Projection mapping has been enjoying increased popularity at various events throughout Japan. Using graphics generated by personal computers and projection devices, this new technology projects images on the facades of buildings and other objects, or on spray mist, in many cases accompanied by background music. This affords a completely different image to familiar objects, enveloping them in a whimsical atmosphere. The accompanying photo shows an ancient temple in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district. The beautiful, kaleidoscopic images projected on it generated cries of amazement from spectators.
Rice Paddies Become an Art Form
The village of Inakadate-mura in Aomori Prefecture has become famous for its “rice paddy art,” which uses different varieties of rice ears to form pictures on “canvasses” of rice paddies. While the best time for viewing is in August, the art can be enjoyed up to harvest time in the middle of October.
This year, the 21st rice “exhibition” since it began in 1993 took the theme of “Oiran and Hollywood Stars.” (Oriran were top-ranked professional courtesans from pre-modern times, said to be great beauties.) For example, Exhibit No. 1 showed female impressionist Tomio Umezawa, who competed with Marilyn Monroe in her famous leg-revealing scene from the 1955 film “The Seven-Year Itch.” To form the images, nine different strains of rice, including the local “Tsugaru Roman” and ancient rice strains, are utilized, making possible seven different colors all together.
Paddy Exhibit No. 2 featured the popular “Ultraman” children’s TV show created by Tsuburaya Productions, which this year observes its 50th anniversary.
Rice paddy art continues to spread throughout Japan’s farming villages, serving as a means of attracting visitors.
Japan’s railways continue to attract travelers with kanko ressha or extravagant sightseeing trains serving destinations around the country. While not specifically defined what kanko ressha is in terms of their design or function, such trains incorporate special touches that make the journey to one’s destination a very unique and special experience. Kyushu Railway Company has put particular emphasis on train design and currently operates various theme trains along seven different routes. Two of the most interesting are the Aso-Boy and the A-Train.
This train has adopted the concept of a “boy hero.” Car No. 3 has a library stocked with illustrated books, and features a circular vat filled with wooden balls titled, “wooden pool,” as part of its “Kuro-club” playground. A staff member is present to look after the children. The train is festooned with images of “Kuro” (“Blackie”), its mascot character, and cars Number 1 and 4 feature seats in arrays of three to provide an optimum scenic view. The all-white “Kuro-chan” seats for children on the window side of Car No. 3 are raised 25cm from the floor to give young passengers a better view of the passing scenery. Aso-Boy service is usually scheduled during vacation periods and on weekends, running one round-trip per day on the Hohi main line, connecting the stations of Kumamoto, Aso and Miyaji for a trip lasting from 80 to 90 minutes. The one-way fare from Kumamoto to Miyaji is 2,380 yen ($23) for adults and 1,190 yen ($11) for children.
Take the A-Train
Familiar to readers, perhaps, as Duke Ellington’s signature jazz tune, the A-Train (A ressha in Japanese) boasts a stand-up bar — named the A-Train Bar — serving a wide selection of soft drinks and cocktails. More than a family-oriented design, this train appeals mainly to adult passengers, with its retro décor, bar and background music, featuring (of course) the tune “Take the A-Train,” to provide an nostalgic and romantic atmosphere to travelers. The train’s arrival at Misumi station is designed to connect with an excursion boat at the terminal station, Matsushima. On weekends and during vacation periods the A-Train runs three round trips per day on the Amakusa-Misumi line between Kumamoto and Matsushima stations. The one-way fare for a 40-minute ride is 1,820 yen ($18).
Koyasan in Wakayama Prefecture is a Buddhist holy land in Japan that Kukai or commonly known as Kobo Daishi opened as a place of training in the Heian period (794-1185). When Kobo Daishi was looking for land suitable for the training, he found a basin deep in trackless mountains about 1,000 meters above sea level. Its discovery dates back about 1,200 years ago. You can feel the passion of Kobo Daishi who found this place deep in the mountains off the beaten track, which in that age was not even found on a map.
Equal as a Holy Land of Japanese Buddhism to Koyasan is Hieizan near Kyoto where Enryakuji, a temple registered as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1994, is located. Both san and zan mean mountain in Japanese. But there are two major differences between Hieizan and Koyasan. One of them is the different denominations: Tiantai-school for Hieizan and Shingon-school for Koyasan. And the other is the existence of a town (people’s daily lives). In both mountains there are various halls for training and old temples, but while only temple officials such as monks live in Hieizan, Koyasan has not only temple officials, but also ordinary people other than monks living.
This holy place Koyasan was also registered as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 2004, and is a district that has received 3 Stars in the Michelin Green Guide, but please be sure to visit the “Okunoin (Inner Shrine),” “Danjo Garan” and “Kongobuji Temple,” and experience “accommodation in temple lodging.” Okunoin and Danjo Garan are said to be the two main sacred places in Koyasan.
Old and gigantic cedar trees stand on either side of the approach of about two kilometers from the entrance of Okunoin, and the tombstone of some Japanese imperial families and military leaders who won fame in ancient times as well as common people and company shrines stand along the long approach. At the very end of this path there is the mausoleum where Kobo Daishi rests, and this place exudes a profoundly dignified presence which never fails to attract pilgrims.
Danjo Garan is an area consisting of The Great Tower and various temples spotted around Koyasan, and particularly eye-catching as a symbol of the pursuit of knowledge is the Tower which has been refurbished over the course of about 70 years from the year 816 to become Japan’s first two-story pagoda. The current tower was refurbished in 1937.
Kongobuji Temple is the main temple of Danjo Garan where the head monk resides. There is Japan’s largest rock garden, “Banryūtei” on the premise.
Among the 117 temples of Koyasan, there are 52 temples which have pilgrim’s lodging where travelers can also stay. The temple lodging experience includes also taking part in training with ascetic monks through sutra chanting, hand-copying sutras, and a type of meditation “Ajikan” unique to the Shingon sect. During the stay, the meals are “Buddhist cuisine” made from vegetables and rice, completely vegetarian dishes.
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.
Can You Eat This?
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 Commercial Center 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
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.