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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Kasugayama Castle Ruins


High atop a mountain lies the ruins of Kasugayama Castle, formerly the great fortress of Uesugi Kenshin (1530-1578). The warlord is often named as a favorite by those interested in Japan's Warring States Era.

Kasugayama Castle Ruins.

Although what remains of the castle grounds are but ruins, it is easy to understand the strategic vision behind its location and construction. Uesugi Kenshin was truly the Lord of the Mountain and all he could see.

Kasugayama Castle Ruins.

To enjoy the site requires a good deal of walking; hence, I would encourage you to take a taxi from Naoetsu Station off the Shin’etsu Line from Niigata. I have seen the Kasugayama Station recommended online, but be forewarned there are no buses, taxis, or maps at that particular station.

Kasugayama Castle Ruins.

If you walk, it would require nearly an hour to reach the castle ruins. I would reserve your personal, daily Japan walking allotment to use on the castle grounds. Hike the trails, enjoy the surroundings, and even meditate. Then, once done, call a taxi to take you back to Naoetsu Station. Easy.

Kasugayama Castle Ruins

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Monday, November 28, 2016

Sawanotsuru Sake Museum

Sawanotsuru Sake Museum in the Nada-ku district of Kobe is one of several sake breweries that also have "sake museums," stores and tasting areas as part of their promotional operations.

Sawanotsuru Sake Museum, Nada-ku, Kobe.

Nada-ku has a long history of sake brewing thanks to the fine water than comes from nearby Mt. Rokko and bubbles to earth from the many springs in the area.

Kobe's closeness to the sea meant that its sake could easily be transported to other areas of Japan. Indeed, Sawanotsuru will be celebrating 300 years of history next year having started out back in 1717 during the Edo Period. Sawanotsuru produces junmai-shu - sake made only from rice.

Sawanotsuru Sake Museum, Nada-ku, Kobe.

The historic, wooden building that was once the Oishi sake brewery is now a museum that displays traditional sake-making utensils such as the metal cauldrons and huge wooden vats necessary to produce sake. Visitors can also see models of Japanese-style ships that transported the sake as far afield as Tokyo and Hokkaido.

The wooden building was completely destroyed in the 1995 Hanshin Awaji Earthquake and was then subsequently rebuilt, opening in 1999. During this rebuilding process, an underground cellar, the funaba, used for pressing sake out of fermented mash was discovered and restored.

The museum shop offers free samples and difficult-to-source Sawanotsuru brand sake.

Sawanotsuru Sake Museum, Nada-ku, Kobe.

Sawanotsuru Sake Museum
Oishi Minami-machi 1-29-1
Nada-ku, Kobe, 657-0852
Tel: 078 882 7788
Hours: 10am-4pm
Closed Wednesday

Sawanotsuru Sake Museum is 10 minutes on foot south from Hanshin Oishi Station following the Toga River.

Other sake museum/breweries in Nada-ku include Shushinkan, Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum, Sakuramasamune, Hamafukutsuru Ginjo, Kobe Konan Muko no Sato and Kikumasamune.

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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Japan News This Week 27 November 2016


Japan News.
New Quake Tests Resilience, and Faith, in Japan’s Nuclear Plants
New York Times

100 Women 2016: Kokoro - the cancer blog gripping Japan

Eyewitness: Tokyo

Painful bloopers in Japanese can be valuable learning experiences
Japan Times

Base Dependency and Okinawa’s Prospects: Behind the Myths
Japan Focus

Last Week's Japan News on the JapanVisitor blog


Japan has the third largest supply of geothermal resources in the world. Yet, it uses a paltry 2% of this resource.

Iceland has roughly 1/5 of Japan's reserves, but it produces more energy than Japan from geothermal - and uses Japanese made turbines.Mitsubishi Corporation  is the leading producer of geothermal turbines.

Amount of geothermal reserves (installed geothermal capacity as of 2010), by country:

USA: 30,000,000 kilowatt hours (3,093)
Indonesia: 27,790,000 (1,197)  
Japan: 23,470,000 (536)
Philippines: 6,000,000 (1,904)
Mexico: 6,000,000 (958)
Iceland: 5,800,000 (575)

Source: Japan For Sustainabilty

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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Japanese Agriculture in Crisis


All is not well on the Japanese farm.

The average age of a Japanese farmer in 2007 was 63.2 years old. Today it has climbed to 66.4. Of those, 63.5% are 65 years of age or older.

In 2007, there were 3,3530,000 farmers spread around Japan. Today just 2,097,000 farmers remain, many on postage stamp plots growing heavily subsidized rice soaked in chemical fertilizer and pesticide.

The above data comes from the 2015 government agriculture census. Moreover, according to the 2010 census, fewer than one million Japanese farmers earn their living exclusively from farming. Most, in other words, are farming as a side business. 70% earn less than two million yen ($20,000) per year from agriculture.

Organic farm Shiga Prefecture JapanAnd, last statistic (promise!), this is in a country that is supplying just 39% of its populations caloric needs. (This statistic is fungible - and depends on the way the data is counted. In Japan, it is counted on a calorie base. Other countries use different metrics. Still, Japan is a laggard in this respect - see source #4 below.)

The election of Donald Trump may actually, for the time being, serve as a life line to Japanese agriculture. The 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade bloc - which Trump campaigned against - would no doubt have flooded Japan with cheap farm products from mega-producers in the United States and other countries where large scale factory farming takes place. That would have pushed more pensioner farmers into retirement, speeding the decline in number of active farmers.

What is the solution according to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe? Well, until the election of Trump, it was TPP, creating huge farms that could compete internationally.

The problem with this, aside from environmental issues - yes, it would be worse than the current situation even with Japan's heavy dependence on chemical fertilizers - is that Japan's topography does not allow the kind of farming that occurs in the USA, Australia, Germany, and France. 70% of the country is mountainous and makes large-scale farming all but impossible.

A more personal solution: buy or rent land in the countryside and grow your own food. Land is cheap because Japanese cannot conceive of life without a convenience store nearby; as a result, a short drive outside of any metropolitan area in Japan takes you to a fast depopulating area filled with fields gone to seed and many elderly people.

The farm pictured above is an organic farm in Shiga Prefecture, about 30 minutes from Kyoto. It is roughly 4500 square meters (about 140 meters x 140 meters) and run by two farmers in their late 30s. They are the exception to nearly every trend in Japanese agriculture.


1)農業応援隊、Summer 2016

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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Takada Castle


Takada Castle was built by Matsudaira Tadateru, Ieyasu's 7th son. According to the 2000 Taiga drama "Aoi Tokugawa," Tadateru was "an incorrigible brat."

Takada Castle, Niigata.


The castle construction involved thirteen daimyo, including Uesugi Kagekatsu of Yonezawa and Made Toshitsune of Kanazawa. Tadateru’s father-in-law, Date Masamune headed up the project.

Takada Castle, Niigata.

Date Masamune is one of my favorite daimyo because he seemed to be a bit of a scallywag. From what I have studied, Masamune was always up to something, and Ieyasu was probably wise to keep an eye on him. But I seriously wonder why he would have his son Tadateru, the "incorrigible brat," marry into the Date family to Iroha-hime, Masamune's oldest daughter. Masamune could not have been a good influence on him. He may have even encouraged Tadateru’s rebelliousness.

Takada Castle, Niigata, Japan.

Well, we all know what happened to Tadateru. He came late to the Siege of Osaka Castle and Hidetada, usually an even-tempered sort (and famously late to Sekigahara), was mad. Tadateru ended up living in obscurity in Suo Province, where he died at age 91. Maybe it was not so bad there, since he outlived all his brothers.

Takada Castle, Niigata, Japan.

But back to the castle - we took the Limited Express Shirayuki (about a two hour ride) from Niigata City to Takada Station. It was an easy 10-minute walk to the castle, and we enjoyed our time there.

Takada Castle is known as one of three top cherry blossom viewing spots in Japan. The Million Visitors Cherry Blossom Festival takes place every April. In late July, the moats are filled with magnificent blooming lotus flowers.

Takada Castle, Niigata, Japan.

It is said that the beauty and scale of the lotus are the finest in the East. The Joetsu Lotus Festival takes place every summer. It would be especially nice to visit Takada during one (or both) of these festivals. Just be sure to watch out for the mischievous, incorrigible crows!

Takada Castle, Niigata.

Takada Castle
6-1 Motoshirocho
Niigata Prefecture 943-0835

Admission: 200 yen; closed Mondays

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Monday, November 21, 2016

The 80s & Radiohead

The 80s & Radiohead, Nagoya.

Bowden & Mason = BASONHEAD
Matthew and Paul play Radiohead
Dean & Matthew = D & M
80s electropop
December 23 (Fri/national holiday)
Open 7:30pm Start 8:00pm
¥1,500 + 1 drink
The boys are back with more sounds from the 80s and 90s. Come on down to GC Live and add your voice to the sound of the crowd!

オープン19:30 スタート20:00
1500円 + 1ドリンク

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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Japan News This Week 20 November 2016


Japan News.
Japan’s Nuclear Industry Finds a Lifeline in India After Foundering Elsewhere
New York Times

Japan embraces robots ahead of 2020 Olympics

Studio Ghibli's Hayao Miyazaki to return to features with caterpillar movie

Asylum seekers trapped in limbo as Japan keeps door closed
Japan Times

Instability, the Crisis of Politics, and Social Movements: The Contemporary World and Japan
Japan Focus

Last Week's Japan News on the JapanVisitor blog


Japan remains one of the world’s worst-performing nations in tackling climate change, think tank Germanwatch said Wednesday. Japan was deemed the second-worst performer of 57 countries and Taiwan the worst, this year’s Climate Change Performance Index report showed.

Source: Japan Times

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Friday, November 18, 2016

Richard Henry Brunton & Lighthouses in Japan

Richard Henry Brunton.

Richard Henry Brunton (1841-1901) was a Scottish engineer responsible for the design and construction of 26 lighthouses along the coast of Japan during the early Meiji Period. He is known as the "Father of Japanese Lighthouses".

At the instigation of Sir Harry Parkes, the British envoy and consul in Japan, Brunton was employed by the Tokugawa authorities to build a series of lighthouses to improve the safety of Japan's waters. The Tokugawa regime fell while Brunton was on his way to Japan but he continued on his journey and was employed by the new Meiji government.

Over the next seven and a half years Brunton built 26 western-style lighthouses and established a system of lighthouse keepers, modeled on the Scottish system.

As well as his chain of lighthouses in Japan, Brunton was active in the new foreign settlement of Yokohama, where he planned the sewage system, had detailed maps of the town drawn up, installed gas lights, pavements, a telegraph system and still had time to build Yokohama's first iron bridge.

Tsunoshima Lighthouse.

His other achievements in Japan were helping to establish Japan's first school of civil engineering and accompanying the Iwakura Mission on its fact-finding tour of Britain, taking Ito Hirobumi and his group to visit factories in London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and then on to his native Scotland and Edinburgh.

Brunton left Japan in 1876 after a disagreement with Japanese officials and eventually settled in London. He is buried in Norwood Cemetery.

Inubosaki Lighthouse, Choshi, Chiba.

Brunton's 26 lighthouses are as follows:

Nosappuzaki Lighthouse (納沙布岬灯台), Nemuro, Hokkaido, Shiriyazaki Lighthouse (尻屋埼灯台), Higashidori, Aomori, Kinkasan Lighthouse (金華山灯台), Ishinomaki, Miyagi, Inubosaki Lighthouse (犬吠埼燈台), Choshi, Chiba, Haneda Lighthouse (羽田灯台), Ota, Tokyo, Tsurugisaki Lighthouse (剱埼灯台), Miura, Kanagawa, Mikomotoshima Lighthouse (神子元島灯台), Shimoda, Shizuoka, Irozaki Lighthouse (石廊埼灯台), Minamiizu, Shizuoka, Omaezaki Lighthouse (御前埼灯台), Omaezaki, Shizuoka, Sugashima Lighthouse (菅島灯台), Toba, Anorisaki Lighthouse (安乗埼灯台), Ago, Mie, Tenpozan Lighthouse (天保山灯台), Minato-ku, Osaka, Wadamisaki Lighthouse (和田岬灯台), Suma-ku, Kobe, Esaki Lighthouse (江埼燈台 Awaji, Hyogo, Kashinozaki Lighthouse (樫野埼灯台), Kushimoto, Wakayama, Shionomisaki Lighthouse (潮岬灯台), Kushimoto, Wakayama, Tomogashima Lighthouse (友ヶ島灯台), Wakayama, Wakayama, Mutsurejima Lighthouse (六連島灯台), Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi, Tsunoshima Lighthouse (角島灯台), Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi, Tsurishima Lighthouse (釣島灯台), Matsuyama, Ehime Nabeshima Lighthouse (鍋島灯台), Sakaide, Kagawa, Hesaki Lighthouse (部埼灯台), Kitakyushu, Fukuoka, Shirasu Lighthouse (白州灯台), Kitakyushu, Fukuoka, Eboshijima Lighthouse (烏帽子島灯台), Shima, Fukuoka, Iojimazaki Lighthouse (伊王島灯台), Nagasaki, Nagasaki, Satamizaki Lighthouse (佐多岬灯台), Minamiosumi, Kagoshima.

Tomogashima Lighthouse, Wakayama.

Many of these lighthouses are still in operation or at least in situ, a few have been extinquished and some of the buildings are now museum pieces such as a lighthouse keeper's residence from Nabeshima on display at Shikoku Mura.

Shirasu Lighthouse (白州灯台), Kitakyushu, Fukuoka.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Super Hotels in Japan


Today I want to talk about the Super Hotel chain, in Niigata City and in general. My daughter and I recently spent two nights in the Super Hotel conveniently located near the Niigata City Station.

Super Hotel, Niigata City, Niigata Prefecture.

We chose a non-smoking room equipped with two beds, one of them a loft bed, which my daughter is fond of sleeping in. Having this set up does give a traveler a bit more room. With the free daily breakfast, we were happy in our accommodations. Plus, ladies - the hair dryer actually dries your hair! Super Hotel in Niigata City is great!

The hair dryer actually dries your hair.

This being said, however, all Super Hotels are not equal. A traveler needs to weigh the pros and cons of Super Hotel's lower price and the accessibility of the hotel.

Super Hotel in HakataFukuoka City holds the distinction of being the first hotel of the chain. But two people (us) were provided with a single-person bed. The room was so tiny I laughed when I set eyes on it.

Super Hotels in Japan.

Another iffy choice is Super Hotel in Kitakyushu. Far from the train station, the trek involves a walk along dark, dark streets (kind of scary) in which your way is lit only by a lone 7-11 convenience store off in the distance.

In Osaka, there are at least five Super Hotels and I strongly suggest you say no to all of them. Because they are not close to any train station, you must pull your luggage a long ways over rutted sidewalks and navigate between hordes of people. If it is a hot day like the one we experienced, your walk will be notably tiring.

Super Hotels in Japan.

My daughter and I, as budget-minded travelers, have stayed in many Super Hotels, and we have enjoyed nights in Otsu, Takamatsu Tamachi, and most recently in Niigata City. Of course, we will continue to patronize the Super Hotel chain, but not without a little discrimination.

Super Hotel Kokura-eki Minami-guchi

Super Hotel Osaka Tennoji

Super Hotel Osaka Natural Hot Springs

Super Hotel Asakusa Tokyo

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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A Japanese Bingo Game

I have always liked to make up games, and thus it seemed natural to continue that sort of thing in Japan, where there can be a lot of waiting time.

On my recent trip I began to notice images of the Japanese celebrities I see every time I travel to Japan. As I have mentioned before, I feel as if I am seeing a familiar face welcoming me back to Japan. This time I thought, “This could be a game!”

A Japanese Celebrity Bingo Game.

I have made two bingo cards, one for yourself and one for a traveling companion. Mark off the celebrity as you see them, either in a magazine, a billboard, on television, or in advertising. You must have a confirmation of your sighting, meaning your companion has to see it too.

Now you need to decide: Is each completed square worth, say, a 100 yen coin? Then does the winner get to have the other player’s coins as a prize? Or do you set up other stakes? Are the squares worth food or drink? Is the prize a meal? Make up your own rules.

Try it, please. And have fun!

A Japanese Bingo Game.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Japan News This Week 13 November 2016


Japan News.
Japan Uses Speed, Not Size, to Take Women’s Basketball to New Heights
New York Times

US election 2016: The view from Japan

The school of flesh: erotic portraits of Yukio Mishima – in pictures

Washed up? Tokyo’s iconic communal bath houses face an uncertain future
Japan Times

Has Komeito Abandoned its Principles? Public Perception of the Party’s Role in Japan’s Security Legislation Debate
Japan Focus

Last Week's Japan News on the JapanVisitor blog


Amount of chemical fertilizer used for agricultural purposes by country (kilograms/hectare):

1. China (17.8)
2. South Korea (13.1)
3. Japan (12.1)
4. Chile (11.6)
5. Belgium (11.3)
6. New Zealand (9.9)
7. Holland (8.8)
8. Italy (7.4)
9. Malaysia (7.2)
10. Portugal (6.4)

18. United Kingdom (2.8)

23. USA (2.4) 

Source: Faostat

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Saturday, November 12, 2016

Kobe Mosque


Kobe Mosque was the first mosque in Japan and opened in 1935 in the Kitano district of the city close to the many ijinkan or foreign residences. Kobe mosque was designed by Czech architect Jan Josef Švagr (1885-1969), who also designed a number of other places of worship in Japan.

Kobe Mosque, Kitano, Kobe, Japan.

Kobe Mosque came through US air raids unscathed during World War II and also survived the devastating Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995.

Kobe Mosque
2-25-14, Nakayamate-dori
Kobe 650-0004
Tel: 078 231 6060

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Thursday, November 10, 2016

Hosenji Temple Seto


Hosenji Temple is located in the east of Seto City in the quiet Kamagaki district of the city close to Kamagaki-no-komichi, the Kamagaki-no-komichi Museum and the Seto Hongyo Kiln.

Hosenji Temple Seto, Aichi.

Hosenji was founded around 750 years ago in 1252. It became a Zen-sect temple in 1648.

Most impressive are the Sanmon or entrance gate and the paintings on the ceiling of the main hall done by pottery craftspeople. The main hall also holds an image of the thousand-armed Kannon.

The large and ancient bell in the temple was taken as part of the war effort in the 1940's and was replaced thanks to donations by parishoners after the war.

Hosenji Temple, Seto, Aichi Prefecture, Japan.

In early November, the temple hosts the Amenbo Festival dedicated to the Buddha of Healing.

Hosenji Temple
30 Teramotocho
Seto, Aichi Prefecture 489-0838
Tel: 0561 82 2316

Hours: 9am-5pm; Free admission.

Hosenji Temple, Seto city, Aichi Prefecture.

Seto city is best accessed on the Meitetsu Seto Line from Sakae-machi Station next to Oasis 21 in central Nagoya or from Ozone Station, also on the Meijo Line of the Nagoya subway. By express train the journey time is 31 minutes or 38 minutes by local from Sakae-machi Station.

Other places of interest in Seto city include Seto-gura Museum and the Seto Ceramics and Glass Art Center.

Hosenji Temple, Seto city, Aichi Prefecture, Japan.

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Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Kyoto Heian Hotel


The Kyoto Heian Hotel is located on the west side of the Kyoto Imperial Palace (Gosho). The highlight of a stay here is the lovely Edo Period garden on the premises. The 1,650m² garden was created by Jihei Ogawa in the 1920's over what was once the garden of a court noble. The strolling garden contains a pond, a waterfall, a stone bridge and various stone lanterns.

Kyoto Heian Hotel, Kyoto.

The Kyoto Heian Hotel has both Japanese-style tatami rooms as well as Western-style rooms. There are two restaurants at the hotel: the Japanese-style Hofune facing the garden and the French-style Cafe Arbois.

Kyoto Heian Hotel, Kyoto, Japan.

The Kyoto Heian Hotel is a short walk south from Exit 6 of Imadegawa Station on the Kyoto subway and a short walk north from the Kyoto Garden Palace Hotel.

Kyoto Heian Hotel, Kyoto, Japan.

Kyoto Heian Hotel
Karasumadori Kamichojamachi-agaru
Kyoto, 602-0912
Tel: 075 432 6181
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Monday, November 07, 2016

Pig & Whistle Kyoto

The Pig & Whistle pub on Sanjo is something of a Kyoto institution among foreigners in the city and will be celebrating its 30th anniversary this December.

Pig & Whistle, Sanjo, Kyoto.

The Pig hasn't changed that much in its 30 years of service, the dart boards are still there, as is the fish and chips and draft Guinness; an extra bar and table football are later additions. The interior decor is descibed on Japanese review sites as "retro" which I suppose it is, as it celebrates 30.

Pig & Whistle Sanjo, Kyoto, Japan.

Now part of a small chain of British style bars which include the Man in the Moon pubs near Kyoto Station and others in Shijo Karasuma, Gion and Rokkaku.

Pig & Whistle Kyoto.

Pig & Whistle
Shobi Building 2F, 115 Ohashicho
Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto 605-0009
Tel: 075 761 6022
Hours: Monday-Thursday & Sunday 5pm-2am; Friday & Saturday 5pm-5am

Dart boards, Pig & Whistle Kyoto.

The Pig & Whistle is very close to the north east exit of Sanjo Station on the Kyoto subway.

Pig & Whistle, Sanjo, Kyoto.

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Sunday, November 06, 2016

Japan News This Week 6 November 2016


Japan News.
3 Japanese Shipping Companies to Merge Container Businesses
New York Times

US election 2016: The view from Japan

Japan to conduct racism survey after record rise in foreign residents

Paris global warming accord kicks in but Japanese ratification delayed by TPP
Japan Times

The Showa Emperor’s Tour of Tokyo, March 18, 1945
Japan Focus

Last Week's Japan News on the JapanVisitor blog


The number of foreign tourists has skyrocketed in Japan. In particular, in mid-size (Kyoto, Hiroshima) and smaller cities (Nara, Nikko, Kamakura), the flood of tour buses and camera-toting visitors can be overwhelming in many locations.

As of October 30, 2016, the number of foreign tourists had topped the 20 million mark.

80% of those visitors come from four countries: China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong. The government is expecting the total to double to 40 million by 2020, in which Tokyo hosts the summer Olympics.

Source: Yomiuri Shinbun

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Saturday, November 05, 2016

Bungalow & Beer House Craftman Kyoto


Craft beer bars are increasing in Japan's major cities and have become something of a fashionable trend as more and more young people turn away from the standard fare served up by Japan's big four brewers.

Beer House Craftman Kyoto.

Two such craft beer bars in Kyoto are Bungalow on Shijo Horikawa and Beer House Craftman just south of Shijo Karasuma close to the Starbucks and the Karasuma Kyoto Hotel - both are rather different in style.

Bungalow is a fairly informal, reasonably friendly, low key joint with plastic sheeting for walls whereas Beer House Craftman is a rather snooty, upmarket affair complete with stiff wait staff and that familiar unwelcoming Kyoto welcome. Both serve excellent craft beer, however, which is should be your main purpose for visiting.

Bungalow Craft Beer Bar, Kyoto.

The two establishments serve decent food as well. Bungalow is heavy on the meat - the carved beef looked delicious - and it was the first time I had seen tripe on a Kyoto menu. Vegetarians would be limited to the French fries. The potato salad comes with ham and egg.

Beer House Craftman offers a set of three beers - all good - for 1500 yen or larger glasses on tap. The food is Italianesque and small in portion delivered by waiters in white coats with all the charm and refinement of trainee lab technicians.

Both places have two floors with the more informal drinking taking place on the first (ground) floor and the serious eating on the second floor. Bungalow has a few standing tables as well for that Kansai tachinomiya feel.

Beer House Craftman Kyoto Japan.

15 Kashiwayacho
Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto
Tel: 075 256 8205
Hours: 3pm-2am (weekdays and Saturday); 12pm-11pm (Sunday)

Bungalow (Teramachi)
Tat Bldg B1, 476 Kamihonnojimae
Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto
Tel: 075 211 8507
Hours: 5pm-midnight; closed Sunday

Just off Teramachi, close to Kyoto City Hall.

Beer House Craftman
643-1 Nijo Hanjikicho
Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto 600-8412
Tel: 075 371 7676
Hours: 5pm-2am

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Thursday, November 03, 2016

My First Japan - Reminiscences of an Assistant English Teacher on Sado Island


My first experience of Japan was a small island in the Sea of Japan called Sadogashima (Sado Island), part of Niigata Prefecture.

Sado Island at that time had several municipalities, including a city called Ryotsu, which is where I was based as an assistant English teacher (AET) in junior high schools.

Sado is by no means a wealthy part of Japan. Most of what in the late 1980s would have been a population of about 40,000 made its living from farming or fishing. There were one or two towns that were better off than others, each with their own AET, but I was employed by the Kaetsu Board of Education, not Ryotsu. Ryotsu was the main harbor on Sado, and traditionally a fishing town. It was certainly not one of the better off parts of Sado and did not employ me.

Yes, this was the late 1980s when Japan was on a high. Japan's economy was the second biggest in the world, after the US, and I recall the yen being so strong that it was about 87 yen to the USD at one stage. I also recall things like the standard drink machine price being 60 yen as opposed to about 120 yen today. Japan was on an all-time high - palpable even in out-on-a-limb Sado.

I had four good friends in Ryotsu, who had adopted me a few weeks into my stay. I was walking home from my school one evening when someone from a car parked outside my place approached me and made my acquaintance in good English. He was the local tailor, and with him in the car was a young farmer, and another shopkeeper who sold women's clothing. Another member of my new gang was the only female: a Japanese Korean woman who ran the local pachinko parlor as well as an English cram school.

My friends helped me integrate into the Ryotsu community by organizing a Wednesday evening English conversation class open to all - with, of course, me as teacher. It had a regular attendance of about 15 to 20 people. Through my group of friends I also took part in the annual Ryotsu festival once or twice, dressed up as a ballerina one time as part of the shopkeepers' part of the procession, all of them in drag.

Many weekends, the group of four and I, plus one or two others, would go out on the town, to an izakaya and karaoke afterwards. One of the regular "others" was an energetic young oddball whose favorite song was "Japanese Businessman" - a number that perfectly summed up the mood in Japan at that time. The verses of this martial-sounding ditty likened the businessman to a doughty samurai setting out to conquer the world, and the refrain was powerfully simple: "Bee-zhee-nesu mahn, bee-zhi-nesu-mahn, Jah-pah-NEEEEE-zu bee-zhee-nesu-mahn!" This guy would belt it out with heartfelt fervor and the whole of Japan behind him.

Even with the Japanese economy at its climax, Ryotsu showed no signs of any opulence, just the hard grind that had brought Japan to where it was at. I was unique (to put a gloss on it) among the four AETs on Sado for living in a bit of a dive - albeit quite a spacious one. It was one the second floor of a two-story prefab with a family next door and four people in a unit each downstairs, and there was a small hole in the wall of the entrance. The neighbors never got used to me, although the fierce little next-door girl's regular animosity did change all of a sudden to admiration in the aftermath of my abovementioned festival transformation into a pretty ballerina.

There was a car ferry to Niigata City - as there still is - that took 2 hours and 20 minutes. I'd take it once a month to the monthly Kaetsu Board of Education meeting of the AETs it employed, and about once a month to Tokyo  where I would go for R&R.

My memories of what Japan's glory days were like have mostly melted into a golden muddle that I can't distinguish now from my excitement at being in the country I'd always wanted to visit since I was in elementary school. The fact that I stayed as upbeat as ever about Japan even after the economy hit a massive rock in early 1992 suggests that the latter was a lot more significant.

25 years later, I was back on Sado. The "Nakano Mansion" I had lived in for three years was still standing, but completely boarded up. Ryotsu City was no longer. Well, it was there but it was now part of what was now Sado City, which covered the whole island, obliterating the various towns and villages that had existed at the time. Only a handful of the stores lining the main street remained in business. The friend's women's clothing shop and the other friend's pachinko parlor were gone. However, there on that same corner where I spent so many weekends being regaled about Japanese history, in a shop that hadn't changed a bit in quarter of a century, there sat my old friend the tailor (and Waseda University graduate) still there behind his counter, as energetic and sharpwitted as ever and as delighted to see me again as I him  - still in business, a true businessman, a Japanese businessman!

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