Saddam Hussein was not the only prisoner to be hanged this week. Four men, two in their 70s, were hanged in Japan on December 25.
The lower half of a man's body, found in a residential garden in Shibuya, matches the headless trunk found in Shinjuku, Tokyo.
Japan loves cute. Small, furry, deformed and cute.
New York Times
Film critic and author Donald Richie celebrates his 60th year in Japan on January 1st.
Japanese people are not having enough sex, the population of Japan is beginning to decrease.
The Daily Yomiuri
Brazilian suspect flees Japan. The man, who is the prime suspect in a triple murder case in Shizuoka, Japan, has left the country.
Chizuko Okamoto, on trial for the murder of her daughter, puts the blame on her incestuous stepson.
Last week's Japan news
More than 60% of Japanese women who leave work to have their first child subsequently remain unemployed.
In companies where women comprise 40-50% of the workforce, average profits are double those of companies where women make up less than 10% of employees.
Source: Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry
Parts of Tokyo Tower are made from the scrap metal from 90 US tanks damaged in the Korean War.
The average Japanese female breast size has grown over the last 25 years. In 1980 58.6% of women were A-cup. In 2004, B-cup and C-cup were each 27.8% respectively, with A-cup down to just 10.2%.
Source: Triumph International
Hotels in Japan
Toshiba Satellite PCs
Books by Donald Richie
Sunday, December 31, 2006
Saturday, December 30, 2006
Japan is a trainspotter's delight. Japan's modern, extensive and on the whole safe, rail network, made up of scores of private rail companies, stretches over approximately 20,000 km from Hokkaido to Kyushu.
Japan Rail History
Railways were first introduced to Japan in 1872 in the Meiji era modernization period when a 29-km line was built under British guidance from Tokyo (Shimbashi) to Yokohama. Before this in 1854, Commodore Perry had set up a model railway on the beach in Yokohama, which delighted and enthralled the Japanese dignitaries in attendance.
In 1874 a line was opened between Osaka and Kobe, which was extended two years later to reach Kyoto. Most railways in the early expansion period of the rail network in Japan were privately owned and financed, with only a few routes government operated.
JNR to JRs
In 1906, however, 17 private rail companies were purchased by the state. Post-war in 1949, all government-owned railways were reorganized as a public corporation - Japanese National Railways (JNR) .
Japan's first shinkansen (bullet train) line, 552 km in length, linking Tokyo and Osaka opened in 1964 in time for the Tokyo Olympics of that year. 1964 was also the first year that JNR made a loss, despite the new profits made by the shinkansen, and as the deficits grew annually into unsustainable debt, JNR was split up into regional groups and finally privatized in 1987.
JNR was broken up into seven new JR companies: JR Central, JR East, JR Freight, JR Hokkaido, JR Kyushu, JR Shikoku and JR West and the total number of employees was slashed from over 400,000 to less than 200,000.
The successor JR companies account for around 70% of Japan's total rail network with several regional companies making up the other 30%, operating mostly local and metropolitan commuter rail networks. The JR successor companies operate over 20,000 services daily.
Japan Private Rail Networks
The major regional private rail networks operate lines ranging in length from around 50km to 600km. Kintetsu in Kansai is the largest with around 570km of track, followed by Meitetsu centered in Nagoya with approx. 500 km of track, then Tobu in the Tokyo metropolitan area with about 450km of rail network.
The major Japanese private rail networks are listed below.
Tokyo and the Kanto Region
Trains from Tokyo to Yokohama, Haneda Airport and Kanagawa Prefecture.
Keio runs trains from Tokyo to areas west of Tokyo.
Trains from Tokyo to Narita Airport and Chiba Prefecture.
Metropolitan Intercity Railway Company
Trains (TX Express) from Akihabara in Tokyo to Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture.
Trains from Tokyo to areas west of Tokyo, Hakone and Kanagawa Prefecture.
Trains from Tokyo to areas west of Tokyo.
Trains from Tokyo to Nikko and the area north of Tokyo.
Trains from Tokyo to areas south of Tokyo and Yokohama.
Western Japan and the Kinki Region
Trains from Osaka to Kobe and Kyoto. Hankyu has merged with Hanshin but the companies maintain separate identities.
Trains from Osaka to Kobe.
Trains from Osaka to Kyoto.
Kintetsu, the nation's largest network after JR, links Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya, Nara, and the Ise Shima area in Mie Prefecture.
Trains from Osaka to Kansai International Airport (KIX), Koyasan and Wakayama Prefecture.
Nagoya and the Central Japan (Chubu) Region
Trains from Nagoya to Gifu, Toyohashi, Arimatsu and Chubu International Airport.
Fukuoka and the Kyushu Region
Suburban trains from Fukuoka.
There are seven privately owned SL (steam locomotive) lines in operation in Japan.
Street cars or trams were once a feature of most Japanese cities in the 1940s after the first tram appeared in Kyoto in 1895, but on the whole light rail is in decline with services having been cut in Gifu altogether and Kyoto having just one line. Nagasaki, Okayama, Kumamoto, Hiroshima and Toyohashi still run street car networks with the total network nationwide now around 250km.
JR Rail Pass
Seishun Juhachi Kippu
Gifts From Japan
Japan Japan Trains shinkansen Japan Travel JR Meitetsu Keihan rail
Friday, December 29, 2006
Located roughly five-ten minutes on foot from Keihan Railways Chushojima Station or Kintetsu Railways Momoyama Goryu Mae Station, in the Fushimi section of south Kyoto, is the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum. Whether you are a connoisseur of Japanese rice wine or not, the building and grounds and exhibit hall are well worth the short trip from central Kyoto.
Founded in 1637, Gekkeikan is now Japan’s second largest brewer of sake. The factory, which is hard by the old canal that was used for transporting the product to both Kyoto and Osaka, is in an area famed for its natural springs. The water was said to be almost sweet in its purity—and thus ideal for use with rice, molded rice, and yeast in producing Japan’s best-known drink.
We got off at Fushimi Momoyama Station and walked down the covered arcade high street several blocks, and then turned left. Several short blocks and the tall sake storage tanks came into view—along with the pungent smell of sake. They look like mini-silos, perhaps 10 meters high, and stand behind traditional Japanese walls. From here you wind your way to the Museum.
Tickets for adults cost 300 yen. You can wander the grounds, which house sake cellars (above), chimneys, and a small garden. Inside there is a gallery that covers the history of the company, and the tools used in the past to produce sake. After the tour, there was a tasting area and the requisite gift shop.
Behind the cellars on the outside the wall, the old canal is still there—no longer used for transportation but kept up with walking paths and boats that are used for tours in the warm weather. From the canal, we walk back up to the high street via a narrow and traditional shopping street filled with Japanese goods such as happi coats, wooden toys, fans, byobu screens, and masks.
Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum
9:30AM to 4:30PM Tuesday through Saturday
Closed: New Year holidays and O-Bon Festival (mid-August).
The museum is not far from Fushimi Inari Shrine and can be visited together on the same day.
Thursday, December 28, 2006
Nagoya Station is Japan's and the world's biggest station. Known locally as Meieki, the station complex with a floor area of 410,000 m², edges Kyoto Station and Shinjuku Station in Tokyo in Japan's big station league.
Most of those 410,000 m² however are taken up by a Takashimaya department store, restaurants, the Nagoya Marriott Associa Hotel and shops in the twin towers, or to give them their proper name, the JR Central Towers, that rise up over the station concourse and its underground malls. The impressive 240 meter-plus glass towers were completed in 1999 and have excellent views over the city from the observation deck.
Nagoya Station serves JR trains including the Tokaido Shinkansen to Osaka and Tokyo, Meitestu's local urban network of commuter trains to such places as Toyohashi, Gifu and Chubu International Airport, Kintetsu Railway trains to Namba in Osaka and Ise Jingu and Toba in Mie Prefecture.
Nagoya Station is also a terminal for local buses and both the JR and Meitetsu Highway bus network with buses to Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Takayama and other destinations.
The area around Nagoya Station has a good number of economy hotels and cheap guesthouses and is a good place for a visitor to make a base for any visit to the city. City buses and the subway radiate out from the station and the area is definitely on the up as a place to eat and enjoy a night out in competition with nearby Fushimi and Sakae.
Arimatsu, a short ride on the Meitetsu Line from Nagoya Station is famous for its shibori tie-dye products.
Japan Nagoya Nagoya Station Japan Travel station hotel Meieki rail
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
The skyscrapers of West Shinjuku in Tokyo may be big, but they're not too big to get into the spirit of the festive season.
Here on the right is 'Tocho', or the offices of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government dressed up in red and green lights for yuletide.
And on the left is another of the many towers that make up the rest of West Shinjuku expressing its Christmas cheer in a slightly different way.
Buy a "Pussy Party" from GoodsFromJapan!
JapanVisitor's Guide to Tokyo
Japan Tokyo Shinjuku Christmas Xmas skyscraper lighting
Sunday, December 24, 2006
The BBC reported on a shopper on the southern island of Okinawa who was stung by a scorpion as she tried on a pair of jeans.
"Doing Time" is not about life in prison--though it is set in a
penitentiary--but the "joys" of regimented living. Director Yoichi Sai's
latest film documents the daily life in the pen, and how everything is
prescribed and proscribed. Read the Midnight Eye Review.
According to the New York Times, Daisuke Matsuzaka is type O. As is Hideki Matsui. And Kei Igawa. And most Japanese leaders. Ichiro, always the odd ball, is B. In Japan, personality
and success are dictated by blood type. Read more on blood types [+]
Public toilets for men in Japan are, well, very public, according to The Japan Times.
The Daily Yomiuri - Japanese man's brain "hibernates" and saves his life. All those who have taught school in Japan will know exactly how he did it.
The JR driver who overshot a curve, which led to a derailment killing 107
passengers in a 2005 accident near Osaka, was so worried about an earlier
mistake that he was fixated on talking on his radio to the control
center--and failed to brake in time. The Herald Asahi reports.
Japan honors robots in government-sponsored ceremony - New York Times.
70 million newspapers are distributed daily in Japan.
90% of all newspapers in Japan are home delivered.
The largest-selling daily The Yomiuri Shimbun has a circulation of 14 million readers.
Japan Health Stats
The average hospital stay in Japan is 27 days compared with 3-4 days in the US and 7-8 days in Europe.
Japan has 1.8 million hospital beds, nearly twice the number in the US.
Also, as anyone who has lived in Japan will know, a visit to the doctor or hospital outpatients upon catching a common cold is considered almost de rigueur in Japan.
Japan Health Stats Source: The Japan Healthcare Debate: Diverse Perspectives
Last Week's Japan News
Hotels in Japan
Japan Scorpion Okinawa Japan News Daisuke Matsuzaka Blood Types Yoichi Sai
Saturday, December 23, 2006
Click here for the sound of the yaki-imo (roasted yam) vendor.
Today was one of those winter days that revert to autumn. It was too beautiful a day to spend even a minute of it more indoors than I had to, so by 10am I was in Suginami-ku on my bike, soaking in the sunshine that flooded the parkland running alongside the Zenpukuji River.
Leaves were still falling from trees, elementary school boys were in their stripes and oversize helmets practicing their swings and pitches, old men lazed and laughed on park benches, dogs were being walked, stern-faced joggers grasping handweights ran by with furrowed brows, and crows cawed.
My stomach rumbles around midday were answered by the cry of the yaki-imo seller, who I chased on my bike, stopped, and bought a nice fat juicy one from.
Click the link at the top of the entry to hear the cry of the yaki-imo vendor.
JapanVisitor podcasts: sounds of the real Japan.
Click here for Japan book Reviews.
Japan Tokyo Suginami park yam vendor yaki-imo
Thursday, December 21, 2006
What is Japanese Architecture
Traditional Japanese architecture—ranging from Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, private residences, castles, to teahouses—ranks among the most beautiful in the world. From the great temples, such as Horyuji and Todaiji, to private homes, classic Japanese building is justly famous.
Beyond this, though, few people can distinguish Japanese architecture from Chinese or Korean or even Southeast Asian architecture. Things get more muddled when comparing two different types of Japanese buildings.
This text, however, goes a long way towards rectifying that problem. Construction, design, carpentry, and the background of Japanese architecture, from prehistory to the middle of the nineteenth century, are laid out concisely in this work.
In addition, there are more than 300 drawings that help the novice to have a better understanding of the buildings. Moreover, there is a section on religious structures, residences, castles, and places of entertainment.
The writers go over the details that distinguish buildings, and also discuss the historical conditions and the people that influenced them.
Japan's three historical capitals—Nara, Kyoto, Edo (Tokyo)—are discussed in terms of building style and technique. In addition, the following building types are highlighted: the mansions of the court nobility, the castles and residences of the samurai aristocracy, the homes of village elders, dwellings of the common people, educational institutions, and places of entertainment such as theaters, red-light districts, teahouses, and country villas.
A wonderful primer.
What is Japanese Architecture: Buy this book from Amazon
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Click here for Japan Book Reviews of Japanese architecture.
Monday, December 18, 2006
Listen to an old Japanese nationalist playing the shamisen in Yasukuni Shrine
I took a walk at lunchtime today up to Yasukuni Jinja – the Shinto shrine that former Prime Minister Koizumi’s ‘private’ visits to caused so much trouble for Japan’s relations with its neighbors. It is late autumn now, and the shrine grounds were covered with fallen bright yellow ginkgo leaves, and the air filled with the distinctive odor of the fallen and rotting ginkgo nuts.
Something caught my ear as soon as I crossed Yasukuni-dori Avenue to get to the shrine: the sound of the Japanese shamisen: a three-stringed instrument something like a lute. Upon entering the grounds, the first thing I noticed was a couple of right-wing sound vans (i.e. black vans packing massive speakers on top that the right wing harangues the citizens from) parked there. They were not in action though – just parked.
Not far from them, sitting on the base of a stone lantern was an old man plucking the shamisen. He was wearing a shirt plastered with nationalist slogans. I took a pic of him, and pulled out my MP3 recorder and recorded a minute or two of his playing. You can hear the sounds of the shamisen by clicking on the link at the top.
After listening to him I wandered on, taking in the leaves, as were a couple of Japanese Catholic nuns who were taking in the cool golden afternoon.
I had to be back at the office so reluctantly left the sunny grounds behind me, and the grizzled old shamisen player, plunk plunking away into the distance.
Read more about Yasukuni Shrine here.
Handcrafted cat scenes: the ideal Christmas gift online
Sunday, December 17, 2006
Takafumi Horie, the disgraced founder of Livedoor Co. said in an interview with the Financial Times that Japan was the "most communist society in the world" and that his arrest for fraud was the result of the "jealous elite of old Japan".
Japan and China have agreed to create an organization to recover and
treat chemical weapons abandoned in China by the Imperial Japanese Army
during World War II. In Jilin Province alone, some 400,000 such weapons were
left. Daily Yomiuri
According to the New York Times, Japan's town meetings (TM) were filled with plants: party hacks posed as regular attendees and asked soft questions. PM Abe is now in hot water.
The Boston Red Sox went bonkers over new signing ex-Seibu Lions pitching ace Daisuke Matsuzaka
Take a peek at the history of Japanese sex education films on Midnight Eye
Former Kyoto University researcher, Isamu Kaneko, the developer of the peer-to-peer file sharing software Winny, was fined 1.5 million yen for violation of the Japanese copyright law.
A limbless and headless torso of a male was found in a plastic bag near Shinjuku Station.
Japan imports more than 90% of its beef from Australia and 95% of its soybeans.
Japanese farmers grow 80% of the vegetables consumed in Japan.
Japan consumes 15% of the world's marine products and 5% of the world's food.
Japanese people spend US$ 600 billion (20% of available income) on eating, at home or in restaurants. The total for the US is US$ 700 billion (10% of available income).
There are approximately 2.9 million farms in Japan.
25% of all food production in Japan goes to waste.
Figures - Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries (MAFF)
Do you take beer with your coffee? Introducing 'Coffee Stout'
On the topic of ingestibles, a coffee shop in Japan has started catering to both beer and coffee drinkers in one hit!
Hotels in Japan
Saturday, December 16, 2006
Every morning from 6:30-6:45 Japan warms up, en masse, for another day of health and vigor and success. On NHK Radio’s morning news program, “Asa Ichiban” (朝一番、or "Top of the Morning"), there is—sandwiched between weather forecasts, local news, sports, a bit of music, and reporting from overseas—a 15-minute group stretch called “Rajio Taiso” (Radio Calisthenics).
All around Japan, mainly older people gather in parks and public spaces to stretch and warm-up together. There is even a web site devoted to this phenomenon. It features listings, by prefecture, of all the areas where you can go and join in the stretching.
Today public employees, workers at medium- and small-sized companies, and others can be seen early in the day stretching in a circle in front of their work place. They are usually bored stiff, yawning, and wearing plastic slippers. At top right children warm up, somewhat haphazardly, before a fall sports day.
The show dates back to 1928 and clearly bears the hallmarks of pre-War bureaucratic thinking. Get everyone up early! (Unless you are a college student or sex worker, it is still vaguely immoral to sleep past 8 a.m. in Japan.) Exercise together! (Control the masses via exercise and the national broadcaster.) Stay healthy! (Lower costs for the State.)
Listen to Morning Calisthenics.
Hotels in Kyoto
Japan Kyoto Exercise NHK
Thursday, December 14, 2006
Another talking machine in Japan. Another reminder to behave.
Changing stops at Kyobashi--a large station in Osaka where the JR, Keihan, and several city subway lines converge--another mechanical woman kept me from going berserk on the escalator ride up to the platform. The 13-second ride was saved from chaos by a recording.
For those on the escalator a few requests:
Please refrain from smoking while riding the escalator.
Please hold the belt and stand in front of the yellow line on the step.
For those with children, please hold their hand.
This being the 97th such entreaty of the day--it is 9 am--no one listens at all. The message does not penetrate the fog of the morning rush hour; no, it does not even exist. Commuters in Japan are so inured to these announcements that they only become real if they stop. Then a small flicker of anxiety registers: What happened to the announcement? What do we do now?
Listen to the escalator.
Hotels in Japan
Japan Osaka Kyobashi Japan Travel station hotel
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Kyoto station will celebrate its tenth year in existence next year. Opened in 1997 to celebrate the 1,200th anniversary of the foundation of Kyoto (Heian) as the capital of Japan, the 15-story, glass-plated gray monolith, designed by Hiroshi Hara, certainly has its critics. Alex Kerr lambasted it in his book Lost Japan as a monstrosity and the reason he finally packed his bags and left town.
Still nearly ten years on and the building seems to have become a generally accepted part of the Kyoto landscape. Kyoto receives nearly 50 million tourists a year, 99% of them domestic, mostly day-tripping, Japanese visitors, and it certainly would seem a gigantic station is necessary to deal with them all.
Hara's ambitious design replaced an ugly 1950s concrete building, after the quaint, though aging Renaissance style structure, built in 1914 had burnt down in 1952. This in turn had superseded the original 1878 Meiji-era station.
Kyoto station's stats are impressive - it comprises a huge 60 meter tall atrium, measures 470 meters from east to west, with a total floor space of 238,000 square meters. The building includes a department store, the Granvia Hotel, a theater, exhibition space as well as numerous shops and restaurants.
The area around Kyoto Station has a good number of economy hotels and cheap guesthouses and is a good area for a visitor to make a base for any visit to the city. All city buses radiate out from the station's bus terminal and there is a lot to see within easy walking distance of Kyoto Station itself.
Higashi and Nishi Honganji Temples and Shosei-en Garden (Kikokutei) directly to the north, Sanjusangendo Temple and the National Museum to the east across the Kamo River, Toji Temple and its famous flea market to the south and the Umekoji Steam Locomotive Preservation Hall to the east. For old station buffs, Umekoji Steam Locomotive Preservation Hall preserves Nijo Station, the oldest wooden railway station in Japan, which was built in 1904 and replaced in 1996 by an equally fine modern building.
Love it or loathe it Kyoto Station will be with us for a few more decades before something equally controversial no doubt replaces it.
Hotels in Kyoto
Japan Kyoto Kyoto Station Japan Travel station hotel Umekoji rail
Sunday, December 10, 2006
Listen to the sounds of Omoto Kagura music
We went to another "performance" of Omoto Kagura recently. Actually we went to two, but at the earlier one we left after a short time due to the rudeness of a group of Kyoto tourists.
Maybe it was the fact that they were on a group tour---- away from the eyes of their neighbors Japanese tend to not behave as politely-----, or maybe it was because they were from Kyoto. Kyotoites are considered the rudest people in Japan by many, this writer included.
The atmosphere was not warm, relaxed and friendly, as a matsuri should be.
This week, however, was great. It was a small shrine in a small village, and although there were one or two outsiders there to observe and record the kagura, the atmosphere was familial.
It's worth noting that there are no proffesional Iwami Kagura dancers. By day they are salarymen, office- workers, farmers, truck drivers, etc but they dance with a love for the art and as an offering to the gods.
In this village most of the dancers were older men. The lure of jobs in the city has taken most of the younger people.
Omoto Kagura Matsuri only happen every 7 years, and Omoto-sama, the god honored by the matsuri, is the local god, not a national god, so the matsuri is particularly well-attended.
Part way through the night the dancing and joviality is interrupted by a more serious ritual, a giving of the offerings to Omoto-sama.
Once that had passed the dancing resumed, and of course Omiki, sacred sake is passed around the audience.
Around 1.a.m. the Tengai "dance" was performed. 2 priests manipulated ropes to cause the paper streamers in the overhead canopy to dance. As it got faster and wilder the audience showed their appreciation by cheering.
If you ever get the chance to visit a genuine village matsuri, take the opportunity to experience a side of Japan that is unkown, even to many urban Japanese.
Buy tasteful interior decoration paper lanterns.
Books on Japan
Japan images by Jake Davies
Saturday, December 09, 2006
Ero Samurai, by David Duff
The subtitle of this work just about says it all: "An Obsessed Man's Loving Tribute to Japanese Women."
Ex-Marine, former dope dealer, and current English-teaching, softball-playing (and apparently married) current long-time resident of Kyoto, David Duff has no fear. What some would say among friends, perhaps at a bar, in private, he has immortalized with his tome Ero Samurai.
It is no secret that one of the reason many (men) find Japan attractive is because of the women. From the Dutch at Dejima down to Duff-san, many a Western man has found the long black hair, the brown skin, and oval eyes hard to resist.
It is also no secret among those long resident in Japan that Japanese women are by no means weak; outside of politics and business, much of Japanese life is controlled by women. "Elegant, ladylike, and imposing they are; obedient they aren't," notes Duff.
Duff then takes us on his personal journey--footnoted with quotes from Shinran and Heian Monogatari, James Michener and Boye de Mente, and countless others--from young grunt to middle-aged white man closing in on nirvana in modern-day Kyoto.
This book, however, would cause angry protests outside of its publisher's offices were it published in any other country. For starters, women's groups would decry it as sexist and paternalistic. In his list of 29 reasons why he loves Kyoto, #27: "Kyoto girls scream and holler joyously when you give them the big weenie."
Worse, though, is the racism in the same list. Reading the book, one suspects: white guy of a certain age who is a little bit bitter about things in the US, maybe having trouble getting laid and making money, moves to Japan, and is now a "big man" teaching English and regaling co-eds with nonsense. In the same list, at the end of the book, those reasons become all too clear:
#8 "no black or hispanic gangbangers";
#15 "Anglo-Saxons treated with respect."
While both of these are true--trust me, there are no black gangbangers in Kyoto--they are breathtaking in their racism and underlying sense of superiority.
As a paean to Kyoto and its women, Duff has his puerile points. A more clear eyed look, though, at Kyoto as a whole would find among other things: racism (towards Koreans and Burakumin and foreigners); concrete and telephone wires everywhere; a high percentage of elderly people (post-sexual, in Duff's reckoning); a corrupt political culture; and, yes, many beautiful women.
In addition, a more clear eyed look at Japanese women would discuss among other topics the prevalence of sexless marriages, the Japanese mother, the ubiquity of pornography, the sheer size of the sex industry--and, yes, the many attractive talented woman.
On a final note, one suspects there was little if any editing work done.
Ero Samurai: Buy this book from Amazon
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Friday, December 08, 2006
Listen to the sounds of an oddball performer in front of Shinjuku station, Tokyo.
Of anywhere in Japan, Shinjuku has to be Japan, no, the whole universe, in miniature. The raunchy east side, the somewhat less earthy, but by no means posh west side - both are where all forms of humanity (and maybe more?) brush shoulders, all in a hurry except for the homeless men and women, the street sellers and touts, and ... the oddballs.
What alerted me first was a sound that wormed its way into my consciousness through the mish-mash of the cars, passers-by, and bus station announcements. It was somehow distinctive, not for its catchiness or rhythm, but for those qualities' exact opposites: pleasant enough but otherwise unremarkable light supermarket-BGM-style jazz with tinny vacillatory percussion effects coming in and out, overlaid with occasional hoarse mumbling.
Looking around, I finally found it. Parked across from the west side of Shinjuku Station, near Yodobashi Camera, was an little old van with speakers rigged Robinson Crusoe-style to the roof with pieces of rope and newspaper padding.
In the driver's seat was a bearded guy, probably in about his late 30s or early 40s, with a white plastic mike hanging in front of his mouth from the rearview mirror, and a equally toy-looking synthesizer keyboard propped on the dashboard.
He was fingering the keyboard in a desultory way, producing rudimentary drum effects that, with his occasional voice-overs, mixed in with the BGM that played constantly and quietly from the speakers.
I stood there for five minutes and, as far as I could tell, no one seemed to even vaguely register his, the van's, the music's existence. Is he a frustrated would-be jazz drummer? Perhaps a very contented one! Click at the link at the top and decide.
I then went off to have dinner nearby, and 30 minutes later the van was gone.
Buy IC recorders online - record your own sounds/voices in MP3
The Perfect Christmas Present: beautiful, quality Japanese decorative paperweights - just right for any good space
Japan Tokyo Shinjuku jazz music
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
Himeji Castle is Japan's most magnificent, original castle still standing today. Many other castles in Japan are modern reconstructions with ferro-concrete walls and interior elevators, as the majority of Japan's wooden castles were destroyed in air raids in World War II or pulled down in the 1870s at the beginning of the Meiji Period of Japanese history.
Himeji Castle was first started by warlord Hidetoshi Toyotomi in 1581, who built a three-story donjon (central keep) on the site of Himeyama Hill. Himeji Castle was later expanded to a five-story donjon and remodeled by Terumasa Ikeda (one of Hidetoshi's generals) in 1608. The castle was further enlarged a few years later to reach its present grand scale.
Himeji Castle is also known as "Shirasagijo" or "Hakurojo" (White Egret Castle) due to its bird-like silhouette and the white color of the castle walls.
-Himeji Castle makes for an easy day-trip from Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto or Hiroshima.
-There are guided tours available in English.
-The castle is a 10 minute walk from Himeji Station.
-Himeji is a stop on the Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen Line.
-Visitors can also take a shinkaisoku JR express from Kyoto (90 mins), Osaka (1 hour) or Kobe (40 mins).
Hours: 9am-5pm (later in summer)
Tel: 0792 85 1146
Other original Japanese castles or note are: Inuyama Castle Kumamoto Castle Matsue Castle
Buy miniature Japanese masks
Sunday, December 03, 2006
Click here for a video of a funk rock band performing at the Tokyo Design Festa
Today I visited the 24th (called 'Vol.24') of the Tokyo Design Festa. The Design Festa is a two-day extravaganza of 'design' in the very broadest sense of the word, i.e. anything that stimulates the artistic senses. Housed in the massive Big Sight (Tokyo Kokusai Tenjijo) venue in Tokyo's Koto ward, it attracts hundreds of exhibitors from Japan and abroad and tens of thousands of visitors.
Most of the design is of the two-dimensional visual variety with perhaps almost half the stalls featuring posters, postcards, artwork, photography and the like. The rest is a mix of jewelry, sculpture, dolls, clothing, candlemaking, embroidery, music composition, drama, fashion shows and DJing, live performance and more. It is impossible to give most stalls anything but the most cursory glance, honing in only on what ever instantly grabs your eye or ear.
The number of exhibitors who had come to Japan only for the DesignFesta spoke volumes about the reputation the event has. I talked to designers from Taiwan, a photographer from the Republic of Korea and an art agent from Germany who was exhibiting artworks from India, Thailand and elsewhere.In equal proportion to the variety on display was the vitality in the air. This was a vast hall full of people who had poured their all into what they were displaying and selling, and the atmosphere was one of connectedness, enthusiasm, friendliness and downright excitement.The musical performances especially conveyed this vigor. A mainly-women drumming team entranced the crowd with its exuberance, and a three-member funk rock band belted it out like their was no tomorrow. Clicking the link at the top for a short video of the funk rock band.
The Design Festa happens twice a year. The next one is on May 26 (Sat) and May 27 (Sun) at the same venue: Tokyo Big Sight, West Hall, 1, 2, 3, 4, Atrium and Outdoor.
The Design Festa goes further than the famous twice-a-year exhibition, however. It is based on the Design Festa Gallery in Harajuku. (3-20-18 1st and 2nd floor, Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0011. Check out the Design Festa Gallery website. And don't miss the next Design Festa in May of next year!
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Listen to the sounds of Gero Onsen
Gero Onsen in Gifu Prefecture, a 3-hour drive north of Nagoya or 90 minutes on the train, is considered one of Japan's top hot spring resorts.
The spa town, set in a picturesque wooded valley, has been in the hot water business since the 10th century and is still going strong today.
Some reviewers have complained of the "identikit" and "concrete" nature of some of Gero's ryokan and minshuku as well as Filipina call-girls touting for custom after dark. Personally, I could live with the architecture and didn't experience much of the town's vice except for a neon sign advertising a "Nude Theatre".
Sex and hot spas have always gone together in Japan since the days of "onsen geisha" from the Edo Period on. The number of sex museums in onsen resorts also points to the obvious coming together of nudity, R&R and hot water.
Oh, and "gero" (げろ) can also mean "vomit", though Gero the town is "lower bath" (下呂). Big deal.
Gero is easy to get around on foot and there are some interesting temples and shrines to take in. Besides the ryokan you may be staying at, it's also worth checking out some of the free rotemburo (outside spas) and cheap public baths in town.
At this time of year there is also a nightly fireworks and music display on the banks of the Hida River, near the main bridge leading to Gero Station.
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Listen to the sounds of a natural mountain spring at Gero Onsen
This sound is of a natural spring just behind Onsenji (Hot Spring Temple) in the hills at Gero Onsen. This water is not hot and tastes great. Listen to the rich sound of the spring water reverberating in the wooden trough.
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Saturday, December 02, 2006
Kyoto, which is arguably the world’s ugliest beautiful city, announced on November 24th that blinking neon and billboard advertisements placed on rooftops would be banned throughout the city. In addition, building restrictions concerning height are to be further strengthened in order to “preserve Kyoto’s skyline.” Both will be put into effect beginning 2007.
According to the City, there are hundreds of pachinko parlors and restaurants that place garish ads on the sidewalks in front of their premises. On top of that, ancient Kyoto has some 400 rooftop ads, particularly in the Shijo downtown area. Once the law goes into effect, the signs have to come down and blinking signs will be prohibited. Offenders will face fines and or possible revocation of their license to do business.
Concerning building heights, the new law will drop the top limit from 45 meters down to 31. For existing structures - roughly 570 buildings in the downtown area taller than the new limit - the law will come into effect when they are rebuilt. Moreover, further restrictions will be placed on the design and height of buildings that get in the way of the scenery near, for example, temples.
With most of Kyoto’s beautiful machiya townhouses having met the wrecking ball - only to be replaced by the ubiquitous black top 20-car parking lots and, recently, 15-story “mansion” cooperatives - the cynic would argue that the law is 20 years late in coming.
Downtown Kyoto is by almost any definition a complete mess. It is a jungle of telephone poles and wires overhead (see above for any Kyoto shopping street, in Taishogun; and right for a shot of any Kyoto corner, a large electronics chain store in Enmachi), a mix of pachinko and karaoke parlors on the ground; sex shops close to elegant boutiques; ever present traffic jams; few sidewalks, which force people, bicycles, and cars to vie for the same tiny space; mini-parking lots throughout the city; street trees “trimmed” down to the nub; yes, the occasional beautiful and traditional store; and neon, everywhere neon.
While the City is to be lauded for the intent of the restrictions, one can only wonder: are the officials blind? One was quoted as saying: “The number of buildings that do not harmonize with the traditional Kyoto cityscape is increasing, and is in the process of ruining the look of Kyoto.” In the process of? The idea of “protecting” Kyoto is almost a bad joke. Though Kyoto is perhaps less horrific than it was several years ago - thanks in part to a revival in interest, both architectural and financial, in the machiya - it is still chaotic and unattractive when compared to more restrained and elegant cities that it likes to be compared with: Boston, Florence, Edinburgh, and others.
And yet, predictably, groups are gathering to oppose the revisions. First are the billboard companies. No surprise there. “It is too sudden!” yelled one. Residents of the downtown mansions have been screaming on television: “You won’t be able to live in downtown anymore!”
If past is prelude, however, they may not have to fear much. The City is big on proclamation but fairly lax on enforcement. Wabi sabi restraint and design sense are not a hallmark of the City's administrators and builders. Besides, there are already many laws on the books - many of which are ignored at the building site. The city though is also famous for ignoring public opinion - past city projects detested by a majority of Kyotoites include Kyoto Tower, in the 1960s, and the Kyoto Station Building in the 1990s - so there may yet be hope.
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Thursday, November 30, 2006
Kyoto, better known for its traditional arts, is now home to two of Japan’s premier manga institutions: Kyoto Seika University, which is the only university in Japan to offer an undergraduate major in manga; and the Kyoto International Manga Museum, which recently opened.
The latter opened on November 25th in a renovated former elementary school in central Kyoto, on Karasuma Dori just north of Oike Dori. The museum was the brainchild of Seika officials, and is Japan’s only museum devoted entirely to the modern art form born in Japan.
The old school has been beautifully renovated, leaving much of the original structure as it was. The former classrooms now serve as galleries, performance spaces, libraries, and there is a room on the history of the school; corridors have drawings on most of the available wall space.
The outside too is lovely. The school playground has been covered in that rarest of commodities in Japan: a lawn. Children and adults roamed the green space not sure exactly what to do, but enjoying it nonetheless. The exterior of the building as well was thoughtfully redone in a color befitting Kyoto.
The Museum has also clearly considered one of its core constituencies—young people. When you enter the facility on the first floor, the first attraction is a drawing area. Pens and pencils and paper are provided and set out on large tables; children (of all ages) immediately gravitated towards the tables. Next, farther in and next to the elevator, is an artist who will do manga-style portraits. Last, in all of the galleries, there are shelves and shelves of books and magazines that are there to be read and handled. Young staff were there to guide and help.
Including a basement, the Museum has four floors. The basement is a library and research facility; the first floor consists of the entrance, a café, a museum shop, and a library for pre-schoolers. The second floor is where the main galleries are. Large open rooms feature manga from around the world. The third floor is a “research zone,” with some manga better not seen by pre-teens.
Tickets are 500 yen for adults, 300 for junior and senior high school students, and 100 yen for elementary school age children. Children not yet in school enter free.
Perhaps the only criticism is that there is virtually no English guidance or information. As the medium is visual, this is perhaps petty. However, many non-Japanese visitors--clearly tourists--were in attendance the day we went, and no doubt would benefit from knowing about the magazine cover or drawing they were looking at.
Kyoto International Manga Museum
Karasuma-Oike, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan
Directions: The Museum is a one-minute walk from Karasuma Oike subway stop, which is on both the Karasuma and the Tozai lines.
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Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Arimatsu, located in Midori-ku in south east Nagoya, was an old Edo-period (1603-1867) post station town on the Tokaido highway between Kyoto and Tokyo.
Arimatsu's claim to fame are its intricate Arimatsu shibori (tie-dyed fabrics). The technique is used to produce colorful designs for cotton kimonos, yukata, noren, handkerchiefs and table cloths.
As the industry is still carried on to this day, many of the original merchant houses have been preserved. There are a number of shops and shibori museums where visitors can purchase both traditional and more contemporary tie-dyed products as well as try their hand at producing them.
Arimatsu Narumi Shibori Kaikan is a good place to start.
The technique found its way to the Nagoya area when craftsmen from Oita in Kyushu, skilled in the shibori technique were ordered to help in the construction of Nagoya Castle by the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu and later settled in the area. The most influential figure in the history of Arimatsu's tye-dye industry was Takeda Shokuro, whose memorial can be seen just behind the car park of Arimatsu Narumi Shibori Kaikan.
Arimatsu's colorful festival is held on the first Sunday of October and consists of a street parade with floats and participants in traditional costume celebrating Arimatsu's history as a shibori center and Tokaido post town since 1608. The floats have mechanical dolls (karakuri) riding on top of them - one of which can even write!
If you stroll down the main street of the old quarter there are a number of fine, preserved merchant houses, with Nurigome-style, anti-fire, clay coatings and second-floor latticework windows, including Takeda's house, which are all well-worth a look. The original buildings were destroyed by a fire in 1784 and the houses seen today date from after that year, when the buildings were rebuilt with thick plaster walls and tiled roofs as a defence against fire.
It is also possible to see the impressive festival floats at the Arimatsu Festival Float Museum (Open 10am-4pm; closed Wednesday; Tel: 062 621 3000) and in the other large store houses where they are kept.
The contrast between old and modern Arimatsu could not be more stark and the station area is dominated by a huge Aeon store and a new elevated highway, the contemporary successor to the old Tokaido, is under construction just outside the town.
Access: Arimatsu station on the Meitetsu Honsen Line from Nagoya station.
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Tuesday, November 28, 2006
I was lucky enough to spend some time in Shinshu （信州）, the old name for Nagano, earlier this month. The mountainous area near Matsukawa in southwestern Nagano was well ahead of Kyoto in terms of autumnal tints, as this picture shows. Calcium carbonate washing down from the limestone of Mt. Akaishi lends the Koshibu valley waters a milky cast that reflects the clear blue skies and russet hillsides in an otherworldly aquamarine.
My host is a brisk, inveterate driver of the windy road up from Matsukawa to the mountain village of Oshika (大鹿, literally 'big deer') where I spent my long weekend. This is the view from the village, marred only by power lines. My visit coincided with the first snow on the peaks.
I was not there so much to lounge around and look at the view as to learn some practical skills. My first task was to assist in the repapering of some of the paper shoji panels in my room. Water liberally applied from a cloth softens the paper and makes it a breeze to strip it off the squares of the wooden frame. A little trickier is applying the glue and new paper in a neat and permanent fashion.
On the table in front of the shoji panels is a jar of apple jelly, which I bought at the local produce festival down the valley. Apples are Nagano's signature crop, but there are many other fruits and vegetables to be shown off -- and this is exactly what the festival provides a venue for.
Prize daikons, carrots and other root vegetables stretch along tables and sport competition placings. While you can't help yourself to the prize-winners, there are plenty of other things to snack on, such as the local mochi-on-a-stick, charcoal-grilled right before you.
And, of course, there is the local entertainment, this year a group of young ethnic-dance enthusiasts.
It is hard to match the relaxed warmth of the local produce festival in Oshika. As the days grow colder, it is such a sunniness of local spirit that will sustain the residents through the long winter to come.
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