Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Kumamoto’

All you have to do is look (150)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 29, 2012

The 21st Kagura Festival in Aso, Kumamoto. The festival brings together different styles of Shinto kagura dance from around the country. This year 10 groups participated.

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Matsuri da! (138) The turtle snake

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 23, 2012

CHINA is the origin for many things Japanese, but perhaps the most peculiar is the kida. That’s the main attraction of the Myokensai festival every year in Yatsushiro, Kumamoto, held by the Yatsushiro Shinto shrine. The mythical creature is said to have hitched a ride to Kumamoto on the back of a Chinese divinity.

turtle snake

Myokensai literally means “strange sight festival” and the name is a perfect fit. That’s because the kida is a part turtle and part snake. The head and neck is a serpentine one meter long, while the creature with its turtle body is four meters long in all. It’s the main attraction in a parade of nine floats and 1,500 people. Reports say shouts go up from the crowd when the kida, manipulated by five men, emerges on the banks of the Mizuna River. It’s so popular that the Yatsushiroans made a special kids kida that joined the parade for the first time in 2009. Or maybe kidas reproduce by parthenogenesis.

And speaking of strange sights, the Mizuna River is actually a subterranean river that usually has no water above ground. It fills with visible water after a heavy rain. The name for the river is another perfect fit — it’s written with the characters for “no water”.

Who knows? Maybe the habitat of the turtle snake is the unseen waters of the Mizuna River. It shows up on the street at the end of this short video.

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Good eating

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 19, 2012


It’s been my experience that any animal that comes out of salty water is good eating.
– from the story The Black Clams in Old Man Flood, by Joseph Mitchell

HUGH Flood, the Old Man Flood of the story, was referring to gastropod pests called quarterdecks, a limpet that attaches itself to oysters and smothers them to death. He convinced the owner of an oyster bed the parasites had ruined to eat a few raw, and he thought they tasted like the tomalley of a lobster.

If Flood was willing to eat those, he’d have been more than ready to eat one of the delicacies of Ryugatake-machi on Amakusa island in Kumamoto — starfishes.

Actually, they don’t eat the starfish themselves but the eggs that fill up their body cavities. Stick them in a pot with water and salt, boil them for 30 minutes, and the Amakusans are set for some good eating.

They used to be plentiful and eaten mixed with sea urchins and clams, but the water isn’t as clean as it once was. Still, it’s not so dirty that the treat can’t be enjoyed from February to the beginning of May, when they’re in season.

Starfish eggs are said to taste like sea urchin, or uni in Japanese, which is a common seafood ingredient for sushi. I like that a lot myself and think the flavor resembles what Baltimoreans call mustard. That’s the yellow (and sometimes greenish) material that collects in the shells of crabs they eat from the Chesapeake Bay. If that’s what they taste like, they’re good eating indeed.

If you want to find out more about these funky epicurean delights, you can buy the Cooking Starfish in Japan e-book for JPY 980 and read and see all about it.

Or, you can watch this Youtube, which shows you everything from start to finish in just under five minutes.

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Ichigen koji (206)

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, October 23, 2012

– A person who has something to say about everything

If not to the civilized and democratic country Japan, do you want to go to thug-filled Xian city and eat gutter oil?

– A commentor on Weibo (China’s Twitter), when some people complained that a cruise last weekend on the Costa Victoria with 1,500 Chinese tourists from Shanghai to Yatsushiro, Kumamoto, was a “traitor tour”. Sea cruises from China to Japan, particularly Kyushu, have become popular in recent years among Chinese.

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All you have to do is look (65)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 1, 2012

The Hassaku Festival held last month in supplication for a bountiful harvest in Yamato-cho, Kumamoto. There are 11 of these giant floats with designs that change from year to year.

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All you have to do is look (61)

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, September 27, 2012

The climactic event of the Fujisaki Hachiman-gu Shinto shrine in Kumamoto City on the 16th. Representatives of 68 groups each led a horse in a procession witnessed by 16,000 people. There’s an explanation for the reason at the end of this page. It seems the idea is that the divinities are astride the horses now.

But that’s not all that goes on, as you can see from the video.

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All you have to do is look (50)

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, September 16, 2012

Damage from the heavy rains in northern Kyushu in early July is still causing problems. This photo was taken on a stretch of the Hohi Line between Kumamoto and Oita.

Photo from the Sankei Shimbun

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All you have to do is look (36)

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, September 2, 2012

The climax of the Toro Festival in Yamaga, Kumamoto, last month.

Photo and video from the Asahi Shimbun

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Power grab

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, August 26, 2012

OLD Ma Necessity has come for an extended uninvited stay in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident and the subsequent idling of most of the country’s nuclear power plants. That’s spurred some inventive Japanese scientists to attack the problem of renewable energy power generation.

Lens windmills

One of the most ambitious plans is part of a project now being conducted by a team led by Kyushu University Prof. Oya Yuji in Hakata Bay, off Fukuoka Prefecture. They’ve developed what they call a lens windmill whose design triples the amount of power a conventional windmill can generate.

In Stage One of the project, which started last December and will run for a year, the two 3 kW lens windmills shown above have been placed on a floating platform with solar power cells and a large storage battery. They’re calling it a floating maritime power farm. They plan to eventually add equipment that generates power from tidal currents and waves. Prof. Oya thinks the lens windmills would be practical if they could be made larger.

One of the advantages of maritime windmills is that the wind is stronger over the sea. Also, renewable energy power generators require a large surface area, and Japan has a limited amount of surface area for equipment of this type. They’ve got plenty of sea all around them, however.

Stage Two of his project is to place an interconnected floating platform in the Korean Strait with five 200 kW lens windmills. His team is already working on a design for 1,000 kW models.

An intriguing aspect to the plan is the idea of using the platforms as small fishing ports. Sweden and Denmark both operate maritime windmills, and they’ve discovered that fish like to hang out nearby for reasons that no one can explain. Fishermen are unanimous in their belief that this is an excellent idea for an experiment. There are even suggestions that fish farms could be created below the platforms.

Several problems remain. One is that the production costs for the lens windmills have to be lowered. Another is the space requirement. Even when commercialized, it would require 230 windmills to produce the output of the #1 generator at the Fukushima plant alone.

Seawater temperatures

Several companies are working with the Okinawa Prefecture Deep Sea Water Research Center in Kumejima-cho, Okinawa, on an ocean thermal energy conversion project that will run until next March. The idea is to use the difference in the ocean water temperature at the surface and that at greater depths. A temperature differential of 20 degrees (I assume centigrade) is required for this to work, so that means the tropics and the subtropics are the ideal location. That’s Okinawa!

In this process, the difference in water temperatures is used to gasify ammonia and other substances with low boiling points, which rotates a turbine. The power output is only 50 kW, but this is a trial, after all. The center says it is the world’s first trial using this process with the objective of commercialization.


They’re ready to go commercial at a ryokan, or Japanese-style inn, in the hot springs resort town of Yufuin, Oita. Starting in December, the ryokan will use a 70 kW generator that Kobe Steel put on the market last fall to generate electricity using the hot springs on the site. Not only do they expect to cover their own energy needs, they also plan to sell the surplus power generated to Kyushu Electric Power under the system for the sale of renewable energy at a fixed cost that began in July. Kobe Steel says that if the power is sold at 20 yen per kW, the ryokan could recover the costs by 2015.

That highlights another problem with these systems. It costs Kyushu Electric JPY 10 yen per kW for the power generated by nuclear plants. These costs in the aggregate will be passed on to the utility’s consumers. In other words, the government scheme amounts to a renewable energy tax.

And they’ve already gone commercial throughout Japan in the use of processed sewer sludge — yeah, that — as a biomass fuel for power generation. Kumamoto City plans to commercialize an operation in 2013, and Kitakyushu is planning to do the same in 2015. Construction work started on the plant in Kumamoto City in January. When it begins operating next January, it will have the capacity to process 16,000 tons of the sludge, roughly half the amount produced in the city. That will be converted to 2,300 tons of fuel for use at power plants.

Here’s an idea: Create smaller models of this equipment and place them in the buildings that house national and sub-national legislatures. We wouldn’t have to worry about nuclear energy or lens windmills again.

Seeing as how Okinawa came up in the discussion, here’s Okinawan Natsukawa Rimi singing an island song.

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Japan’s cultural kaleidoscope (4)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 7, 2012

JUST because the warts of the overseas media and the commentator-bloggers who rely on them think their folderol is insight doesn’t mean you have to fall for it. The national decline of Japan, if it exists at all, is greatly exaggerated. Here are a few short snorts testifying to the national vitality. The first is a translation of a brief article, while the rest are summaries.

Island hopping

Japan Air Commuter, a small Kagoshima-based airline serving the prefecture’s outlying islands, has hired its first female pilot, Hamada Eri (29). Her maiden flight was as co-pilot on two round-trip flights between Kagoshima Airport and the islands of Amami and Tokunoshima. After returning in one piece, Hamada said, “It was different from training. I sensed the weight of the responsibility for carrying passengers. I was very nervous, but it was a lot of fun and I was relieved when it was over.”

Hamada Eri

Her ambition to become an aviatrix originated when she was a student at Ryukyu University (Okinawa). While flying on commercial airlines to her home in Sendai (the northeast part of the country), “I discovered I liked the scenery from the cabin window and wanted to see the view from the front.” She enrolled at a flight school in Miyazaki City after graduation. She chose to work at JAC because she enjoyed her many flights over Kyushu during training, and because she wanted to repay the many people in the industry in Kyushu for their help.

The flights to the outlying islands are a lifeline for the people living there. “I was spurred by a desire to be of service on these flights, which are so important for their daily life.”

The Tohoku earthquake struck while she was still in training. The family home was washed away by the tsunami. While her parents were safe, a grandmother living in an institution died in the wave. She wanted to be near her family, but her parents encouraged her by saying, “We’re fine. You work hard in flight school.”

“I’m far from the stricken area (about 740 miles), but I decided to put forth my best effort along with all the people who suffered as they head toward recovery.”

Ms. Hamada is the 13th female pilot in the JAL group. “I intend to gain experience and become a full pilot, not only for my benefit, but also for the women who follow.”

A Japanese sentiment permeates every sentence of that article. For contrast, imagine how much self-importance it would have contained had the story originated in the Anglosphere instead of Kagoshima.

Tokushima seaweed comes home

Last year’s Tohoku disaster was also a disaster for Sanriku wakame, a noted product of Miyagi. To help rebuild the industry, a Tokushima Prefecture maritime research institute in Naruto sent local fishing co-ops some wakame spores last October that the Miyagians raised in Kessennuma Bay. The first harvest was last week.

It was a homecoming in a sense for the wakame because the folks in Miyagi shipped the Tokushima institute some of theirs in 2004 for cross breeding. The spawn from that mating is what Tokushima sent back. The spores grew to a length of two meters, though the water temperature this winter was lower than ideal. The quality, color, and thickness of the seaweed is good enough for it to appear on your dinner table soon. Local watermen harvested 400 kilograms on the first day. The harvests will continue until the beginning of April, when they expect to have hauled in a total of 3,400 tons.

Off to see the Iyoboya

The big maritime product in Niigata is salmon. The Niigatans like it so much, in fact, they established the nation’s first salmon museum in Murakami called the Iyoboya Museum.

Niigata was the Murakami domain during the Edo period, and it was there that salmon were first successfully bred in Japan. Since then, salmon has been an important part of local culture. Iyoboya is the name for the fish in the local dialect.

Iyoboya fanciers say the best part of the museum is the mini-hatchery. Starting at the end of October, the museum recovers salmon eggs and fertilizes them. The eggs hatch two months later. Visitors get to see the fingerlings, and if they’re lucky, the hatching itself. The museum is now raising 50,000 fish, give or take a few, which it plans to release in the Miomote River at the beginning of next month. The museum also offers views of the river through glass windows.

There’s a restaurant on the museum premises. Guess what’s on the menu!

Snow fun in Kamakura

The Kamakura winter festival has been underway since 21 January at the Yunishikawa Spa in Nikko, Tochigi. The event is held in small snow huts in a gorge along the banks of the Yunishi River, which sounds like just the ticket for those who get off on nose-rubbing. This is a hot spring town, so visitors can enjoy both the hot and the cold of it, dipping in the spa waters for relaxation after all the fun with snowmen, snow slides, snow hut barbecues (reservations required) and musical performances. If you’re in no hurry for spring to start, the festival will last until 20 March.

Let 100 dragons soar

There’s a lot of snow in Hokkaido, too — probably more than in Nikko — but that didn’t stop Sapporo kiters from holding their 35th annual kite-flying contest in the city’s Fushiko Park. The winner this year was Tanaka Mitsuo, whose design featured a 100-meter-long chain of 100 linked kites.

Mao Zedong once said, “Let a hundred flowers bloom”, but that’s got to be easier than getting 100 kites up in the air. Each of the hundred was 60 x 42 centimeters, made of bamboo and washi (traditional Japanese paper), and designed to look like a dragon. This is Dragon Year in the Chinese zodiac.

Rebuild it and they will come

They’ve been repairing the Izumo Shinto shrine in Shimane lately, the first major renovations in more than 60 years. The local carpenters know just how to go about it, too — the Izumo shrine has been rebuilt 25 times, the last in the 18th century, and also moved several times.

It’s the oldest shrine in the country, but ranks only number two in order of importance. (The enshrined deity is Okuninushi no Mikoto, the nephew of the Sun Goddess.) There’s still a fence around one part where mortals may not enter.

The repairs are being made in conformity with the original construction techniques. That includes softening thin sheets of Japanese cypress by soaking them in water, and then using them to thatch the 600-square-meter roof with bamboo nails. Preparations began in 2008 and the work won’t be finished until next year, though the current phase ended in February. Had I finished this post when I intended, readers nearby might have been able to glimpse the main hall. Alas, I was sidetracked by other work and projects, and now the hall won’t be on view for another 60 years. Attendance also required a dress code: t-shirts, sweatsuits, or sandals will not do for a visit to the abode of Okuninushi, even though the divinity was moved to a temporary site on the premises in 2008 for the duration.

Leg room

Naruse Masayuki of Tamana, Kumamoto, has presented a paper on the safety of his single pedal automobile system to the Society of Automotive Engineers in the United States. Mr. Naruse operates a company that makes industrial materials, one of which is One Pedal. That’s an all-in-one pedal for controlling the gas and the brake to prevent accidents caused when drivers step in it by stepping on the wrong one. There’s an attachment on the right side of the floor pedal for acceleration, which drivers hit with the right side of their foot to move forward. Stepping on the floor still brakes the car.

The pedal’s been around for awhile — the old Transport Ministry conducted trials that demonstrated its safety. Mr. Naruse has custom-fitted nearly 200 cars in Japan with the device, but the major automakers don’t seem interested. Said Toyota, “Technicians have studied it, but we have no plans to adopt it now.” One complaint is that it’s more difficult to keep one’s foot against the gas pedal to maintain a constant speed than it is to downpress a pedal. Nevertheless, SAE plans to hold trials in Tamana with 70 drivers of all ages and foot sizes.

Hokkii rice burger

Tomakomai in Hokkaido has the largest haul of the surf clam — that’s the spisula solidissima for you shellfish enthusiasts — in Japan. They’ve got to eat them all somehow, so they’ve begun promoting a clam rice burger made with what’s called a hokkii, which is also the city’s “image character“. (The name isn’t derived from the hockey puck shape.) It was created by college students who liked the clam and made it for their school festival, and used rice for the bun instead of bread. City officials must have stopped by for a taste, because they adopted the idea and sold 1,600 at a three-day event last year. They then conducted trial tastings and questionnaires to get the perfect recipe, and shops around town began selling it in mid-December. There are several varieties with different condiments, but most sell for around JPY 400 yen, which is not a bad price. The idea is to get more people to come to Tomakomai.

Goya senbei

They’ve got as many goya in Kagoshima’s Minamiosumi-cho as they have surf clams in Tomakomai, so a local hot spring resort developed a way to incorporate them in senbei rice crackers. They slice and dice them and knead them into the batter. Reports say they give the crackers a slight bitter taste. That makes sense — the goya is also called the nigauri, which means bitter melon. Several groups in the city, including the hot spring resort and the municipal planning agency, created the snack as a way to use non-standard goya and gobo (yeah, that’s a vegetable) that can’t be sold on the market. They’re cooked by Yamato-ya, a Kagoshima City senbei company, and 40-gram bags are sold for JPY 315 yen. That’s a bit steep, but some of the proceeds go to local welfare services. Give them a call at 0994-24-5300 to see if they have any left.

Strawberry sake

Instead of clams or goya, Shimanto in Kochi has a strawberry surplus. That was the inspiration for a sake brewer in the city to combine the berries with their sake and create a liqueur with two varieties, one dry and one sweet. The employees even filled the 500-milliliter bottles by hand, and you’ve got to wonder if they had the temptation to sample some. There were 1,000 bottles of the sweet stuff and 2,000 of the dry type going for JPY 1,600 apiece. The idea is to sell it to “people who normally don’t drink sake”, which is code for young women. They’re even selling it outside of the prefecture, so if the idea of strawberry sake appeals to you, input 0880-34-4131 into your hand-held terminal and ask for some.

Extra credit

The more serious drinkers in Aira, Kagoshima, don’t fool around with fruity beverages, and demonstrated it by starting shochu study sessions last month. Some stalls specializing in that particular grog have been set up near the Kagoshima Chuo station, and the people who will operate the stalls attended three training sessions. One of them included lessons in the local dialect for dealing with customers. (Kagoshima-ben requires listeners to pay close attention, and even then you’re not going to get all of it, sober or sloshed. That includes their Kyushu neighbors.) The scholars also examined the traditional process for distilling it, listened to lectures on the origins of satsumaimo (a sweet potato variety) and how it came to be used in the local shochu, and visited the Shirakane brewers. Now that’s dedication for being a liquor store clerk. There’ll be 50 of them working in 25 shops at the stall complex.

Really high

If the last story didn’t convince you that Kagoshimanians are serious about shochu, this one will. They’ve just marketed a new brand called Uchudayori, or Space Bulletin, made with malted rice and yeast carried aboard the international space station Endeavor last May for 16 days. It was developed by researchers at Kagoshima University and the Kagoshima Prefecture Brewers Association. (The university has a special shochu and fermenting research institute for students, and I sniff a party school subtext.) There are 12 different varieties because 12 companies used the base materials to distill their own well-known products, including those made with satsumaimo and brown sugar. Those interested in getting spaced out can buy a set of 12 900-milliliter bottles for JPY 24,000 yen, which is reasonable considering the transportation costs for some of the ingredients. Sameshima Yoshihiro, the head of the research institute, says it has a better aroma than normal. No, he didn’t say it was “out of this world”.

This'll beam you up.

Exotic booze

Did that space travel bring back an alien life form? The shochu kingdom of Kagoshima is about to get its first locally brewed sake in 40 years. Hamada Shuzo of Ichikikushikino (try saying that after a couple of hits of shochu) announced they have started brewing the beverage. They’re the only sake brewery in the prefecture, and the first to go into the business since the last one shut down in 1970.

That's where they make it, you know.

Hamada Shuzo remodeled their shochu plant last year by adding facilities for producing 60 kiloliters of sake annually. An affiliated company used to make sake in Aichi until 1998, so they’ll blow the dust off the old notebooks and apply those accumulated techniques and expertise. A Shinto ceremony was held to receive the blessing of the divinities before they began fermentation with 20 kilograms of rice from other parts of Kyushu. (Kagoshima rice doesn’t work so well.) The company hopes to cook up 800 liters by March.

The company says Kagoshima’s higher temperatures — it’s Down South — make sake brewing difficult, and the shochu culture took root several hundred years ago. I have first-hand experience that Kagoshimanians drink shochu in situations where other Japanese drink sake, and it took about a week to recover. Statistics from the Tax Bureau support that anecdote. They say 36,767 kiloliters of shochu were consumed in the prefecture in 2010 compared to 1,379 for sake.

The company’s idea is to use sake brewing techniques for shochu product development. They might begin full scale production later, but the sake is now being brewed primarily for research. Didn’t I tell you these guys were serious? They’ve also got a restaurant/brewpub on the premises, and they hope it attracts customers who’ll also take a shine to their shochu. Sales in the restaurant begin in May, and in shops after that.

Build it and they will come

The slender, the fat, and the shapeless

Former sumo grand champion and now slimmed down stablemaster Takanohana announced he was starting a program to build sumo rings throughout the country to promote the appeal of sumo. The first will be in Shiiba-son, Miyazaki Prefecture. (Takanohana’s wife, the former newscaster Hanada Keiko, is a Miyazaki girl.) Mr. T believes that sumo helps build character, and he wants to see the rings restored at primary schools and other sites around the country. The Shiiba-son municipal government will contribute funds to the project and manage the ring once it’s built. The construction will be handled by the local Itsukushima Shinto shrine under the guidance of the Japan Sumo Association.

Mr. and Mrs. T sometimes visit a local juku that seems to be more of a character training institute than an academic enhancer. When they were in town to make the announcement about the sumo ring, they attended a lecture by the head of the juku on the Yamato spirit. (Yamato is the older name for the original ethnic group of Japan.) The lecture included this message:

Live as the cherry blossom, blooming vividly with full force and quickly falling from the branch.
We cannot see the color, shape, or size of the spirit, but a person’s spirit manifests in his way of life, deeds, and words.
There are three important things in the way of the
rikishi and the way of sumo: form, greetings, and etiquette.

That old time religion is still good enough for plenty of Japanese, and not just old guys who drink shochu and watch sumo. This month, a team from Saga Kita High School in Saga City was one of two selected for the grand prize in an annual calligraphic arts competition in Nagano conducted for high schools nationwide. It was the 17th year the sponsoring organization held the event, and the 17th straight year Kita High School won the grand prize. Kita students also won 11 of the 65 awards in the individual division. Teams from 273 schools participated and submitted 15,420 works.

The Kita girls have been getting ready since October. They practiced every day after school until 7:30, and voluntarily give up their free Saturdays. Said second-year student Koga Misaki, the calligraphy club leader, “We encouraged each other while being aware of the heavy pressure of tradition, and I’m happy we achieved our goal.”

And don’t forget Okinawa!

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Posted in Food, Martial arts, New products, Popular culture, Science and technology, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Kumamoto new year

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 4, 2012

WHAT do Japanese do in public on New Year’s day? This short video from RKK, a local television station in Kumamoto, will give you an idea.

The announcer begins with a New Year’s greeting and then introduces four different scenes. The first starts at 6:00 a.m., when the gates of the Kumamoto Castle are opened for visitors who want to see the first sunrise of the year from there.

He mentions that the temperature was relatively mild, closer to that of a mid-March day at 5.4°C. The sky was cloudy, however, disappointing the people who were hoping to see the sun.

The second scene is of visitors to the Kato Shinto shrine, where about 420,000 people come during the first three days of the new year. The first man interviewed says he is praying for the happiness and health of his family. The woman who follows says she asked for the sound growth of her children.

Scene three is of the Wild Bunch at the Kumamoto Central Post Office roaring off to deliver New Year’s cards after attending a Shinto ceremony. They expect to deliver 25.8 million throughout the prefecture. That’s how the mailmen deliver the mail in my neighborhood too.

After that, actress and model Margarine (which is how it’s spelled in Japanese) and the prefectural PR character Kumamon (the big black bear) visit a nearby maternity hospital to welcome the babies born that morning. They also give newly made commemorative seals as presents to two people.

And of course there are miko!

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Whale of a good time

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, June 9, 2011

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

WE’VE ALL seen websites and blogs where people upload photos of food they cook at home or eat at a restaurant. I’ve never done that before — it never looks as appetizing as the bloggers think — but let’s give it a try and see what happens. For example:

Whale chirashizushi!

Whale nikujaga! (stewed meat, potatoes, and onion)

Deep-fried whale skewers!

Whale stewed in citron juice!

Whale tongue stew!

Smoked whale hors d’œuvre! (Meat and hide)

And this unidentified lip-smacker!

Or this!

And this one too!

Some dietary ideologues would never be happy unless they were unhappy that somebody somewhere might be enjoying these dishes, none of which I’ve eaten but all of which I’d try. I’ve always liked the whale I’ve been served, including the meals my wife cooked with whale as the main ingredient.

Some other ideologues wouldn’t be happy unless they were unhappy about those barbaric Japanese butchers cleavering away at the sacred cows of the sea.

Their bad. Those photos come not from Japan, but from Ulsan, South Korea, where the local whale festival was held at the end of May. An annual event more than 10 years old, the festival runs for three or four days and attracts upwards of 250,000 people. (See this previous post on the festival for more information.) The Ulsanians developed a taste for whale during the colonial days, which will make another group of ideologues happy by reminding them of the unhappy days before they were born, but — who cares!

The theme of this year’s festival was a whale cuisine exchange with Kumamoto in Kyushu, with which Ulsan has long had ties. The Japanese were happy to attend.

The woman at right is from Nagasaki, the woman in the center is from Kumamoto, and the two women at left are chums from Hokkaido, whale-chomping centers all. The woman dressed in the traditional chima chogori operates one of Ulsan’s 20 whale restaurants. (It’s not possible to give an accurate rendition of her name because it appeared only as Shin in katakana in Japanese.) In addition to her crimes against humanity by serving cannibal fare, she was also the food coordinator for the internationally successful South Korean television show Daejangeum, known in English as “Jewel in the Palace”. Here’s a summary of the program from the show’s website:

“The miniseries…is based on the story of a real historical figure (Jang-geum) who was the first and only woman to serve as head physician to the King in the rigidly hierarchical and male-dominated social structure of the Joseon Dynasty. Daejanggeum, in English, ‘the Great Jang-geum,’ caught the attention of Korean TV viewers with its unique combination of two themes: the successful rise of a female, which is rarely covered in historical genre, and the elements of traditional food and medicine.”

The series was very successful on cable in Japan, and it has been rebroadcast several times. One of the spin-offs was a cookbook featuring the dishes presented on the program, which the woman in the photo surely had a key role in compiling. The cookbook was also sold in Japan, though it probably contained no whale dishes.

Maybe it should have. The theme of the show was traditional food and medicine, and the red meat of the whale contains the dipeptide balenine, which some athletes now take in supplement form because it improves blood flow and restores resiliency to muscle after workouts.

The Ulsan — Kumamoto connection dates back to the late 16th century when Kato Kiyomasa, the first daimyo of the Kumamoto domain in Higonokuni, participated in Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasion of the Korean Peninsula. Kato built a castle in Ulsan (of which a few foundation stones remain) that became the model for the Kumamoto Castle, which he also built. The latter structure was finished in 1607, but most of it was torn down during the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. It has since been restored and is now a major tourist site.

Some workers from Ulsan helped build the Kumamoto version, and legend has it that the view from the hill on the southwest side of the castle reminded them of home. That’s how the district they spied later became known as Urusan-machi. The area is now part of Shin-machi after a municipal reorganization, but the Urusanmachi name survives as one of the Kumamoto City trolley stops:

Meanwhile, action on the Festivus Balaena front will shift to Japan later this summer, as the folks at the Sumiyoshi Taisha, a Shinto shrine in Sakai, Osaka, decided to revive their own whale festival. Both the facility and the event are as old as the hills, or perhaps in this case, as old as the waves. The shrine is celebrating its 1,800th anniversary this year, and it was already a millennium old when they began holding the whale festival, which dates from sometime in the Kamakura period. That ended in 1333.

The event has been held only sporadically since the Meiji Era (which began in 1868). Once upon a time, it was offered every 20 to 30 years. That’s unusual for Japanese festivals, most of which are annual affairs. This year’s revival, however, will be the first in 57 years. It is held in supplication for sea safety, and originated in a dance to placate the unhappy fisherman who came home empty-handed on whale-hunting expeditions. The Osakans thought it would be an excellent idea to bring it back as a way to help calm the waters after so many people died in the Tohoku tsunami this year. One of the advantages of such a long national history is that when something new is called for, it’s always possible to dive into the past and retrieve something old that most people didn’t know existed.

It’s been so long since the last time, however, that most everyone forgot how to do it. The Sakai municipal government worked with local historians to study photos and jog the memories of festival vets who were around during the last big blow in 1954. The main attraction is a 27-meter-long bamboo and cloth whale float, which is roomy enough for people inside to open and close the beast’s mouth, move its tail, and spurt water. Meanwhile, people alongside will chant the whale chant and dance the whale dance. Megafauna fans in Sakai will get to see all this on 24 July if they visit the shrine, and on 1 August when the leviathan is paraded from the shrine to the city.

Said one historian:

“I’m glad they’re bringing it back. Several generations now don’t know about the festival, but I want them to enjoy the vitality and spirit of fishermen of old.”

And while we’re on the subject of of big game hunting, some of the pretend buccaneer/junior ideologues of Sea Shepherd are in Japan to do what they do best — irritate the hell out of normal people — by traveling to Iwate to take photos of the dolphin hunt. Iwate’s local catch accounts for more than half of Japan’s dolphin and whale industry by tonnage. It is also one of the three prefectures most seriously damaged by March’s earthquake/tsunami. The Mainichi Daily News explains what happened:

“Earlier this month, the members took pictures of a fish market devastated by the disaster as well as fishing boats and posted the photos on the group’s website, triggering anger among some local fishermen over their return to the town.

“A local fisherman said, ‘Dolphin hunting is not done in May. Many boats were swept away due to the quake and tsunami, and the fish market is also in a terrible condition. There is nothing left to take pictures of.’”

We shouldn’t be too harsh on the swabbies — you know they’re determined not to be happy unless they can be really unhappy about whaling or dolphining. If they had something productive to do with their lives, they’d already be doing it. After all, it takes more than a few degrees of eccentric warp to think one is doing the world a favor by getting in the way while the people who suffered one of history’s greatest natural disasters are trying to rebuild their lives and homes.

If it’s pictures they want, I can’t help them with dolphins, but I could send them the link to the Japanese site promoting whale cuisine where I swiped the photos above. All they have to do is ask.


It was entertaining to re-read the comments on my old post to which I linked above. It’s curious how some people aren’t happy unless they aren’t happy that other people are happy about living in Japan.

The Sea Shepherd recruiting song

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Posted in Festivals, Food, Foreigners in Japan, Japanese-Korean amity, South Korea, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , | 45 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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It’s a sin to tell a lie

Posted by ampontan on Friday, July 9, 2010

THOMAS SOWELL’S description of a scam that that been run repeatedly by Democrats in Washington, D.C. makes one wonder if the Democrats in Tokyo are taking lessons:

Democrats start spending money wildly, handing out goodies to a wide range of people who they want to vote for them, while Republicans complain about deficits and the national debt. Then, when the public becomes alarmed about the debts that are piling up, the Democrats get the Republicans to vote for higher taxes to deal with the debt crisis, in the name of “fiscal responsibility.”

Sometimes the deal is sweetened by the Democrats promising to make spending cuts if the Republicans vote for higher taxes, so that there can be one of those “bipartisan” solutions so beloved by the media. But, after the Republicans vote for the tax increases, and come running up to find the spending cuts, the Democrats snatch away the spending cuts and the Republicans fall right on their backsides…

Republicans are not the only suckers in this game. The voting public’s willingness to believe fancy rhetoric and ignore hard facts is a crucial part of this scam.

Meanwhile, the Tokyo Democrats are playing their own game by leading the cheers for increases of both the consumption tax and the income tax for “fiscal reconstruction” to prevent Japan from applying the Grecian formula. They’ve turned their superficial effort at spending cuts into a dog-and-pony show for television with easy-on-the-eye Ren Ho as one of the MCs. She’s a first-term upper house member whose primary employment before election was as a model and television presenter.

The primary difference in the comparison between the big D Democrats is that, other than during the Koizumi/Abe era, the Liberal Democratic Party is just as complicit as the Dems. The latter have even gotten the LDP on board for a 10% consumption tax increase, showing that the party still thinks mudboats can float. Maybe they should just consider removing the Liberal from their name and removing any doubts. The only political opposition is coming from the Koizumians, the “rising tide” LDP wing led by Nakagawa Hidenao, and, to a certain extent, Your Party.

It doesn’t take much looking to see what will wind up happening. The fiscal policies being pushed by the DPJ and their dead certain/dead wrong economists such as Ono Yoshiyasu will take a pratfall of their own. And as sure as God made little green ume, that will provoke calls for more government spending because it just wasn’t enough the first/second/third time. The usual suspects in the U.S. are already banging their golden goblets on the sidewalk for a third stimulus, despite the failure of the first two and the encroaching penumbra of a double-dip recession. The only employment saved has been in the public sector, and chances are excellent that’s how it will shake down in Japan too.

How difficult can it be to realize that the solution is to STOP SPENDING, and that the first trees to which the fiscal foresters should apply their chain saws are in the deep woods of the public sector? But how difficult can it be to realize that the DPJ’s ties with public sector unions guarantee those forests will remain virgin? In the party’s manifesto, the DPJ promised to reduce national public employee personnel expenses by 20%. (Insert canned laughter.)

It’s a sin to tell a lie

DPJ Secretary-General Edano Yukio recently tried to defend the party by saying they had very few ties to national public sector employee unions. Mr. Edano claimed most were affiliated with Japan’s Communist Party. The secretary-general is an attorney, by the way, and we all know how closely attorneys-turned-pols adhere to the truth.

The Reds got upset, even though Kokko Roren, a public sector union with 110,000 members affiliated with Zenroren, the National Confederation of Trade Unions, does have unofficial ties with the JCP. Some of the senior executives in the union are party members, and the membership is tacitly encouraged to vote Communist. But both the JCP and the Zenroren demanded a retraction because they have no official affiliation—unlike the ties between the DPJ and Rengo, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation.

One has to wonder if Mr. Edano has a problem with short-term memory loss. On the Japanese-language part of the DPJ website, there is (or was until recently) a report of Mr. Edano’s visit to Rengo headquarters just a fortnight before the bickering began. They signed an agreement pledging member support for the DPJ in the upper house election.

Mr. Edano gave a speech in which he thanked the group for its backing, offered the Japanese version of the global soc-dem boilerplate, and pledged to create with the group a society where people can work with peace of mind. Whenever a politician says that to a union with public sector employees, he means he promises to make it next to impossible to lay them off.

Meanwhile, Rengo Chairman Koga Nobuaki said:

Everyone recognizes that you have achieved a change of government and we have started to create a new society. We must not stop the trend toward creating a new society. Indeed, we must not allow the hands of the clock to be turned back.

Let’s put aside the fact that the new society they envision would require turning back the hands of the clock to a tired old era that was remarkable for its lack of success and superfluity of unproductiveness, and look at which unions are affiliated with Rengo. As you can see from this list on their English page, the affiliates include Jichiro (The All-Japan Prefectural and Municipal Workers Union), Nikkyoso (The Japan Teachers’ Union), JPGU (The Japan Postal Group Union—is the DPJ’s stance on Japan Post privatization starting to make sense?), NHK Roren (The Federation of All-NHK Labor Unions), and Zen Insatsu, (All Printing Bureau Labor Union, for workers at the National Printing Bureau, which the Abe administration wanted to privatize. It was returned to direct governmental control during the first Ren Ho dog and pony show).

That’s a lot of public sector unions, but still no “national” public sector unions—until we get to the 120,000-member strong Kokko Rengo (Japan Public Sector Union).

So, who’s in Kokko Rengo?

Their Japanese-language website says it has several members. First on the list is the Kokko Soren, or the Japan General Federation of National Public Service Employees’ Unions, which itself consists of five unions:

1. Zennorin, the labor union for non-management personnel of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (including independent administrative corporations, i.e., the entities where retired bureaucrats slide into amakudari jobs)

2. Zenkaihatsu, the labor union for employees of the Hokkaido Regional Development Bureau of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport

3. Zaimu Shokuso, the labor union for employees of the Finance Ministry

4. Zenzaimu, local finance bureau employees in the Finance Ministry

5. Okinawa Kokkoro, a union for national government workers in agencies and independent administrative corporations in Okinawa

It’s also affiliated with:

  • The Japanese Confederation of National Tax Unions for regional bureaus of the National Tax Agency
  • The Labor Federation of Government Related Organizations, which represent and organize 27,500 members of 67 affiliated trade unions. The members work in special public corporations, incorporated administrative agencies, foundations and other non-profit organizations.
  • Zenchuro, the All-Japan Garrison Forces Union, for workers at American military installations
  • The Japan Customs Personnel Labor Union (which for some reason has a photo of an attractive beach on its website)
  • The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport Office Workers’ Union
  • With observer status: Kokkai Shokuren, consisting of three unions for employees at the Diet and the Diet library

Will the Democratic Party of Japan actually come up with serious reforms for public sector employment and cut government expenditures?

Will Edano Yukio ever come clean?

When shrimp learn to whistle.


There are plenty of low hanging branches ready to cut even for the amateur woodsman. For example, legislators at both the national and sub-national level receive public funds to conduct policy research, separate from their salaries and office expenses. They are required to return the unused portion each year, but they’ve been so assiduous in researching policy matters the governments never got much back.

Last year, however, Kumamoto began requiring prefectural legislators to provide receipts for all expenditures of the policy research funds. The prefectural government recently disclosed its income and expenditure report for FY 2009, and it turns out that the unused portion of the funds returned last year was 86 times the amount of the previous year. That’s got Fukuoka Prefecture mulling a similar measure. Let’s hope it just wasn’t a down year for policy study.

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Government, Politics | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Out of the gate

Posted by ampontan on Friday, April 30, 2010

WHERE WOULD a South Korean jockey of modest abilities go to improve his professional techniques?

Bak Jae-ho came to Japan.

Though he started racing in 2003, the 31-year-old jockey has chalked up a career record of only 37 wins in 684 professional races. With just three wins on 110 mounts last year, he decided to come to the Arao Racecourse in Arao, Kumamoto, for special training.

Mr. Bak was inspired to choose Arao after watching well-known Japanese jockey Nishimura Eiki beat the field by several lengths in an October 2008 race in South Korea. The Japanese jockey, who races frequently in South Korea, recommended that he hone his skills in Kumamoto. After receiving a three-month racing license, Mr. Bak hopped across the Korean Strait with his wife and son. Japan’s National Association of Racing says he is the first South Korean jockey to obtain a short-term license to race continuously in this country.

Said Mr. Bak, who usually works at the Busan Gyeongnam Race Park:

“Horse racing is extremely popular in South Korea right now. I wanted to learn the superior jockey techniques in Japan….I want to become as good as Japanese jockeys.”

One reason for the sport’s popularity on the Peninsula is that the government-operated tracks allow legal gambling. The fans started to attend in greater numbers when a new track was built in Seoul about 20 years ago.

Racing is also more lucrative for the winners in Korea than in Japan. The purses for single races can be as much as KRW 35 million, the Nishinippon Shimbun reports, or JPY 3 million (about $US 32,000). That’s about 10 times more than at Japanese regional tracks. No wonder South Korean jockeys spend their time at home—or that Mr. Nishimura worked about seven months in Busan last year.

Neither is the sport as profitable in Japan, and regional tracks are in the midst of a slump. Arao was once popular among people working in the local coal industry, but the mines closed and the workers have either moved on or can’t afford a ticket at the pari-mutuel window. The track was JPY 1.35 billion in the hole as of March 2009, and there’s talk of closing it down.

Bak Je-ho was scheduled to run his first race at Arao yesterday, but the absence of any news reports on the results suggests his nag finished out of the money again. That might soon change, however. Mr. Bak reportedly gets up at 3:00 a.m. every day to practice. Dedication of that sort is bound to pay dividends sooner or later.

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