Even more famous in Shiga Prefecture than Tobita is Lake Biwa. From spring through autumn, it’s popular for cyclists to make “Biwa-ichi,” a complete circle of the lake that covers about 200 kilometers. This has become easier in recent years thanks to dedicated cycling trails and road signs.
A cyclist in peak condition can make the entire trip in a single day, but most riders spread it out over two, or even three days. In such case, while some spend the night in local hotels, others sleep under the stars in tents. Lake Biwa also features a bridge at its center, which segments the lake into the northern and southern parts. Some “Biwa-ichi” cyclists prefer to cross the bridge, limiting their rides only to the northern half of the lake, a journey of 160 kilometers. The reason is that the southern half is more urbanized and there are fewer roads suitable for cycling.
Japan is known to be home to many anime and manga characters. It also has something called “kyara-ben,” which are boxed meals (bento) made to resemble popular characters (kyara). The roots of kyara-ben go back to the days when mothers who prepared meals for their children to take to school tried to give them more eye appeal. One purpose of doing so was to delight their child; another was to use psychology to get the child to eat foods he or she didn’t like.
Back in 1974, a food researcher introduced such items as Vienna sausages artfully carved to resemble an octopus, or condiments and seaweed arranged atop white rice to form images of a monkey or automobile and compiled examples of these in a book.
Recently contests of kyara-ben designs are commonly broadcast on TV programs and introduced as special features in magazines. It sometimes happens for moms to decide on a common theme for bento design — like the popular “Kumamon” of Kumamoto Prefecture — and engage in a friendly competition.
Reflected by the popularity, the biggest online recipe web site in Japan, Cookpad (https://cookpad.com/) features some 15,300 of such kyara-ben submissions.
In Osaka, the city where commerce has flourished for over 400 years, one of the oldest and liveliest commercial areas is called Semba. This area, a well-known as a center of business, is host to a unique commercial building called the Semba Center Building, which measures one kilometer (3,280 feet) in length. While not found in most tourist guidebooks, it offers surprises and delights for both shoppers and gourmands.
This building is so long, it almost seems to follow the curvature of the earth’s surface. Visiting Americans at the time of the building’s completion in 1970 were heard to remark, “It’s as if New York’s the Empire State Building had been turned horizontally and run along the street.”
Moreover, the building’s 10 segments are sandwiched between the underground subway network and a highway that runs above it. Diners at its restaurants can enjoy a variety of unique and tasteful foods at very reasonable prices.
The Historic CommercialCenter of Japan Still Lives
Semba’s origins date back to 1583, when Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), the country’s most powerful warlord back then, began the construction of a huge castle in his domain of Osaka. Since a large number of workers had been assembled to build the fortifications, large supplies of daily commodities and food were required. As a result, inns, restaurants, and stores selling everything from traditional medicines to dry goods were successively established in the Semba district, enabling it to flourish at the center of the Japanese economy and as a distribution hub for various goods. Even now, many wholesalers with a focus on textiles and such famous companies as Itochu Corporation, a general trading company; Takenaka Corporation, a major construction firm; Kurabo Industries, Ltd. a textile manufacturer; the Osaka Securities Exchange; and several major banks have their regional or national headquarters close by.
A Kilometer-long Shopping Promenade with 800 Businesses
At the time of its completion in the same year that Osaka hosted the 1970 World Exposition, the Semba Center Building was being called “a revolutionary commercial building” in terms of its functionality, efficiency, and rationale. If analogous to the United States, the building might be compared to Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal in the center of New York. Access is particularly convenient due to its location near Osaka’s geographic center, adjacent to the main thoroughfares of Midosuji and Sakaisuji, and direct connections to Honmachi and Sakaisuji Honmachi subway stations. In addition, a section of Osaka’s metropolitan expressway runs atop the building, which also has parking for 420 vehicles.
The building’s greatest appeal is its shopping promenade of 800 stores in the building, which stretches east to west for a full kilometer. It consists of 10 segments: Most of the stores in buildings No. 1 to 3 deal with familiar brands and famous brands in the world located in building No. 1, called the “Import Mart.” In buildings No. 4 to 10 are mostly textile wholesalers and retail stores of fashion and the related businesses.
One of the greatest pleasures for a visitor is the chance to enjoy Osaka’s umaimon, delicious foods, as Osaka has a reputation for being the “Nation’s Kitchen.” The basement of the building features many kinds of restaurants from folksy izakaya taverns, to cafe bars, noodle restaurants and others, offering tasty meals and generous portions at reasonable prices. So in a sense then, the Semba Center Building is a microcosm of a major city, selling a variety of goods and delicious foods, and as such may very well be an ideal tourist destination for foreign visitors.
Unfortunately, while it was heralded as an unprecedented project at that time of its opening, many residents and visitors in search of good food and shopping began moving away to Osaka’s other commercial areas, like the glitzy Shinsaibashi shopping promenade. More recently, people have been flocking to the city’s newly redeveloped areas, such as the Umekita Grand Front Osaka and Knowledge Capital (see the page 8), both next to JR Osaka Station. However, the Semba district still boasts residual power as the “business portal of Osaka,” despite its being somewhat off the beaten track, and likewise the Semba Center Building.
Everything You Want Under One Roof
Semba, which laid the foundations for business in modern Japan, was also the location of a shrine where merchants went to pray for prosperity. For this reason, the merchants took special pride in being able to operate in what was seen as the “sacred turf” of business. And likewise, to become a respectable merchant, Semba was the best place to be in order to learn the ABCs of business and the methods of taking care of customers.
Many of the building’s tenants, not only those in retail shops but wholesalers as well, are still in business there. The prices for goods can be described as resembling a factory outlet store, and are typically much lower than is charged at nationwide retail chains.
Merchants will post signs indicating “reduced prices” or “all goods 40% off.” Indeed, the merchandise here is remarkably inexpensive, but yet high quality. At Art Spirit (Center Building No. 7, shop 134), which just opened about six months ago, Mr. Rikkou, the store manager, said, “We don’t get so many customers here, because this building has been losing business to Shinsaibashi, the popular shopping area, and the Umeda North area. But we handle crafts and folk art goods related to the Silk Road and Tibet. I am sure young people like those goods very much because small accessories and items are popular. For us here, the main advantage is the affordable rent.”
Although the buildings house many fashion-related accessories shops, weekdays will find many shoppers and tourists who visit on weekdays. A middle-aged women who was buying a blouse remarked, “I don’t come here very often, but I enjoy choosing discounted items with high quality, and there are some real bargains here. Look at this one: it costs only 680 yen ($6.80).”
Certainly it is cheap. A party dress can be found selling for several thousand yen. She added, “It’s a troll of 1,000 meters where I can enjoy window shopping while in a treasure hunting mood.”
Each day at lunch time, office workers from nearby buildings and employees in Semba Center Building converge in the basement of gourmet streets to fill their stomachs. Cozy restaurants and self-serve cafeterias offer lunch items at very reasonable prices. Besides those restaurants, an alley called “Semba Proprietress Alley” has adopted the unique specialty concept of “materials produced in Osaka.”
Mr. Yutaka Imai, who proposed this idea and runs a restaurant there called “Sora” (sky), explained the concept behind the alley’s redevelopment.
“Osaka is the nation’s kitchen,” Imai asserts. “We wanted to encourage native Osakans and other people here by using foods grown, produced, and obtained in Osaka, to create something new that can be shared with the entire country. And why Semba? Well, Semba was the center of business in Japan, and in some ways still is now, I believe.”
He added enthusiastically, “I even appealed to the store association to have the name of the subway station changed from Honmachi to Semba, because there are people who don’t realize that the Semba area is historically the commercial center of Japan, and that this area was the center of trading for rice at the first modern exchange market of its kind in Japan.”
Semba Center Building
Address: 1-chome to 4-chome, Semba-chuo, Chuo-ku, Osaka City, Osaka Business Hours: 9:00am to 18:00pm (stores) 9:00am to 22:00pm (restaurants) Parking Capacity: 450 vehicles Stores: Buildings No. 1-3 (Osaka Import Mart) are retail and wholesale stores handling imported goods (Osaka Import Mart), including furniture, fashion items and underground restaurants called “Joy Senba 50.” Buildings No. 4-9 are textile wholesalers, retail stores, and underground restaurants called “Umaimon, Delicious, Street.” Building No. 10 are retail stores and restaurants (gourmet town, and Semba Proprietress Alley).
Japan has no shortage of anime and manga, which feature countless numbers of fictional characters therein. While it is common to find products and advertisements featuring such characters, more recently hotels have been attracting attention by offering such “concept rooms” to overnight guests.
At the Hotel Grand Pacific Le Daiba (Odaiba, Tokyo), the “Project Room-G,” a concept room featuring robot warrior Gandam, based on the eponymous popular comic, opened in June 2012. The reaction has been huge, and since its opening the hotel has been flooded with requests for reservations.
Company mascots have also been enjoying popularity. The Suica penguin used as a mascot to promote prepaid IC cards sold by East Japan Railway Company has been used in a collaborative effort with the Hotel Metropolitan in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, to open a “Suica Penguin Room.” Since first introduced on December 1, 2011, the room has invariably been booked within 3 to 5 minutes of the time sales commence. To meet demand, sales have been extended to March 31, 2014 and one more room has been added.
At the Highland Resort & Spa operated by Fujikyuko Co., Ltd. in Yamanashi Prefecture, offers an “Evangelion Room,” decorated with motifs based on the comic character Rei Ayanami, female pilot of the “Evangelion Unit 00.” Since its opening in March 2011, the room has enjoyed great popularity. In addition to being decorated with life-size figures of Ms. Ayanami, guests can receive a wake-up call from the character’s voice. The room is also festooned with a number of gimmicks, including reproductions of the artist’s original sketches, beds specially designed in the shape of an “entry plug” capsule, and other items that appeal to dyed-in-the-wool fans. In addition, several other hotels around Japan are offering rooms with anime or corporate character themes. These include the Beppu Bay Royal Hotel in Oita Prefecture (featuring Sanrio Corp.’s character Hello Kitty) and the Hotel Amsterdam at the Huis Ten Bosch theme park in Nagasaki Prefecture (featuring One Piece).
Mt. Fuji was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. In 2019 summer, with the number of climbers on the mountain expected to exceed the average year, a survey was conducted to find out what people think about Japan’s highest mountain. JustSystems Corporation surveyed 1,100 people aged between 10 and 70. When asked the purpose of climbing Mt. Fuji, 49.5% of respondents replied, “To commemorate my life.” This was followed by “To observe the view from the summit (even if the view is overcast),” stated by 38.5%, followed by “To refresh my mind and body” (with 33.5%).
Mt. Fuji’s new designation as a World Heritage Site led 32.9% of respondents to say they want to see the mountain this year, whereas a smaller percentage, 19.2% said they want to actually climb it. The smaller number reflects the fact that climbing the 3,776-meter high mountain is physically demanding.
Also, 30.8% of respondents said they were interested in taking a tour of the area around Mt. Fuji and its five lakes (including a climb). Broken down by particulars (multiple replies were accepted), 86.7% wanted to tour cultural sites around Mt. Fuji; 86.4% said they wanted to see sightseeing spots; and 85.2% were interested in staying overnight at one of the hot springs resorts in the area, which are numerous thanks to subterranean volcanic activity. As for the downside of World Heritage status, 83.5% expressed concern over the problem of rubbish due to an increased number of visitors. This concern over management of waste may be why 64.4% of respondents said they would agree to charging fees for access to the mountain. At present admission is free.
The Seto Inland Sea, surrounded by Japan’s three main islands of Honshu, Shikoku Kyushu, is Japan’s largest inland sea, and the region including the coastal areas is referred to as “Setouchi.” It is a region abundant with nature and profound scenery including a calm, lake-like sea dotted with many islands, beautiful stretches of sandy beaches with pine trees, and terraced rice fields, and it has received accolades for its beauty from travelers from the West such as Philipp Franz von Siebold and Thomas Cook from the end of Edo period (1603-1867) through the Meiji era (1868-1912). In 1934, this region which stretches over Okayama, Hiroshima, and Kagawa prefectures was designated as Japan’s first national park, the Setonaikai National Park.
The Seto Inland Sea also serves an important role as a maritime traffic route, and
from ancient times has been a crossroads for bringing people, goods, and information from the Asian continent which developed into culture and traditions that still exist to this day.
On the other hand, the rapid economic growth from the 1960’s onward lead to large-scale industrialization, and in exchange for economic development some serious environmental pollution occurred in a portion of this beautiful landscape. The Seto Inland Sea, including its negative side, is an area with an accumulation of history and culture.
In recent years Setouchi has added contemporary art as a new attraction, and it has started to become known worldwide. In particular, the island of Naoshima has constructed a subterranean art gallery as to not mar the natural landscape and with the concept of “symbiosis of nature, architecture and art” and establishments such as the Benesse House Museum which combine a hotel and art gallery. The island is known as “the holy land of contemporary art.” Unexpectedly encountering artwork placed throughout the Benesse House Museum and the subterranean art gallery designed by architect Tadao Ando is one way to enjoy the island. The island of Teshima has an art gallery surrounded by beautiful terraced rice fields, and you can get a sense of “living together with art.” On Ogijima Island there are private residences densely lined up a slope with narrow hill roads winding through them. “Seeing art on a little street” is what tourists can feel when visiting these islands.
This year is the exhibition year of the Setouchi Triennale, which is held once every three years. In addition to Naoshima, Teshima, and Ogijima introduced above, Shodo Island, Inujima, Megijima, Oshima, and others for a total of 12 islands are included with the event opening at Uno Harbor. The previous event in 2010 had a landmark increase of 300,000 visitors with a total of 940,000 attendees. This year the event is divided into three parts for spring, summer, and fall (total session of 108 days), and the summer season (7/20-9/1) and fall season (10/5-11/4) are coming up.
With contemporary art coexisting with the scenery of simple fishing villages, Setouchi has become a fresh and upcoming travel spot. The popularity of “Art Islands Afloat in the Seto Inland Sea” has been increasing year by year.
Kenzan is a spiked flower base used for ikebana. Ikebana or Japanese flower arrangement, originated from flower offerings made in the early years of Buddhism in Japan and developed into an art in the 15th century. Other than flowers, things such as branches and leaves may also be used, and special attention is given to how well these things and the vase used appear together. Today there are several schools of ikebana, including the Ikenobo School, the Ohara School, and the Sogetsu School, and each has its own style. However, there are certain rules common to all the schools, like the rule of starting by forming a triangle with three main flowers.
Sushi is undoubtedly a world-famous Japanese dish these days, and fish is a favorite food of many Japanese. One reason for this is that Japan is surrounded by sea, so seafood is abundantly available. Also, we don’t like to waste anything – we try to eat every part of the fish. This leads to another unique aspect of the Japanese diet: we love to eat fish eggs. Readers might be familiar with caviar, but have you heard of ikura (salmon eggs), kazunoko (Pacific herring eggs), karasumi (flathead mullet eggs), tobiko (flying fish eggs) or tarako (Alaska Pollock eggs)? They are all popular, and are eaten every day in homes and restaurants throughout Japan. But of all these, karashi mentaiko or mentaiko for short, is the favorite. Mentaiko is a spicy version of tarako – the eggs are the same. According to Teikoku Databank, a corporate credit research company, 15,335 tons of tarako and 36,014 tons of mentaiko were produced in 2010. That’s a total of 51,349 tons. If divided by Japan’s population of about 120 million, each person consumed about 430g, which works out to 12 roe sacs per person.
Mentaiko is a popular ingredient in onigiri (rice balls). You can find mentaiko onigiri at convenience stores around the country. It is also a very popular ingredient at sushi restaurants in Japan. So, how is this national dish made? We visited a newly-built museum in Aichi Prefecture to find out. Many companies make mentaiko, but Kanefuku Co., Ltd. has the largest share of the market. The company has built a museum called Mentai Park in Tokoname, Aichi Prefecture, which is open to the public all year round except during the New Year holidays. This is the company’s second such facility. The first Mentai Park is in Oharai, Ibaraki Prefecture. “We get about a million visitors every year at Oharai. We expect double that amount – two million – at Tokoname,” said Junichi Enokida, Kanefuku’s managing director.
The museum, which opened at the end of last year, was busy even on a weekday. From an airy vestibule, you enter the museum through a cave-like gate. Inside, a dark room lit by a dim blue light makes you feel like you are deep in the ocean. Here, you will learn where mentaiko comes from. Sukesodara, or Alaska Pollock, is a type of cod fish. There are other species of cod, but only sukesodara’s roe can be called mentaiko. Sukesodara live in the northern part of the Pacific Ocean. However, their habitat is shifting northward due to global warming. Fish roe has several stages of development. The top one in this photo is firm, so it is good for grilling. The bottom one is soft, so it is good for mixing with things like pasta. The best one to use for mentaiko is the second from the top.
<How to Make Mentaiko>
About 95% of sukesodara roe is imported, mainly from the US. The roe sacs arrive at the factory frozen. To retain freshness, they are defrosted slowly over the course of about 20 hours by having air blown over them at different temperatures.
After the defrosting process, the roe sacs are cleaned. Fish scales and bones are removed by hand.
After cleaning, they are soaked for one day in water containing salt and pepper, becoming salted cod roe sacs.
Salted cod roe sacs are sorted by size. Blood vessels and peritoneums are removed
After sorting, they are soaked again, this time with a variety of different flavors: red peppers and other seasonings such as sake (Japanese rice wine), mirin (sweet sake used for cooking), etc. They are marinated for between 48 and 72 hours. Enokida said that other makers add other spices or herbs, such as yuzu (a small citrus fruit) or garlic, but that his company tries to make flavors everyone can enjoy, rather than anything out-of-the-ordinary.
After the seasonings have soaked into the roe sacs and the flavors have matured, the sacs are measured by weight, selected for use in different kinds of products, and packaged. Some are sold as is, while others are used as ingredients in a different dishes.
Visitors can learn about the whole process by observing it from a glass-walled corridor. Afterwards, they have the opportunity to sample some freshly-made mentaiko.
In addition to such popular spots as Tokyo Disney Resort in Urayasu City near Tokyo and Universal Studios in Osaka, Japan has some attractive native theme parks. An excellent is Edo Wonderland (Nikko Edomura in Japanese), located in Tochigi Prefecture to the northeast of Tokyo.
Edo Wonderland has been in operation since 1986. For this trip back in time, I relaxed in a plush reserved seat aboard the ultra-modern “Kegon” limited express that runs from Tobu Railway Co.’s Asakusa station in downtown Tokyo to Kinugawa Onsen, about an hour and a half from the center of Tokyo, and from there, I took a shuttle bus to the park.
Edo functioned as Japan’s administrative capital from 1603 under the Tokugawa military government, and was made the national capital and renamed Tokyo in 1868. During those two and a half centuries, the city of an estimated 1 million people developed its own cosmopolitan culture.
In this regard, the operators of Edo Wonderland deserve high praise for authenticity. Walk down “main street,” and there’s nothing to indicate you are not in olden times. No cables, wires or TV antennas spoil the view. In place of cash registers, the shops and restaurants add up the bill using an old-fashioned abacus.
Edo Wonderland is also a “hands-on” theme park in the sense that it offers visitors a chance to engage in “cosplay.” They can dress up in traditional kimono, complete with wigs, *geta* (wooden clogs) and lacquered *janome* umbrellas.
Soon after my arrival, I boarded a small boat that the operator moved along the canal by pushing a pole against the bottom, for about 10-minute ride into the center of the town. As I disembarked, I joined a line of people outside a building marked “Kita Bugyosho” (north court). This was one of old Edo’s two criminal courts, which alternated each month, one hearing cases while the other one caught up on the paperwork.
Inside the “court” — converted here to a theater — a troupe of six actors gave a half-hour long performance of “Toyama no Kinsan,” based on a long-running TV series about a real magistrate named Toyama Kinshiro, who held court in Edo in the late 1840s.
In a typical episode, Judge Toyama, while assuming the guise of a street-wise rogue named Kin-san, mingle with criminal types and invariably witness an altercation, at which time he bared his tattoo of cherry blossoms.
The villain in this particular performance was a devious “priest” who defrauds people by offering magic spells that will cure them of their medical problems. As “Kin-san” the judge witnesses his crimes but after baring his elaborately tattooed shoulder during a brawl, slips away at the moment of arrest.
Naturally during the trial, the evil priest and his accomplice completely deny their guilt and instead accuse an honest laborer of the crime. At the drama’s climax, the magistrate — up to this point not yet recognized — pulls open his kimono, baring the cherry-blossom tattoo, and roars thunderously, “Surely you’re not saying you’ve forgotten these cherry blossoms that flutter on my back?”
To the cheers and jeers of the audience, the criminals tremble in astonishment upon realizing that their guilt has been exposed.
Across the street from the court is a reproduction of Denma Rogoku, the city’s jail. Here criminal suspects were held in rather miserable conditions until their trial. A room is full of ghoulish displays of Edo-style punishments, including *gokumon-kubi* (decapitated heads of criminals) and the wax figures of a couple involved in an illicit relationship who attempted but failed to commit a love-suicide — the penalty for which was being put on public display near the old town’s fish market.
Crossing the Nihombashi bridge from the “official town” will return you to the “shitamachi,” where Edo’s common folk went about their daily business. There are plenty of opportunities for pleasant encounters with cheerful citizens on the street, and occasional surprises as well — visitors may even be requested to assist the town’s busy constables in apprehending a suspected criminal.
In this section of the park, visitors can eat and shop, take in street and theater performances, and view colorful displays in the Edo Town Fire Brigade Museum. Another favorite is the maze-like “Ninja Kai Kai Tei House of Illusion” with its narrow, confusing passageways.
Time permitting, visitors can also take a stroll through a real outdoor locale used for shooting TV period dramas, located just beyond the view of the main park. The buildings and streets have such a well-worn look, it’s like being caught in a time warp.
“Educational” and “fun” are the words that best sum up the Edo Wonderland experience. The park earns high marks for authenticity and the quality of its entertainment. Equally important, it is beautifully maintained, making it a photographer’s dream. While featuring plenty of appealing sights and stimulating activities, it is not so vast that walking from one end to the other will tire you out.
The Edo Wonderland web site (http://www.edowonderland.net/) provides park information in English, Chinese, Korean, Thai and Russian. It is open six days a week (closed on Wednesdays) from 9:00 to 17:00 from March 20 to November 30 (summer schedule). Admission is 4,500 yen for adults, for 2,300 yen children age 7 to 12. Half-day passes also available at a reduced rate. For visitors who come by motor vehicle, there’s an additional 700 yen charge for parking. Discounted tour plans, including overnight accommodations at hot springs spas, are also available. Address: 470-2 Karakura, Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture 321-2524
The Maternity Mark, shown here, helps to facilitate attention to pregnant women. The mark often appears on the priority seats on the train or bus. More recently it has also been used at parking spaces adjacent to shops or lavatory facilities, for the exclusive use not only of handicapped people and the elderly but also by families with expectant mothers or nursing infants.