Tofugu» Culture A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Fri, 22 Aug 2014 22:38:21 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Surviving Karaoke When You Hate It Thu, 21 Aug 2014 16:00:30 +0000 I hate karaoke. I don’t mean “hate” like someone says they “hate” tuna after biting into a mystery sandwich and being unhappy with the taste. I mean hate like gagging on that bite of sandwich and then setting fire to it. It’s not a problem with the public performance aspect (which I don’t enjoy, but as a teacher and constant foreigner, I’ve adjusted). I just don’t like to sing. I don’t sing in the shower, in the car, or when I’m alone, unless I’m planning something (more on that later). Heck, I often don’t like it when other people sing, partially because people often don’t realize how tone deaf they are until they sing without a pro acting as their back-up. I know I’m awful, and I have no desire to improve, since I feel singing wouldn’t add anything to my life.

However, karaoke is important to modern Japanese society. You can go to a bar but not drink alcohol in Japan, and that’s okay. Can’t eat a lot of the food at an event because of dietary restrictions? It’s awkward and burdensome, but people will understand and try to make the best of the situation. But refusing to sing? That’s not okay. Japanese people don’t let each other off the hook either. I’ve seen some sincere rejections, not-so-joking dragging of co-workers, and supreme embarrassment of failed karaoke attempts in front of their peers. My first night of karaoke, I never said no, but I attempted the serious, indirect ways of politely declining that usually work for me in every other aspect of Japanese life (and I rarely use those). My protests were flat out rejected, songs were chosen for me or I was pressed to make a decision, and a mic was forced into my hand. Even when the depth of my ineptitude was revealed, I was forced to repeat the task throughout the night.


Of course, as a foreigner, you can probably get away with using your gaijin card as with so many other situations, but don’t do it. As someone who still considers the practice to be a form of cruel an unusual punishment, I’ve recognized quickly that rejecting karaoke is a great way to find yourself alone on weekends. While I wouldn’t say I even do karaoke on a monthly basis, when it happens, there may be weeks where I’m invited to karaoke bars by multiple groups. Like a plague, it comes out of nowhere and spreads rapidly before burning out. While you can sit alone in your “mansion” in quarantine, do you really want to be the only survivor of a non-deadly disease that is somehow able to bring people together? I know I don’t. So for those of you who also hate karaoke but still want to bond with your Japanese friends and co-workers, I present you with this guide, complete with a bit of background information that may help you arm yourself against upcoming outbreaks.

Singing in Japan


Photo by gullevek

I’m not sure how true it is, but it makes sense to me that Alexander Prasol, in his 2010 book Modern Japan: Origins of the Mind: Japanese Mentality and Tradition in Contemporary Life, called Japanese songs “democratic”. Supposedly, they tend to stay away from the soprano and bass ranges, residing in the middle where most people usually sing. This does seem to ring true for the most part since I hear less sour notes when Japanese people sing, especially when they do karaoke to Japanese songs. However it might have more to do with their educational upbringing.

Having witnessed music practice in several schools, I must admit that students are given more instruction for singing than I recall receiving when I sang in a church choir. Japanese school music class was treated with the respect you would expect from any other scholastic field of study when learning from a teacher at school. That is, it wasn’t made to be “fun”. It was a serious endeavor with consequences (mostly in the form of longer performances, a tactic I sincerely wish I was allowed to use while teaching English). Singing is certainly seen as fun to some students, but teachers give feedback and address the class as teachers. My own musical training in school lacked the sort of vigor I’ve witnessed out here and, like my students, I was also expected to perform in front of a crowd. Not all students can exactly read music, but it seems it’s taught in a large enough capacity that my inability to read it was a bit surprising to some Japanese co-workers when they have handed me some sheet music, both for entertainment and school functions.

I’m not going to say Japanese people are musical, but I will say that they utilize music aggressively. For example, instead of having mascots, every Japanese school has their own school anthem. I’m sure some American schools have anthems as well, but I don’t personally recall hearing any. And knowing the school anthem is of utmost importance. The music lessons I’ve sat in on that I described above? Those were mostly for the school anthem. Buddha bless the first year kids, because they really have to practice learning their new anthem quickly! They will sometimes have an extra class for anthem practice, or a music teacher may ask other teachers to cancel classes (or maybe just my classes) so they can get extra practice in.

It’s not just in the schools though. We’re all aware of advertising jingles for big stores, but even small shops have jingles. I thought at first that it was like in the states, but when I’ve asked if a certain store with a jingle was famous or popular, people have told me, “No, they just paid someone to make their song.” Grocery stores, malls, locksmiths. I think the only shops I’ve noticed that don’t consistently have a song playing in the background while I visit them are restaurants, like ramen shops.

While American states have songs, the one I lived in never made use of it, and apparently other people I’ve met felt the same about their home states. In fact, I wasn’t even aware of my state’s song until we had a project in grade school where we had to research various states. Japan’s prefectures, though, are hardcore. They have anthems, and you will learn about them fast. They’re played at city hall, on advertisements, at some events, and yeah, sometimes they’re sung at school.There’s a youtube list with several prefectural anthems, but it’s incomplete, though you can always search for another prefecture’s anthem.

And if you think karaoke is the only example of recreational singing in Japan, think again. Songs are used in classes as “fun” activities, more so than I recall experiencing (probably for the best). I just had a very academic school hold a chorus contest between their various classes. This is the second best school in my prefecture and they took their contest quite seriously, practicing after school instead of doing club activities, sacrificing weekends, and then performing– enthusiastically, for no real prize– at the capital city’s cultural center. These kids, who rarely say “hi” to me when I walk to school with them, became super friendly and suddenly remembered my name.

And it’s not just the kids. I went to private party at a bar and one teacher brought a kind of “game”. This wasn’t a karaoke place, but she had sheet music and divided us into groups. It was a “singing game” where people have different parts and sing at different times. I’ve read about this in Victorian Europe where people were bored and didn’t have other things to do, and my choir did this “for fun” sometimes, but I’ve never had the (dis)pleasure of performing one of these songs in a semi-public space with people I barely knew. Again, my inability to read sheet music confounded my hosts, and my foreigner status did not allow me to get off the hook. The song, in fact, made heavy use of loanwords, so I was fully expected to participate.

If it’s not clear by now, song is serious business out here.

The Start of Karaoke


So, how did karaoke get its start here? It’s truthfully a bit of a mystery. While Wikipedia points to Filipino entertainers, the connection seems thin. Singing with a tape player is different, and having the first patent on a karaoke machine only makes Robert del Rosario a smart businessman. By most accounts, Daisuke Inoue was the first able to prove he created karaoke machines

A musician in his own right, Inuoe was asked to accompany a client on a trip as the musical entertainment. However, due to his work schedule, Inoue simply sent a recording of himself alone with the client and collected the money as a “house musician”. The term karaoke (coming from 空/kara meaning “empty,” and オケ/oke clipped from the loan word for orchestra, オーケストラ) at the time was used for “house musicians,” which explains how it could also fit the torture practice we’re discussing today. At any rate, Inoue, thinking there might be a market for such a device, made a special tape player that played music (for some money, of course), and leased out his machines while providing tapes of popular music for people to sing along to. While del Rosario beat him to the patent, Inoue had enough of a history for us to remember his contribution.

Survival Preparation (Use Your Head!)


Now, the first part of surviving karaoke is planning for it. Like floods or fires, it can strike at any time, though usually assume it’ll come during a party season, such as the end of the year. Not all Japanese people know the history of karaoke, so memorizing the above history might help you buy a little time if you need to stall. It won’t save you though.

First, I’d suggest looking up some classic rock and pop songs and practice them secretly. “Rock and Roll All Night” by KISS, pretty much anything from the Beatles or Michael Jackson, heck, I’ve even seen Metallica songs from the Black Album and Load on some machines! Get familiar with some oldies and try to pick something short and in your vocal range. Johnny Cash would normally be my first pick since I talk more than sing (but without any rhythm). However I’ve sadly learned that not a lot of machines have his songs, and when they do, they’re not ones I usually hear. Jackson and The Beatles will always be available though.

You can also pick pop songs that have been out for maybe 6 months to maybe a year or two. People will not only want to hear you sing these, but will offer to sing them with you. Do it, because at the very least, Japanese people tend to know the melody and will just be happy that you can pronounce things right. There are some issues with this though, since the songs might be more risqué. I had a co-worker who may or may not have understood the meaning of “Bad Romance,” but my male co-worker certainly did, and when I was made to sing Lady Gaga’s part… anyone who knows the lyrics can see why a man singing that part may feel a bit uncomfortable.

As I said, I hate singing, but once in awhile, take one of your practice songs for a spin. Practice once with the song and at least once without. If there’s one thing my music teachers taught me, it was that you are singing worse than you think you are when you sing along with someone else. If you learn you can’t hit certain notes, don’t use that song. If you like karaoke, that’s not a problem, but this guide’s for my fellow haters. Avoid anything that will reveal your dog-like tones.

When picking out songs, I’d also advise you to look for songs with multiple parts, simple choruses (for Japanese), or different singers. You can ask someone to sing with you and give them a part. Most oldies work well for this, so as much as I’d like to do Enter Sandman, I know I’d have to do that all on my own.

Unless your kanji skills are really good or you’ve memorized it, don’t go for a Japanese song! While there is often furigana above the kanji, this isn’t always the case, and can turn that one song you liked as the end theme from Gundam into four and a half minutes of hell. You may impress some people, and that will count for something, but it will most likely get you targeted for more Japanese songs. Good for Japanese practice, but the other side of the coin is that, with some Japanese people, knowing the language makes you less interesting. You won’t get off the hook for singing, but most people want to hear you speak a different language. Being a foreigner and speaking/singing in Japanese is like being magician that’s giving a speech about the evolution of whales. Yeah, it’s cool, but it’s unexpected and maybe even boring to some people. I’d prefer to be less known as people’s personal go-to-gaijin, so I’m fine with that, but if you like your foreigner status and the attention it brings, I’d avoid singing Japanese songs.

Finally, before any outing that may result in karaoke, look up the katakana spelling of your arsenal before hand, and try to memorize it. Especially where I live, I can’t find always find Michael Jackson, but I can find マイケル・ジャクソン. Songs are often in English, but you might not always find your song, so you may need to search for a new one.

Survival Execution (Don’t Lose Your Head!)


Photo by syvwlch

So, now you’re at the bar. Somehow, it came down to karaoke. I’m sorry, there’s nothing that can be done. But you’ve prepared for this. Now for some finishing touches.

First, if it’s not too late, don’t get too drunk. I hate karaoke primarily because every karaoke incident I’ve witnessed in the states was terrible and involved drunk people getting “too much” courage and singing something deeply personal and ending up not only proving they are tone deaf, but pouring out bodily fluids from one of many orifices they normally have better control over (only the eyes, if we’re lucky).

Next, act happy. Force it if you have to. I’ve seen natives do this and it probably saves them.This is my biggest weakness but, at the very least if I seem mildly amused, the night goes over well enough. People will see you’re trying your best and will be far more willing to help make things go smoothly for you.

It should go without saying, but compliment everyone else’s singing. As I mentioned, the music teachers here seriously teach music, so I feel the average Japanese person is better equipped for karaoke. It’s also a good way to tackle the “act happy” tactic.

Whenever possible, piggy back off of other people’s songs! It’ll count as your turn. Just say (in English or Japanese), “Should we sing this together?” to any song you might decently know. The other bonus is that it’ll make trying to find the katakana version of your song name a million times easier since someone else probably knows. Also, as I said, whenever you’re singing with someone better than you, you don’t realize how much you suck at singing. Silently thank your friends’ music teachers and do your best to sing loud enough that people know you’re trying, but soft enough to let the pro shine.

Last but not least, in a small karaoke place that doesn’t have private booths, sit by the exit and drink a lot (of water) so you have to go to the bathroom a lot. The less you’re around, the less you’ll be noticed when the good karaoke people are doing their thing. Aim for your “escape” when someone not very good is singing. Everyone will try to help that person (I’ve seen it with others and myself), and often a skilled person will offer to go next to help people’s ears recover. That’s your queue to worship the porcelain god and hope for a short night.

The Rewards for Your Torture


Photo by Derek Gavey

At the end of it all, what does a night of karaoke-induced torture get you? Sadly, invitations to more karaoke. It’s not all bad though. It’s mostly a bonding experience. If you’re clear that you don’t like singing, but do it anyway, you show you’re willingness to be a team player, which is really important out here. You’ll also see what kind of music your co-workers like, who’s in what clique, and naturally learn some juicy gossip as people drink more. I’ve gotten a bit closer to some of the office staff at my school, so that’s been incredibly useful. Teachers later hear from other teachers that I’m willing to do karaoke and, since then, at least one teacher has been super friendly since he found out. I’d honestly prefer to bond over some Marvel vs. Capcom, but I suppose karaoke works well enough.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Gaki no Tsukai And The Living Legends Of Japanese Comedy Wed, 20 Aug 2014 16:00:00 +0000 When I took my first shot at learning Japanese, nothing stuck. I would learn new kanji or grammar, then it would fly out of my head in a week. It took me three months to realize I had to escape my bubble of textbooks and memorization and experience some Japanese in the wild. Unfortunately, I lived across from a cow pasture in South Carolina, so I couldn’t just find some place where people spoke Japanese. Instead, I decided to watch a comedy show called Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende.

In my home office, on the wall, you can find the Hall of Fame for the Best Decisions I Have Ever Made. I keep track of all my best decisions there, on fake plaques printed on A4 paper. Near the very top, just below “Decided Not to Go to Grad School,” you can find “Decided to Watch the Best Comedy Show of All Time and Learned Japanese While Doing It.”

I bet you can guess what show I’m talking about?

What is Gaki no Tsukai?

Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!! is a Japanese comedy and variety show which has been running since 1989, producing over a thousand episodes. It has been a massively influential show in Japanese comedy, to the point that the main duo’s Kansai accent and dialect are the unofficial sound of comedy in the country. If you want to become a Japanese comedian, you better learn to talk like you’re from Osaka.

The show’s influence has even creeped just across the Pacific Ocean, with one fantastic Gaki no Tsukai segment called Silent Library being adapted into a full show on MTV. Virtually everyone will tell you that the original was better, but don’t let that stop you from watching Justin Bieber smell a durian. The original product is embedded below:

You can find all sorts of comedy under the Gaki no Tsukai umbrella: from old-fashioned “Who’s on First”-style manzai dialogues to sketches, game shows, cooking segments, public stunts, and the physical comedy that Japan is famous for. Gaki no Tsukai is especially famous for its batsu games: devilish and sometimes intricate scenarios in which one or more of the performers are comically punished for losing a competition, a bet, or just because it’s New Year’s Day. Gaki‘s New Year’s 24 Hours No Laughing specials are hours-long batsu games in which the comedians are forced to endure increasingly bizarre and hilarious scenarios with the caveat that they will be beaten if they laugh out loud.

Here’s a famous segment from one of the 24 Hours No Laughing shows in which returning character Jimmy Onishi does his very best to teach an English lesson. You can see the Gaki no Tsukai cast being constantly pulled away and hit when they laugh.

Just watching the video, I can tell you that I wouldn’t come out of it alive if I were in any one of their shoes.

Studying Japanese With Gaki No Tsukai


Gaki no Tsukai is worth watching for anyone with an interest in comedy, but it’s especially useful for students in the early stages of learning Japanese. There is a vast library of Gaki clips, episodes, and specials online which have been subtitled by fans, allowing anyone to watch and start to absorb the language in-between study periods. And thanks to the habit of the show (and all Japanese television, really) to put a lot of the spoken words on screen in text to highlight punch lines, you can almost match spoken words with Japanese text with English text all at once, which was helpful to me very early on in learning the language.

And because Gaki no Tsukai is largely a physical comedy show, you can make do without subtitles altogether without being afraid that you won’t have any idea what’s going on. Once you get much stronger with your language ability, there is a large and friendly fansubbing community that can help you practice the language as you subtitle clips and episodes on your own (and trust me, you can’t do much worse than some of the translations that are already out there). As you improve in ability, there is a very natural progression of Gaki no Tsukai clips that can help reinforce what you learn when you study, and even start to get your feet wet in the translation world if you are so inclined.

It makes for a step-by-step process:

1. If you’re a complete beginner like I was, watch the show with subtitles between study sessions. Usually, punch lines will be written out in big Japanese text on the screen, so you can practice reading katakana and hiragana, and test your kanji if any simple ones happen to come up. It’s useful to have Japanese spoken words, Japanese text, and English text on screen all at once when you’re just a beginner. If you’re doing it right, your brain should hurt after you’ve watched an episode or two. That means you’re getting some value out of your leisure time.

2. If you know a little bit of the language, be brave and watch the show without English subtitles. Especially if you’ve already seen an episode or two, missing a sentence here or there won’t hurt your enjoyment of this physical comedy-heavy show. I’ve found it important to immerse myself as much as possible as my language skill got better, and this is an easy place to start.

3. And if you’re really starting to know your stuff, Gaki no Tsukai is a friendly place to dip your toes into the world of translation. There is a huge community of people who watch subtitled Gaki no Tsukai content online, and in a show with 1,213 episodes, there is always more material to translate. By either learning to subtitle video yourself or working with another fan who wants to be a timer, you can start to subtitle Gaki clips and publish them online, trying out all the joys and pains of translation before turning it into a paying gig.

Introducing The Comedians

The core cast of Gaki no Tsukai is comprised of two separate comedy duos and… another guy. “Downtown” are the senior duo who introduce the show and have been with it from the start. “Cocorico” are a duo who joined in 1997, and Yamasaki Hosei (who recently changed his name to Tsukitei Hosei) is the solo act.


hamada-masatoshiHamada Masatoshi

Hamada is what is known in the Japanese comedy world as the tsukkomi. In the Anglo-American comedy world, this is what’s known as the “straight man.” Not the full-on no-jokes straight man a la Zeppo Marx, but the dominant, smart member of the comedy duo with Matsumoto.

It’s all based around the core interaction of Japanese comedy that you might recognize from any other video game, comic, or movie with elements of comic relief: Matsumoto is the funny man, so he acts like an idiot. Hamada is the straight man, so he yells at Matsumoto and hits him for being so stupid. Hamada plays a sadistic, mean, and almost evil character that is perfectly matched to Matsumoto’s goofier nature.

Among Hamada’s running gags: He always gets stuck wearing women’s clothes, and the other members of the group take every opportunity they can to compare him to a gorilla. He’s also… not a great artist.

matsumoto-hitoshiMatsumoto Hitoshi

Matsumoto is the elder statesman of Japanese comedy and the boke to Hamada’s tsukkomi. He’s taller than Hamada, he’s balder, and while he has the same temper, he doesn’t have the mean streak to back it up. He’s the funny man, and in the few times that the comedy isn’t physical, he tends to land the punch lines. Recently, Matsumoto has started a career in directing and writing movies, including two that made it Stateside in limited release: Big Man Japan and R100.


tanaka-naokiTanaka Naoki

Cocorico (sometimes spelled “Coq au rico”) are a much younger duo, and while their characters within Gaki no Tsukai aren’t so fleshed out as Downtown, they still play huge roles throughout the show. Tanaka is the boke and he’s a tall, thin, gentle-hearted guy who is perhaps best known for dropping immediately to the ground whenever he’s even remotely startled.

endo-shozoEndo Shozo – Endo is the tsukkomi, but despite being the more serious member of the duo, most of his running gags on Gaki no Tsukai revolve around his being kind of an airhead. Sometimes the team will make him read something full of slightly obscure kanji just to watch him try to figure them out.

He’s also punished on the show for his semi-scandalous private life, and his ex-wife (the singer Chiaki) is often brought on to the show to create awkward situations for him.

Some other guy named Hosei

hoseiYamasaki or Tsukitei Hosei

Yamasaki recently changed his name to Tsukitei just to make things difficult for someone trying to write a Gaki no Tsukai intro piece, but more importantly he’s the chubby underdog of the group. His punch lines never land and he seems to always take more physical abuse than anyone else, but he’s visibly trying his hardest to live up to the comedy standards of the others around him.

Yamasaki isn’t actually an unfunny comedian by any means, but he plays one on TV, and his character is supposed to be bad at his comedy job. In the last seven or so of Gaki no Tsukai’s New Year’s specials, some sort of unfortunate mix-up or other gets Yamasaki viciously slapped by the pro wrestler Masahiro Chono, one of the most popular running gags in the show for the way that Yamasaki tries desperately to escape his punishment.

Now Go Watch It!

Now you should be ready to dive into the hundreds of online clips of Gaki no Tsukai and start to love Japanese comedy. And if you’re like me, you’ll move on to Lincoln, and Million Kazokuand on and on, looking for that next comedy fix until you’re desperately walking into another DVD store, looking for a rakugo scene you’ve never watched before while knowing you won’t find it. You’ll be living in a batsu game of your own creation, and there’s no escape.

Until that happens to you, though, I’d like to provide you with some of my favorite Gaki No Tsukai clips to watch.

Matsumoto’s Pie Hell” is one of my favorite moments from the show. After losing a bet on the Japan Series, Hamada and the rest of the team subject Matsumoto to a full simulated day of pie attacks. Matsumoto must do everything the narrator tells him to do and pretend this is just a normal day, without reacting to the constant barrage of pies.

The “5 Rangers” clip below is a positively ancient Gaki sketch about a Super Sentai or Power Rangers team who fail to coordinate their outfits for the day. It’s a simple premise that has led to maybe a few dozen segments on the show, but I laugh every single time. This segment predates Cocorico and Yamasaki, but you should start with the original before you fast forward a decade or two.

The “Kiki” series is one of my favorite segments from the show, in which the cast taste something blindfolded, then try to pick it out from a table of alternate brands of the same thing. You can see them taste-test curry, instant miso soup, and even cigarettes and beer, but you should start with the first Kiki game: canned coffee.

And Gaki no Tsukai has another fantastic food segment called “Absolutely Tasty,” in which the cast cook some, uh, inventive food items along a common theme then try them out together. The finished products can range anywhere from delicious recipes you’ll want to try at home to horrifying, borderline inedible creations.

Before Gaki did 24 Hour No Laughing games every year, they had a different endurance challenge: A 24 hour game of tag. While the cast were trying to sleep, men would occasionally burst into the room and start chasing them down, with whoever is caught being subjected to some kind of punishment. In this clip, it’s a Scorpion Death Lock wrestling move, but Tanaka has a special strategy for avoiding it.

I couldn’t get away without including what I will politely call “The Butt Game.” This used to show up on those “weird Japan” shows and websites, and you’ll see why shortly. Matsumoto and Yamasaki work together to answer trivia questions. If they get one wrong, the producers’ three quarters-naked butts get moved inches closer to their face. The highest of stakes.

In this clip, the team try to order Napolitan, the Japanese pasta dish, using similar-sounding words, starting with “Napoleon” and working all the way down to “Tamori-san.” If they receive what they ordered, they win.

This clip introduces you to Heipo, a popular side character who is afraid of absolutely everything. The comedians take turns scaring him with increasingly simple techniques.

I couldn’t possibly link enough videos to show you the depth and breadth of Gaki laughs out there, but this is a start. So do what I did years ago: Pull up a chair and a laptop to watch the show, and maybe some headphones so you don’t bother the people around you, and a second, smaller laptop with open on it, and a bag of kettle corn, and some kind of wipe to get the kettle corn off your hands before you touch your keyboard, and enjoy Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende. And maybe you’ll learn something while you do.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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A Bridge Across Time Mon, 18 Aug 2014 16:00:55 +0000 Nagasaki’s Megane-bashi (Spectacles Bridge) got its name from the way the reflection of its double arches in the river combine with the bridge itself to look like a pair of glasses. In addition to its historical significance as Japan’s first arched stone bridge, it has a personal connection for me. When I studied in Japan, I was not the only Adam in my program, so my bespectacled mug garnered me the nickname “Megane”.


Photo by luckyno3

From the ancient to the modern, Japan has some great bridges. Some of them can provide insight into Japan’s history and culture or reflect archetypes that span cultures. Most often, of course, a bridge symbolizes a connection or transition. So let’s traverse the bridge of time together and see what we can see.

A Bridge Across Worlds


For our first bridge we’ll have to go back, waaaay back, to the beginning. I suppose technically this bridge isn’t even Japanese because, in stories, it existed before Japan did. I’m referring to the floating bridge of heaven (ame no ukihashi). It was from there that the god and goddess, Izanagi and Izanami, stood looking down upon the vast ocean that covered the world. They dipped a jeweled spear into the water, and used it to churn the sea. When they withdrew the spear, the drops of water that fell formed the first land, Onogoroshima. The divine couple then descended from the heavenly bridge to carry on creating.

The floating bridge of heaven can be seen as an example of an axis mundi, a mythological archetype found in many cultures. An axis mundi is what culture sees as the center of the world and/or the connection between heaven and Earth. It’s also often the point of original creation. Examples with which you might be more familiar include Mount Olympus for the Greeks or the tree Yggdrasill for the Norse. The Norse also had Bifrost, the rainbow bridge, which connected Earth and Asgard, the home of the gods. It’s easy to see how many people around the globe have taken the real practical function of bridges and made them symbols of connection between spiritual realms.



Let’s move on to Kyoto’s Gojo Bridge. At some point in the late twelfth century, the warrior monk Benkei decided to park himself on this bridge and let no warrior cross it. He took the weapon from each fallen swordsman that challenged him, and amassed quite the collection, 999 swords to be exact. That thousandth sword proved difficult to acquire, for Benkei finally met his match in a young Minamoto no Yoshitsune.

When Yoshitsune approached the bridge one moonlit night, a legendary fight ensued. The agile Yoshitsune proved too much for Benkei’s strength. Afterwards, Benkei became Yoshitsune’s most loyal retainer. They went on to achieve great victories together during the Genpei War. However, after the war, Yoshitsune’s older brother became convinced that Yoshitsune would betray him, and thus ordered his death. Yoshitsune and Benkei were on the run together for years and, while they were historical figures, there are many tall tales of their adventures. Eventually, Benkei was killed while buying Yoshitsune time to commit seppuku.

In this story the bridge is more of a meeting place than anything, but it could also be viewed as transition from enmity to friendship. The most obvious comparison here is to Robin Hood and Little John. A big, strong guy guarding a bridge is defeated by a smaller, clever guy, and the two become fast friends who together elude the law. One could also draw comparisons between Benkei’s sword collecting to the similar habit of a certain knight of English legend. King Pellinore (aka the Sable Knight) guarded a bridge and hung the shields of his many defeated enemies in a nearby apple tree until he was eventually defeated by a young King Arthur.

The Floating Bridge of Dreams


Our next bridge is not one that can be found on any map. The floating bridge of dreams (yume no ukihashi) can only be found during a night’s slumber. Well, that or a good book. It crops up from time to time in some literature of the Heian and Kamakura periods. Yume no ukihashi was the title of the final chapter of The Tale of Genji. Unlike the other chapter titles in the book, yume no ukihashi was not drawn from the text of the chapter.

This bridge also appeared in a poem by Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241) in the Shin kokin wakashu. Fujiwara no Teika was a great scholar and poet of the late Heian and early Kamakura periods. He was also one of six compilers of the Shin kokin wakashu, a collection of poetry, commissioned by his patron, the retired emperor Go-Toba. Here is the poem by Teika:

春の夜の haru no yo A spring night
夢の浮き橋 yume no ukihashi the floating bridge of dreams
とだえして todae shite comes to an end
峰に別るる mine ni wakaruru parting from the peak
横雲の空 yokogumo no sora a sky of cloud banks

Like dreams and poetry, the yume no ukihashi is open to interpretation. Generally, it seems to be another example we can add to the list of Japanese symbols of ephemerality, along with cherry blossoms. Of course symbols of ephemerality are intertwined with ideas of transition, whether they be between dreams and wakefulness or life and death.

The Bridge of Japan


The Floating Bridge of Heaven may have been Japan’s original axis mundi, but at the dawn of the Edo period a new bridge was completed that would come to fill that role in many respects. I speak of the Nihon-bashi (Japan Bridge). With a name like that you know it must be important. The original wooden bridge was finished in 1603, in Edo (modern Tokyo).

The Nihon-bashi marked the eastern end of the Tokaido and Nakasendo roads that connected the old capital, Kyoto, to the new, Edo. Even today, highway signs displaying the distance to Tokyo are actually showing the distance to the Nihon-bashi.


The Nihon-bashi district that built up around its namesake was, from the beginning, a center of activities for merchants. The precursor to today’s Tsukiji fish market was there, and so was the ancestor of Mitsukoshi. In 1673, a kimono shop called Echigoya was founded which one day would become this international chain of department stores.

A Bridge Too Far


Now we must turn to a more somber chapter of history. Hiroshima’s Aioi Bridge was built in 1932. It sat in a fork of the Ota River, its T-shape connecting it to both sides as well as the island that split the river. Unfortunately its unique shape made it easily recognizable from the air, a quality that led it to its choosing as the target for the atomic bomb in 1945.

Ultimately a little off target, the bomb exploded over the nearby Shima Hospital. The bridge was seriously damaged, but survived. It was repaired after the war and remained in use until it was replaced by a replica in 1983. You can still see a piece of the original bridge in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Aioi Bridge can be seen as symbolic of the violent transition from imperial to post-war Japan.

Bridging Regions


Photo by takahito

The islands of Honshu and Hokkaido are connected by tunnel and, although there is a bridge connecting Honshu and Kyushu, it was long preceded by a tunnel. However, when it came to linking Honshu and Shikoku, not just one, but seventeen bridges were built. There are three routes, all seen below.


The first route to be completed was the central one, the Seto-Chuō Expressway, finished in 1988. It consists of six bridges. The eastern route was finished in 1998. It consists of two bridges, including the Akashi- Kaikyō Bridge. At 1,991 meters (6,532 feet) it is the world’s longest suspension bridge. It also has several beautiful illumination options. In 1999, the western route was the last to be finished, and is made up of a whopping nine bridges.

Prior to the construction of these bridges ferries were the only option for traveling between Shikoku and Honshu. Japan has always been a country divided by seas and mountains, isolating small regions. Over time technology has allowed Japan to become more unified, and bridges have been a major part of that. It has been both a blessing and a curse. As Japan became smaller and more opportunities became available, regional dialects and culture were diminished.

Crossing the Next Bridge


Photo by jun560

We’ve come to the end of our bridge across history, but surely there will be many more bridges to come. Whether they span a river, a sea, life and death, or heaven and Earth, bridges will always serve as a great way to get from here to there.

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Let’s All Get NAKED! Onsen and Body Image Thu, 14 Aug 2014 16:00:58 +0000 There’s nothing better than slipping into a hot bath. You feel your muscles relax. The cares of the day float away on a cloud of steam. A butt-naked Oba-chan (old woman) is staring at you… wait! What?!

Does that seem like one of those dreams that turns into a nightmare where you’ve forgotten your clothes? Well, you could see onsen, Japanese communal baths, that way, but you’d be missing out. Not only missing out on a relaxing experience, but also missing out on something that could profoundly change how you view yourself.

Before we plunge into the onsen, let me come clean about this article. What I’ve written here is based entirely on my own personal experience in onsen and of my own body. I’m not claiming any authority beyond that of personal experience. I recognize that who and what I am has influenced this. I’m a woman. From talking to guys, it seems that women can sometimes have more positive experiences in onsen than foreign men, who sometimes come under close scrutiny in one particular area.

This Towel Isn’t Big Enough For The One Of Me!


The first time I went to an onsen I was terrified. A Japanese friend had suggested we go to an onsen hotel in the next town over. I agreed, but all the way there I was tense with fear. Would I disgust the other people in the baths with my terrible foreignness and cultural faux pas? I was also carrying all the baggage of my own culture’s attitude to nakedness. Like a lot of people, I had a lot of hang ups about getting naked in front of other people. These were twofold. First was a sort of general feeling that nakedness was wrong. This came from my primary school days, a time when all the girls herded into a changing room before swimming lessons and I perfected the “knicker-twist”. (This is a method of putting on a swimsuit over one’s underwear and then removing said underwear in one complicated twisty movement.) The aim was always to avoid having anyone, even our peers, see us naked for even a moment.

The second hang up was a sense that my own body was unacceptable. I was intimately familiar with my own body’s flaws; the orange peel cellulite, the width of my hips, the wobble of my upper arms, the way my hair either made me look like a member of a 90s boy band or a wet cat. That first time in the onsen, when I was handed a narrow towel, I thought, “There’s no way I can cover all my flaws up with this little thing.”

My friend was so excited though. She’d been looking forward to this trip for weeks. I didn’t want to let her down by refusing to go to the onsen. I gritted my teeth and undressed, putting my clothes in the basket provided. I tried to cover up as much of my front as I could. Through the door I found a steam filled room with set of individual showers. I followed my friend’s lead and settled myself on the short stool in front of one of the showers. With great reluctance I put my towel on the small shelf in front of me and began to wash myself. I kept my head down, not wanting to see anyone else’s nakedness or their reactions to mine.

Washed, I grabbed my towel again. I tried to shield myself with it as we headed to the onsen pools. Again, I had to let go of my precious modesty covering as I slipped into the water. I was so conscious of myself. I tried to angle my body so that nothing showed. My friend didn’t seem to notice. She floated with a peaceful expression. I tried to relax too, but it was difficult. Even the gloriously warm water and the beautiful view of stars overhead couldn’t free me from my own self consciousness.

Now contrast that description of visiting an onsen with this one, three years later. A couple of weeks ago I visited an onsen with a two of my friends. I stripped off and put my clothes into the basket, chatting as I did so. At the showers I grabbed soap and shampoo from my own little onsen basket, lathered myself up and rinsed myself clean. We headed for the pools. I had already used my towel to tie up my hair, making no effort to hide myself. In the rotemburo (outside bath) we chatted and laughed. It was a hot bath and at one point I sat on the edge, with just my legs in the water. I felt the cool night air on my skin. I felt happy.

What took me from a nervous, self-conscious girl to a relaxed, happy woman?
Oba-chan butts. Seeing so many Oba-chan butts.

OK, it’s a little more complicated than that. But after that first nerve wracking onsen experience I didn’t stop going to onsen. At first, there were times when visiting onsen was unavoidable, when it was the only bathing option at English camp, or to wash off sweat after snowboarding. But soon I actually started seeking out onsen. Each time I visited, I became more comfortable with my own and others’ nudity. Once I let my preconceptions about nakedness go, I realized what a rare and wonderful space the onsen is.

The Naked Truth


We are constantly exposed to women’s bodies. But almost all of these bodies are ones that have been chosen by some arbiters of what is hot and what is not and then often retouched, creating impossible standards of beauty. At the opposite end of the spectrum, candid pictures of celebrities in magazines have every flaw ringed and pointed out. It’s not surprising that this affects women’s views of themselves.

Onsen were the first places where I saw actual women’s bodies without photoshopping or judgment. These were bodies that weren’t being displayed to sell me something or to titillate. They were just being people, relaxing and chatting as usual, except they were naked. All of the bodies had “flaws,” but only compared to the impossible perfection that exists in the media. There were broad women, skinny women, women whose bodies had cesarean scars, women who didn’t shave, women who did shave, women with large breasts, women with small breasts, women whose breasts showed the signs of nursing children, all kinds of women. But what they looked like didn’t matter. They weren’t there to be looked at or to look. They were there to enjoy the onsen. Once I realized that, I found that I could enjoy the onsen too.

I carried this positive thought out of the onsen and into my daily life. I began to think of my body in terms of “doing” things, not how it appeared. My body is my tool for doing what I want to do, from climbing a mountain to writing this article. My fingers are moving across the keyboard because I have a body that lets me type. I feel more connected and thankful for the body I have.

Only Oba-chans Know The Secret


I was talking about this with a friend of mine the other day. Actually we were at the onsen. (After three years it doesn’t seem strange to have a chat while relaxing naked in a bath in the open air.) She is gorgeous in a totally unjapanese way, with many of the features that Japanese people associate with foreigners, blonde hair, blue eyes and curves. She was the one who made me realize about the “grass is always greener” aspect of onsen for both Japanese and Non-Japanese women. Japanese women told her how she was their ideal; while for many non-Japanese women Japanese women’s slenderness and elegance can seem like an ideal. We all want what we can’t have. Living in Japan as a non-Japanese woman sometimes made me feel like Godzilla lumbering through my city. This always hit me worst when I went shopping for clothes. Skirts that would be reasonable on a Japanese girl are scandalous on me. Someone once asked me if I’d ever bought a bra in Japan and I just laughed. But we have to recognize that the flipside exists too. Just the other day a female student said to me, “Sensei, give me your oppai (breasts).” If you take the lesson of the onsen in the wrong way, envying the way others look, it could make this “grass is always greener” thinking worse.

Because for all that I’ve found onsen liberating, they don’t seem to have solved the problems of body image in Japan for Japanese women. 29% of Japanese women in their 20s are underweight. This statistic is being blamed on Japanese media, with celebrities and models having increasingly slender frames. Women diet and skip meals to try to attain similar weights.

Perhaps this has something to do with the demographics that enjoy onsen. In my experience it’s rare to see young women in the onsen. The main groups who seem to visit are ladies of retirement age and mothers with young children. Young women most at risk of body image problems likely don’t have the time to spend at onsen as they are working the hours expected of Japanese workers. The young people who would, according to society’s expectations, have the least reason to worry about their bodies are too busy to enjoy the onsen, while the oba-chans have plenty of time to learn the secret that there’s nothing to worry about, no matter how wrinkly you get.

Let’s All Get Naked!


Photo by Ben Beikse

I have a friend who lived in Japan for over a year, but never went to the onsen. Sometimes she would come with us, but she’d just sit in the changing room, fully clothed, while the rest of us enjoyed the hot water. She didn’t feel comfortable enough in herself to enter the onsen. It seemed like a tragic irony that going in the onsen would probably have helped her overcome the anxieties that kept her from going in the onsen in the first place. Don’t let yourself be kept from something so good for you!

There are so many wonderful onsen in Japan, from Dogo Onsen that the baths in Spirited Away are based on, to free onsen deep in the mountains, to the kitschy fun of Oodeo Onsen in Odaiba, Tokyo. I’d really recommend trying an onsen if you are visiting Japan. If you are lucky enough to be here for a long time, you can visit lots! Don’t let embarrassment hold you back from something wonderful that’s not only good for your skin, but good for your mind too!

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10 of Hello Kitty’s Most DISTANT Relatives Tue, 12 Aug 2014 16:00:40 +0000 There was a time when I hated Hello Kitty. But once I understood her complexity and accepted her into my life, a whole world opened up. Sanrio, not unlike Marvel or DC, is an entire universe of characters, and exploring a universe is half the fun of discovering nerdy things like this. When you first get into comics, you learn about your Spider-men, Wonder Women, and Wolverinis. After awhile though, you dig deep enough to find hilariously bizarre or mind-blowingly boring superheroes like “Matter Eater Lad” and “Captain Planet”.

The same is true with the Sanrio universe. Sanrio may push the puppies, kitties, and lambies to the forefront, but underneath there’s a lot of fun to be had with the outliers. Who created them? Why? I wouldn’t say any of them are necessarily “bad”, but some can be incredibly unimaginative while others are so imaginative as to be downright bizarre. It’s these characters that I’ll be extricating for this list: Hello Kitty’s distant relatives. When these dogs, elephants, and hamburgers roll up to the Sanrio family reunion, the other characters avoid eye contact.

These oddballs defy Sanrio’s image of polished cuteness and stand out as wonderfully strange or uncharacteristically dull. Fill up your plate with mash potatoes, because I’m sending you to sit and talk politely with the side of the family Hello Kitty tries to forget.

10. Peter Davis


It’s a white dog named Peter Davis. This character at least gets points for being one of my favorite things: a dog with a bland first and last name. But the goodness stop there. Peter Davis was born in England and, what ho! Pip pip, old chap! According to his bio on, he’s very proper, noble, fashionable, and clean. Well, well Peter Davis. You’re boring and stereotypical!

9. Dokidoki Yummychums


Dokidoki Yummychums is almost Sanrio’s answer to Aqua Teen Hunger Force as they a group consisting of meat, fries and shakes. Though that’s not what makes them bizarre. It’s the idea of cute food. Linda touched on this a few months back, but what strikes me as odd about this concept is the way cuteness is tied to protection. Things that we find cute or adorable are often the things we naturally want to protect (small animals, babies, email passwords). Mixing that protection concept with food is incongruent. And hilarious.

It’s a small, but extant, mind-bender. “Me am want eat food. But me am want also protect food. Me not know what me want!”

This food-cuteness hits me in a different way as well. I love hamburgers. Definitely in my top three of favorite foods. But I never realized I wanted to hug a hamburger, until I saw Dokidoki Yummychums. And why not? Hamburgers have brought me so much joy! I can finally release my subconscious urge to hug an enbunned meat patty now that it has eyes and a face and looks like it wants a hug! And with that invitation, of course I would reciprocate. Thank you hamburger. Thank you for everything.

8. Zoujitensha


Zoujitensha, or Elephant Bicycle, is an elephant riding a bicycle. According to his bio, he is an “urbanite with good taste”. At least his design matches his personality. Both are flat and unappealing.

7. Hangyodon


Hangyodon (literally, “Mr. Half-fish”) is another example that showcases Sanrio’s ability to make anything cute. He is a monster, something traditionally created to scare and repulse us. So is he that weird? Not in and of himself. What’s weird is how popular he is.

Hangyodon has a large number of goods attributed to him. He’s high up on the second tier of the Sanrio roster, like the Aquaman of the Sanrio Justice League (pun intended?). But with such a long list of cute animal characters behind him, you would think he would get bumped farther down the popularity rankings.

Hangyodon is a smart character design because it plays on our pity for monsters. Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Shrek are all stories which exemplify this. These stories resonate because we all feel unattractive or clumsy or even monstrous at one time or another and we all hope someone will love us despite our unattractive qualities. We all want to be understood.

His official Sanrio bio says he is “a lonely romantic who wants to be a hero someday” but we don’t need words to tell us that. That’s the power of Hangyodon.

6. Country Fresh Veggies


Country Fresh Veggies. Their name describes them, giving me literally nothing to write about. It’s a basket of damn vegetables. They have eyes and appendages, so they are slightly less boring than others on this list, but not by much. Even their bio on merely says, “Today, the fields are full of just-harvested, fresh vegetables.” Nuff said, I guess.

5. Gudetamago


Gudetama is a lazy egg. His name comes from the words gudegude (lethargic) and tamago (egg). While most Sanrio characters have several hobbies and goals, Gudetama has none. He knows he’s going to be cooked and eaten and wants to get it over with.

As far as sub-characters go, Gudetama is given more attention than most. There are pictures, goods, and YouTube videos showing him sleeping…






And generally lazing about.


This goes beyond relaxation. Gudetama is dead to the world. Is there any social commentary to be found in this? Does Gudetama reflect the attitude of Japanese young people reluctant to enter Japan’s notoriously stressful workforce? Probably not any more than Garfield reflected America’s love for lasagna in 1987. Either way, the egg laziness idea is a truly genius design choice.

Rilakkuma is a very popular lazy bear character, from Sanrio competitor San-X. But do you know what else can be lazy? A cat, a mouse, a badger, a panda, a shoe, anything! It’s easy to think of a noun and assign it the adjective “lazy” (Note to self: copyright “Cecil the Lazy Shoe”). But an egg yolk actually looks lazy! Someone at Sanrio looked deep into their breakfast and imbibed it with a personality that fit its shape. And that’s creativity- looking at something from an angle that everyone else is missing.

4. Geetown Special


Geetown Special is a group of three alligators. Let’s go to the bio for more insight:

“A group of three alligators.”

Was there any thought put into these three? They have no story, they’re nearly identical, and not even in color. I understand that some Sanrio characters are merely designs for cards and tote bags, but those that are should be categorized as such. Leave the charactering to anthropomorphic things with some appealing connection to offer the recipient. Later, gator.

3. Shiri Rappers


Hula-hooping, rapping butt vegetables.

I just wanted to make it clear from the outset what we’re dealing with. Shiri Rappers comes from the Japanese oshiri (butt) and the English “rappers” (rappers). According to, the Shiri Rappers are human-friendly butt fairies who, upon hearing a human’s cry, will rush to their aid and begin hula hooping/rapping with all their might, thus dispelling the human’s sadness.

As delightfully bizarre as this sounds on its own, I’m afraid it refers to a smartphone game.

In the game, the Shiri Rappers pop out of the ground, doing their gyration dance until you tap them. And you get points. I don’t see this as helpful to mankind, unless they are serving the particular pocket of mankind that needs to poke butt vegetables in order to live.

So, my initial joy at discovering the absurdity of the Shiri Rappers was diminished slightly upon finding that their story was created to explain their actions in a smartphone game. But dammit, the Shiri Rappers are hula-hooping butt vegetables and no one can take that away from me. Thanks Sanrio!

2. Boy and Girl


Welcome to the bottom of the boringness barrel. Boy and Girl. I used to think Patty and Jimmy were unimaginative, but Boy and Girl make Patty and Jimmy look like Ren and Stimpy. These two are like Hello Kitty clones turned human and sapped of all charm and style. The salt in the unimaginative wound is their name: Boy and Girl.

Let’s say you work for a creative company and your job is to creatively use your creativity to create creative characters. If your boss asks you, “What should we name this boy and girl?” and you answer, “Boy and Girl!”, you should be fired.

1. Heysuke


Heysuke. Yes, it is an angry, naked baby, but what makes it stranger than the Shiri Rappers? Heysuke’s story on

“Who? What the heck? It’s a kind of a suspicious, mysterious baby. For some reason, it’s laughing in the nude. Where it came from is a mystery. Is it a boy? A girl? Heysuke doesn’t even know for sure. The place where it lives is right next to you. One thing is for sure, he loves to be naked. It’s birthday is January 1st.”

Heysuke is a suspicious, ever-laughing, genderless naked baby who lives right next to you! The reason Heysuke gets the number one slot is its ambiguity. Most Sanrio characters’ designs have a specific vibe and their story bios expound upon that vibe, adding detail. But not Heysuke.

It’s cute as a baby, but its angry face makes you wonder what the hell is wrong. Then Heysuke’s story bio confuses us more by explaining that it’s laughing, suspicious, and lives right next to you. Suddenly this baby feels threatening, which is a tough concept to digest because it’s a baby. Everything about Heysuke is perplexing and strange.

Oh, and Mami pointed out that it’s wearing muscle-relaxing patches on its shoulders. WTF, Heysuke?

Heysuke was introduced on January 1, 2000, so maybe it was meant to be some kind of Baby New Year. But it never caught on anywhere ever. All the other characters on this list, weird as they are, have enjoyed some kind of success, appearing on various goods and being drawn in various poses.

Heysuke was only drawn once and, as far as I can tell, no goods bear its likeness. And so it remains: laughing, naked, and staring at you.

Explore the Chara-verse!


Okay, you’re done. You did your time at the table with the weirdos. Now you can go back to your Hello Kitty and your rap music. But hopefully you’ve learned a valuable lesson. There’s a whole world of Japanese characters to explore, within Sanrio and beyond. You may find more wacky treats when you search through them for yourself. Japanese mascot characters are a universe not often explored even by die-hard Hello Kitty fans. But if you dig design, animals, colors, or fun things in general, I encourage you to delve into this multiverse. You may just find yourself voluntarily sitting at the table of outcasts at the next Sanrio family reunion!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Five Ways To Experience Japan Without Leaving Home Thu, 07 Aug 2014 16:00:49 +0000 I’m sure for a lot of us, visiting or living in Japan is high on our list of things to do. But when you can’t make the trip overseas, there are lots of ways to experience Japan without getting on a plane. In fact, some of these you can try without even leaving home! Of course, I’ve left some basic suggestions off – like learning Japanese, reading blogs about Japan, and eating Japanese food – because you have probably already thought of those. But here are some things that might be new to you!

Community Service


Japanese communities and Japanese-American friendship groups are both great ways to experience Japan at home. There may not be much of one if you’re away from a major city, but it never hurts to check or ask around. Start on the internet – search for (nearby large city) Japanese Society. Or (nearby large city) Japan America Society. For example, I live in Seattle. When I Google “Seattle Japan Society”, the Japan America Society for the State of Washington immediately comes up. If you’re in college, there may be a Japanese Students Association or an Asian Students Association. If you don’t have any luck searching online, don’t be afraid to ask around at a local Japanese restaurant or Asian grocery store before broadening your search. The Japanese consulate closest to you might also have an idea of what sort of communities or societies are active in your area.

The benefits of seeking out the local Japanese community are numerous, as Japan America societies tend to do a variety of activities. I’ve been involved with these sorts of groups in several different states. Through them, I have chaperoned Japanese exchange students, worked at Japanese New Year celebrations, gone to Japanese festivals, and attended a bunraku play – just to name a few. If you can’t find a Japan America society near you or want even more involvement, try to find the nearest Asian art museum, as it will likely have regular events of interest. Over time, investing in these groups more and more will help you foster connections in the local Japanese community, providing even more opportunities.

Communication is Key


Photo by liz west

Out of all my suggestions, this one may take the most effort, but it can yield some great results over time. There are a lot of Japanese people online who want to make friends overseas and practice their English. Several sites offer penpal ads, so do some searches and find which one you like best. I’ve had the most luck with Japan Guide and the Penpals Subreddit. Ideally, if you can write and read Japanese, include some Japanese in your letters. Try to keep your English simple, practice internet safety/common sense, and talk about your hometown and what makes your life awesome. After all, these are probably the sorts of things you would want to know about the Japanese people you talk to. For several years, I maintained a penpal in Japan – we eventually even sent each other packages.

If you get to know your penpal and want to exchange snail mail or packages, but you’re not entirely comfortable sharing your home address, consider investing in a PO box. Be prepared to download Skype, Line, or whatever other messaging system is most popular at the time (right now, I see a lot of penpals looking for friends who use Line). Most ads you see will be very general, and it may take some effort to understand what the person is trying to say. Practice patience. I recommend writing an intro paragraph about yourself – say where you’re from (to whatever degree of specificity you are comfortable giving out on the internet), include your age, indicate your gender, describe a few of your interests, what you do for a living, what your favorite food is, and your Japanese language proficiency. If you can translate it into Japanese or get a friend to do so, include both the Japanese and the English. Keep the paragraph in a file and copy/paste it to new potential penpals, rather than reinventing the wheel each time you want to respond to an ad. When you get replies, respond to them in a timely fashion, take notes about each penpal so you don’t repeat conversations, and have fun!

Abandoned Places


Photo by Kenta Mabuchi

Haikyo (廃墟) is the Japanese word for “ruin” or “abandoned place”; it’s used to refer to the exploration of abandoned sites and sometimes urban exploration in general. As stated before, blogs about Japan are great, and if you need suggestions for those, sources like Tofugu can provide you with lots of J-blogs to read. Here, we’re looking for a specific type of blog or site – those about haikyo. Gakuranman is a great place to start. If you can read some Japanese or don’t mind picking your way through Japanese sites, try searching for 廃墟 on

I recommend haikyo sites for several reasons. First of all, haikyo enthusiasts visit a variety of locations – love hotels, amusement parks, houses, museums, hospitals, schools, factories – you get the idea. Second, haikyo frequently involves a dip into the history behind a site; I find that it gives a taste of Japan in a unique, engaging way. I once spent hours picking my way through Japanese company crests to try to solve the mystery behind this haikyo. Although I was unsuccessful, I learned about company crests and insignia and had a lot of fun. That haikyo sums up what I love best about good haikyo, which are beautiful, creepy, and fascinating – sometimes all at once.

Hobby Time


Photo by halfrain

Take up a traditional Japanese hobby. Some of these hobbies are probably already well known to you (at least in theory), like karate, haiku, and origami. Your local YMCA or gym may offer karate classes, and there are numerous resources, both printed and online, if you’re interested in origami or haiku. There are also less well known Japanese arts that may intrigue you more.

Ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arranging; it’s quite different from Western flower arranging and may appeal to you even if you’ve never had any interest in becoming a florist. A search online for your hometown, home state, or home country plus “ikebana” may give you a good idea of where to start. Kendo is a sword-based martial art; it may especially appeal to you if you are interested in both martial arts and Japanese swords. One of my favorite Japanese arts to practice is shodo, or Japanese calligraphy. If you cannot find a shodo society near you, try contacting nearby Japanese language professors; some form of shodo is frequently included in Japanese classes, so a professor may know someone who can instruct you. Any of these pastimes may have a local group in your area, but if you can’t find someone who’s already interested, look into making a group of your own – every organization has to start somewhere!

Analog Sources


Photo by Samantha Marx

A recent trip to my local public library yielded more books about Japan than I expected – add the fact that many libraries these days will allow you to request books from other branches online, and you will definitely find a multitude of books on Japan. My suggestion is to look online, then write down the call numbers and head to the library itself. Once you locate your book on the shelf, you’ll likely find more books that interest you. The call number system means that other books on the same subject are likely to be on the same shelf. In my library, I found not only a large selection of Japanese history books, but a second section on the other side of the library with books that had more of a travel-guide theme. I didn’t expect to find much there, but was happy to be proven wrong. Looking for foreign-language books is always worthwhile as well as there will likely be a Japanese language section. Some of these may be of interest to you, even if you can’t read Japanese yet. By browsing this section, I once found a beautiful Japanese-language travelogue about my hometown that had been written by a Japanese expat by browsing the foreign-language section. Whether you find books in English or Japanese, reading is a great way to learn about Japan, and the library not only collects books for you by subject, but is also free – win-win!

Do It All for the Experience


Photo by moominsean

No matter which of these suggestions most appeals to you, I urge you to look most closely at the options that are furthest from your current experiences. The further out of your comfort zone you wander, the more likely you are to have totally new experiences and find something awesome and shiny to be passionate about. I took a class in college that had us practice ikebana, shodo, and haiku. Those experiences have stuck with me, long after I forgot many of the other things I learned for exams. There are many ways to experience Japan without boarding a plane, and I hope you give some of these a try!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Lords of Kumamoto: Kato Kiyomasa and the Hosokawa Wed, 06 Aug 2014 16:00:15 +0000 Last fall I visited Kumamoto Castle. Though mostly a reconstruction, it’s impressive nonetheless. There is currently a regular live show on the castle grounds, in which actors dressed as famous samurai stage mock fights and deliver stirring speeches to dramatic music. Chief among them was Kato Kiyomasa, lord of Kumamoto Castle. Entertaining though it was, I couldn’t help but think, “If the real Kato Kiyomasa were here, he would despise this.”

Kato Kiyomasa was an uncompromising military man. However, his family’s reign in Kumamoto only lasted two generations. They were replaced by the Hosokawa family, who ruled there throughout the remainder of the Edo period. Kato Kiyomasa and the Hosokawa lords had vastly different views on how a warrior should live, one uncompromisingly militaristic and the other a balance of war and art.

The Demon General


Let’s look at our first representative in this debate, the uber-aggressive and finely-bearded Kato Kiyomasa (1561-1611). He was the son of a blacksmith, born near Nagoya. Kiyomasa first rose to prominence thanks to his accomplishments fighting for Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the Battle of Shizugatake (1583), and became known as one of the “Seven Spears of Shizugatake.”


Kiyomasa fought in Hideyoshi’s 1586 conquest of Kyushu. Two years later, Hideyoshi awarded half of Higo Domain (including Kumamoto) to Kato Kiyomasa, and the other half to Konishi Yukinaga (1555-1600). Yukinaga was a Christian convert, while Kiyomasa was a staunch follower of Nichiren Buddhism. The two hated each other.


Kiyomasa also played a large role in Hideyoshi’s invasions of Korea (1592-1598), commanding one of two vanguard divisions. The other division of the initial invasion was led by none other than his least favorite neighbor, Konishi Yukinaga. Despite their antagonism, the invasion was quite successful at first.

The invasion later stagnated due to Korean naval campaigns and Chinese intervention. The Japanese settled in and built many forts and castles to solidify their position. Kiyomasa designed and oversaw the construction of several, skills he would later use to greatly expand Kumamoto Castle to the form we know now.


Oh, and in his down time, he hunted tigers. Yeah. Tigers.


After Hideyoshi’s death in 1598 the invasion ended, and conflict between Toyotomi and Tokugawa supporters began. Kiyomasa did not participate in the decisive Battle of Sekigahara (1600), but sided with the Tokugawa and fought Toyotomi allies in Kyushu. For his support, the victorious Tokugawa awarded him the remaining half of Higo, which Kiyomasa governed until he died of illness in 1611.

The Hosokawa


In 1632, Kato Kiyomasa’s heir Tadahiro was arrested for conspiring against the shogun and Higo was confiscated from the Kato family. It was given to Hosokawa Tadatoshi (1586-1641). In contrast to the humble beginnings of the Kato, the Hosokawa were a family with a long history of status, influence, and culture. Descended from the Minamoto, through the Ashikaga, the Hosokawa could claim the blood of two shogun families in their veins. They held many prominent positions and, over time, governed in Shikoku, Kinai, Kokura, and lastly, Kumamoto. This clan reigned in a vastly different way than Kiyomasa.

Hosokawa Tadaoki (1563-1646), fought his first battle at age fifteen and in in many campaigns thereafter, including Hideyoshi’s conquest of Kyushu. His heir, Hosokawa Tadatoshi participated in the suppression of the Shimabara Revolt (1637-38).

Way of the Warrior


Photo by Tranletuhan

Let’s broach the subject of bushido 武士道. Usually translated as the “way of the warrior,” people today generally think of it as a code of ethics followed by the samurai, kind of like chivalry among European knights. The term is hundreds of years old, but appears only rarely until the modern era. It is, for the most part, a term that people of the modern age have projected back on the past.

However, that’s not to say that some samurai didn’t have strong opinions about how a warrior should live his life. Kato Kiyomasa was one such samurai, and he wrote a set of precepts outlining his thoughts on the ideal warrior lifestyle. Since it’s a short document, I have quoted it in full. You may notice that the word bushido does appear, but since I was unable to find the original text, I am relying on William Scott Wilson’s translation. I don’t know if the word bushido actually appears in the original.

“The Precepts of Kato Kiyomasa”


Photo by Dreamcat115


One should not be negligent in the way of the retainer. One should rise at four in the morning, practice sword technique, eat one’s meal, and train with the bow, the gun, and the horse. For a well developed retainer, he should become even more so.
If one should want diversions, he should make them such outdoor pastimes such as falconing, deer hunting and wrestling.

For clothing, anything between cotton and natural silk will do. A man who squanders money for clothing and brings his household finances into disorder is fit for punishment. Generally one should further himself with armor that is appropriate for his social position, sustain his retainers, and use his money for martial affairs.

When associating with one’s ordinary companions, one should limit the meeting to one guest and one host, and the meal should consist of plain brown rice. When practicing the martial arts, however, one may meet with many people.

As for the decorum at the time of a campaign, one must be mindful that he is a samurai. A person who loves beautification where it is unnecessary is fit for punishment.

The practice of Noh Drama is absolutely forbidden. When one unsheathes his sword, he has cutting a person down on his mind. Thus, as all things are born from being placed in one’s heart, a samurai who practices dancing, which is outside of the martial arts, should be ordered to commit seppuku.

One should put forth great effort in matters of learning. One should read books concerning military matters, and direct his attention exclusively to the virtues of loyalty and filial piety. Reading Chinese poetry, linked verse, and waka is forbidden. One will surely become womanized if he gives his heart knowledge of such elegant and delicate refinements. Having been born into the house of a warrior, one’s intentions should be to grasp the long and the short swords and to die

If a man does not investigate into the matter of Bushido daily, it will be difficult for him to die a brave and manly death. Thus, it is essential to engrave this business of the warrior into one’s mind well.

The above conditions should be adhered to night and day. If there is anyone who finds these conditions difficult to fulfill, he should be dismissed, an investigation should be quickly carried out, it should be signed and sealed that he was unable to mature in the Way of Manhood, and he should be driven out. To this, there is no doubt


Kato Kazuenokami Kiyomasa

Hosokawa, Rennaisance Clan


In an approach nearly the absolute opposite of Kato Kiyomasa, Hosokawa Tadaoki was accomplished not only in matters of war, but also of peace. He was a seasoned warrior, with plenty of experience on the front lines. He was well versed in the designing of castles, and responsible for some innovations in armor.


Sword mountings made by Tadaoki

He was one of the closest students of Sen no Rikyu, developer of the tea ceremony, and a tea master in his own right. He was also a poet, a painter, and a master of lacquer ware.

An eggplant shaped sake flask created by Tadaoki

After his son was given Higo Domain, Tadaoki retired there, at Yatsushiro Castle. During his retirement he commissioned the creation of the Kouda-yaki style of ceramics.

Modern kouda-yaki cup

Hosokawa Tadatoshi continued the family tradition of balancing martial and peaceful pursuits. He was an avid swordsman, proficient in the Yagyu Shinkage style. He also became well acquainted with the legendary swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, a friendship that highlighted his balanced approached to samuraihood. The two initially met at a poetry circle in Kyoto. Musashi’s prowess in dueling and the arts interested Tadatoshi. Eventually, Musashi entered his service, and wrote The Thirty-Five Articles of the Martial Arts at his behest.


Tadatoshi also designed the Suizenji Jojū-en, a garden in Kumamoto. It was originally a tea retreat, the location chosen for its clean spring water. Much of the garden was designed to replicate the fifty-three post stations of the Tokaido, the road from Kyoto to Edo. The easiest example to spot is the mini Mt. Fuji, seen above.

The Sword? The Brush? Both?


Kato Kiyomasa and his opinions could be seen as a reflection of his time. The chaos of constant war allowed lowborn men such as him to rise in status, and his obsession with martial pursuits served him well. However, as the wars drew to an end, it was the attitudes exemplified by the Hosokawa that took hold with the warrior class during the peace of the Tokugawa era. With little fighting to be done, bureaucrats were needed more than soldiers. At the same time, samurai continued to train for battle, and dojo culture flourished. Two attitudes indicative of the Sengoku Period and Edo Period, respectively. And both housed within the mighty walls of Kumamoto Castle.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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  • Cobbing, Andrew. Kyushu, Gateway to Japan.
  • Kent: Global Oriental Ltd., 2009
  • Matsumoto, Sumio; Itakasu, Kazuko; Kudo, Kei’ichi; Ikai, Takaaki. Kumamoto-ken no rekishi.
  • Tokyo: Yamakawa Shuppansha, 1999.
  • Swope, Kenneth M. A Dragon’s Head and a Serpent’s Tail: Ming China and the First Great East Asian War.
  • Norman: University of Oklahoma, 2009.
  • Wilson, William Scott. Ideals of the Samurai.
  • Ohara Publications, 1982.
  • Wilson, William Scott. The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi.
  • Shambhala Publications, 2013.
  • “Hosoakawa Tadaoki.”
  • “Hosokawa Tadatoshi.”
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A Crash Course in Japanese Poetry Tue, 05 Aug 2014 16:00:12 +0000 I remember reading Japanese poetry for the first time in the second grade. Don’t ask why it stuck with me; I just remember reading a haiku by Matsuo Bashō and thinking it was awesome. I remembered it well enough that I sought out Bashō’s poetry as I grew older. Along with video games, I attribute Bashō with fomenting an early interest in Japan for me.

Here’s the lesson: if a seven-year-old can read and enjoy Japanese poetry, so can you. I consider the appreciation of Japanese poetry to be like an onion: there are many, many layers to it. The outmost layer is simply reading Japanese poetry in translation and enjoying it as it is. At its deepest core, enjoyment is reading it in the original Japanese, with deep knowledge of the range and breadth of both Japanese and Chinese poetry (Japanese poetry is full of references to Chinese poetry and other Japanese poetry).

My goal here is to give you a very broad overview of the history of Japanese poetry and a crash course in its terminology. I’ll leave plenty of space for the poetry itself, which I believe is the best way to show you how great it is. In fact, if you’re not interested in learning what the types of poetry are called (“Terminology” below) and when they were written (“History” below), just skip on down to the poetry section. Enjoy!



Traditional Japanese poetry comes in many highly technical forms. You’ve probably all heard of haiku, but there are many more types of Japanese poetry. The most significant are the chōka, tanka, renga, haikai, renku, hokku, and haiku.

The chōka and tanka are both forms of waka. In a nutshell, the chōka is a long waka, and the tanka is a short waka. Over time, the tanka became much more popular; as a result, waka and tanka are sometimes used interchangably.

According to the amazing Princeton Companion to Japanese Literature: the renga is made up of linked stanzas of tanka, “joined in sequence so that each made an integral poetic unit with its predecessor . . . but without semantic connection with any other stanza in the sequence made of such alterations.” It probably won’t surprise you to learn that there were crazy complex rules as to what kinds of stanzas went in what order, and a single renga might be written by as many as three different poets.

The haikai is a relaxed form of renga (originally with light-hearted themes as well), and renku is the modern name for haikai. The hokku is the opening stanza of a renga or haikai with three lines of 5-7-5 syllables. If you’re familiar with haiku, that structure will sound mighty familiar. In fact, the haiku developed out of the hokku – but the concept of the haiku as a freestanding form wasn’t developed until the late 1800s. Yes, this means that Bashō, who is generally thought of as the greatest haiku poet, didn’t technically write any haiku, since they didn’t exist when he was around. Bashō wrote a lot of hokku though!

There’s a lot more depth, meaning, and technical differences between all of these terms – and plenty of terms that I left out. But having some idea about these is a good place to start.



There seems to be little consensus among scholars as to how Japanese poetry should be historically divided and classified, except that there is old poetry and modern poetry. So, even if I wanted to give you a detailed, blow-by-blow diatribe on the eras of Japanese poetry, I’d be hard-pressed to do so without parsing a lot of sources. Instead, I’ve touched here on some of the more important works and players and tried to provide some broad context in the process.

The earliest Japanese poetry was part of an oral tradition and is almost entirely lost. And even once the Japanese started writing stuff down, a lot of the early emphasis was on poetry in Chinese (“kanshi”). The first major written collection of Japanese poetry (in Japanese) is found in the Kojiki, dated 712 C.E. The bulk of the Kojiki is devoted to stories about the gods and Japanese rulers. Eight years later, the Nihon Shoki was produced; it too focused on gods and rulers. These early compositions also recorded some poems and songs that had been passed down orally.

And then, less than fifty years later, came the Man’yōshū, the book of “Ten Thousand Leaves”, whose last datable poem was penned around 759. It is the oldest extant collection of Japanese poetry. The Man’yōshū is huge (20 volumes) and its poems span almost two centuries (sometime around 600 C.E. to 759 C.E.). Unlike later collections, the Man’yōshū wasn’t organized very rigidly and, although we think of it as a Japanese collection, it contained some Chinese-language poetry and prose as well. Many of its poems were anonymous, ostensibly written by frontier guards and other normal folk. But the poems that were written by non-scholars were generally rewritten by the formal scholars and poets whose work makes up much of the Man’yōshū. The Man’yōshū was hugely influential on subsequent generations of Japanese writers and poets, and it remains one of the most important works of Japanese literature.

In the early 10th century, the Kokinshū, a collection of waka, was commissioned and completed. Like the Man’yōshū, the Kokinshū included poems spanning several centuries. Unlike the Man’yōshū, the Kokinshū was rigidly organized by topic, a theme that would have a huge impact on subsequent poetry in Japan. Organization was taken seriously at all levels; for example, the love poems were ordered in such a way “to show the presumed process of a courtly love affair.” (Princeton Companion)

Around the same time as the Kokinshū, a number of female writers rose to prominence in Japan. Fujiwara Michitsuna’s mother (“The Gossamer Years”), Murasaki Shikibu (“The Tale of Genji”), Sei Shōnagon (“The Pillow Book”), Izumi Shikibu, and Sugawara Takasue no Musume (“The Sarashina Diary”) were among the many prominent female writers of the time. Although these women primarily wrote prose, poetry was an integral part of most of their works. Poetry compilations of the time include many of their poems.

A bit later, in the 12th century, the Buddhist monk Saigyō wrote waka that would have an enormous impact on Bashō and other subsequent Japanese writers. In the early 13th century, the Shinkokinshū was compiled and published. Like the Kokinshū, it has twenty books and almost two thousand poems. Its poems span hundreds of years, some dating back to the time of the Man’yōshū. The renga, which had existed for hundreds of years, evolved into its own distinct style around this time.

The next major event in Japanese poetry came in the 17th century, when the haikai became extremely popular, in large part due to the work of Matsuo Bashō. Bashō was a prolific writer and traveler who wrote hokku, haibun (a style that combines prose and poetry), and other forms of poetry and prose. I believe the Princeton Companion’s entry on Bashō says it better than I can:

In an age of political rigidity and control, [Bashō’s] sense of time, suffering, and death led him to combine – with a skill no other lyric poet has shown – the high and the low, the objective with the subjective, the commonplace with the tragic. . . . Much of our knowledge of our world and ourselves may be derived from his writing.

After Japan opened to the West in the 19th century, Japanese poetry underwent a transformation as a result of the influence of Western poetry. More freeform styles of poetry began appearing, and the more traditional styles underwent their own transformations. Many Japanese poets who wrote after World War II are labeled as “post-war”, although newer poetry is frequently labeled as simply “modern.”

The Good Stuff


And now for the actual poetry! The original Japanese is provided when possible and poems are ordered chronologically by birth date of author.

On the Death of the Emperor Temmu by Empress Jitō (645-702), from Women Poets of Japan

Even flaming fire
can be snatched up, smothered
and carried in a bag.
Why then can’t I
meet my dead lord again?

Untitled by Kakinomoto Hitomaro (d. 708-715), from One Hundred Poems from the Japanese

Kamo yama no
My girl is waiting for me

Iwane shi makeru
And does not know

Ware wo kamo
That my body will stay here

Shira ni to imo ga Machitsutsu aramu
On the rocks of Mount Kamo.

Man’yōshū, XIX: 4290 by Ōtomo Yakamochi (718-785), from Japanese Court Poetry

Haru no no ni
Now it is spring –

Kasumi tanabiki
And across the moors the haze

Stretches heavily –

Kono yūkage ni
And within these rays at sunset,

Uguisu naku mo.
A warbler fills the radiant mist with song.

Man’yōshū, XIV: 3570 by Anonymous, from Japanese Court Poetry

Ashi no ha ni
I shall miss you most

Yūgiri tachite
When twilight brings the rising mists

Kamo ga ne no
To hang upon the reeds

Samuki yūbe shi
And as the evening darkens cold

Na oba shinuban.
With mallards’ cries across the marsh.

Kokinshū, XVII: 879 by Ariwara Narihira (818-893), from Japanese Court Poetry

Ōkata wa
Lovely as it is,

Tsuki o mo medeji
The moon will never win my praise –

Kore zo kono
No, not such a thing,

Tsumoreba hito no
Whose accumulated splendors heap

Oi to naru mono.
The burden of old age on man.

Untitled by Ono no Komachi (833-857), from Women Poets of Japan

He does not come.
Tonight in the dark of the moon
I wake wanting him.
My breasts heave and blaze.
My heart chars.

Untitled by Murasaki Shikibu (974-1031), from Women Poets of Japan

This life of ours would not cause you sorrow
if you thought of it as like
the mountain cherry blossoms
which bloom and fade in a day.

Untitled by Saigyō (1118-1190), from A Reader’s Guide to Japanese Literature

Gazing at them,
these blossoms have grown
so much a part of me,
to part with them when they fall
seems bitter indeed!

Shinkokinshū, IV: 361 by Jakuren (d. 1202), from Japanese Court Poetry

Sabishisa wa
Loneliness –

Sono iro to shi mo
The essential color of a beauty

Not to be defined:

Maki tatsu yama no
Over the dark evergreens, the dusk

Aki no yūgure.
That gathers on far autumn hills.

Untitled by Bashō (1644-1694), from Basho: The Complete Haiku

nozarashi o
weather beaten

kokoro ni kaze no
wind pierces my body

shimu mi kana
to my heart

Untitled by Bashō (1644-1694), from Basho: The Complete Haiku

yagate shinu
soon to die

keshiki wa miezu
yet showing no sign

semi no koe
the cicada’s voice

Untitled by Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), from A Reader’s Guide to Japanese Literature

Beneath the bright
Cherry blossoms
None are indeed
Utter strangers.

Untitled by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), from The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature

mihotoko mo
Buddha too –

tobira o akete
he’s opened his altar doors,

suzumi kana
cooling off

The Oyster Shell by Kambara Ariake (1876-1952), from The Poetry of Living Japan

An oyster in his shell
Lives in a boundless sea,
Alone, precarious, limited,
How miserable his thoughts . . .

Unseeing and unhelped,
He sleeps behind a sheltering rock.
But in his wakeful moments he must sense
The ebb and flow of the infinite deep.

Though the turning tide at dawn
May flood in to its height,
The oyster’s being, destined to decay,
Is tied to a narrow shell.

The evening star, so luminous,
Turns the waves to crests of corn:
Us it reminds of a distant dove –
Of what avail to him?

How sad a fate! Profound, unbearable,
The music of the ocean
Still confounds him day and night.
He closes tight his narrow home.

But on that day of storm
When woods along the sea are shattered,
How shall it survive – the oyster shell,
His shelter, left to die a destined death?

Late Autumn by Hagiwara Sakutaro (1886-1942), from The Poetry of Living Japan

The train was passing overhead,
And my thoughts meandered into the shade.
Looking back, I was surprised to find
How my heart was at rest!
Streets were strewn with the autumn sun’s last rays,
Traffic crowded the highway.
Does my life exist at all?
Yet in the window of a humble house,
Along a back street where the smoke still hung,
Purple hollyhocks were blooming.

Untitled by Katsura Nobuko (1914-2004), from A Long Rainy Season

My mother’s soul
viewing the plum blossoms,
returning at night.

Untitled by Itami Kimiko (b. 1925), from A Long Rainy Season

What lives in the lake
filled with a blue
that has no name?

Concerning Obscenity by Shuntarō Tanikawa (b. 1931), from The Selected Poems of Shuntarō Tanikawa

No matter how pornographic a movie
it can’t be as obscene
as a couple in love.
If love is something human
obscenity too is something human.
Lawrence, Miller, Rodin,
Picasso, Utamaro, the Manyō poets:
were they ever afraid of obscenity?
It is not a movie that is obscene
we are the ones basically obscene
warmly, gently, vigorously,
and with such ugliness and shame –
we are obscene
days and nights obscene
with nothing else, obscene.

Final Thoughts


I suspect most of us have felt the sting of unrequited love. From reading her poem above, I know that Ono no Komachi once felt the same pain: “My heart chars.” Like the other poems I chose, these words speak to me in a profound way, despite being written well over a thousand years ago by a woman from a culture very, very different from my own. This to me is the true beauty of poetry: its ability to reach across time and space to touch those who read it. Likewise, I hope you enjoyed the poetry here, and that some of it spoke to you as well. If you are interested in learning more, seek out some of the books from the bibliography – they’re all great.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[1280x800] ∙ [2560x1600]


  • Miner, Earl; Odagiri, Hiroko; and Morrell, Robert E. The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.
  • Rimer, J. Thomas. A Reader’s Guide to Japanese Literature. New York: Kodansha International, 1988.
  • Rexroth, Kenneth and Atsumi, Ikuko. Women Poets of Japan. New York: New Directions Books, 1977.
  • Rexroth, Kenneth. One Hundred Poems from the Japanese. New York: New Directions Books, 1964.
  • Brower, Robert and Miner, Earl. Japanese Court Poetry. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1961.
  • Reichhold, Jane. Basho: The Complete Haiku. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2008.
  • Rimer, J. Thomas and Gessel, Van C. The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
  • Ninomiya, Takamichi and Enright, D.J. The Poetry of Living Japan. New York: Grove Press, 1957.
  • Lowitz, Leza; Aoyama, Miyuki; and Tomioka, Akemi. A Long Rainy Season. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 1994.
  • Wright, Harold. The Selected Poems of Shuntarō Tanikawa. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983.
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Namahage – Akita’s New Year’s Ogres Mon, 04 Aug 2014 16:00:39 +0000 泣く子はいねがぁ / “Are there any crybabies here?” may not be something you want to hear shouted through your door on New Year’s Eve, but the people of Akita Prefecture, specifically Oga Peninsula, feel differently. The Namahage / なまはげ, a Japanese demon, similar to a mix between Santa Claus and the Krampus, are yearly visitors for many people living in North-Western Honshu.

Five years ago, while studying at a school in Akita, I found myself face to face with these Namahage, on the streets, in stores, really everywhere I turned, and I couldn’t help but wonder what they were and where they came from. Eventually, I ended up at a museum dedicated to them and realized there is a lot more than meets the eye.

Scaring Children for Centuries


Photo by Evan Blaser

We know traditions surrounding the Namahage have been around since at least the Edo Period (1603 – 1868) because they were mentioned in a book by travel writer Masumi Sugae during this period, but it is likely they have been around longer than that.

These ogres have some pretty basic goals, at least in their current iteration. On New Year’s Eve they come down from the mountains, parade around the streets with knives held high, burst into homes, and check to see if the children have been behaving during the past year.  The main things the Namahage look for are laziness, being a crybaby, and not listening to your parents. The point is, don’t be a brat.

As long as you’ve been good, and your parents offer the Namahage some food and sake, they will supposedly protect your home from natural disasters, sickness, and promote good crops. They aren’t all bad.

To some, especially the kids, this may seem pretty scary, traumatic even. But for parents and the young men playing the part of the Namahage, it’s a light-hearted, symbolic tradition that has been continued and protected for generations.

The Origins of the Namahage


Photo by Teppei Hayashi

There are a few different stories floating around about how the Namahage came to be, the most popular being the folk tale of “The 999 Stone Steps”. In this tale, the Chinese Han Emperor sent five ogres, or oni, to steal crops and young women from the villages of the Oga Peninsula, in the present day Akita Prefecture. The villagers managed to trick the oni into accepting a bet: The oni could have every young woman in their villages if they could build a one thousand step stone staircase up to the temple at the top of a nearby mountain in one night. The oni were pretty greedy, so of course they accepted. The ogres were about to start putting down the one thousandth step when a villager, pretending to be a rooster, crowed as if the sun were coming up. The oni thought they had failed and angrily marched back up the mountain and left the stairs incomplete with 999 stairs.

Other legends suggest they were people from other countries who drifted ashore, or were traveling to Japan and landed on the coast of the Oga Peninsula. These people were startling to the native Japanese and spoke languages they didn’t understand, thus becoming demons in the eyes of the natives.

They also could have been representatives of the god said to live at the top of a mountain in Oga. Or perhaps they were simply mountain priests who would come down to the villages of Oga to pray, and whose outfits were so fearsome from mountain living that they looked like demons.

Whatever the story, Namahage are pretty scary looking. Over time, the legends surrounding them changed to the point where they don’t play too much of a part in the events surrounding them today.

How to Become a Namahage


Photo by Kanegen

Usually, to become a Namahage you need to be a young man who grew up in Akita Prefecture, tormented in your childhood by Namahage. Then, once you reach the right age and show interest, you can take your turn either at one of the larger festivals or simply parade around your hometown, going to pre-planned homes. Rumor has it, you also have to be a virgin to get the part, but I can’t seem to confirm this. Many Namahage are also skilled taiko drummers and perform throughout the year – playing in full costume and sneering at little kids in the crowds.

If you’re able to visit one of the Namahage Museums located in the Oga Peninsula, you’ll be able to dress like one and take pictures. Here is the essential gear every good ogre needs:


Photo by: kota i

  • men – the distinctive mask, which can be made of anything from wood, paper mache, or even plastic. These masks vary based on where in Akita they are from, and some have some pretty distinctive styles. The ones based in Oga are the most common style.
  • ケデ kede – a straw coat/cloak. Sometimes translated as a raincoat.
  • ハバキ habaki – straw shin guards.
  • わらぐつ waragutsu – straw snow boots. It snows pretty heavily in Akita during the winter so having a way to safely traipse through the snow is important for any ogre.
  • 出刃包丁 deba-bōchō – a large knife, usually made of wood and painted to look like a cleaver.
  • 御幣 gohei – wooden wands, the same ones you see used in shinto rituals.

Once you have it all on, congratulations! You are now a menacing Namahage. But to really start your night as a fearsome ogre, you need to eat first.

The Path of the Namahage


Photo by Yasuhiro_S

Before the men dressed as Namahage go off to put the local kids in their places, there is a small ceremony. They sit before an offering of traditional Oga foods and drink sake. They then visit the local shrine (the most famous being the Shinzan Shrine) and drink sake there before stomping around outside. The stomping may seem like some kind of intimidation tactic but it’s actually a form of purification. Considering this is a Shinto tradition, it shouldn’t be too surprising that there is some method of purification involved. Along the same lines, Namahage do not go to any houses that had a birth or death in the family that past year. Those are both events associated with defilement in the Shinto tradition.

The Namahage of Oga usually have a normal human with them to announce their arrival. Or they’ll have a  Namahage leader who announces them instead. They stomp at the entrance (7 times when entering, 5 times before being served food and sake, 3 times before leaving) and grab whatever children are in the house. While this does tend to cause screams of こわい! and tears from the younger kids, after the Namahage make sure they’ve been good, they bless them for the upcoming year. If you were a bad kid, meaning your parents tell the Namahage you were bad, then they will try to drag you out into the snow, but it usually doesn’t get that far. Generally, they just lean down with their masks in the kid’s face and make loud noises. According to the current legend, they’re trying to take you up to the mountain, where you’ll never be seen again. A pretty terrifying concept, and you can bet the little ones know that’s what could happen, which explains the crying.

Once they’re done terrorizing, asking questions, and growling, the Namahage expect an offering and, like many folk tales in Japan, this isn’t out of the ordinary. But there are particular foods that you are supposed to serve, in order to keep your kids safe.


Photo by Kristen Dexter

Once again, there is sake involved, which helps the men in their costumes to keep from feeling too cold, since this does take place in winter. They are presented with traditional food, shown in the picture above. After the Namahage leave, the people of the Oga Peninsula are able to look at the New Year as a fresh start. It’s kind of like their kids’ bad attitudes are gone and they can move toward a better, new year. When the Namahage have visited all the houses, they go back to the shrine, tie their grass cloaks around the pillars, go in once more, and head home.

Visit the Namahage Year Round!


Photo by: Iwao

If you’re really interested in Namahage but aren’t in the area at the right time of year, the Namahage Museum located in the Oga Peninsula is open year-round. It is a bit out of the way, an hour and a half car ride away from Akita Airport and even longer if you take the train and a taxi, but for only 500 yen for adults and 250 for students, it may be worth the trip.

Within the museum, there is a theater which screens a Namahage documentary, a room dedicated to the history of Oga, a sizeable exhibit displaying many different kinds of Namahage, as well as a costume booth where you can dress up as one yourself.


Photo by Kristen Dexter

For a bit more money you can walk over to the Shinzan Folklore Museum and watch a twenty minute performance held between men and some Namahage. The banter between the men and the Namahage is meant to be humorous, (you can find a description of it in English here), but if you have children in your group, you may be distracted by their reactions. The parents tend to chuckle, but if screaming kids aren’t appealing, then you should probably just stick to the main museum. If you’re interested you can simply watch this recording. (Don’t worry, the museum promotes taking lots of pictures and videos.) It shows the entire performance, without focusing on little kids crying.

If you’re like the parents in Akita who think crying children are hilarious, here is one with some terrified little kids.

The Sedo Festival – なまはげ柴灯祭り


Photo by: Hildgrim

If you are already in the area, or are planning a trip, every year on the second Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of February the Sedo Festival is held at the Shinzan Shrine in Oga City. This large Shinto festival involves music, dance, performances, and lots of nervous children with their parents. Don’t worry, there are people of every age that attend the festival, so even if you don’t have your own kids to scare, you won’t be out of place.

At the end of the festival, all of the Namahage performers make their way down the mountain (usually through snow) with torches held high, and walk around the large shrine so you can get up close and take pictures with them. Then the priests of the shrine offer them goma-mochi (mochi roasted on the fires at the shrine) and the Namahage return to the mountains. (Or back to a room to change out of their sweaty costumes.)

If the trip up to the mountains is too expensive or too far, the power of the internet can help with that! Here is a taste of the Sedo Festival:

Namahage Everywhere

Namahage traditions are deeply ingrained in the culture of Akita Prefecture, and you can’t live or even visit there without seeing Namahage versions of everything.


Photo by: Iwao

There are statues…


Photo by Kristen Dexter



Photo by Kristen Dexter



And of course, Namahage Hello Kitty!

In 1978, the Namahage of Oga were officially designated as a “significant intangible folk cultural asset of the country.” This was a pretty big deal, since Oga certainly isn’t the only place in Japan to have their own demonic folklore, and, in the scope of Japan, it is a pretty small place.

Remember, if you ever find yourself in Akita Prefecture, keep your eyes open and you’ll be sure to see some Namahage for yourself. Just make sure you’ve been good this year, or you’ll regret it.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Fashionista By No Means Thu, 31 Jul 2014 16:00:32 +0000 The sticky mat draws particles away from my shoes before I slip on disposable fiber booties.  Donning a hairnet, I secure a face mask as I proceed to wash my hands and pull on blue nitrile gloves.  Next I zip myself into a white bunny suit.  I wear my side-shielded glasses, and just before entering the clean room, I snap on a second pair of gloves and spray my hands with an aerosol sanitizer.

This used to be the start of my day.  Strolling the spotless glass, chrome and marble façade of Ginza reminds me of the sterility.  Everything is clean and in its proper place.  I sip my coffee and watch the rush of mostly middle-aged housewives, executive assistants and anti-egalitarians stride past.  The people are orderly; they walk with quick purposeful cadence.  They are not fooling anyone, because they don’t have to.  That Louis Vuitton is Louis Vuitton!  That Franck Muller is Franck Muller!  Their vanity is legit, and that blasé is real.  The polished gold doors open before them as they are cordially welcomed inside.

Takeaway: Fake it until you make it does not apply to Japan, not in the way many Westerners are used to experiencing.  Yes, some people still look down their noses. There are so-called Haves and Have Nots even among the Japanese, but the material part of it, the outward appearance of wealth is not as important a status symbol as “power is power.”  What this means is that fashion and money do not necessarily coincide. In Japan, affordable fashion does not mean fake, namely because you don’t counterfeit in a society so bent on perfection.

Removing The Walls


I’m being pulled along.  Led through the wardrobe, the world changes from furs to firs.  I see blue of sky and the walls fall away.  Now surrounded by pleasant greenery, sunshine kisses our faces and we’re shopping, or people watching or both.  There are no windows here.  And nobody is out to turn a profit, make a commission or wearing black.  This is a Japanese secondhand clothing market.

The mostly twenty and 30-something crowd shuffles about the neatly arranged spaces attended to by cohorts of like manner: posh, hippie, Lolita, etcetera.  Everyone has representation.  Their genre of fashion calls to them like Isildur’s Bane.  I am happy to observe, but my companion has other ideas.  Shopping is her other-other part-time job.

My wingwoman gestures for me to squat alongside as she picks, inspects and presses garment after garment in my direction for lack of a basket.  Designer threads are like catnip to this mostly freeter (フリーター) crowd, but damn, they make rummaging look less bag lady and more chichi.  And now my arms are full, and every label reads like a who’s who of haute couture: Dior, Ferragamo, Tadashi Shoji?

“That’s mine, stupid!” Yo-yo growls when I question the Hermés bag she has guided to me.  I apologize.  Her playful k-k-kawaii mood is spent.  She is now competing against a frenzy of lionesses padding about her kill.  A bottle blonde claws at the chiffon blouse Yo-yo holds, and the air shifts darkly.  I only catch the blonde’s sardonic, “Inaka-chan,” and I know the girl is tempting fate.  Yo-yo has maimed for less.  Yet uncharacteristically, she nods charitably for the girl to take the canary yellow blouse.

At the same time, Yo-yo stands, holds a silvery shirt-like dress upon her chest and urbanely steps aside optimistically modeling for my opinion.  I mumble something with a smile, but actually say nothing.  Her pensive look turns to the seller for aplomb, but the vendor simply grins and flashes a quintet of fingers.  I do not know where the decimal lies.  Yo-yo squints sweetly and the seller rescinds one finger.  I learn it is the equivalent of $40US for a four hundred dollar dress, in addition to the ¥3,000 in bric-a-brac I cradle in my arms.  It is only then the blonde realizes the silvery frock missing from her pile.  I’m tiring of holding this bag, “Stupid.”

Takeaway: This is a peoples’ market, a grand meeting of egalitarian social ideals with a dash of free market economics.  Here it pays to be froward.  So don’t be shy, engage everyone with a smile.  This may grant you that 20% discount you didn’t even know existed.  Sometimes however, you should express directly what you want to pay, but be nice about it.

Out Of The Woodwork


Secondhand clothing markets bring people out of the woodwork, and that is what made the inaka-chan comment clever and dangerous.  But the market is much more than deftly sewn fabric at rock bottom prices.  Turning away, there are festive foods.  A girl bites into a hotdog, another studies the grilled squid. It’s a fine day to play ubiquitous Japanese games: Goldfish scooping (金魚掬い) and Yo-yo Tsuris (ヨーヨーつり).

We take to nearby shade, and Yo-yo gets organized as I contemplate the cuisine.  She withdraws an expandable nylon bag and neatly arranges her winnings before we continue our stroll, “Eat later, okay?”

The playfulness has returned to our party and we share laughs with buyers and sellers alike in passing.  The secondhand clothing market is about easiness, never mind the occasional drama.  Everything and everyone is informal and casual.  The wares are priced to move, which makes negotiation mostly irrelevant or more likely, a minor courtesy.

Takeaway: Like open air markets throughout the world, bargain hunting demands strategy, persistence and above all else: a good eye.  Arriving early is key to garnering those incredible deals, yet even seasoned vets will not catch everything the first time through.  With all of the excitement and stress, it’s easy to find yourself experiencing tunnel vision as I did.  So take a break, have your snack and welcome the pleasantness of the moment.

People Watching People


We are three hours in and Yo-yo’s bag is brimming to capacity.  The market is now a deluge of bodies, though I sense fewer shoppers and more people just hanging out.  I have yet to purchase anything besides the sweet potato I’ve demolished.  And then I raise my camera.

Yoyogi Flea Market is a lot of shopping, but to many it is a place to see and be seen.  Breakout fashion is common and many flock here to tryout new ideas and connect with like-minded sartorialists.

The Candid Moment


Yo-yo casually slaps my face with follow-through!  And I lower the camera.
“Don’t be that guy,” she whispers.

Suggesting we move, I follow her into another aisle just as a tall skinny rockabilly tosses me a ‘sup head tilt and I’m riveted.  A head tilt in a land of bows is absolute counterculture, but I will myself to return the gesture.  The man flashes a gold crown half-smile as we approach his small setup.  Clearly rock and roll, his horn-rimmed glasses, cuffed blue jeans, red-laced boots and pompadour greet us.  Yo-yo is beaming wildly.  I suspect they know each other and wait for the introduction.  It does not come.

Lifting a small spiked pouch from this overseer’s lot, there is a tiny handwritten tag tied to the zipper with a piece of twine.  I turn to my companion and ask what it says.  She squints.  “It’s from London.”  And now everyone is laughing, because just below the inscription is the price: ¥100.

Takeaway: Have you ever purchased something from someone just because they were the ones selling it?  Secondhand clothing markets can be like this.  As a co-worker once told me, “Sometimes I just buy their stuff like it’s a souvenir of that person.”  There’s a lot of this kind of buying, actually.  Yeah it’s weird, stalker-shopper syndrome isn’t uncommon, especially here.  But this is Japan, and meaningful association is the norm.  It’s kinda like Elvis’s comb.

The Social Place


Whether one is a shopaholic or a people watcher, secondhand clothing markets are ideal to practice your Japanese language skills in a low-pressure environment.  More importantly, these markets provide an opportunity to make friends.  Or at the very least, they grant a dose of cultural exchange regardless of one’s Japanese or English speaking abilities.

Takeaway: Lead with your best smile and seize opportunities to interact.  Granted, you may be the one initiating, but that’s as simple as saying hello. Secondhand clothing markets are wonderful for engaging strangers.  This is not so easily achieved in Ginza by example.  And in the later hours when traffic slows, sellers begin slashing prices not wishing to take back what they’ll never use.  The time is ripe to shoot the breeze.

Minding The Store


It’s four weeks later, and I’m crouched before a vendor’s stall.  A strategic mess, but the shopkeeper knows where everything is at.  She holds up a silvery dress and smiles brightly.

“Remember this one?”
“Yeah, I think you should wear it.”
“It’s too early.”

Yo-yo and I are now sellers.  I only brought a dozen or so items, things friends of friends left behind, the stuff not worth shipping.  Though I have never participated in the E-teaching game, I have known a fair number who have.  They always leave stuff, always clothing.  My collection is significant.  There is a bundle of vintage t-shirts, and lots of plaid.  Someone had a schoolgirl phase.

Our stall cost a paltry ¥200.  It’s a nice spot under a tree, and we have laid out an old quilt as drop cloth.  Yo-yo has also brought a box of bath bombs she claims fell off a truck.  She sells me on the idea of, “Free with every purchase.”

Ten o’clock arrives and there are loads of early birds.  It is then Yo-yo decides to leave!  She’s actually forgotten why she’s here.

“I don’t know your stuff.”
“So? Ganbatte!” she cries over her shoulder while hurrying out of sight.

Remember how I said that bargaining was a non-issue, I WAS TOTALLY WRONG!  Most of these early shoppers are resellers with online businesses, a few are serious fashion folk, but really, it is all chaos to their advantage.  And while I know this game, it is another thing to stay ahead of the curve in a language I am only dangerously proficient.

All I can make out is, “This?” “That?” “That one over there?” “How much for everything?” “What’s this?” “If I add these?” “Is this okay?” “Don’t-touch-my-pile!”

It is all happening rather quickly, and I’m calling out numbers like this is the Tsukiji Fish Market!  Turning on my knees, Yo-yo and Rocka Billy are contemplating smiles behind me.  He’s got a fist before his face, and Yo-yo’s crushing her bright red lips.

“Are you gonna help or just supervise?”
Ganbare!” they cheerfully rally in unison.
“Keep-your-fist-pump,” I mutter.

Takeaway: After this experience I believe anyone could successfully sell regardless of Japanese language ability.  Really, I do.  Speaking Japanese is helpful in maintaining flow, but being organized is much more important.  If the price is reasonably marked, most buyers will simply hand over payment sans negotiation.  And while we did not mark any prices on our items, my Japanese improved significantly since the situation demanded keen listening.  This was my idea, and partially why Yo-yo remained hands-off to my benefit and frustration.  It was like a five hour Japanese lesson with sixty different instructors for a mere ¥200.

Getting There And Getting To It


While finding these secondhand clothing markets is not difficult, many outdoor venues close if weather is severe enough.  Most markets are promoted with this in mind, often designating alternate dates in advance for rain.  Although secondhand clothing markets are generally referred to as flea markets, their vendors and clientele differ dramatically in presentation.  It is best to search the web accordingly for market type, location, dates and times.  One static source for English readers is Metropolis.  Alternatively, simply ask someone.

For those interested in selling, a few markets require advanced booking online, while others will charge a nominal fee day of.  All you really need is a drop cloth and your stuff.  Be ready to make change.  Ganbatte!

Note: All photos taken by the author.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Surviving Sports Festival Fri, 25 Jul 2014 16:00:17 +0000 In Japan, summer’s end ushers in a nationwide school tradition. Students, teachers, family, and other guests gather for a day of outdoor events known as undoukai (運動会) or sports festival. Undoukai offers something for everyone – some events are taken seriously while others offer light-hearted comic relief. And although a winner is declared at day’s end, undoukai’s true spirit lies beneath its competitive pretenses – one of cooperation.

A (Very) Quick History


Undoukai’s history dates back to the Meiji period, an era of drastic changes in the formerly isolated nation. In his book Sport and Body Politics in Japan, Wolfram Manzenreiter explains, “The history of school sport days in Japan began with the (probably) first undoukai ever staged by Kaigun Heigakuryou in Tsukiji, Tokyo in March 1873.” Manzenreiter credits English Naval Officer Archibald Douglas with introducing the idea (Manzenreiter 52).

The tradition took off from there as Japan pushed to “catch-up” with the west, adapting many western traditions. Ironically Japan’s militarization and its opposition to the West would further solidify undoukai’s place in Japanese culture as an “ideological device used for nationalistic purposes… Marching formations and mass calisthenics demonstrated the result of a disciplinary education that put the body into service of the collective” (53).

Although sports festival’s roots may lie in the west, Japan has made undoukai a uniquely Japanese tradition. Manzenreiter goes as far as declaring, “Undoukai can be viewed as a contemporary extension of older traditions, such as the cherry blossom viewing” (53). And anyone involved in the Japanese school system can attest, the tradition is still going strong.

Surviving Undoukai


Photo by Tamago Moffle

Spending an entire day in Japan’s characteristic mushiatsui (蒸し暑い), or hot and humid, weather warrants proper preparation. But the concept of proper preparation differs by culture. Items considered necessities by native Japanese participants might not be so obvious to an uninitiated foreigner, as I discovered at my first undoukai. Follow this Japanese-centric list to get through the day like a seasoned pro.

  • Hat – Protect your head and eyes from Japan’s merciless sun. Go with a fly fishing hat or a cap with a mullet on the back. Remember, it’s not about making a fashion statement, it’s about survival.
  • Towel/Tenugui – Use it to wipe away the sweat, protect your neck from the sun and dry your hands after washing them. A towel/tenugui is your all-purpose undoukai utility tool. Using a tenugui will earn you bonus points for Japanese cultural recognition.
  • Sports Wear – When Japan holds an event, people prefer to look the part. At undoukai, even the most well-dressed teachers will trade in their dress suits for track suits. The more stuff printed on your outfit, the better, as track jackets covered in logos and advertisements are all the rage. But if your team, homeroom, or school has a custom t-shirt made for the day, be sure to wear that instead!
  • Sports Drink – You can bring water, but people might think you’re crazy. Japan has embraced the sports drink, so if you want to fit in, make it Pocari Sweat, Aquarius or Amino Value. But if sports drinks aren’t your cup of tea, try tea! Barley tea (mugi-cha) is the traditional tea of champions.
  • Bentou Lunch Box – If you don’t have a school provided bentou, bring your own. If possible, bring enough to share. Undoukai’s lunch often becomes a hodgepodge picnic. Make some friends and sample their home-cooking as they (hopefully) enjoy yours. It doesn’t have to be fancy – a family I shared lunch with loved my simple banana bread. Or at least they said they did.


Photo by kunchan
  • A Mat – Straw or plastic, a mat will keep your rear-end dry and dirt-free while giving you a clean place to enjoy your lunch. It’ll also save your spot when you participate in events or head to the little boy’s or girl’s room.
  • Sunblock – When it comes to sun protection, some Japanese people don ninja-like outfits, covering themselves from head to toe. These get-ups prevent sun exposure at a cost; they’re sweltering. To avoid melting in your own personal sauna suit embrace sunblock – or better yet, let it embrace you. Bring the entire bottle just incase you need re-apply at lunchtime. Sunblock is the only non-Japanese-centric item on this list so prepare to receive some awkward looks, especially if your sunblock is coconut scented and has gold sparkles in it – like mine did.

Now that everything’s prepared, we’re ready for the big day!

The Venue


Photo by 不可説

In preparation for undoukai, a school’s undoujou (運動場) or all purpose athletic grounds undergo a painstaking transformation. Days before the event, students and teachers spend hours converting the giant sandy lot into a sports festival wonderland. White chalk lines mark the positions for undoukai’s array of activities. Flags and other decorations create a festive atmosphere. Canopies surround the athletic field and offer spectators protection from the elements. Get to the field early to secure a great spot in the shade with a great view of the action.

Opening Ceremonies


As with most events in Japan, undoukai kicks off with an opening ceremony. Expect a few speeches – by the principal, the student council president, maybe a PTA member and even a city or town official. And be sure to remove your hat for the national anthem and raising of the Japanese flag.

After waiting through the speeches and national anthem, students will spread out for another Japanese tradition – rajio taisou (ラジオ体操) or calisthenics. Watch or join students as they stretch and pose to a cheerful narrator and catchy music. Some schools play modern pop tracks, but nothing beats the traditional piano music.

(Rajio Taisou with some local Tohoku flavor.)

When rajio taisou ends, teams split up and the events begin!

The Events


Photo by Ishikawa Ken

Check the schedule to see the order of events. Along with student events, there are sometimes events for teachers, faculty, and guests – so don’t miss out! This is a non-exhaustive list meant to be a sampling of events. Each school has its own contests and traditions.

Popular undoukai events include:

  • Mukade Kyoso – Like a three-legged race but might involve even more legs.
  • Kumitaiso – Students create various shapes with their bodies (think human pyramids).


Photo by Josh Berglund
  • Tama-ire – Students and guests throw bean bags into an overhead basket.
  • Odori – Students perform various dances ranging from the traditional to recent pop hits.


  • Tsunahiki – A good old-fashioned tug-of-war. There’s often one held for parents/guests as well.
  • Relay – Japan loves a relay and undoukai is no exception. The event is often the most competitive and usually closes out the day.

The Soundtrack


Photo by Arbitrarily0

Undoukai even has its own soundtrack, so expect to listen to music all day long. Every event of every undoukai I’ve ever attended has been accompanied by BGM (Background Music). Sometimes the playlist includes classic tunes, like The William Tell Overture by Gioachino Rossini. Other times anime themes rule the day with titles like Dragon Ball’s Chara Hecchara (チャラ・ヘッチャラ) or any of the One Piece themes. Kindergartens love children’s songs, particularly Anpanman’s March. And of course there’s J-pop. Since arriving in Japan seven years ago, AKB48 has been a mainstay of school life – and undoukai is no exception.

Undoukai’s soundtrack provides English teachers a chance to shine. If you’re a teacher try offering some popular English songs to mix things up!

Closing Ceremony


Photo by Taku

After the relay finishes, teams will return to their areas for a break while teachers tally the points. The event ends much as it started, with students and faculty assembled in the middle of the field for (you guessed it!) a closing ceremony. The winning team is announced and awarded a trophy – usually an elaborate flag attached to an even more elaborate staff. Expect more speeches before the Japanese flag is lowered and folded and the event ends…

Or does it?

Although closing ceremony officially ends undoukai, the day is far from over. After the long, exhausting day everyone wants to go home, but no self-respecting attendees do. Instead (almost) everyone, from students to parents to grandparents, helps with the clean-up. Everything – the sports equipment, chairs, canopies, tarps, wires, speakers, and decorations – needs to be dismantled and put away. Once the school field resembles a school field once again, everyone can finally call it a day… Well, except the teachers who might have a closing meeting to attend.

The Spirit of Cooperation Under Competition’s Guise


After experiencing years of sports festivals, the term “undoukai” still inspires images of headband wearing students in gym uniforms sprinting around a track. But if I’ve taken anything away from undoukai – other than an appreciation of barley tea on a hot day – it’s that undoukai isn’t all about competition. Under all the dust and sweat lies a spirit of cooperation.

Undoukai’s preparation alone strengthens bonds among students and faculty who put an enormous amount of time and effort into the event. The month leading up to undoukai is a busy one filled with practices for ceremonies, speeches, dances and other events. Even rajio-taiso is drilled to perfection. Days before the event, field and equipment preparation begins.

Undoukai often expands beyond the school, drawing in its wider social environment (Manzenreiter 52). Manzenreiter wrote, “(Local) residents became chiefly involved in preparation tasks of ‘their’ annual undoukai.” With parents and local organizations lending a hand, undoukai fosters a sense of community within the community. Undoukai provides a chance for former students to visit their alma mater. Local TV coverage allows anyone in the community to experience the event.

At the social level, undoukai creates a situation for students to work with and support peers other than their friends. Teams made up of homerooms, grades, or randomly chosen kids encourage students to work with and cheer for peers they might not otherwise interact with.

Teams, often formed according to grade or homeroom membership, work together preparing flags, shirt designs, dances, and marches. Of course group events like dances, kumitaiso, and tug-of-war foster a cooperative spirit among participants. After all, it’d be impossible to pull off a human pyramid without cooperation! But even individual events like the races promote cooperation and group solidarity through cheering.

To most students, undoukai is simply a fun escape from studying. But the event teaches them to cooperate while representing their homerooms, school, and community – whether they realize it or not. And although points are tallied and a winner is declared, at day’s end everyone is brought a little closer together as teams celebrate their hard fought efforts, win or lose.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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  • Manzenreiter, Wolfram. Sport and Body Politics in Japan. NY: Routledge, 2014. Print.
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Three Legs Are Better Than Two: Japanese Soccer and the Legend of Yatagarasu Wed, 23 Jul 2014 16:00:58 +0000

Here in Japan, the heat and humidity of summer have crept up on us, providing the perfect atmosphere to enjoy the 2014 FIFA World Cup – uchiwa in hand. Despite Samurai Blue’s (as the Japanese national team is often referred to) disappointing early exit, there’s something to take solace in – they still rock the tournament’s most unique and fashionable uniforms.

Okay, that last part is pure opinion. But given the team’s history of distinctive and often quirky jersey designs, I always look forward to the next iteration. In 2006 they featured a cool, light blue wave design. In 2010 a red square highlighted the center collar with an off-blue design of cascading feathers woven into the fabric.

Japan’s 2014 Uniform


Photo by BagoGames

The 2014 uniform did not disappoint, receiving special attention when Adidas collaborated with Nintendo to release a special Pikachu jersey for fans. The blue top features three white stripes on the shoulders, with red trim at the end of the sleeves. The Adidas logo adorns the upper right chest with a white, uniformed Pikachu featured underneath.

A national jersey wouldn’t be complete without the nation flag which sits on the left side of the chest, notably higher than the Adidas logo. The JFA (Japan Football Association) crest sits beneath the flag. And if you look closely, you’ll notice my favorite detail – faint sun-rays emanating from the JFA crest.


Yet despite ever-changing designs, Samurai Blue’s uniform’s most intriguing element has remained constant, returning year after year – the giant crow that dwells within the JFA crest.

Japan’s Crows


Photo by Frankyboy5

Even Pikachu can’t pry the title of The Most Unique Creature on Japan’s National Team Uniform from the claws of the giant crow that has secured it. To the casual observer, a crow might not seem like a fitting representative of Japan. But visitors to Japan, Tokyo in particular, can attest to the formidable presence of the Jungle Crow, a giant variety of the species that inhabit the city.

If the name sounds scary, it’s deservedly so. The Japan Time’s Rowan Hooper explains, “(Jungle Crows) will aggressively defend their favored garbage sites against other crows, and in the breeding season there are often reports of attacks on humans. The population explosion has led to the decline of other bird species, as crows will prey on the nestlings of other species (sometimes attacking with such violence that the nest is destroyed).”

The Texan in Tokyo, Grace Buchele Mineta noted, “I’m not a fan of crows in Tokyo. These huge birds, often 18-23 inches, creep me out, occasionally attack me, and often wreck my garbage.”

I have also fallen victim to Jungle Crow attacks. One dive-bombing bird took swoops at me during my walk to work, forcing me to take the long way home (albeit only a few extra yards).


Which brings us back to the JFA – why choose the Jungle Crow, that wreaks havoc on Japan’s cities, citizenry and garbage, to symbolize the organization?

A better questions is – does a more fitting mascot exist? The big, strong Jungle Crow instills fear in its foes. What’s more, the bird has earned a reputation for its aggressive attack (on humans and other birds) and formidable defense (of its territory) – definitive attributes of a world class soccer team. In reality the Jungle Crow makes the perfect mascot for the JFA and Samurai Blue!

Only those aren’t the reasons the crow was chosen.

In fact, the bird that graces the JFA logo is no ordinary Jungle Crow at all. Close investigation reveals the single detail that separates the JFA crow from the rest of the murder (or horde if you prefer, both mean a group of crows). There it stands – head held high, wings spread, both feet firmly planted on the ground with a soccer ball grasped in its other foot.

Wait, why does this crow have three feet? Because the FFA crow is none other than the legendary Yatagarasu!

The Legend of Yatagarasu


Who or what is Yatagarasu? Kevin Short, a cultural anthropology professor at Tokyo University explains,

“According to ancient Japanese Kojiki and Nihonshoki chronicles (the oldest writings in Japan) and Shinto canon, this great crow was sent from heaven (by the Sun Goddess Amaterasu) as a guide for Emperor Jimmu on his initial journey from the region which would become Kumano to what would become Yamato (later called Japan). Based on this account, the appearance of the great bird has traditionally been interpreted by the Japanese as evidence of the divine intervention in human affairs.”

Why does Yatagarasu have three legs? Most theories credit Yatagarasu’s origin to ancient Chinese and Korean legends that feature a similar creature. Katherine Marshall of The Huffington Post asked priests at Kumano Shrine (a shrine dedicated to the bird), who had this to offer, “(The three legs) may represent the three ancient clans that dominated Kumano’s history. Or perhaps the three main virtues of the gods: chi (wisdom), jin (benevolence) and yuu (valor). Then again, the three legs may stand for heaven, earth and mankind (as in the Taoist triad).”

Yatagarasu is a legendary creature and its three legs carry deep symbolism, but what does any of this have to do with soccer?

Why Yatagarasu?


The JFA’s own explanation is not very clear, “The three-legged crow holding a ball is called ‘Yatagarasu’ and represents the god of day, namely, the sun, cited from a classical book of old China.”

A little research uncovered a more detailed explanation. According to Julian Richards of the Wakayama Prefcture website, Yatagarasu honors the most influential man in Japan’s soccer history – Kakunosuke Nakamura (中村覚之助).

Tanabe Kumano of a Kumano News Blog explains, “In 1900… (Nakamura) translated an English book, Association Football. This book was the basis of the introduction of legitimate soccer to Japan in 1902. In the same year, Nakamura established Japan’s first soccer team, the so-called Ashiki Shukyu-bu.” He went on to play and coach soccer, becoming the founding father of the sport in Japan.

But how does Yatagarasu make a fitting symbol for Mr. Nakamura? Julian Richards explains again. “As Nakamura, the so called ‘founder of Japanese soccer,’ is from Nachi Katsuura in Wakayama Prefecture, the symbol was based on one of the Gods of Kumano Grand Shrine in the same town.”

Although the Nakamura connection is the most widely cited reason for the logo, it’s not he only one. Yatagarasu’s reputation as a guide may have helped inspire the JFA’s choice. Katherine Marshal elaborates, “A sign at the (Kumano) shrine notes that the Japanese soccer association has adopted the crow as its mascot to make sure the ball finds its way into the goal. Helping those who are lost to find a path is the essence.”

Yatagarasu, Still Guiding After All These Years


Photo by m-louis

Although an ordinary Jungle Crow would make the perfect soccer mascot for Japan, Yatagarasu, the heaven sent, three-legged bird is far more fitting. It represents one of Japan’s most important and influential people to the sport – Kakunosuke Nakamura. Furthermore, Yatagarasu helps guide the ball to the net as it had guided Emperor Jimmu in ancient times.

And Yatagarasu still guides people today. The JFA logo guided me to aspects of Japanese culture and history I never would have discovered otherwise.

Researching and writing about Yatagarasu also served as a reminder – the World Cup supersedes sport as a celebration of countries and cultures. Most team’s colors, uniforms and logos hold some cultural significance. Yatagarasu has left me wondering, why does France’s uniform features a rooster? And what’s up with the Dutch lion?

There’s still a lot to be learned from the World Cup… when we’re not glued to the TV enjoying the beautiful game.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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