13 photos that might make an appealing calendar, with one picture left over for the cover illustration. Maybe I should send an e-mail to the Shinto Shrine Association!

Posted in Holidays, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

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 »