Japan’s creation myths talk about Gods and how they created the Land of the Rising Sun. The Gods dipped a spear or sword into the ocean, and the drops that fell from it created the islands of Japan. The descendants of these Gods became the ancestors of the people who lived in these lands. But if we were to, for a moment, dismiss these myths and wonder how the people of Japan physically arrived on the islands, what would be our answer?
Perhaps the ancient burial mounds in Matsusaka city can lend a clue. There is a park in Takarazuka-cho, near where my wife, Mandy, and I live. The park is called Takarazkua-kofun Park. The word ‘kofun’ refers to two large burial mounds, found on a hill within the park grounds, just three kilometers from the city center. These mounds were originally discovered and excavated in 1928. There were over 80 burial mounds found, but only 26 of those were still intact. In 1932, the area was designated a national historical site.
However, over the decades since their discovery, time has taken its toll. The main culprit was urban development, as the city of Matsusaka grew and modernized. Housing and roads followed as the area expanded. By the 1980s, there were only two mounds left considered salvageable, and still in excellent condition, but a road was built right between the two to a new estate. The local government came to the rescue and created a park to protect the mounds from further damage, although the access road still separates the two mounds.
The main burial mound sits atop of the park, looking down over Matsusaka, the summit providing a 360-degree view. Over two years spanning 1999 and 2000, the Mie Prefectural Board of Education oversaw the re-excavation of the main burial mound and its smaller twin across the road. The larger mound is a keyhole-shaped tomb, and the largest of its kind in the entire Ise provincial area, at over 100 meters in length. It has since been attributed to one of the early leaders of the Iitaka clan (the rural highlands to the west of Matsusaka, where Mandy and I lived for ten years before moving to Matsusaka city) dating back to the 5th century. Many funerary objects were uncovered, along with Haniwa (terracotta clay objects and figurines, created for use in rituals, and often buried in tombs with the deceased), and all of these were put together with similar artifacts discovered in the original 1928 excavation. These items can now be seen at the Matsusaka City Cultural Center.
Before I even came to Japan, I was building metaphorical bridges between Australia and the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’. It started with studying Japanese language and culture at Griffith University on the Gold Coast, in Queensland. I was fascinated from day one.
At the end of my first year of an education degree, I joined a ‘tour of Japan’ headed by one of the university’s lecturers, and had a wonderful time sightseeing in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Kyoto, Gifu, Hiroshima, Nikko and Hakone. I enjoyed a weeklong home stay in Takayama (in the mountains of Gifu Prefecture). Viewing Fuji-san from the window of the Shinkansen (bullet train) while traveling at 300 km/hr was a huge thrill, as was being immersed in the sights and sounds of the metropolis which is Tokyo.
During the tour, I was amazed to see such sites as the ‘floating shrine and torii (Shinto archway)’ of Miyajima, the ‘white heron’ castle otherwise known as Himeji castle, the ‘golden pavilion’ called Kinkakuji, the famous temple of Kiyomizu-dera, both in Kyoto, and Nikko’s ‘toushougu’ - the resting place of the famous Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, located north of Tokyo.
Returning home to Australia, some college friends and I started the Japan Society of Griffith University. It was at the inaugural meeting that I met the love of my life and future wife, Mandy. We have since been married twenty years (this December). Mandy took off for Japan one year before I did, and lived in both Kyoto and Osaka. After I graduated, and before I could join her in Osaka, I won a scholarship and became an international exchange student for one year at Seikei University in Kichijoji, Tokyo. There I had many cultural exchanges with Japanese students, and told them as much as I could about Australia. Upon graduation, I moved to Osaka and lived there for a year with Mandy. Osaka is Japan's 'party-town'!
Hello Kitty! No, I’m not talking to my cat. I’m referring to the fictional character produced by the Japanese company, Sanrio, and an international superstar of Japanese popular culture. People all around the world buy Hello Kitty goods, to the tune of $5 billion dollars a year. But Hello Kitty is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Japan’s fixation with cats.
Anyone who knows me knows that my wife, Mandy, and I love cats. We have a pet cat called Yuki, a five-year-old Scottish Fold with mostly white fur and an adorable personality. He lives with us (on his cat tower) in our Matsusaka apartment, and allows us to dote on him. So many of our Japanese friends fawn over Yuki when they visit, and my students at school exclaim, “Kawaii!” (So cute!)
Cats fascinate Japanese people. Another good example of this is Doraemon, also a Japanese animation character, first created in a Japanese manga (comic) series in 1969. Doraemon is a robotic cat (from the 22nd century), and also the star of a TV show and related media franchise. In fact, Doraemon has been chosen as the official mascot for the 2020 Olympic games to be held in Tokyo.
But Japan’s fixation on cats is not limited to these two fictional characters. These days, you can visit a Cat Café (there are over 50 cat cafés in Tokyo alone!), and enjoy a cup of coffee surrounded by cats or while interacting with some of the feline creatures personally. Of course there are cat cafés all around the world, but Japan seems to have the largest number of outlets for this particular interest, with over 150 nationwide. Many apartment buildings don’t allow pets, and this may be one reason why cat cafés have flourished in city areas in Japan.
On May the 26th, the world leaders will be flying into our little neck of the woods (Mie Prefecture, Japan) for the Ise-Shima G7 Summit. They will be here to discuss world economics, the environment, politics, global security issues and so forth. The 42nd G7 Summit will see leaders from the U.S.A., the U.K., France, Germany, Italy and Canada, as well as the presidents of the European Council and the European Commission, gather together on the island of Kashikojima, in Ise-Shima, located south of Matsusaka.
Japan’s Prime Minister Abe said,
“The rich sea of Shima in front of your eyes is connected to the Indian Ocean via the Pacific Ocean. As the host, with the thoughts of many countries in Asia and Africa, Japan would like to exchange opinions frankly with the leaders of the world to realize a peaceful and prosperous world.” He added,
“The Japanese landscape is full of nature, with islands of various sizes and beautiful inlets, so the leaders of the world will be able to experience our rich traditions and culture firsthand.”
Certainly, the Ise-Shima area is a stunning jewel amongst the natural beauty of southern Mie prefecture. It is home to one of Japan’s most sacred Shinto shrines, Ise Jingu, and is thus considered to be Japan’s historical and cultural birthplace. Ise-Shima also boasts the famous Mikimoto Pearl Island, and the 400-year-old traditional puppet theater in Anori, not to mention a stunning coastline with pristine beaches and the Ise-Shima National Park.
However, it surprised me that Ise-Shima was chosen as the venue for this summit, despite it having the number one economic growth rate in Japan, for it is a rural, coastal area with just 130,000 residents. Mie Prefecture has a total population of only 1.8 million, barely one seventh the size of Tokyo with its population of over 13 million people. The logistics alone will be mind boggling.
Japan has many local varieties of alcohol. Everyone knows the traditional ‘sake’ of course, otherwise known as Nihon-shu, which can further be categorised as either reishu (cold sake on the rocks) or atsukan (hot sake in a ceramic cup). Then there is the ever popular shou-chu. Shou-chu is made from grains and vegetables creating a hard, clear liquor. The most common ingredients of shou-chu are sweet potatoes, barley, rice, buckwheat and sugar cane.
Awamori is an Okinawan variety of shou-chu made from Thai rice (Thailand) rather than Japanese rice, giving it a smoother blend. Then there is Umeshu. Umeshu is made from apricot plums, white liquor and (white) rock sugar. It creates a white liqueur which has both a sweet and sour taste and an alcohol content of between 10 to 15 percent. Its sweet taste and aroma makes it an appealing choice even for those who don’t usually enjoy drinking alcohol.
My wife and I recently made Umeshu using plums, vodka and rock sugar. First, Mandy chose green unripened plums and removed the stalks with a toothpick, so as not to damage the fruit. The plums were then gently washed and dried by hand. We placed the plums in an 8 litre jar, then poured in the crystal sugar on top of the plums, and then added the white liquor, in this case vodka.
For an 8 litre jar, 2 kilograms of plums are required, along with 3.6 litres of white liquor (35% proof or more) and 1 kilogram of rock sugar. Sugar helps draw the juice from the plums which is then mixed with the vodka. Over time, during the fermentation process, the sugar dissolves and also becomes part of the surrounding liquid.
The jar was sealed and placed in a cool, dark place. We chose our apartment’s pantry for this purpose. Every few days, Mandy would pick up the jar and gently swirl it around for a few minutes so as to mix the contents evenly together. This process continued for three months. However, after several weeks, swirling the contents was only necessary once a week. Over several months the plums shrink and shrivel within the liquid in which they float.
After ten years in our traditional mountain village of Mori (Mie Prefecture, Japan), my wife Mandy and I have just relocated down to the city of Matsusaka. Luckily we didn’t need to hire a moving company as our good friend, Naoki, had use of a two ton truck. So we loaded up all our heavy things, including the sofa, queen-size bed, large fridge, study desk, computer desk, entertainment set-up (DVD player, flat screen, speakers) and a bunch of boxes, and hauled it down the mountain to our new apartment in Matsusaka city. Mandy’s schools will change from April, and I am starting a new job at Takada High School. But this all-too-typical scenario is being played out all over Japan this month.
March in Japan is a time of upheaval, a time of change, and a time of renewal. Naturally it is spring season, and nature is just coming back to life after the winter. But amidst this beauty is also chaos. Lessons at school come to an end, replaced by tests, games and various fun activities, all in turn replaced by spring vacation.
The biggest upheaval is seen in the workplace, as people find out if they are being transferred or even possibly promoted, or both. Just like the school year, which starts in April and finishes in March, yearly employment contracts also finish in March. Even those employees who have tenure or permanent employment status may still be transferred to another position or location from April.
March is thus peak season for moving companies, and the demand for their relocation services and trucks pushes their price up to premium levels at this busy time. Due to the large number of job transfers at this time of the year, wedding halls experience a drop in the number of ceremonies. As weddings have to be booked months beforehand, nobody knows that far in advance if they will be transferred or not and hence don’t take the risk on booking a wedding that may have to be postponed or canceled.
Takada High School is one of Mie prefecture’s most prestigious private high schools, and is considered by many to be the best high school in the prefecture. Mie has 77 high schools (November, 2015), 58 of them public, and private high schools make up the other 19. A trained and registered teacher in Australia (Bachelor of Teaching, Bachelor of Education), and with 20 years experience in Japan, I was honoured to be offered a job at Takada High School, starting April 2016. Hence I decided to do some research about my new work place.
The 144 year old school currently has approximately 2,400 students enrolled in its junior high school and (senior) high school. The school campus itself consists of the main building (administration, staff rooms, assembly hall), five wings in which the classrooms, library, audio visual rooms, various science and technology laboratories, study halls, a school shop, and numerous multipurpose rooms are located, and two gymnasium halls. In addition to this, there is an astronomical observatory, planetarium, tea room, and a Buddhist chapel. (The Buddhist chapel exists within the school complex and is not to be confused with Senjuji Buddhist Temple that exists next to the school.)
The school places emphasis on its English, Mathematics and Japanese language programs, but naturally teaches a wide range of standard subjects such as science, history, geography, economics, art, P.E. (Physical education), home economics, and so forth.
There are a large number of sporting clubs offered as well, including baseball, softball, tennis, table tennis, judo, kendo, soccer, basketball, volleyball, handball, badminton, track and field, swimming, and even horse riding. As an Australian, I was fascinated to discover that they also had a cricket club - very rare in Japan!
If students are not into sports, then there are other ‘cultural clubs’ to choose from such as English club of course, art, brass band, choir, ‘home making’, astronomy, “ikebana” (flower arrangement), “igo” (a traditional board game), shogi (Japanese chess), drama, tea ceremony, calligraphy, koto (traditional stringed instrument), broadcasting (journalism), photography, and animation, not to mention academic clubs such as science, maths and history.
Takada High School has two sister high schools in Melbourne, Australia, and each year in March, Japanese students can opt to travel to Australia on an exchange program (study tour) for a couple of weeks. Australian students also visit Takada High School at some stage during the year for a home stay and Japanese study tour.
Renting an apartment (or house as the case may be) in Japan is a rather daunting task, even for Japanese people, and can be next to impossible to achieve on one’s own for a foreign resident. Most people from other countries fly into Japan as either tourists or those coming here to work. Tourists of course never have to think about renting a place, as their accommodation will already be pre-arranged, and in most cases will be in a hotel, a Japanese traditional Inn, or some variety of youth hostel.
However, for those flying into Japan for the purpose of employment, a place to stay is a necessity. Luckily, in the vast majority of cases, a place will be provided by one’s employer. For example, when my wife and I came to Japan for the second time, we worked for an English conversation school that had branches nation wide, and apartments for its employees.
We were taken straight from the airport to an apartment block just outside of Gifu city, and given a tour of the apartment in which we would be residing, along with a tour of the area. We were shown the location of nearby shops and restaurants, as well as the local train station (two stops from the city), all within walking distance of our apartment. This kind of scenario is perhaps the most common for those with jobs flying into Japan (on a working visa).
Later we discovered that the rent we were paying back to the company from our salary was double what most people in the area paid for an apartment of the same size. Our apartment was classified as a 2DK. (DK = Dining / Kitchen. LDK = Living room + Dining / Kitchen.) More about the cost of rent later. However, in fairness to the company we worked for at the time, our apartment was ‘fully furnished’, and all the utilities were already arranged and paid for by the company. It even had two air conditioners, a dryer above the washing machine, and a TV with attached video cassette recorder/player (this was the 90’s).
The company will also act as liaison and ‘sponsor’ or ‘guarantor’ in the case that anything goes wrong, something gets broken, damage is caused to the apartment, or there are problems with neighbours. In most cases, the company will lease an apartment, or an entire apartment block, rather than pay monthly rent and then in turn rent it out to the company employees. Hence, it assumes full responsibility for dealing with those problems, as well as insurance and liability.
The reason that a company will arrange for the accommodation of its foreign employees is because Japanese landlords and/or real estate agents don’t wish to deal with foreigners directly regarding any problems. One may immediately assume that this is due to racism, but that is not usually the case. The biggest difficulty is communication. It would be fair to say that most foreign workers entering Japan for the first time cannot speak Japanese well, if at all. Most real estate agents and landlords cannot speak English fluently, if at all. Hence the language barrier.
Konnichiwa! Today, the 7th of December, is Mandy's and my nineteenth wedding anniversary. Most of those nineteen years have been spent in Japan (in addition to some years spent here before we got married). So this month, I'd like to post some random personal photos from our time here, that show some of the adventures we have been on during our almost-two-decades in 'the land of the rising sun'. I hope you find them interesting, and if they raise any questions, don't hesitate to ask in the comments section. Any feedback is also most welcome. Enjoy the rest of your year, and best wishes to you. Warmest regards, Chris
This first picture is of us in front of Osaka castle, circa 1993, where the movie "Shogun" was filmed.
In the coastal town of Shimizu, in Shizuoka, we checked out the famous tall ship, the Santa Maria...
We tried our hand at skiing for the first time in our lives in the mountains in Gifu prefecture.
When World Cup Soccer came to Japan, we were lucky to get tickets to see a game in Shizuoka prefecture.
One of our great experiences in Shizuoka was playing in a live band at a local jazz cafe in Fukuroi...
Of course a must-see in Shizuoka (or alternatively in Yamanashi) is Mt. Fuji, aka Fuji-san. We climbed to the top of Fuji-san (3,776m) in the summer at the turn of the millennium. It's something we'll never forget. In fact you can read about it in a previous post on my Japan blog here:
This month, I'd like to share with you a fellow Japanophile's blog, by my good friend, John Asano, who lives in Gifu, JAPAN. Please see his link in the right hand column on this page. John is a veteran teacher, writer and photographer, and his website is a wonderful resource for learning about Japan and its culture and customs. He is my guest today, and he writes about two public holidays in November in Japan: Culture Day and Labor Day. Enjoy! Warmest regards, Chris
Bunka no Hi (文化の日) or Culture Day is a Japanese National Holiday that is held annually on November 3. The purpose of the holiday is to promote Japanese culture, the arts and academic endeavour in Japan.
Typical events on Bunka no Hi include culture festivals, art exhibitions, parades, and award ceremonies for distinguished artists and scholars.
November 3 is typically blessed with fine autumn weather with beautiful blue skies and warm temperatures.
History of Bunka no Hi
Bunka no Hi was first held in 1948 to commemorate the announcement of the new post-war Japanese constitution on November 3, 1946.
November 3 was first celebrated as a national holiday in 1868, when it was called Tenchō-setsu (天長節), a holiday held in honour of the birthday of the reigning Emperor Meiji. It ceased to be a holiday following Meiji’s death in 1912, but was brought back again in 1927, when his birthday was given its own specific holiday, known as Meiji-setsu (明治節). Meiji-setsu was discontinued as a holiday with the announcement of Culture Day in 1948.
Click here to read more about Culture Day in Japan.....
Kinro Kansha no Hi (勤労感謝の日) or Labour Thanksgiving Day is a Japanese National Holiday that is held annually on November 23. The purpose of the holiday is to commemorate labour and production, as well as for giving one another thanks.
Special events on Kinro Kansha no Hi are held throughout Japan, which encourage thinking about the environment, peace and human rights.
It is also a great time to head out doors to enjoy the koyo (autumn leaves) season with beautiful mild weather and clear blue skies.
History of Kinro kansha no Hi
Kinro Kansha no Hi was first held in 1948 to mark some of the changes of the post-war constitution of Japan, including fundamental human rights and the expansion of worker’s rights.
Kinro Kansha no Hi is the modern name for an ancient harvest festival known as Niiname-sai (新嘗祭). The festival in written account can trace its roots back to Emperor Temmu (667-686) and traditionally celebrated the year’s hard work in harvesting grains. In this ancient Shinto ritual, the Emperor, on behalf of the nation would make the season’s first offering of freshly harvested rice to the kami (gods), and give thanks for the harvest.
Niiname-sai was first held on November 23 during the reign of the Meiji Emperor (1868-1912) and was a nationally celebrated event.
The modern holiday was established after World War II in 1948 as a day to mark the fact that fundamental human rights were guaranteed and the rights of workers were greatly expanded under the new post-war constitution. Today, Niiname-sai is celebrated privately by the Imperial Family of Japan, while Kinro Kansha no Hi has become a national holiday.
Click here to read more about Labor Day in Japan....
Japan’s Traditional Sport
Sumo is Japan’s traditional national sport and is one of the most popular spectator sports in the country. Sumo has its roots in ancient Shinto religious rites to ensure good harvests. It is believed to be at least 1500 years old. For me it is the traditional aspects and rituals of this ancient sport that really appeal. I will briefly explain about some of the more common traditions and rituals in this post.
See More by John Asano
John Asano is a web developer and freelance writer living in Gifu, Japan. Originally from Melbourne Australia, he writes for Japan Australia, a blog dedicated to Japan travel, culture, traditions and modern life in Japan as well as Japan Travel Advice, a website dedicated to travel in Japan.