Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Saga’

All you have to do is look (127)

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A group of 33 figurines of the Buddha in Ushizu, Saga, dating from the Edo period. I could not find an explanation for the bibs.

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All you have to do is look (98)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, November 5, 2012

Scenes from the Karatsu Kunchi, a three-day festival in Saga that ended yesterday. Men dressed as firefighters during the Edo period pull 14 floats through the city streets to the accompaniment of flutes, drums, and chants of Enya! (Those floats are lacquered and date from the 19th century.) They all end up arranged for display at the same spot. I went to see it my first year in Japan. The ground at that plot is sandy — Karatsu is on the Sea of Japan — and it’s not easy to maneuver those floats on it.

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All you have to do is look (95)

Posted by ampontan on Friday, November 2, 2012

Two miko advertise the start of a morning market on the second and fourth Sundays of the month on Shinbaba-dori in front of the Matsubara Shinto shrine in Saga. It was a bustling shopping district before the war. It’s a 10-minute walk from my house.

Photo from Saga Shimbun

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All you have to do is look (63)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Hizen Tanuki Odori, a dance performed at a festival in Kashima, Saga, on the 25th as a thanks for the fall harvest. They’re wearing raccoon masks and have squash gourds suspended between their legs. It is supposed to represent a legendary battle between a raccoon and a fox over the ownership rights to a hot spring. The performance is said to be about 500 years old.

The photo is from the GID Grandma Yumi Living website.

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All you have to do is look (28)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 25, 2012

The O-bon aquatic tug-of-war in Karatsu, Saga, last week. The rope is 35 meters long and 40 centimeters thick. There was also a smaller scale event for 100 children.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi came up with the idea during his brief stay at the Nagoya Castle in what is now Saga. It was both a diversion for the troops and an event to commemorate O-bon.

The photo is from the Saga Shimbun and the video is from the Asahi Shimbun. At the end of the video, a man sighs, “Ah, three straight losses.”

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All you have to do is look (14)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 11, 2012

The front gate of Kashima High School, in Kashima, Saga.

There has been an educational institution on this site since 1669. Kashima High considers its own origins to be a school founded under a different educational system in 1896.

Yesterday it was the site of the 7th Prefectural English Debate Contest, in which teams of high school students debated a proposition in English. (I was one of the judges.)

Imagine your high school self participating in a formal debate in a foreign language. I can’t. Yet all of the students in this largely rural prefecture conducted themselves superbly. As one of the other judges commented after watching one debate, “both of those teams were so good they could have beaten us.”

Posted in Education, Photographs and videos | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

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 »

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 »

Let the fun and games begin

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, July 28, 2010

THERE’S ALWAYS room for more fun in the world, and you can count on the Japanese to be on the lookout for ways to contribute to the world’s fun balance. In particular, they seem to have a flair for employing everyday items to modify existing games or to create new ones. For example, here’s a post about yacurling, played indoors with a traditional kettle instead of on ice with a stone. This one’s about bowling using squash (the vegetables) instead of tenpins and a ball.

Poster for an event at the Makkari spa in Hokkaido

Now here’s one more: Slipper ping pong, in which house slippers are substituted for the rackets. There’s no shortage of potential Japanese racketeers; one report claims there are 50 million fans around the country. In fact, the world championships of slipper ping pong are held every year in Kahoku-cho, Yamagata.

Yeah, I hadn’t heard about it, either.

The folks in Kahoku-cho decided to host the competition because it’s the municipality with the highest slipper production in Japan. Considering that everyone removes their shoes before entering homes and some buildings here, there are sure to be plenty of rackets at hand. They launched the event as a national championship in 1997, but upgraded it to a world championship in 2004. That was more nominal than real in those days because it took a few years before anyone not Japanese showed up to play. Since then, however, they’ve had participants from China, India, and South Korea.

Most of the players in the Kahoku-cho world championships use slippers and balls that are larger than normal. Ordinary house slippers are fine, but participants can’t use official slipper rackets for other tournaments, slippers made with special materials, or slippers with open toes. Otherwise, the rules of the game are the same. There are two entry requirements—you have to be at least of junior high school age, and you can’t consider yourself to be good at ping pong.

The sport has an estimated 50 million fans, so of course this isn’t the only event of its type. Earlier this year the PTAs of the Higashinakasuji primary school and junior high school in Shimanto, Kochi, held a competition using regulation school slippers. The schools conduct a joint annual sports festival for the students, so the idea was to get the teachers and the parents on the same page. They recruited 12 teams of three persons each—two parents and one teacher.

Said the PTA chairman when it was over:

We were worried no one would think it was fun, but everyone got more excited than we thought. We want to do it again next year.

They surely will, too. Another slipper ping pong tournament was held recently in Ureshino, Saga, as a charity event to raise funds for the Miyazaki cattle and pig farmers devastated by the recent foot and mouth epidemic. (The final restrictions on unnecessary travel in the prefecture were finally lifted this week, and a local JA official said it would take the livestock industry eight years to recover.) Ureshino is a hot springs town, and the restaurants at the local resorts use Saga beef, which comes from cows that were used to breed most of the Miyazaki beef cattle. It cost JPY 100 yen to enter, and the losers chipped in JPY 500. The matches themselves must have proceeded smartly, because all it took to win was five points.

Nakazono Shoichi from Oita said:

Instead of it being just an event to raise money, it was better to be able to have a good time and contribute money at the same time.

It’s curious that Mr. Nakazono came to Ureshino from Oita, by the way, because the hot spring resorts are much better where he lives. It’s a bit of a variation on the old expression about carrying coals to Newcastle, except that Mr. Nakazono left Newcastle to look for coals.

Chabudai kaeshi

Chabudai kaeshi means “overturning the tea table”, and Japan holds the world championships in this event too, at the shopping mall Aruco in Yahaba-cho, Iwate. This year’s showdown was held at the end of June.

Here’s how it works. A small tea table is set on a goza, or straw mat, and a tea service is placed on top. A woman seated next to the contestant gives a signal by saying, “Anata, yamete.” (Stop it, dear.) The contestant then reaches underneath the table and flips it while shouting his own response. Officials measure how far the teacups fly, and the person who sends them the farthest is the winner. The world’s record of 9.20 meters was set at last year’s contest. It might not be as easy as it seems, however, as one of the contestants managed only a two-centimeter shot this year. Among the prizes taken home by the winner is a gold-colored tea table.

Chabudai kaeshi

The contest was started by local merchants to promote the sale of agricultural products, but media coverage elicited national interest. Participating is easy—all you have to do is walk up and apply by the time the competition starts. The rules, however, are strict. The contestants must use an “official” tea table, and they have to flip the table from a seated position on the goza. If the table itself flies off the goza, it’s a foul. People may say whatever they like when they sling the table, with the exception of anything “in violation of world peace”.

One married couple seems to have used it to let off a little domestic steam. The woman yelled, “You tricked me, gaining 20 kilos since we got married seven years ago!” (She probably didn’t finish before the teacups hit the ground.) Her husband’s yell: “Cook some more food.”

There were 29 contestants this year, and the winner was an English teacher in Gumma named Marcus Smith, whose flip sent the dishes flying more than eight meters. He shouted, “I don’t know what the rest of you are saying.”

He didn’t see what the rest of them were doing, either, because he wore his shoes on the goza until someone pointed it out to him.

Now to the tape! The first is the Saga television station’s report on the Ureshino event, and the second is Marcus Smith in action in Iwate. Previous events were held outdoors, but the weather must have been bad this year. Also, while the Japanese reports say the table isn’t supposed to leave the goza, it clearly does on his winning shot.

First, slipper ping pong.

Second, chabudai kaeshi.

Wouldn’t you want to try these at least once? I sure would!

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Posted in Foreigners in Japan, I couldn't make this up if I tried, Popular culture, Sports | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »


Posted by ampontan on Monday, March 15, 2010

HAS THERE EVER been a time when little girls didn’t play with dolls? In Japan, little girls have been playing with paper dolls since at least the Heian period, which began more than 1200 years ago.

Somewhere along the way, that diversion was combined with an old Chinese purifactory rite held along rivers in the third lunar month. People exorcised their impurities by transferring them to paper images and casting them on the waters. Those paper images were called katashiro in Japan.

Early in the Edo period, which began more than 400 years ago, people started displaying three-dimensional versions of these dolls in the home. As the custom became more widespread, the dolls and the displays grew more elaborate, and it became traditional to place a full set of figures consisting of an emperor, empress, attendants, and musicians on several tiers for Girls’ Day, which is 3 March.

That custom eventually became a part of every girl’s life. Parents gave a set to girls when they were born, or on their first birthday, and the girls took them to their new home when they got married.

Little girls and big girls both still play with the dolls. Here’s a look at this year’s Hina events from several perspectives.


The Tomisaki Shinto shrine in Katsuura, Chiba puts on a really biggu show every year for its Biggu Hina Matsuri, and it gives everyone a preview by displaying 1,200 dolls on a 60-tiered platform for the 60 stone steps leading to the shrine torii. Katsuura seems to have become something of a Hina Central. There’s a Shinto ceremony to pray for the success of the festival, and the miko, or shrine maidens, perform dances. Students at the International Budo (Martial Arts) University—an accredited school—gave a naginata demonstration.

The city’s main Hina Matsuri, or doll festival, was held from 26 February to 6 March and featured 25,000 dolls in nine locations. One local primary school had an exhibit of 1,366 folk dolls from 84 countries. The city also exhibited Japan’s biggu-est hina doll, which is a towering 120 centimeters tall, or just a skoche shy of four feet. It should be no surprise that the festival is a biggu deal for the city’s merchants—it attracts more than 150,000 people every year.

Those stone steps are 15 meters high and two meters wide, by the way. It took 20 people 90 minutes to set up the display, and boy that was fast work.


The hina season is the peak period for Kuroda Hiroshi and his wife Katsumi of Koshigaya, Saitama, who work together to make traditional crafts. Mr. and Mrs. Kuroda make full sets of hina dolls by hand. One set costs from JPY 150,000 to JPY 230,000 (about $US 2,540). That’s expensive, but customers are paying for handmade craftsmanship and a unique product. Said Mr. Kuroda, “I’ve been doing this with my wife ever since we got married. If one of us were lacking, we couldn’t make good products.” He says the most popular sets now are the smaller ones with dolls from 15 to 20 centimeters high (just shy of eight inches), perhaps as a result of the economic downturn.


Arita-cho in Saga has been one of Japan’s leading porcelain and ceramics centers since the late 16th century. They’ve had plenty of experience creating elaborate and elegant works of porcelain art, particularly during the 18th century, when European nobility went into a continent-wide collectors’ frenzy and spent enormous sums on their products. It stands to reason they’ve got their fingers in this pie too.

The Arita Hina Ceramics festival began last month, and the big draw was the display of porcelain hina dolls from kilns in three countries at the municipal offices on the 28th. The kilns represented were the heavy hitters in the world’s porcelain industry. From left to right: Lladro of Spain, Kakiemon of Arita-cho, and Meissen of Germany. That’s Arita’s chief municipal officer giving the glad eye to the Spanish team. Porcelain folk were particularly intrigued by comparisons of the three companies’ distinctive use of color.

The Kakiemon and Meissen kilns have been around for centuries, but Lladro is a relative baby doll, established in 1950. It didn’t take them long to become the world’s leading porcelain doll manufacturer, however. Aficionados cite their use of color and curves as the factors that set them apart. Their price sets them apart as well. A set of two dolls sells for JPY 1.05 million, or roughly $US 11,590.

Some people sigh at their beauty. Others sigh at the price.

Living dolls

Boys generally aren’t interested in this sort of thing—it is Girl’s Day, after all—and besides, guys are more likely to sigh over living dolls than the porcelain variety.

That’s why the favorite doll event for manly men was in Higashiomi, Shiga, last week, when three young women from the Tankai Calligraphy Culture Vocational School dressed up as Hina doll attendants. They even served visitors shirozake (white sake, made with rice malt and sake), a beverage traditionally consumed at these celebrations, and posed for photos. I’ve never had shirozake, but if they want to pour, I’ve got a cup to bring.

The event was called the Human Hina Festival, and it was the centerpiece of a larger local festival that will last until the 28th. This year’s festival is the 13th. The students appeared as living dolls two days running, for two hours each. Said 20-year-old Kato Mako, one of the human hinas, “It was difficult because my feet went numb, but a lot of people took my picture, so it was a good experience.”

Being a doll must be harder work than it looks!

I mentioned last week that some Japanese still believe inanimate objects have spirits, and that also applies to the hina. It just doesn’t feel right to dump them in the trash if they’re no longer wanted or needed. It’s worth clicking the link to find out the solution some people have devised.

And yes, the Tankai Calligraphy Culture Vocational School has a website, though it’s in Japanese only. You don’t have to read Japanese to appreciate their calligraphy gallery, however.

Posted in Arts, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The bogus and the bona fide (2)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 27, 2010

ONLY MAD DOGS and Englishmen venture into India’s noonday sun, it was once said, and the same could apply to Japan in August. Though neither a mad dog nor an Englishman, I was walking on the sunny side of Saga City’s main street early one Saturday afternoon in August 2007 when I heard the echoes of loud and frenzied drumming come thundering down the block.

The Ushikko

Encountering the unexpected is one of the delights of life in Japan, but the time, the place, and the combination of Japanese taiko and African rhythms meant that whatever was going on was not a matter of daily tea and rice, as they say here.

In the middle of that block is a plaza built into an open area occupying the space of about three or four shops. There’s a small stage at the rear, faced by a few benches and surrounded by some trees and shrubbery. On the stage that day were about 10 teenaged girls dressed in matching black t-shirts and shorts and performing synchronized dances while whaling away at the drums.

And boy, did they have rhythm.

Their audience numbered only a few more people than were in the group itself, and their performance ended about 15 minutes after I arrived. Still full of energy, the girls bounced off the stage, toweled off the sweat, and began packing up their gear. After striking up a conversation with one of them and an accompanying adult, I discovered they were part of an informal group from Ushizu High School in Ogi, Saga, that called themselves the Ushikko (牛っ娘, or cowgirls). In addition to the Japanese taiko, they were also playing the djembe from Guinea.

Saga City is a No-Shinkansen Sticksville of 180,000 in Kyushu, Ogi is a town in the outer suburbs that doesn’t even have express train service, and Ushizu is on the outskirts of Ogi. But someone else’s preconceived notions about life in the provinces didn’t stop a few local teenaged girls from creating a Japanese-Guinean drum fusion and giving free performances in a near-deserted downtown street on a hot summer Saturday.

The club was founded informally by a group of friends in 2003, and their dedication and novelty made them a popular attraction at local events. They’ve appeared during halftime of a soccer match on the home ground of Sagan Tosu, a second division J League team, and performed at the national presentation and concert of the New Life Adventure organization.

The Ushikko were recognized as an official school club in 2008, and it now has 31 members. Since I saw them in 2007, they’ve deemphasized the taiko rhythms to focus on Guinean drumming. They’ve also learned some of the language of that West African country to use as vocalizations and shouts of encouragement as they perform.

What inspires them? Outgoing group leader Ogata Kana told the Nishinippon Shimbun:

“I get carried away by the rhythms, and I feel refreshed in spirit when the performance is over.”

Said school faculty advisor Uematsu Atsuko:

“The students are passionate and practice with great enthusiasm. I’ve never seen students enjoy their club activities so much.”

Even with the greatest of passion and enthusiasm, it still would be difficult for small town girls to overcome the obstacles to learning and mastering a cultural tradition from a country on the other side of the world. They don’t have proper teachers, for a start. Their only instruction comes from clerks at a Kumamoto music shop that sells djembe, who visit three times a year to give lessons.

It’s difficult…but not impossible. The girls caught a break when they were filmed for a segment of a Kyushu regional television program profiling people and events of interest. Oyama Nobuo, the chief municipal officer of Mishima-mura in Kagoshima, caught the program by chance at home.

The story of Mishima-mura is as fascinating as that of the Ushikko. Classified as a village for administrative purposes, it actually consists of three small islands with a combined population of 4,000 in the East China Sea 100 kilometers from Kagoshima Prefecture. The name Mishima literally means “three islands”, which in this case are Kuroshima, Takeshima (no, not that one), and Iojima (or Iwojima, and no, not that one either).

Jamming with the Mishimanians

Despite their size and remote location, the islands are the place to go in Northeast Asia to learn about the djembe. Famed Guinean performer Mamady Keita visited about 15 years ago, which inspired the locals to start drumming themselves. They enjoyed it so much they started the first djembe school in Asia. It’s operated by Tokuda Ken’ichiro, whom Keita personally authorized as a teacher. He makes the trip from Guinea about once a year to help with their drumming and have a high old time with the Mishimanians.

Mr. Oyama was so moved by what he saw on the TV program that he mailed the Ushikko some instructional DVDs produced by the Mishima-mura school. In appreciation, the girls sent him a video letter with scenes from their practice. That prompted both him and Mr. Tokuda to visit the girls in Ogi for some hands-on instruction and a jam session.

Said Mr. Oyama:

“They have fun when they’re playing. The animated expressions on their faces are wonderful.”

That became the starting point for the Ogi-Mishima djembe exchange. The mayor invited the Ushikko to the islands and take lessons at the school. The national government helped with their travel expenses, the village provided the food and lodging, and the girls sailed off for five days of drumming and island fun when the fall term at school ended a month ago.

The officials at Ushizu High School agreed to let the girls make the trip on the condition that they practice as much as possible. That’s why the girls put in five hours of work a day, which impressed Mr. Oyama even further—hands get swollen after five hours of drumming.

At least they didn’t have to worry about finding a way to stay warm in mid-December!

Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends, and finally you do it for money.
– Molière

The criticism seems to be getting to Lisa Katayama. She sat right down and wrote herself a letter, and made believe it was addressed to you.

Ms. Katayama has made a name for herself, such as it is, by further cluttering the pop kultursmog with articles about the weirdness of Japan and the Japanese. Her pieces run in the outlets that pander to the tastes of those who swallow whole every eccentric aspect of Japan the infotainment media can dish up. Her audience consists of the sort of people who would find an excuse to convince themselves that half-chewed bubble gum in a museum vitrine is the ultimate in hip, postmodern irony. Indeed, the first paragraph of this letter to herself contains a favorable reference to a “beautiful” book about “fetish restaurants”.

She’s also developed an anti-audience of people who know a thing or two about the real Japan and wonder why she would purposely hold up the country she calls her “motherland” to the ridicule of the English-speaking world.

The letter Ms. Katayama wrote to herself was given the title, Why It’s Time to Lighten Up about “Weird” Japan. Why does she do what she does? Why is she so anxious to defend herself by ordering the rest of us to lighten up?

To make a short story even shorter, it’s because she, like Molière and the prostitutes, makes money out of it.

Oh, that’s not what she says. Oh, no. Heavens to Betsy. That’s not her intention at all. In fact, she would have us believe it’s “deeply personal” when someone criticizes Japan or her view of it. (More of the latter than the former, I suspect.)

“It’s most important to remember that it’s all in good fun. The way I see it, Japanese popular culture is like abstract art.”

The comparison to abstract art provides her with a cheap excuse for getting away with anything she wants. It has the added advantage of appealing to the soi-disant cultural elitists who pretend they really understand and appreciate abstract art.

“Both involve many components that can be interpreted in many ways. If you ask the artist what it means, he might say, ‘What do you think it means?’”

That provides two more cheap avenues of escape. One rescues the artist from having to do any heavy lifting to find the Deep Meaning himself. The other allows him to play it coy without offering an explanation that the cultural critics would gum to death and the rest of us would laugh at.

“And whatever meaning you attach to it is more a reflection of who you are than the composition of the art itself.”

How convenient for her: If you don’t like what she does, that’s your problem.

She even goes so far as to say:

“…none of this is meant to be taken seriously.”

Enough of the crap. She’s not fooling anyone but herself, and I doubt she’s even accomplished that. It’s obvious she takes it very seriously, for pecuniary reasons, if nothing else. She gets paid for providing product on order tailored to outlets such as Boing-Boing, where this lame lament appeared, knowing exactly why they ordered it. One look at the name of that publication and everybody knows what’s going down.

But when she’s called out by people who know as much—if not more—about this country than she does, she mounts the high horse and claims that she “strives to tell each story objectively without condescension or sensationalism.”

The mere fact that she goes out of her way to write and sell these stories is intrinsic condescension and sensationalism.

“I get hundreds of racially-charged comments from readers, long ranting responses from defenders of Japanese culture, and dozens of emails from people at big media outlets who want to find out more about these ‘strange’ phenomena.”

How novel to find someone who still thinks that big media outlets, the smokestack industry of the information age, set the standard for worthwhile journalism.

She also gets more than racially charged comments and long ranting responses. She got this previous post from me when she wrote about one man’s silly seduction techniques for Wired magazine. It was neither racially charged nor a rant. Instead, I pointed out that the article displayed the typical myopia of the anti-Nipponistic basher/mockers. This cool clique exaggerates some strange behavior in this country while overlooking the same strange behavior in their own backyard. Most of the time, that behavior is much more extreme than that of the Japanese.

In this case, Ms. Katayama found a man (with “beady eyes”) who peddles his techniques in Japan, yet she ignores–or is ignorant of–the fact that sales of seduction techniques is now a big business in America. There the “techniques” are even more unusual, such as the use of so-called neuro-linguistic programming, black fingernail polish, and their own insider jargon. Boing!

The reason she knew my post wasn’t a racially charged comment or a rant was because she wrote in to protest that she didn’t really mean to present the story as weird, honest, it was just those anonymous meanies who wrote the headlines at Wired.

Her self-justification continues:

“I went back home, honed my story-finding skills, and launched my own blog…”

All that’s required to hone one’s story-finding skills for this type of story is to go slumming at the trashy end of the convenience store magazine racks and to watch more daytime television.

“I got major Japan-related assignments from magazines, consulting gigs from print and radio outlets, and a book deal. It was really strange for me, because all I thought I was doing was telling people about the place I came from.”

Funny, isn’t it, that so many people in Japan don’t recognize this “place you come from”. Why is it that her work generates such a negative reaction? Is it because her gig is making a buck by pleasing one of the lesser common denominators? Is it because she indulges a narrative that she pretends is about this thing of the Western imagination called “Japan”, but is really about a few cherry-picked subcultures and misfits in the larger cities?

“One thing was clear: Weird Japan sells. “

One more thing was clear: She’s not the first to realize there’s good money to be made by selling out. People with real talent have been doing it long before she stumbled over the idea.

Is she old enough to recognize the name of Werner Klemperer? He was the son of conductor Otto Klemperer and soprano Johanna Geisler. Klemperer was both a violinist and a concert pianist, and he performed as an operatic baritone and a singer in Broadway musicals. He appeared in the Hitchcock movie Wrong Man and was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in the 1987 Broadway revival of Cabaret. His 1981 role as Prince Orlofsky in Seattle Opera’s production of Die Fledermaus was well received by critics and the public alike. He was the narrator on a recording by the Boston Symphony of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, which won a Grammy. He also served as the director and president of the nonprofit Young Musicians Foundation of Los Angeles, and was a vice president of Actors Equity.

Most people wouldn’t recognize him from that career synopsis. They know him only from his role as the bumbling Nazi prison camp commandant Col. Klink in the American TV series Hogan’s Heroes.

Klemperer, who was Jewish, eased his conscience by insisting that his character be portrayed as a fool in every episode. Lisa Katayama eases hers by making believe she’s doing serious journalism about her homeland that isn’t condescending or sensationalist.

She concludes with this oddly worded sentence:

“I think we’d all understand Japan a little better if we made a commitment to roll with it.”

I think we’d all understand Japan a little better if Lisa Katayama found something else to write about.

Shortly after Ms. Katayama’ s Boing-Boing whinge appeared, she wrote a blog post for the same publication that makes me wonder if calling her to account is like getting upset at a child who wets his pants on a long car trip. This time the post wasn’t about Japan:

“I went on a trip to northern India to see the Dalai Lama. I traveled with a lawyer, a politician, a publicist, and a translator. While we were there, we met a bunch of kids who lived with no electricity but told us that, when they grew up, they all wanted to be computer scientists. So we whipped out our cameras and iPods — the closest things we had on hand to real computers — and showed them how technology works….Later, I found out that one of my travel mates thought what we had done was cruel. We had seduced these poor kids with luxuries they will probably never be able to afford, and sullied their pure, technology-free lives with the temptation of electronics.”

Her travel mates were a lawyer, a politician, a publicist, and a translator. I’d bet cash money the one who cried cruelty and thought being electronica-free equaled purity was one of the first three. They’re the ones in that group who can make a handsome living on hot air without having to worry about being real.

“So who’s right? Did we ruin these kids for life or give them hopes for a better future? Does it not matter? Is there even a right answer to this question?”

Where are the snows of yesteryear? And what is reality? So many questions that Lisa Katayama can’t answer.

Of course there’s a right answer to this question, which needn’t be asked to begin with.

Of course you show them the iPods. You show them every iPod function you can possibly think of. You let them handle the iPods themselves for as long as time permits. It’s never cruel to inspire a child. That’s exactly how adults are supposed to interact with children.

Asking these questions is like asking if it would be cruel to show a book to illiterates who want to learn how to read.

How odd that these city folk could be so provincial. How strange that the sophisticated white collar professionals could be so small-minded and elitist. How inexcusable, considering that Ms. Katayama grew up in Japan, where people often talk about the importance of “giving dreams” to children.

Children everywhere, and especially in the Third World, need all the inspiration they can get. I’m sure the teenaged Ushikko could have answered her questions correctly without a moment’s hesitation.

Meanwhile, the world will somehow manage to muddle through without yet another article about the Dalai Lama.

Hiding the iPods from those children would be like telling the Ushikko or the handful of villagers on three remote and tiny Asian islands not to bother learning to play the djembe. It’s unlikely they’ll ever be as skillful as Mamady Keita.

Then again, Mamady Keita doesn’t think it’s cruel to come halfway around the world once a year for 15 years to teach and have fun with the folks in Mishima-mura.

If answering those questions presents a dilemma for her, if she thinks it might have “ruined these children for life”, one wonders just how much of life she’s missing—and why she thinks she’s doing anyone any favors by writing about Japan for the English-speaking world.

Meanwhile the Ushikko and the Mishimanians are having a grand time playing the drums and learning a lot about themselves, the world, and life in the bargain.

Do you think this article is cruel and unfair?

Make a commitment to roll with it.


There are no YouTube presentations of the Ushikko—I’m going to have to call their school advisor—but there was a seven-minute film of a small group in Mishima-mura having a ton of fun combining a performance with a children’s art project. Here it is:

Here’s another video showing part of the Mishima-mura djembe school graduation ceremony. The first part consists of traditional Japanese music and dance, which should give you an idea why learning the djembe wouldn’t be so strange for them at all. Though the islands are officially part of Kagoshima, the whistling is very Okinawan. (You may want to stop halfway through when the speeches start.)

While we’re at it, check out the New Life Adventure website, which is worth a quick glance even if you don’t understand Japanese. It’s a part of Japan that Lisa Katayama, the Boing-Boing culture mavens, and the FCCJ barflies don’t know about. I doubt they’d be interested even if they did.

And Mishima-mura has its own website, also in Japanese only.

Posted in Arts, Music, Popular culture | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The bogus and the bona fide

Posted by ampontan on Friday, January 8, 2010

I have a sense of mission; that is to serve as a medium in the transient space between life and death conveying the ideas of our ancestors to the people of the future.
– Kitahara Kanako

DURING HER FIRST WEEK at Waseda University, Kitahara Kanako wandered around campus in search of an extracurricular club that she might like to join. A natural performer, she gravitated toward groups devoted to the arts, particularly music, dance, and drama. On one of her scouting expeditions, she was intrigued by the sounds coming from the assembly room for the traditional Japanese music group. After she spent a few minutes listening and watching, the club members encouraged her to try the Satsuma biwa, a stringed instrument related to the Middle Eastern barbat (the ancestor of the oud) by way of the Chinese pipa.

The biwa arrived in Japan during the eighth century. One of several varieties, the Satsuma biwa has four or five strings and frets raised four centimeters from the neck to allow the bending of notes. It was popularized in the late 16th century by the family of the feudal lords of the Satsuma domain, which is now Kagoshima. The musicians perform while seated and hold the instrument vertically, resting on the lap. They sound the strings with a large, triangular plectrum that has a curved end for grasping. Traditional Satsuma biwa performers were minstrels who used the instruments to accompany their singing.

As Kanako later told me, the first time she touched plectrum to strings, she felt a jolt go through her body (zotto shita). She sometimes wonders if she was a biwa performer in a previous life. The Waseda University biwa group she joined receives instruction from graduates still in the Tokyo area, rather than from formal teachers. They are as open to different types of expression as university students everywhere; in addition to the classical repertoire, Kanako also performed with rock bands in clubs. (She also was involved with modern dance and once performed in white body paint.)

During her last year at Waseda, Kanako arranged for employment with a publishing house after graduation. But she changed her mind when she gave a benefit performance at a home for the elderly and was stunned to see tears streaming down the faces of the audience. That inspired her to give up a career in publishing and devote her life to the performance of music.

In 2004, she began studying with biwa master Tanaka Yukio of the Tsuruta school, whom she visits once a month in Tokyo for lessons. Just two years later, in 2006, she won the grand prize at the Kumamoto National Contest for Traditional Japanese Music, as well as the Incentive Award of the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. That same year, she passed the audition for performing traditional music on NHK, Japan’s quasi-public television and radio network. (NHK is famously strict about the musicians it permits to perform on their network, though their pop music standards have been relaxed in recent years to allow rock groups to appear on their year-end musical TV special.) Since passing the audition, she has performed on NHK-TV and NHK-FM.

The following year, she accompanied her teacher to Italy for three concerts to perform both traditional and modern works. Among the latter was Nuove Musiche per Biwa by Carlo Forlivesi, a composer/performer interested in both early European music and traditional Japanese music. This piece includes sections written for two biwas. According to the publicity blurb from ALM Records:

“(It) presents a radical departure from the compositional languages usually employed for such an instrument. Also thanks to the possibility of relying on a level of virtuosity never before attempted in this specific repertory, the composer has sought the renewal of the acoustic and æsthetic profile of the biwa, bringing out the huge potential in the sound material: attacks and resonance, tempo (conceived not only in the chronometrical but also deliberately empathetical sense), chords, balance and dialogue…dynamics and colour.”

On 3 October last year I was passing through the atrium of a shopping mall here in Saga City on my way home when a woman approached me from behind and began tugging on my sleeve. It was Kanako’s aunt; Kanako was about to perform, she told me, so wouldn’t I stay a bit longer and watch? Of course I would.

Making a living as a freelance translator is a solitary profession. Most of my working time is spent in a second floor office at home in front of a computer. I communicate with clients in other parts of the country by e-mail or telephone. Both to keep in direct contact with the human race and for a change of pace, I teach two classes in the spring at the local university, and help out one or two hours a week at the English school that brought me to Japan in 1984. That’s how I met Kanako; I was one of her teachers during her high school years. She was an excellent student: cheerful, intelligent, ready to try anything, and already capable of a dead-on impersonation of comedian Shimura Ken.

As it turned out, the show in the shopping mall wasn’t a solo performance of traditional music, which I had seen her do before. This was a 30-minute group performance that might best be described as either avant-garde or experimental. The main performer was improvisational dancer Iwashita Toru, but it was a collaborative effort that also included Kanako and two other local people: artist Ogushi Ryohei, and percussionist Sekine Shinichiro. In addition to conventional percussion instruments, Mr. Sekine’s kit that day included kitchen utensils and plastic buckets. I learned later that his usual gig is playing the vibes and marimba in jazz bands.

Mr. Iwashita is well known in artistic circles in Japan as an improvisational dancer and an instructor at the renowned Sankai Juku, a dance troupe that has performed in more than 40 countries. A native of Tokyo, he has been working as a solo artist since 1983. He’s also been involved since 1988 in working with the psychiatric staff at a Shiga hospital to offer the patients dance therapy, and he serves as an advisor to the Japan Dance Therapy Association.

Their performance was filmed, and the organizers have edited the film for a 10-minute YouTube presentation, which you can see here. The event itself was titled Haizai to Dansu, or Debris and the Dance. On the right side of that page are links to two more videos showing a similar, but not identical, performance in the lobby of the JR Saga Station. Click on the link to see what can happen in a shopping mall in a small Japanese town on any given Saturday. You might be surprised when you see the costumes and set decorations.

Some people will find the performance stimulating, some will find it mildly interesting, and others won’t care for it very much. The point for me, however, is not the content of the performance itself, but that the performance occurred at all. An improvisational dancer with a national reputation, an artist, and two musicians—one of whom is a national award winner—created an opportunity to stretch the boundaries of their respective disciplines and gave a series of free performances in a public space. In this instance, the public space was a suburban shopping mall in a semi-rural municipality of 180,000 that is 35 minutes from the nearest urban megacenter by limited express train. To use the phrase of reader and frequent commenter Mac, it is a “No-Shinkansen Sticksville”.

The point is that this is yet another aspect of the face of everyday Japan, and not some outré self-indulgence conducted in a dingy loft in a down-at-the-heels district of a big city where only the hipsters and great pretenders congregate.

The point is that this is yet another aspect of the country that the overseas mess media choose to ignore while peddling a narrative of Japan as the Goofball Kingdom of East Asia, populated with xenophobic losers obsessed with vicarious sex, otaku, and those so inept at social interaction they have to rent friends.

Someone writing under the name of New Year’s Resolution sent in a comment this week about the recent contributions from the flunkeys who’ve put their integrity in a blind trust, all the better to make a buck by feeding the media machine. One was that seat-warmer at the FCCJ bar, The Guardian’s Justin McCurry, who once described his frothy story about an overhyped and already forgotten “rent-a-friend” trend as “lighthearted”. He might have a point; it was the sort of piece that could be considered lighthearted if your default attitude is that of Spitball Artist and you have what the Japanese would call a twisted navel.

The other was Richard Lloyd Parry, to whom the Times of London has given the assignment of filing stories about this part of the world. One of his blog posts on the Times site a few years ago seems typical of his approach. That day–the last day I visited the site–Parry thought the most important information he could convey to his readers about Japan was the observation that former Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo resembled the cartoon character Homer Simpson. (One wonders if the perceived likeness was the high rounded forehead, the eyes, or Homer Simpson’s skin color.) Perhaps lightness of heart is as contagious as lightness of intellect.

Something else might be contagious too, or somebody switched on the media echo chamber again. Late last year, within a month of each other, both of these journalistic stalwarts chose to inform the people of Britain about the phenomenon of what they described as herbivorous girly men in these parts, long after their brethren in the Japanese mess media had moved on to their next contrived sensation. Opinions on whether there’s any meat to that story or whether it’s a PR ploy dreamed up by one of the marketing consultants pushing it will likely depend on how much time one spends interacting with real people.

(In passing, it’s interesting to note that the type of journalists who once loved to mock the Japanese for all their home-grown theories about Japanese uniqueness, known as Nihonjin-ron, now love to scarf up the other cultural flotsam and jetsam as long as they can peddle it to the hometown papers for their News of the Weird section.)

One wonders how often McCurry reads the newspaper he writes for:

Sakurai’s generation reached adulthood as the economic edifice started to crumble, and unemployment and contract work replaced jobs for life and twice-yearly bonuses.

Japan’s official unemployment rate is at about 5%. If that crumbling economic edifice is causing the lads to wear bras and twirl their pinkies as they sip their afternoon tea, I’m glad to be living in this country; at their official unemployment rates, Britain and the United States are about to see their streets overrun by battalions of Boy Georges.

Then again, one wonders what country Parry is living in:

The last few years have seen a range of products to cater to a broadening of tastes among Japanese men. Japanese brewers have introduced weaker beers as sales of conventional alcoholic beverages have declined.

There’s an ordinary supermarket a 10-minute walk from my house. In addition to the ersatz brews, its shelves contain at least a half-dozen brands of beer (and now stout!) that would pass German purity standards and have an alcoholic content of 5% or more. Only one of those brands existed 25 years ago, and most of the rest were created within the past five years. It’s also not unusual to see stronger local microbrews on supermarket shelves. And even Times readers know that sales of “conventional alcoholic beverages”—stronger spirits, I assume—have fallen worldwide over that time.

Come to think of it, I can’t recall seeing any men in this town wearing bras. One would think the straps in the back would be as visible as those worn by women. Perhaps that’s the disadvantage of living in a No-Shinkansen Sticksville.

But boys will be ambitious, and these two might be angling for their own feature column, perhaps like the one the New York Times gave Roger Cohen. Cohen paid a brief visit to Japan and decided it was the perfect opening either for social commentary on a grand scale or something to fill column space on a deadline about a month ago. He saw some digitized images while working out on a treadmill in a spa—probably in his downtown Tokyo hotel—and extrapolated that into a description of a country of 127 million people as bored, gloomy, straight-jacketed otaku plunged into post-modern despair. He concluded by saying that all you need is love, as John Lennon put it, and then added that we all need some of Hatoyama Yukio’s yuai, too.

Some people drop names to have us believe that they’re well connected; others drop phrases from languages they don’t understand to have us believe they’re sophisticated multi-culti internationalists. By this time next year, when Mr. Hatoyama is no longer prime minister, the yuai concept will be as forgotten as the concept of grass-eating girly men, but by this time next year, the biens pensants will have moved on to another equally irrelevant faux insight.

Cohen, by the way, went so far as to describe the digital image of sushi on his treadmill as “unctuous”.

Yes, the New York Times is a publication written by pretentious asses to be read by pretentious asses, but one would think their gloomy circulation figures should have plunged them into such post-modern despair they might have considered incorporating diversity into their hiring practices. But they haven’t, and they won’t.

Some people can distinguish the bogus from the bona fide at a glance. The real recognizes the real immediately; after all, they are fellow travelers, to borrow a phrase from another context. It also isn’t a coincidence that the children in the shopping mall audience were the ones to have most enjoyed the collaborative improvisational performance. They’re too young to have learned how to cop a pose.

Some people wouldn’t recognize the bona fide if it walked up and bit them on the ass.

Some people enjoy deliberately rejecting the bona fide to glorify the bogus as a lifestyle choice. They’re the same sort of people who think the best way to take advantage of a university education is to attend courses in “popular culture”, if they don’t oversleep. Well, you pay your money, or the money the government fronts you, and you take your choice.

Some people are bottom feeders. They might be capable of making distinctions, but their choice is to take a fistful of dollars instead to feed a morally bankrupt media machine and pander to the acolytes of chewing gum culture by holding up the people of a country as an object of ridicule around the world.

And you can bet that every one of those bottom feeders believes to their soul that they’re ever so clever and classless and free, as John Lennon again put it.

But as Lennon also put it, “they’re still f*cking peasants, as far as I can see”.

Except with them, one doesn’t have to look very far or very hard to see it.

Are you surprised to find people like Kitahara Kanako and Iwashita Toru in this malaise-ridden nation of otaku? I’m not. I run into people like them all the time. All it takes to meet them is a bit of normal circulation in society instead of cracking wise about the natives with the ex-pats at the other end of the bar.

But you’re unlikely to meet them, or the millions of other creative, brilliant, and engaging people in Japan, in the pages of the overseas English-language media.

That’s another reason why, if your knowledge of Japan is based on what you read in that media, everything you know is wrong.

Posted in Arts, Foreigners in Japan, Mass media, Music, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 8 Comments »

Nippon Noel 2009 (3): Straight from Santa’s arbor

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 26, 2009

IT DOESN’T FEEL like Christmas without the decorations, and Christmas decorations aren’t complete without the most important symbol of the secular festival—trimmed Christmas trees. As a click on the Christmas tag below will reveal, the Japanese apply their prodigious imagination for adding Big Fun to festivals and create unique tannenbaum designs. Here are a few more in this year’s Christmas card of a post.

Saga ceramics

The towns of Arita and Imari in Saga are known throughout the world as production centers for ceramics and porcelain. Close by in the same prefecture is the Hiryu Kiln in Takeo, which has the world’s largest noborigama, or climbing kiln. Those kilns have multiple chambers, making possible the creation of fine porcelain. This year was the second year the kiln produced ceramic Christmas trees, both for exhibit and sale. The photo shows a few of the 100 from this year’s batch. The base of the trees is 15 centimeters in diameter, and they are 20 centimeters tall. Light-emitting diodes in three colors provide the illumination. If you’re interested in placing one on your end table or mantel as a seasonal adornment, prices start at JPY 3,500 (about $US 38.26).

Tokushima bread

It’s a simple matter for ceramists to apply their skills to Christmas decorations, but that’s a bit more difficult for bakers to do. The bread chefs at the Tokushima Grand Vrio Hotel in Tokushima City were not to be deterred, however, and they came up with the idea of making the hotel’s first floor Christmas tree out of French bread. This year’s version was the fourth for the hotel’s doughboys. The 2.5-meter-high tree, which looks a bit like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, was built with 132 loaves of bread in six tiers. The long tubular shape of most bread doesn’t lend itself to seasonal decorations, so the chefs created their own Christmas bread art by making edible ornaments in the shape of stars, wreaths, airplanes, and tigers—2010 being the year of the tiger in the Oriental zodiac.

Making a good design better

The train station in Iwamizawa, Hokkaido, is the only one in Japan to have received a Good Design award from the Japan Industrial Design Promotion Association. Buildings recognized for their good design deserve a Christmas display worthy of the honor, so the Iwamizawans decorated the 25-meter-high dawn redwood, or metasequoia, in front of the station with 30,000 blue, red, and green LEDs for Project Xmas 2009. The station building received the award this year, so those 30,000 lights are 20% more than are hung in a normal year. A crowd of about 300 people showed up to watch the lighting ceremony, in which a group of parents and their children dressed up as Santas to hold a countdown. The lights go on from 5:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m.

Obama’s PET bottles

Who else but the Japanese would find a way to turn garbage into seasonal beauty and develop the citizens’ eco-consciousness at the same time? As this post from 2007 shows, making Christmas trees from discarded PET bottles has become something of a national pastime, and the folks in Obama, Fukui, got into the act for the first time this year. About 150 of the Obamanians teamed up to build a six-meter-high tree with 4,286 PET bottles in front of a culinary school. This was no casual activity—it took three months to assemble the PET tree using 500-milliliter and two-liter bottles. The base of the tree is 3.5 meters in diameter, and steel was used to make both the trunk and the base. The base was secured to the treetop with 16 wires. The bottles were hung by the cooking school with care by passing other wires through each one from a hole in bottom to the mouth. To create the effect of interior illumination, lights were attached to the steel frame. Who would have thought that sticky plastic gunk could be made to create something so attractive? The tree will be lit from 5:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. until January.

Trees on a Tokyo beach

Having spent my high school years in Virginia Beach, Virginia, I can vouch for the fact that it does snow on the beach. It’s incongruous to see snow drifts on sand that was the scene of summertime fun just a few months before, but it does happen. So it wouldn’t be a stretch to brighten up the beach with decorations on a seasonal theme, even in Tokyo. That’s the objective behind Candle Night in Odaiba 2009, in which the beach is lit up by 3,000 candles covered with paper lamps. The candles are arranged to look like Christmas trees, shooting stars, and snow crystals. If you’re in the neighborhood and want to see the combination of several traditions with some local innovations, the candles are lit from sundown to 9:00 p.m., as long as the surf’s not up.

Bottoms up

What’s a hotel to do during Christmas if it wants to attract casual visitors but doesn’t have a boulangerie on the premises? The proprietors of the Grand Park Otaru in Otaru, Hokkaido, must have stood on their heads to come up with an answer, but they found one that works. They decorated their first floor lobby with an upside-down Yuletide tree. The tree—or should it be cone?—is three meters tall from the base down to the top. It is festooned with the usual decorations, including balls, lights, and boxes crafted to look like presents. Speaking of what things looks like, the people who stopped by to see for themselves thought the tree looked like a bouquet.

Christmas Day-o

Bananas wouldn’t seem to fit with the wintertime images that have become associated with the holiday festivities, but that didn’t stop a public-private sector partnership for municipal development in Iga, Mie, to trim a tree in a local shopping arcade with bananas. The three-meter-high tree was made with materials that would ordinarily have been discarded as unusable by local businesspeople and merchants. Seven bamboo poles were used for support, and that’s another material which seldom comes to mind as a Christmas decoration. The primary ornaments were 400 bananas that couldn’t be sold for consumption because of size standards, and would have otherwise been thrown away. In addition to the bananas, other decorations included cotton—to represent all the snow in banana-growing countries, of course—and two Santa dolls climbing up the side. Ten people put it together earlier this month, and if they wanted a snack while they were working, they probably didn’t send out for pizza. This tree is illuminated from 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., though the reports didn’t say how they managed to get the LEDs inside the fruit without peeling them first.

In most Western countries, 25 December has traditionally been the start of Christmas celebrations, so people leave the trimmings and decorations up until at least the first week of the new year. But in Japan, the big yearend holiday is still a week away, and that means most of these trees, lights, bread, bananas, and PET bottles will disappear for another year starting from the 26th.

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


Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 11, 2009

PART TWO of my honeymoon was a visit by my wife and me to my hometown and a few other cities in the United States. (Part One was a trip to Unzen before the eruption.) As we were driving around the former seat of the Ampontan manor one day, she suddenly turned and asked me a question:

“Doesn’t this city have any garbage collectors?”

I assured her that it did. In fact, I told her, all of us former municipal employees held the city’s sanitary engineers in the highest esteem. The only way we got a pay raise is when they threatened to go on strike.

“Then why is all this trash lying around in the streets?”

Kagoshima cleanup

That’s a good question I was never able to answer to her satisfaction. The best I could do was to shrug my shoulders. Guess what inevitably became a topic of every conversation with her friends when we returned to Japan and they asked her what America was like?

One reason she was taken aback by all the refuse in the road can be discerned from the accompanying photograph, taken last week at Clean City Kagoshima 2009. That’s an annual event in Kagoshima City, and this year an estimated 78,000 people in a municipality of about 600,000 turned out early on a Sunday morning to pick up where the garbage men left off in the local parks and roads.

In the city’s Tenmonkan shopping district alone, about 700 people representing 54 groups voluntarily came out to collect trash and do some weeding at a nearby park. The municipal authorities reported that 50 45-liter bags of empty cans and weeds were collected there.

Said one high school student, “There wasn’t as much trash as I thought there would be, but I was surprised at the number of cigarette butts. I wish people wouldn’t just throw them out on the street.”

Cleanup campaigns such as these are not exclusive to Kagoshima City. One of the best pieces of advice my boss ever gave me was to suggest that I participate in the neighborhood kawasoji two days after I arrived in Saga. Kawasoji is literally “river cleaning”, but that’s a bit of a misnomer. The rivers are really a network of small waterways throughout the city connected to the nearby bay. The banks have been concreted, the water is seldom more than knee-deep, and a grade school boy could easily throw a ball across them.

Twice a year, on a Sunday in March and September, residents gather at a pre-arranged spot at 8:00 a.m. to pick up equipment and head off to work. The job includes both cutting back the weeds and other natural growth at sections of the river nearest their home and removing the trash. (One year we even fished out a bicycle.) It only takes about two hours, and after cleaning up, we go to a nearby Shinto shrine to collect our pay—a bento lunch—and have some snacks. The beverages provided include tea, or for the hardy types that early on a Sunday morning, beer or sake. Some people stay only for a quick bite to eat and a drink, while others hang out longer and chat.

This actually does strengthen neighborhood cohesiveness among the people who participate. How could it be otherwise? People take each other more seriously after they’ve sweated and gotten dirty together, particularly when it improves conditions in their immediate surroundings.

Perhaps the people of my hometown could learn something from this. I sure did.

Posted in Environmentalism, Foreigners in Japan, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 7 Comments »

Getting boared in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 10, 2009

PICK ALMOST ANY TOPIC as a point of departure for exploring Japan, and it’s a near certainty that a fountain-full of serendipitous discoveries will emerge in short order. Even when the topic is boaring!

inoshishi hiroshige

The Japanese have eaten inoshishi (boar) meat, sometimes known as brawn, since ancient times, most often in stews in the winter. But boars are extremely skittish around people, perhaps as an evolutionary response for staying out of boiling cauldrons of water. They usually hightail it for cover as soon as they spot a human, making them difficult to hunt.

The meat of wild animals was considered taboo at times in the past in Japan, though that taboo was often ignored in mountainous areas. The hardy mountaineers kept eating boar meat, which was also known as yamakujira, or mountain whale (not to be confused with mountain oysters), due to a similarity in taste and texture. That’s a yamakujira shop depicted in the Hiroshige print. A Kansai rakugo comic routine called Buying Boar in Ikeda, which dates from 1707, relates the story of a man with gonorrhea who travels with a hunter in search of some wild game. (No, no, not that kind of game!) Izu, Shizuoka, was once the home of the Amagi Wild Boar Theme Park, and was enough of an attraction to draw as many as 400,000 visitors in 1985. It was shut down for good last year due to declining interest and the economic turndown.

The Japanese also consider the animal a pest, both in urban and rural areas. Packs of wild boar have been known to roam city streets at night, rooting through garbage and generally being rude and ugly. Farmers dislike them because they trample, root up, and eat crops. In fact, they’ve gotten so boorish in Takeo, Saga, the municipal government established a department this April and assigned it the task of finding ways to reduce the local population.

wild boar sausage

In a classic case of making lemonade when life hands you a lemon, the city employees hit on the idea of making boar meat a special local product and marketing it nationwide. To give local hunters an added incentive to track down the animals and sell the meat, they worked with a local butcher to create food products that can be eaten year-round.

The accompanying photo was taken at a recent event in which sausage and bacon-like products made from 100% boar meat were presented to the public for tasting. The boar for the breakfast table will hit the market later this month, selling for JPY 1,000 (about $US 10.25) for a 200-gram package. Lemongrass and spices have been added to the sausage to enhance the taste. The butchers have also developed a lunchmeat product resembling smoked ham, which will sell for JPY 500 yen for 60 grams. They plan to roll out hamburger- and roast ham-like products this fall.

Though the Amagi Wild Boar Theme Park no longer exists, those people who can’t live without boar exhibits in their lives might consider a trip to the Go’o Shinto shrine near the geographical center of Kyoto. All Shinto shrines have statues of what are called koma-inu, or guardian dogs. In 1890, the Go’o shrine took the somewhat eccentric step of replacing their statues of guardian dogs with those of boars.

inoshishi jinja

Since most boars are chicken and likely to run in the other direction when they sense a threat, they would not seem to be a logical candidate for selection as the guardian of anything. Ah, but the shrine had its reasons. One of the shrine’s tutelary deities is Wake-no-Kiyomaro, a Japanese government official who lived in the 8th century. He is known for his efforts to separate church (or rather, Buddhist temple) and state. After he became entangled with Imperial succession intrigues and fraudulent oracles at the Usa Shinto shrine, the ruling powers exiled him, had the sinews of his legs cut, and nearly killed him. He was later recalled from exile to serve in government again, and convinced the tenno (emperor) Kammu to build a new capital at Kyoto instead of Nagaoka.

The story goes that he was set upon by assassins as he was limping along the road on his way to exile. He was saved in the nick of time by the sudden appearance of a herd of 300 wild boars. Sometimes the cavalry arrives on something other than horseback!

The Japanese expression chototsumoshin (猪突猛進), the first kanji of which is that for boar, means a headlong rush, and also has the nuance of rashness in action. Now combine that with the boars’ providential rescue of the hobbled Wake-no-Kiyomaro. That was enough to make the shrine a destination for those seeking divine assistance to ensure sound lower limbs, regardless of their current condition. Petitioners include both those in wheelchairs or people who use canes, as well as ekiden runners and soccer players.

Given the ever-fertile Japanese imagination, it was inevitable that someone would put two and two and two together to combine boar cuisine and their straight line foot speed to come up with a new form of entertainment. The folks in Sasayama, Hyogo, have been holding Inoshishi Festivals for several years now in January that draw upwards of 20,000 people. What’s the big attraction? After dining on different dishes featuring wild boar meat, the revelers head for a nearby track to watch the boar races.

wild boar races

But the feast comes first, of course, and several well-known area restaurants set up a special area where they offer original cuisine, including boar meat soup, boar croquettes, and oden. The meals are reportedly so tasty that the diners form lines to enter one shop while eating the offerings of another. The restaurants usually sell out their stock every year.

Then it’s time for the main event, which features wild boars sprinting around an enclosed track. The trotters are given ear-catching names, just as if they were thoroughbreds running the Triple Crown. Can’t you almost hear the track announcer barking out the name of one contestant? “Heading into the far turn, it’s Dekan Showboy by a snout.” The reports don’t mention whether parimutuel betting is allowed.

Now I ask you–where else can you get the chance to spend a day at the races and eat the entrants!

The idea of making lunchmeat out of brawn is not originally Japanese, as a look at this British website will show. They even sell boar meat salami. Note the high protein and low fat content compared to other meats.

Posted in Food, New products, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »