Last November, the 26th Osaka European Film Festival was held. The occasion commemorated the 38th anniversary of sister city ties between Osaka and Milan, Italy, and also the 158th anniversary of Italy’s “Risorgimento” (unification). Milan’s orchestra was invited, and a pianist provided a solo accompaniment to the 1910 silent film, “Anita Garibaldi.” A 28-year-old woman who attended the event said, “I thought the film and music were perfectly matched — it was wonderful.” Other silent films at the event were accompanied by jazz and a variety of musical performances, and this old-but-new method of artistic expression garnered much attention.
One of the most popular attractions in Tokyo’s Taito city is the giant panda exhibit in Ueno Zoo. Celebrating the arrival of its two newest inhabitants, named Ri Ri and Shin Shin, a specially adorned post box was set up by the zoo entrance. Any letters posted here will be marked with a special cancellation stamp “bearing” the image of a giant panda or of Takamori Saigo, a famous 19th century political figure whose statue is another prominent feature of Ueno Park. It is not surprising if people who love pandas use the box to mail letters to themselves.
Sentaa-gai, or Center Town as it is rendered in English, is the name of a famous commercial thoroughfare in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, which has become a Mecca for Tokyo youth. Last autumn, however, one of the street’s official name was changed to “Basketball Street.” The new moniker aims to reduce the street’s negative image by associating it with a popular sport. From the 1980s, Sentaa-gai’s environment had increasingly deteriorated, earning it a reputation as a place to obtain illegal drugs or where youth gangs congregated. The street subsequently became known as a hangout for equally disrespectable characters, such as dark-skinned ganguro girls known for their garish cosmetics and lurid costumes, and similarly flashy young males referred to as “Center Guys.” It is hoped the street’s new name will aid in efforts to make it a more wholesome place to visit.
The streets, featuring stately rows of old western-style houses amidst the greenery, may seem a bit incongruous in Japan, and at first glance the neighborhood might even be mistaken for a recently built theme park. But these houses are the real thing. Referred to in Japan as “Ijinkan” (foreigners houses), they were constructed as residences for westerners from the mid 19th century from the “Bakumatsu” (late Edo era) to the Meiji and Taisho eras. Many such houses were constructed in the cities of Hakodate in Hokkaido, Yokohama in Kanagawa, Kobe in Hyogo and Nagasaki, but due to fires and natural calamities most of them have vanished. The one exception is Kobe, where some 40 houses remain. Nearly all of them were once foreign consuls in use by diplomats for offices or residents. Presently they serve as a window on the west, and they attract many sightseers from both within and outside of Japan.
<History of Kobe’s Ijinkan>
In 1858, Japan’s ruling Tokugawa government concluded a Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the United States, and similar treaties with four European nations. Japan agreed to end over two centuries of self-imposed national isolation by opening five seaports to trade. The ports were Hakodate, Niigata, Yokohama, Kobe and Nagasaki. The treaties stipulated that foreign nationals would be confined to living in designated areas. The district in one such port, Kobe, was close to the seacoast. However, the facilities there did not proceed as planned, and foreigners began building their homes further inland, such as the slopes of Mt. Rokko, which we will be introducing here. The district is somewhat apart from Kobe’s central commercial and industrial zones, and was fortunately spared from air raids on Kobe during World War II. As such, the neighborhood preserves a rare view of upscale life in prewar Kobe.
A colonial style house (right) built by and continuously lived in by an Englishman. The houses on the left had previously been apartments occupied by foreigners but they have now been combined and are used as a tourist attraction, displaying French art and furnishings.
This was built in 1903 as the residence of U.S. consul general Hunter Sharp. It is presently called “Moegi no Yakata.”
This house was the residence of German businessman Gottfried Thomas. In the backdrop is an expansive view of the hills of Kobe. It is now known as “Kazamidori no Yakata.”
January, the coldest month of the year in Japan, has traditionally been the time when fresh brews of sake are finished. Sake, which has gained great popularity even outside Japan in recent years, is made from rice which is harvested in autumn, brewed, fermented, and completed just in time to greet the New Year. For sake brewing, water is very important, which along with rice composes 80% of the final product, so areas blessed with superior quality groundwater such as Fushimi, Kyoto Prefecture and Nada, Hyogo Prefecture produce around 50% of Japan’s sake.
Sake has a very deep time-honored connection to the Shinto religion in Japan. In Shinto wedding ceremonies, the wedding vows are enacted by the couple drinking sake together, and in Shinto festivals this sacred alcohol of sake is offered to worshipers. In this way, sake has become indispensable in the daily life and at turning points of one’s life since ancient times.
Sake can be enjoyed both chilled and hot, which is relatively rare for alcohol. Enjoying a warmed cup of fresh sake during the cold winter is something to look forward to. Sake also perfectly complements the subtle flavors of Japanese cuisine as one would expect, but since it draws out the flavor of food so well, the number of restaurants in cities such as New York and Paris which offer Japanese sake has been increasing. In 2006 a sake division was established in England’s traditional International Wine and Spirit Competition, and its degree of recognition is increasing little by little. Particularly a type of sake called “daiginjoshu” which has a flavor similar to white wine is gaining popularity.
The storehouses used to preserve sake brews are called “sakagura.” When visiting a sake brewing town in Japan one can witness the scene of these storehouses lined up along the streets. Various sake brewers are assembled in Nada ward and the flavors vary depending on the maker. You can enjoy walking from brewer to brewer searching for your favorite sake.
For strolling around Fushimi, located in Kyoto Prefecture, we recommend the “Sunrise Tour” in English aimed at foreigners, called “Fushimi Inari Shrine and Sake Tasting Tour.” It includes tours of sake brewing facilities, sake tasting, and a tour of the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine.
Ｔour starts from the stroll through the sake brewery streets, then to the Gekkeikan Sake Museum. There, visitors can view tools used in sake brewing and related historical objects, sample water used in sake production, and take an exclusive tour of the sake brewing facility itself. Here, you can participate in sake tasting, so why don’t you try finding your favorite sake?
Ｎｅｘｔ, visit Fushimi Inari Shrine famous for its path lined with thousands of red torii gates. Shinto shrines’ gods are known for granting wishes, and it is said that the Fushimi Inari shrine answers requests of prosperous sales in particular.
<Hideaway in the City>
Enter the lonely building, and ride the elevator, which smells of mildew, up to the third floor, and suddenly you’re in another world. This chic interior with wood paneling at this shop makes use of an air purifier to generate negative ions, creating a roomy and comfortable space. With its invitingly cozy stuffed furniture, this room is where company staff members who work in the city go to study foreign languages or prepare for qualification examinations. Named the “Study Café,” it is one of three such establishments in the greater Tokyo area. So far it has attracted over 600 members. Most of them visit to engage in self-study, but the cafes have also hosted various types of seminars and social events.
After a fire damaged several buildings at a shopping street in Yokohama last August, the cause was determined to be a cigarette lighter. Now more lighters are being designed as “CR” (child resistant), with a lockable two-step mechanism. Unfortunately children playing with lighters has been the source of many fires. Some 600 million disposable lighters are sold in Japan each year. To prevent mishaps that lead to fires, from September 27, 2011, manufacturers have been required to adopt a CR function, and sales of the so-called 100-yen disposable lighters not equipped with this function will be banned. A similar law went into force in the United States in 1994.
<Before a Scrawl Appears, Post a Picture!>
Beneath an elevated railway trestle in the Kabukicho entertainment area of Shinjuku, some 20 colorful art works have been posted, memorializing the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of last March 11. Called the “Great Shinjuku Gird,” their purpose is also to discourage graffiti. The works were created with the cooperation of students at a nearby art academy. Under the combined theme of “Sky and Life,” they reflect the hope and courage of earthquake survivors. The works stand 1.5 meters high by 88 centimeters wide and are evenly spaced at intervals along a 44-meter long corridor. The chief of Shinjuku Police Department was quoted as saying, “It is important not to disregard small violations of the law, like graffiti. So [these pictures] also serve as symbols of a safe and secure neighborhood.”