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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Bicycles in Japan


Collection truck for illegally parked bicycles, Shinjuku, Tokyo. Jitensha is the official word for them, but charinko, shortened to chari, is just as likely to be heard when the topic is bicycles. Cycling is huge in Japan, and is far the preferred means of transport when making your way around the neighborhood as opposed to cars or public transport.

Spidery, long-legged racing bikes and little folding bikes are the trendiest to be seen on the streets at the moment, but they are still way outnumbered by the mama-chari, i.e. ‘mom bike’. It’s hard to believe, but according to law, or perhaps by-law, bicycles are supposed to be ridden on the road in Japan, but you’d be lucky to see one in fifty on the road. The vast majority are ridden on footpaths. To be sure, many footpaths come with a special bicycle lane, but it is blithely ignored by cyclists and pedestrians alike.

Bicycles on the footpath add to what, as a pedestrian, you have to keep an eye out for. Most cyclists approaching will either ring their bell, apply squeaky brakes, or make some kind of noise that will alert whoever is in their path.

Bicycle parking is provided by most large stores and institutions. A word of warning: never park your bike in front of a shop at night. I have done it a few times and had my bike lugged and dumped a kilometer away – found only after hours of searching. Locking it to an immovable object is not the answer either, as the indignant tenant whose property front you are violating is likely to take to it with something.

Bicycle parking infringement ticket. Simply parking them on the street where there are no shops is a safe temporary option, but any more than an hour or two is asking for trouble. Most of the time you will return to find a relatively harmless warning label attached to it (see left), but if you’re unlucky the illegally parked bicycle collection truck (see top) may be doing the rounds, in which case you are unlikely to see it again. In theory you should find a notice explaining how to get it back – requiring payment of usually a 2 or 3 thousand yen fine, but anything can happen to a little slip of paper.

Having said all that, Japan is a cyclist’s paradise. If you avoid the obstacle course that is the footpath and stick to the roads, you will find that drivers are generally cautious and magnanimous towards cyclists. Furthermore, the streets are generally in excellent repair – usually making for a smoother ride than the footpath. Just don’t forget your helmet, keep those lights on, and oil those brakes!

Nagasaki City Guide

Hitching in Japan

Cars in Japan

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

15 Minutes of Sound in Kyoto


On a rainy season-like Sunday in late May, I set out to find sound in Kyoto. It didn't take long.

Walking along Rokkaku Dori (street) just in from Karasuma Dori in the center of town, I entered Rokkaku-do Temple. It was founded by Prince Shotoku, and is where ikebana was born. As Kyoto temples go, it is decidedly B-class—and the adjoining Ikenobo Building, the Kyoto ikebana headquarters, which fronts Karasuma Dori, is among the worst of many horrible modern buildings in Kyoto. What drew me in though was a group of elderly pilgrims all in white. They were at the altar and began to chant.

From there, I walked out and up to the corner at Karasuma Dori. At noon on Sunday, it was bustling with people and cars. When the light changed, the normal chirping—to alert the blind that it is safe to cross—started up; in addition to that, moreover, there was another sound: a woman's soothing, mechanical voice: “The light is going to change to red. The light is red. This is the Karasuma-Rokkaku intersection.”

Rightists' Sound Bus Across the street there was a familiar black sound truck. It was emblazoned with the hinomaru flag and thick kanji—全日本友志会 (zen nihon yushi kai, or “All Japan Friendship Intent Society,” but that does not capture the menace that lurks behind those beautiful characters)—and was parked illegally. In front of it stood three thugs in para-military gear. They had the buzz cut favored by the Japanese right wing, and the vacant look of the converted. The two on the outside stood at attention, holding flags facing the Yomiuri Shinbun (newspaper) Building across the street. The man in the middle then began a loud amplified tirade about the spinelessness of Japanese foreign policy, the holiness of the Emperor, the horror of North Korea, how foreigners are ruining Japan—and at the end, before signing off, apologized for “causing trouble.” What was most remarkable was how soft-spoken and polite he was.

With the exception of woman—no doubt a girlfriend—videotaping it from across the street, no one paid the group the least bit of attention. Not even a bored looking cop who rolled by in his patrol car.

Read impartial reviews of Japan travel books.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Nagoya Thai Festival


Went to the inaugural Thai Festival in Nagoya on Sunday, which was held in Hisayaodori Koen, Hisaya Hiroba, south of Nagoya TV Tower.

The expected rain held off and plenty of Aichi Prefecture's estimated 2500-3000 Thai residents turned up to lend the necessary authenticity and dish up all the grub.

Thai Festival in Nagoya - stall serving authentic Thai food

On the main stage the Thai dance, music and yes sword juggling! was of a higher than expected quality, entertaining the spectators and a healthy throng of people, happily sampling Thai food and beer from the stalls packed in Hisaya Hiroba.

Nagoya city applied some fairly strict regulations on the preparation of foodstuffs - but there was an incredible variety on display -- Thai curries, fried meats of all description, Thai coconut sweets, mango ice-creams, even durian and of course, plenty of Singha beer and a new one on me --- Phuket ale.

It remains to be seen whether this becomes a regular event, I hope so, it felt a bit reminiscent of the annual Osaka beer festival vibe and last year's Aichi Expo, even down to the parked tuk-tuk, and all the more welcome for it.

I remember going to a big Thai Festival in London in Battersea Park held in late July, also free, but heavily promoted by the then new energy drink "Red Bull". That was back in 1995 and London's Thai Festival has now evolved in to an even bigger, mega-event on the London summer calendar.

Here's hoping for something similar here in Nagoya.

Thai Festival in Nagoya 2006
Thai Festival in Nagoya 2006 - praying it will be on next year

Saturday 27 May 11.00am-9pm
Sunday 28 May 10.00am-8pm

Hisayaodori Koen, Hisaya Hiroba
Admission: Free
Yabacho and Sakae Stations, Meijo Line

Thai dance, Thai food stalls, Thai beauty contest, Thai goods, Thai music....

Sightseeing in Nagoya

Sunday, May 28, 2006



Yoshidayama, Kyoto I spent a wonderful couple of hours wandering in the drizzle around the paths and lanes of Yoshidayama in Kyoto. Lying between the 2 tourist hotspots of Heian Jingu and Ginkakuji, just east of Kyoto University, its an area missed by most tourists, which adds enormously to its charm.

Yoshidayama, Kyoto The southern "hump" is dominated by Kurodani Temple and acres of cemetery which abound with cherry blossoms in the spring. Around it and between it and the northern "hump", the residential area is more like a mountain village with stairways and narrow lanes heading off in all directions.

Yoshidayama, Kyoto The northern highpoint is dominated by Takenaka Inari shrine, much smaller than the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine south of Kyoto, but somehow more atmospheric and quietly eerie.

Yoshidayama, Kyoto By wandering the multitude of paths I was able to visit another half dozen shrines scattered around the wooded hill before finally coming down into Yoshida Jinja, one of the 22 major shrines of ancient Japan.

Then it was back out into the incessant roar of traffic and streets packed with swarms of zombie-like tourists.


Yoshidayama Kyoto hiking Japan Kansai

Sightseeing in Kyoto

Saturday, May 27, 2006

More info about Four Stories literary event in Osaka (free)

The authors reading at the July 2 Four Stories literary event in Osaka will be:

  • Juliet Winters Carpenter, Kyoto professor; acclaimed translator of Ryotaro Shiba's The Last Shogun, Kobo Abe's Beyond the Curve, and Miyuki Miyabe's Shadow Family; and author of Seeing Kyoto
  • Jane Joritz-Nakagawa, poet, essayist, and associate professor at a national university in Japan, whose work has been featured in New American Writing, ACM, Aught, How2, Tinfish, One Less, Moria, Milk, Free Verse, and others
  • Suzanne Kamata, editor of The Broken Bridge: Fiction from Expatriates in Literary Japan and the journal Yomimono; author of River of Dolls; and writer of fiction and nonfiction appearing in Poesie Yaponesia, The Utne Reader, Kyoto Journal, and Calyx
  • Tracy Slater, Four Stories founder, teacher of writing and literature in Boston University's Prison Education Program, and author of essays from The Chronicle Review, Post Road, and Kansai Time Out
More info and mailing list signup @ www.fourstories.org

Four Stories literary event in Osaka (free)

JapanVisitor.com warmly invites you to the first Four Stories (English-language) literary event in Japan, taking place in Osaka on Sunday, July 2, from 6-8:30pm, at Savannah Bar and Grill in Shinsaibashi.

It's FREE AND OPEN TO THE PUBLIC, and is the Japan opening of a literary series Tracy Slater has been running just for fun in Boston, which last spring Boston's main newspaper very kindly said "is fast becoming the place to be on the Boston area art scene."

We hope you'll join us as Tracy tries to reproduce some of that enthusiasm in Kansai!

The event will feature 4 published authors reading from their fiction or nonfiction for 15 minutes each under the theme "A Place Apart: Four Stories goes global with tales of travel, adventure, and exploration." You can also order food and drinks throughout the event (although that part unfortunately is not free, but the food at Savannah is great), so it's sort of an informal literary event with a little bit of conspicuous consumption thrown in...

Directions and more info @ www.fourstories.org

Also, please feel free to signup for the (totally confidential, totally non-commercial) mailing list for the event series @ www.fourstories.org.


Japan Osaka Kansai literature

Sightseeing in Osaka

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Game Center


What is amazingly loud, probably legal, filled with screaming teenagers, generally smoke-free, involves no nudity among living breathing people, and no doubt run by the Japanese mob? Answer: Your neighborhood "game center." These are pachinko parlors for the under-20 set, an expensive and addictive form of initiation into the pleasures that await in Japanese adulthood.

They can be found in almost any area where high school students congregate: urban shopping arcades, suburban malls, on downtown street corners, in grungy alleyways near train stations. Normally I avoid at all cost contact with human beings between the ages of 13 and 17, but for the sake of research spent half an hour in one game center in downtown Osaka. (At that point, I yielded to sense and ran out in search of an ear doctor.)

Japanese Game CenterA typical Japanese game center could not be further removed from the Philadelphia pinball arcades I wasted my youth in. First of all, the games are loud--really loud--and cute, really cute. Incredibly, though, above the deafening roar and clatter, you can often hear the cloyingly cute squealing of packs of 14-year-old girls. They play their own type of game, which involves seeing who can emit the loudest squeal, which is intended to show surprise, amazement, cell-phone induced hysteria, or just general hormonal overload. Another difference is the lack of menace. In Philly, you watched your back while you smashed and rocked the old manual pinball machines; the arcades had hired thugs to break up fights and prevent damage. In Osaka, the only danger is to your frontal lobes and eardrums.

The technology of the games, too, has come a long way. There are now games with sit-down race car driving that induce vertigo; baseball pitching games that measure the speed of your fastball; a game in which you guide talons to attempt to reach down and scoop up a stuffed doll; and a punching game. This machine gauges the power of your punch, and was the source of endless amusement for three women who, combined, could not have weighed more than 200 pounds.

Then there are the "exercise" games: drumming to an electronic beat [click here to listen to a podcast of the game: turn the volume down], and a dancing game. A young couple worked the taiko drum sticks frantically as they tried to keep up with the beat.

The last category is perhaps the "commemoration" games: puri-kura photo booths. In these, you can take a series of photos that can be manipulated--add images, change the background--at the touch of a button. When you are finally ready to print, you push the button and wait several minutes. Then, out slides a sheet of tiny identical photos that can be peeled off and stuck on your cell phone or in your date book.

Full disclosure: I ended up staying for an hour, posed for photos, didn't get into a fight--and there were at least five people (besides me) over 30 in the game center.

Read impartial reviews of Japan travel books.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Sanja Matsuri Festival: the video

三社祭 ビデオ

On Sunday, May 21st, the JapanVisitor blog was all about the Sanja Matsuri Festival in Tokyo's Asakusa district.

In this second installment we present you with a short video of some of the action.

This clip is of one of the portable shrine (omikoshi) teams bearing their shrine through the streets of Asakusa. Nothing, of course, beats being there: the sights of one of Tokyo’s grittiest neighborhoods thronged with the old and young, the preened and tattooed; the smells of the stalls selling takoyaki octopus balls, kasutera custard dumplings, toffee apples, and all other manner of snacks, the smells of garbage, of sweat, of incense around the temples; the sounds: a constant drumming and fifing rhythm behind the roars and shouts of the shrine bearers and the excited yells of the crowds and shrill cries of the kids.

However, the video will give you a good idea of what it's like, and perhaps prompt you to pencil it in for next year.

Read impartial reviews of Japan travel books.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Fatback Band funks


The Fatback Band at the Cotton Club, Tokyo.I ended up in the Marunouchi district after work tonight - got home at seven, spent about 15 minutes making up for just a little of the sleep I lost last night, had a shower, put on my finest, and was on the Marunouchi subway line to hear the Fatback Band play at the Cotton Club in the Marunouchi district just five minute's walk from Tokyo station.

If you read yesterday's blog you'll see how I met the band on Sunday at the Sanja Matsuri festival in Asakusa, and how the singer, Isabella, kindly put me on the guestlist tonight.

The Fatback Band have been around since the 1960s, held together by the drummer, Bill 'Fatback' Curtis. The band had the crowd on its feet and jiving in no time - something of a miracle in Japan. It was funky. Shaking it on the dance floor on the weekend is one thing. Feeling it live is quite another - something no one should deny themselves at least once in a while.

The Cotton Club, Marunouchi, Tokyo.I got pulled up to the stage by the lovely Isabella with four or five others from the audience picked to 'do the backstroke' with the band. The backstroke. Hmm. Gave my skinny ass away completely, but isn't that what it's all about?

The Fatback Band - near you. Not to be missed.


Fatback Band

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Sanja Matsuri Asakusa Tokyo


Today I headed for that most renowned of Tokyo’s downtown areas, Asakusa, for the district’s famous big annual festival, the Sanja Matsuri. (Listen here to the sounds of it.)

Sweating under the float at the Sanja MatsuriAsakusa is most famous for Sensoji (‘senso’ simply being another reading of the characters that make up ‘asakusa’). It is said to have been founded in 628AD when fishermen caught in their nets and landed a small statue of the Buddha. The village headman took it as a sign, became a priest, and built the temple that is now Sensoji.

Tattoos It is now one of Tokyo’s biggest traditional events, drawing tens of thousands of people to feel the supercharged atmosphere of the festival. Everything is centered, of course, on the temple, but the immediate focus of the action is three floats that different neighborhood groups carry around the neighborhood on three different pre-planned routes. There are incidental floats as well, but the big three form the core. Things get underway late-morning, and the beating of drums and blowing of flutes permeates the air from every direction.

One of the main floats To say the neighborhood groups ‘carry’ the floats around is a wan understatement. Fueled by the early summer heat, the eager crowd, the sanction of centuries of tradition and as much alcohol as you like, the shrine floats are the center of almost manic enthusiasm and toss like little gold boats on a very choppy human sea. Up close the atmosphere is nothing less than fierce, although never completely out of hand.

Climax of the festival in front of the Sensouji Temple Most conspicuous are the tattoos, most of them full body jobs. Shouldering the poles of the floats, pressed together as close as can be, the shrine bearers are a mass of chanting, sweating red-faces, egged on by incessant drum beats, more shouting, and whistles.

Children's float The procession through the streets is energetic enough, but the place to be is in the thick of the crowd as the float passes in front of the main Sensoji Temple building. The word is ‘climax’, and the feelings invoked are exactly those you associate with it’s most visceral usage. The crescendo begins as the shrine passes under the Houzoumon Gate just in front of the temple. A handful of loinclothed men climb onto the float, start blowing whistles in a shrill rhythmic tweeing, waving fans in rough synchrony and generally whipping things up. After a few false starts and stops the rhythm takes hold and is reflected in what now become not merely rolling, but positively bucking, floats. The men below are roaring their chants and the ground itself seems to be shaking. It is here that you really feel it: the wildness at the heart of the most elaborate of human systems and endeavors – the kind of thing that the West now knows only with football, rock concerts and hard core clubbing.

Drunk boys By 3pm there are signs of things slightly flagging. The drunkenness has reaching the stage where people are staggering slightly or actually passing out. Red faced, shoving, beating rhythms in the air - in spite of an air of what the hell boisterousness, amazingly there is no overt aggression, and in the six hours I was there I didn't catch even a whiff of any fighting. There is, however, still plenty of energy left, and the processions continue on their routes, now more or less in ‘default’ mode.

Performance The float I followed the most religiously stopped for a while for some entertainment in the form of song and dance. The red-faced middle aged MC was obviously tanked up and his introductions went well beyond what was welcome in both content and length. He introduced the first singer as having a lovely voice but ‘unfortunately she’s not much of a beauty, so why not listen with your eyes closed’, and, two minutes later, was still blabbering on, until almost forcibly evicted by the women on stage, rolling their eyes and bowing apologetically to the audience.

GaijinOne outstanding feature of the festival was the number of foreigners present. I got to spoke to several, including roofers from Germany, tourists from all over, English teachers galore, and no one less than those legendary funksters, the Fatback Band playing at Tokyo’s Cotton Club from Monday till Friday (and whom I can't wait to hear tomorrow night!)

Sanja Matsuri - the video


Asakusa Jinja
2-3-1 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo
A short walk from Asakusa Station on the Toei Subway Asakusa Line, the Tokyo Metro Ginza Line and the Tobu Isesaski Line.

© JapanVisitor.com

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Tokyo Design Festa Vol.23

デザイン・フェスタ 23

Tokyo Big Sight Today I went to the 23rd Tokyo Design Festa: a helter-skelter of creativity that takes place every spring and autumn in the massive Tokyo Big Sight (Tokyo International Exhibition Center).

Tokyo Design Festa provides an opportunity to anyone who isn’t ‘big’ (yet), to display virtually whatever s/he likes to do or make. 80% of it is pass-byable, being booths dedicated to mawkish adolescent cutsieness, something like watching cherry blossom: pleasant enough for a while in the aggregate but not something you stop at each tree to study.

However, there is, of course, a vanguard of true talent in design, music, and art that make it memorable. Below are a few snaps from today’s Tokyo Design Festa, Vol.23.

Funky Japanese teens on their way to Tokyo Design Festa. On the train. Tokyo Design Festa is nothing if not on the young and whacky side.

While not exactly typical, these kids on the same train as I on their way there looked by no means out of place when I saw them again inside Tokyo Big Sight later.

Brother and sister selling their art at Tokyo Design Festa. This was as young as it got: sis and little bro selling their very own paintings.

Paper toilet man. Elaborate DIY paper mechanics, somewhere between a biology lesson and toilet humor.

A slowly rotating motor powered the hand to periodically lift a ball to the mouth which went through the body.

Pulling the toilet chain released the accumulated balls into the toilet which were then cranked back up to his hand for another cycle.

All made of paper. This little boy was enthralled.

Merry old men figurines. These hand-size dolls of merry old men in all sorts of inebriated and carefree poses and situations featured at a stall (run by a pair of guys who seemed a bit glum, if anything!)

Finally, you can see in the top photo how fine it was when I took it.

My jaw dropped then when I left three hours later to find the sky totally clouded over and pouring rain.

Design Festa Vol#25 - May 2007

Design Festa Vol#24 December 2006

Tokyo Design Festa No #22 - November 2005

What is Design Festa?

Tokyo - An Area Guide To Japan's Capital City

What's On in Tokyo - Events, Festivals, Movies

Friday, May 19, 2006

Myoshinji Temple Kyoto Part II


Myoshinji Temple, KyotoThe home of zen Buddhism in Japan, Kyoto’s Myoshinji Temple, is a city behind white walls. It is located not far from Hanazono Station on the JR San-in Line (Sagano Line), and is a living temple. In recent years, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of tourists - but the space within the walls is so vast that it still feels like an extension of the surrounding neighborhood. Students cycle through en route to local high schools and Ritsumeikan University, salarymen cut through on their way to work, older people stroll the grounds, and priests go on their rounds.

Unlike the better known temples and shrines, which cost upwards of 500 yen to get in and close for business at 5 pm, Myoshinji has a relaxed and open feel to it. That is in part because it is open 24 hours a day, year-round, there is no fee to pass through, and also precisely because the temple has not made tourism its sole raison d'etre.

Myoshinji was founded in 1337 and houses some of Japan’s most famous byobu, or painted screens. It also has many gardens behind the walls of sub-temple. These are open for brief periods at various times of year, usually coinciding with whatever is in bloom.

Myoshinji Temple, KyotoAccording to neighbors, the priests at Myoshinji are said to be kowai (scary). Parents admonish their badly behaved children that they will be left in Myoshinji in the middle of the night, or else! The priests’ scowling faces and dark robes are a bit intimidating, particularly when they come around the neighborhood bellowing for alms.

When we were there the other day at 6 pm, the priests were ringing the main bell. They ring it in a series, at roughly 20-second intervals. You can hear people talking as they walk past the bell, oblivious. The bell itself is housed in a large wooden tower, so the priests and the ringing can be heard but not seen.

Myoshinji in December

Check out a sound from JapanVisitor's podcast: the cry of the neighborhood gyoza seller.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Big bosses arrested today


Susumu Ojima (52), the president of Huser Construction Ltd. was arrested today in what is the climax so far of the infamous case of the non-earthquake resistant condos. Huser is one of Japan’s major construction companies and has been in the midst of a scandal since last year when it was revealed by the now disgraced architect, Hidetsugu Aneha, that since 1998 pressure was put on him to skimp on the amount of steel reinforcing required by law in the designs for the condominiums he was in charge of.

Not only Huser’s president, but the top dogs at Kimura Construction were re-arrested today on the same charges relating to a condominium they built and, like Huser, sold to unsuspecting buyers in spite of it being likely to come down in an earthquake.

Huser’s Ojima appeared before a Diet committee on January 17 which was trying to get to the bottom of this nationwide scandal, but was completely uncooperative, refusing to answer nearly all the questions put to him. Sounds like from today he will have little choice.

Almost comically, HUSER is an acronym for “Human User Company”!

Check out a sound from JapanVisitor's podcast: the cry of the neighborhood gyoza seller.

Touring Tokyo by Yellow Bus


Hato Bus
When visitors come to Japan I get to do things I don't normally do. A while back, eight of us (3 big and 5 small) took a Hato Bus Cityrama Afternoon Tour around Tokyo. It was great.

Leaving Hamamatsucho bus depot armed with onigiri and sushi, the three-and-a-half-hour trip took in Tokyo Tower, the Diet Building, the Imperial Palace, Asakusa, and ended up in Ginza.
The guide was an oldish fella who did a lovely line in self-deprecatory quips about Tokyo, Japan, and himself. He spoke quietly but smoothly, and his knowledge was extensive. His patter was so easy on the ear, and he was so likeable, that it felt like listening to your grandfather telling tales of yore. He had stunningly good English, but, for the sake of Japanese authenticity, he steadfastly refused to use any articles, definite or indefinite.

I learned more on that bus tour about Japanese history (and in a far more entertaining manner) than I have from any books.

Asakusa Temple, Tokyo
It was all pretty good stuff, although perhaps the highlight was breathing in the Asakusa incense (wafting in the middle of the photo) in the knowledge that my brainpower was mysteriously improving by the second.

Asakusa blog

Thoroughly recommended.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Taboos in Japan

Taboos in Japan.

Two of the great taboos in Japanese society are the Imperial system and the country's underclass, now euphemistically known as dowa shushin (literally "from the dowa area," which refer to the areas in Japanese cities and rural areas where this underclass was forced to live; dowa is a combination of two Chinese characters that directly translate as "same harmony").

For the former, newspapers use only the most polite verb forms and honorifics when writing about Princess Masako. If they did not, the fascist right would at the very least stir itself into a frenzy, park its massive black sound tracks in front of the paper's Tokyo offices, blare martial music and pro-Emperor rants at ear drum-splitting levels, and demonstrate for days on end--with only mild police interference. Violence and mayhem would also likely occur; an Asahi Shinbun reporter was murdered by suspected rightists in the paper's Kobe office fifteen years ago, and the crime has yet to be solved.

The second taboo concerns the dowa. These are the descendants of those who did work in the past perceived of as unclean--work with corpses, tanning, leather, etc.--and were outside of Japan's class system of samurai, farmers, and merchants. They were referred to as "non-human" for centuries--and treated accordingly, confined to live for example in set aside areas, primarily in the low-lying, flood prone plains. The dowa are neither linguistically nor physically different from other Japanese. Their names are normal Japanese names. The only thing that distinguishes them is their address.

Following the beginning of a liberation movement after World War Two, a group was formed to lobby for the end of discrimination and come to the defense of them: the Buraku Liberaton League (BLL). (They came to be referred to as burakumin--people from the village--in the Meiji Period.)

While the Japanese government, in 1993, officially recognized 4,442 such communities with 298,385 households and a population of 892,751, the BLL argues that another 1,000 dowa exist, and that would make the population more than two million, or roughly 2% of the population of Japan. The main reason for the difference is that the government only counts areas in which it has initiated projects called dowa taisaku--sewers, school programs, affirmative action, public housing--to improve the lot of the burakumin.

In spite of the above affirmative action programs, discrimination today is still strongly felt, mainly in Kansai and Kyushu. It occurs primarily in employment and marriage. Unofficial lists identifying burakumin have been found to exist. Companies are said to buy them to weed out possible job applicants; private eyes are hired to check into the background of potential spouses who may be trying to pass as "normal."

(In 2004, a friend in Nara contacted me with a request. Her daughter had become engaged to a man from south Kyoto. The area just south of Kyoto Station is a large traditional dowa area. Since the friend is from Nara, which is close to Kyoto and also has many such areas, she knew there south Kyoto was "you know, a bit dodgy"; unlike someone from Kyoto, though, she did not know exact area, street by street. Thus, she contacted me to have "someone in Kyoto" confirm for her. When shown the address, an older neighbor I have known for many years replied, "Yes, it is a dowa area, but don't tell the mother--and tell the couple not to live there.")

Though their lot has improved--in Kyoto for example certain jobs (city bus drivers, employees in ward offices) give preferential hiring to burakumin, and day care centers provide special services to dowa children--many avenues to success are still closed. Not surprisingly, then, membership in Japanese organized crime draws heavily from these and Korean neighborhoods. (There is a horrible irony in the fact that most nationalistic groups in Japanese society--the yakuza and the pro-Emperor thugs--are often outcastes from mainstream society.)

In Kyoto, the major department stores--Takashimaya, Daimaru, Isetan--all hire ex-cops to work as the number two man, just below the store manager. Their work consists primarily of cost-control, which means fraud prevention. Much of this originates in organized crime, and some from the outcaste community.

In Osaka, for example, the leader of the Asuka-kai--in letter a dowa support group--has been scamming the city over the course of thirty years for millions of dollars thanks to the special treatment afforded his construction and parking lot business. City officials including the mayor and the large banks involved all knew, and, until the man's arrest in May, never said a word because this was part of a "de facto buraku preferential policy," according to one former city councilman.

The way the scam worked was that the city would bypass normal bidding procedures on building and road projects through "discretionary contracts" to nongovernmental human rights organizations: i.e., dowa-owned construction firms. According to the Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper, these contracts had totaled 830 million yen ($7.5 million) since March 2002, when the original affirmative action law designed to help dowa was repealed by Osaka as being no longer necessary. A second reason no one ended the payments was because the 73-year-old leader was considered "scary."

And indeed he probably is. This is because of his known underworld ties. Many of these "projects" involved work with Yamaguchi-gumi, the largest yakuza group in Japan, and its subsidiaries. A former boss of the crime syndicate once surmised that "half of us are from the buraku, another 30% are Korean." And thus the payments from the city continued.

The BLL, which in the past could be intimidating--centuries of oppression will do that--has yet to officially react. Unlike the predictable caravan of black sound trucks filled with young men with buzz cuts bellowing slogans out of loudspeakers whenever the Emperor is "insulted," however, the BLL recently has tended to be more subtle.

What Osaka and its police are doing though is enforcing the law, which was in itself a taboo until now. How the BLL will react will signal the future of relations between the state and the outcaste community.

Drinking and Dining in Kyoto
Drinking and Dining in Osaka

Buraku Liberation League
Japan: A Reinterpretation

Sunday, May 14, 2006


つつじ Characters for 'tsutsuji', or azalea.
Azaleas, or 'tsutsuji', in Kamakura.
May in Japan means Golden Week: the country’s week of national holidays, the transition from mild spring to sweaty summer, and azaleas.

Azaleas are known as tsutsuji in Japanese, usually written in the phonetic hiragana script as the characters for the word (see above) are so mind-numbingly complex. The name was originally tsutsuki, simply meaning ‘continuation’or ‘following’, referring to how the flowers bloom in a row, one after the other. However, this was pleasantly corrupted to the softer sounding tsutsuji.

Most of azaleas, particularly the more brilliantly colored ones, are natives of far east Asia and have been cultivated in Japan since the Kamakura period, but especially during the Edo period. There are now over 300 known varieties.

Botanically speaking, the azalea is not a genus in its own right. It is part of the Rhododendron family. However, a distinction is made in Japanese, as in English, between the two – rhododendrons being called shakunage.

However, even within what are recognized as azaleas, there is a further division between the tsutsuji that blooms in May, and the satsuki which blooms in June. (Satsuki actually means ‘May’ in Japanese, but when the Japanese calendar was brought into line with the Western one, the months – but not the name of the flower – changed.)

The tsutsuji pictured here were photographed in Kamakura a few days ago. Azalea of this color are known botanically as Rhododendron indicum.

One of Tokyo's most famous azalea events is the Bunkyo Azalea Festival that happens in April at the beautiful Nezu Shrine.

Finally, from the distinguished Japanese haiku poet, Issa (1763-1827):

just as wonderful
as the expensive garden stone...

Books on Japan's Flora & Fauna

JapanVisitor podcast

ジャパン・ビジター の ポッドキャスト
Chindonya: Japanese entertainment troupe
There's nothing like sound for conveying an atmosphere with impact and immediacy.

JapanVisitor's podcast captures 15- to 30-second bytes of a variety of sounds that are typical of daily life in Japan.

Japanese commerce is particularly dependent on the 'human touch', meaning face-to-face sales and advertising techniques such as direct marketing of particular products in the supermarket, streetflyering, mobile vending, and even the use of traditional entertainment troupes.
Pachinko parlor, Tokyo.
The human touch is emulated even when the real thing is not possible, the politeness of a Japanese ATM machine being probably without equal. Such voices are invariably female and high pitched and even greet you when you get home and press Play on your answerphone.

As cutting edge as Japan is in terms of technology, the typical Tokyo neighborhood often seems little changed from fifty years ago. The streets are full of the sounds of hucksters and range from oversize garbage collectors to the Chinese dumpling, or gyoza, vendor.

Around election time the prohibition on door-to-door campaigning means everything is done through loudspeakers, whether from trucks and vans, or even politics from a bullhorn on a bicycle.

Subway systems and overland railway lines are crucial to the life of the city and the nation, and it is virtually impossible to spend a day without hearing a train announcement. And as if going to work isn't noisy enough, the ultimate in thunderosity is reserved for leisure: the pachinko parlor.
Japanese garden.
All is not urban, though. Japan's countryside is full of serene natural beauty, whether natural or cultivated in Buddhist temples, ringing with the songs of birds in Japan.

Check our podcast page often for updates.

Thursday, May 11, 2006



Shisendo Temple, KyotoOver the weekend, my family and I rode from our home in western Kyoto over to the Shisendo hermitage. On a warm spring day, we set off, passing Myoshinji and then coming up to the major east-west thoroughfare Imadegawa Dori (street). We rode past Kita no Tenmangu, through the Nishijin weaving district, past Doshisha University on our left and Gosho on our right, crossed the Kamo River, and then started the incline past Kyoto University. Just before the Silver Pavilion, we turned left onto Kita Shirakawa Dori. From there it is about one kilometer.

You turn up Manshuin Dori, and pedal up the hill. This is the Ichijo-ji area, which is at the foot of the mountains bordering the eastern edge of Kyoto City. It is an old and relatively unchanged area, if for no other reason that it is a bit out of the way. It still has a village feel to it though it is technically part of the city.

Shisendo Temple, KyotoShisendo itself is a hermitage that was established by Jozen Ishikawa, a scholar and soldier and landscape architect. Following his withdrawal from samurai service, in 1615, he devoted the rest of his life to studying Chinese classics. In 1641, when he was 59, he built what is now known as Shisendo.

You enter the grounds through a simple bamboo entrance, which takes you up a stone staircase that is surrounded by a bamboo grove. After slipping off your shoes and paying at the entrance, you enter the main hall. This overlooks a garden covered in white sand and azalea bushes. Below are wisteria, which were white and in full bloom, and a small pond with koi. The new leaves were nearly blindingly green.

Enkoji Temple, KyotoAfterwards, we walked several minutes over to Enkoji Temple and, later, through the surrounding neighborhood. Enkoji Temple was originally built in Fushimi, in south Kyoto, by Tokugawa Ieyasu. It moved to its current location in 1667. The garden was more natural than Shisendo's, and the main hall of the temple featured spectacular screens and sliding doors.

The statuary at left is a dozing child buddha that is set in the lush grounds of the temple.

Drinking and Dining in Kyoto
Drinking and Dining in Osaka


Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Yet more manhole covers


Japanese manhole covers, which come in a variety of designs depending on locality, utility type and the manufacturer of the manhole cover, have caught the imagination of a growing number of "drainspotters" from around the world.

Matsue City, Shimane manhole cover

I have really started to get into finding interesting manhole covers as I walk around in Japan. The one above is from Matsue City, Shimane, and shows a giant stone lantern on the shore of Lake Shinji.

Matsue City, Shimane manhole cover

Matsue City, Shimane

Drain, Matsue City, Shimane

Drain, Matsue City, Shimane. This one depicts the former residence of Lafcadio Hearn.

Tsuwano town, Shimane, manhole cover

Tsuwano town, Shimane.

Drain, Matsue City, Shimane.

Drain, Matsue City, Shimane.

Matsue City, Shimane, manhole cover.

Another version of the same design as earlier from Matsue City, Shimane.

Hirata City, Shimane, manhole cover.

Hirata City, Shimane.

Tsuwano Town, Shimane, manhole cover.

Tsuwano Town, Shimane. The town is famous for the giant carp in its waterways and laid-back Edo period atmosphere.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Suijin Matsuri


Suijin matsuri - the portable shrines are carried down to the river to the accompaniment of traditional music
Living on the largest river in west Japan, the Gounokawa, its not surprising that Suijin, the water God features a lot. Today was Suijin Matsuri. Following a ceremony in the neighborhood shrine, the local men carried the mikoshi (portable shrine) to the accompaniment of flute and drum.

Suijin matsuri - the mikoshi are placed on boatsInstead of parading the mikoshi around the village as is normal in most Matsuri, it was taken down to a boat waiting at the river's edge. One boat carried the mikoshi, the musicians, three priests, three boatmen and myself, while a second boat carried a group of young men and several ceremonial bamboo, gohei (a ritual wand) and sakaki (Cleyera japonica) branches.

Suijin matsuri - carp streamers are strung across the river The 2 boats headed slowly against the current to a spot upriver where 100 Koinobori are strung across the river from a high cliff to the other bank. Protruding over the river from the top of the cliff was a 10 meter length of bamboo with a huge gohei at its tip.

Suijin matsuri - a shinto priest reads prayers
While the young men clambered about replacing last year's ceremonial offerings with this years new ones, the three priests conducted another ceremony and read prayers to the kami (gods). Afterwards we all partook of the o-miki, the sake that had been offered to the kami.

Suijin matsuri - the mikoshi are floated on traditional boats
We headed back to our starting point and from there the mikoshi was carried on foot to a point on the main tributary, the Yatogawa, where the procedure was repeated. Until the rivers were dammed, the mikoshi would go all the way by water, but now the river level is too low for navigation.

Japanese festivals in May

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