Tetsuwan Atomu & Kyoto Station


Tetsuwan Atomu. Kyoto Station. 2009.


I’m not a particularly big fan of “Atom Boy”.  I remember the cartoons as a boy, but I was in the Loony Toons camp (Roadrunner, Bugs Bunny, etc.).  I just like this photo (above) I took in front of Kyoto Station this past November and wanted to feature it here on LetsJapan.Wordpress.Com .

Actually, a big, Hollywood-produced Astro Boy movie came out just a few months ago.  I’m not sure how well it did at the box office.  But I hope it did well.  Donald Southerland voices the evil “President Stone”.  Just saw Southerland — as “Oddball” (Big Joe: “What are you doing?” Oddball: “I’m drinking wine and eating cheese, and catching some rays, you know.” —  the other night on a 40th Anniversary showing of “Kelly’s Heroes”( simply one of the  best movies  ever).    Anyway, Astro Boy (rather, 鉄腕アトム  Testuwan Atomu – “Steeled Atom Boy“, sort of) real icon in Japan, and, as noted in a very comprehensive Wiki entry, the Astro Boy manga, then cartoons, were really the precursor to today’s anime, a billion $$$ industry and entertainment phenomenon.  So that’s certainly saying something.

Kyoto Station. North Side, Central Entrance Astro Boy. November 2009.

At Kyoto station there are three, tall, information kiosks out in front.  Be careful about telling someone that you plan on meeting them at the one with the Astro Boy / Tetsuwan Atomu on top:  there are 2 topped by Astro Boy, and one topped by Kimba, whom I never liked (much, much too saccharine, even for me as a little kid).

A few more views of Kyoto Station, all taken in early November, below.








Regain, Chibi Maruko-chan & (in retrospect) Simpler Times.


Update:  August 16, 2010. News Flash:  China’s just pulled ahead of Japan as the World’s No. 2 Economy.  Eh, whatever.  But all the more reason to reflect back to  . . . “the salad days“.

Remember when the World straddled the Epochs of Early Gorbechev years and Post-Cold War?  When Japan was riding Sky High (compared to most of the world’s economies, Japan’s remains pretty damn solid, and has even throughout its “doldrums”) and how it never really occurred to Ford that putting the steering wheels on the right side of the its cars might help its sales there?  When Bart Simpson’s marketing omnipresence across North America was match — if not exceeded — only by Chibi Maruko-chan’s in Japan?  Pebble Beach?  Before “9.11”?  It seems almost amazing how, comparatively speaking, those times were so much simpler than now, notwithstanding all the flux in which the world was then engulfed.  Whenever a New Year begins, I can get to feeling quite  なつかしい   (a word that goes much deeper than mere “nostalgia”) about years and times and things gone by.  Right now I’m kind of feeling that way about Regain, which sort of encapsulates those days from a Japanese (or expat living in Japan) perspective as well or better than anything.

It was 1990-91 and I was living in Japan for the second time.  A then-new(ish) product was wowing the consumer-at-large:  Regain.  This was the first (to my knowledge) mass-marketed “energy drink”.  So there have been others, but Regain was the first huge one, really, really huge and it started in the late 1980s, easily 10 years before American companies got in on the act.

A wide variety of Regains (and their knock-offs) rake in billions in the Japanese market.  “Regain J” contains 1500 mg of Taurine, now present in many “energy drinks”.  Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D., of the Mayo Clinic says, “[s]ome studies suggest that taurine supplementation may improve athletic performance, which may explain why taurine is used in many energy drinks. Other studies suggest that taurine and caffeine act together to improve athletic and perhaps even mental performance, although this finding remains controversial.” (source).  “Regain 3000” contains Liverall.   And there are Regains that come complete with video game-themed novelty items:

But what I and so many other foreigners love about Regain (I may have tried one and it tasted on mediciny) have been the commercials.  THE hit commercial from 1989-90 was the one atop this post from Regain — set to rather catchy but creepy self-parodying (or serious???) martial music — during the last couple years of the Japanese Bubble Economy when Japanese corporate hubris was at its peak, just before it’s implosion, with the signature song even becoming a tongue-in-cheek nationalistic pop hit “A Sign of Courage” in its own right.  Followed-up by this one (yes, I’m re-posting), which I remember well from back in the day:


Ah, who remembers those last couple of years before India began to overhaul its economy and the global economic powerhouse that China would become remained but a matter for debate and speculation around university seminar tables?  These were the days of Japanese corporate elites buying-up Pebble Beach and Rockefeller Center and famed nationalist crank (and current Mayor/Governor of Tokyo) Shintaro Ishihara  and his _The Japan that Can Say “No”_  (if you really want to delve deep into this, read these remarks by Representative Sander Levin, delivered on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives in November 1989) .  Yes, I was living in Japan when the hilarious, stupid, paranoid, hyperventilating 1991 book, _The Coming War With Japan_, came out, described by Foreign Affairs (journal) thusly:

This one-sided, sensational book contends that a military confrontation between the United States and Japan is likely within the next 20 years. According to the authors, the issues are the same as they were in 1941: Japan needs to control access to its mineral supplies in Southeast Asia and to have an export market it can dominate. In order to do this, Japan must force the United States out of the western Pacific. There is little effort to explore the substantial differences between the 1940s and the 1990s. One of the authors has published several works of fiction and the other is a national security expert at the Heritage Foundation

Anyway, I mention this late-’80s-through 1991 history only to highlight the context of the over-the-top Regain commercials, which in retrospect seem almost sad in their naivete.

Here’s a more recent Regain commercial, with all of the cleverness, but none of the nationalism of the first ones.  I should note again, though, that the “nationalism” in the Regain commercials was — to this American — always done “tongue in cheek” (I mean, hell, they used funny, self-parodying puppets in that one commercial) and bespoke a new self-confidence — and,  sure, pride — which had been earned through hard work and business smarts, not through military conquest.  The down-side, of course, was the chronic ennui and even sickness (and even, occasionally, suicide) that developed among the ranks of Salarymen pressured to always put in more and more and more hours for their respective companies and “Japan, Inc.”:

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Here’s a collection of commercials from Memory Lane ’90-91:



Over the past several months, since I began self-publishing some of my short stories, I’ve received some encouraging responses from both long time friends and new-to-letsjapan.wordpress.com  (former)  strangers.  Some have commented at the end of the stories, some of my “Facebook Friends” have written complimentary things through that conduit and a few people have just sent nice emails.  Thank you.  Currently, several more stories are “in the works”.  I plan on beginning to post those over coming weeks.  And still more are “in development”, as they say.  Stay tuned.

Anyway, I thought I’d pause and run through the list (see atop this Front Page) and give a line or two synopsis of each story, for those who either haven’t even thought to check them out, or for anyone who wants to know what they’re all about before diving into any of them.

Along the Sea of Japan


Estuko,my short epic.  A love triangle/quadrangle that plays out over the course of a year, from rural Japan to Deep South America, and eventually reverberates though almost two decades.  Obligation: a conversation between me and a Japanese Teacher-of-English about the word “Obligation” (or, “Duty”), its use on a nationally broadcast radio program the night before, and how an otherwise culturally pitch-perfect American expat mortified listeners throughout Japan (or made them die laughing, whichever may be the case).  Sparkle of Your China (actually, this story’s named “Delegation”, but I like linking via “Sparkle of Your China”) —  A small group of “local delegates” from Alabama learn some of the business, cultural and political ropes over the course of several days in Northern China.  Canadians Do Kobe, wherein my Cunuck friend, Lois, and one of her friends from “back home” enjoy Kobe.  The story ends with a couple of twists, and pretty much fails to answer the question:  “How do you apologize to someone for something you dare not discuss with or admit to them?”  If that sounds confusing, just read it and you’ll understand.  India Brain Gametells of my serial misadventures in an attempt to meet a prominent neuroscientist on behalf of a client.  From masala chai on the side of the road, to armed guards, to botched translations (entirely my fault, of course, as I’m on their “home turf”), to Hindware.

In the small town of Iwai-cho, an hour or so outside of Kyoto.


A Night in Kyoto—  I and someone I used to know savor a low-key night on the town.  We eat, drink, argue, laugh and love against the backdrop of beautiful and ever-quirky Kyoto.  Enlightenment,  wherein I’m invited to meditate with several of “the guys” at my neighborhood Temple.

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Please feel free to stop by my Photo Galleries, too, also accessible by just clicking the gallery link atop this page.  As a an invitation and for your information, I should also mention that if you go to the bottom of this page you’ll see where you can click a tab for “Older Entries”, which go back to this previous autumn, summer and late spring of ’09, when I started-up this whole thing.  Enjoy.

Kinosaki Onsen.  Autumn 2001.

どうぞごゆっくり . . .

“Happy New Year” = Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu

2013 UPDATE:  The YEAR of the SNAKE!


Click Here for 2012 YEAR of the DRAGON info, background & trivia!


Coming up:  2011.  The year of The Rabbit!


The Resolute Rabbit


Happy New Year . . .


Ah*ke*ma*shi*te    Oh*meh*de*toh    Goh*za*i*mas


2 0 1 0 :     Y e a r   o f   t h e   T i g e r

Tiger. Kamine Zoo. Hitachi, Japan. April 2008.

.   .   .

2010 is the Year of the Tiger, according to the ancient Chinese calendar (which runs in 12-year cycles).  2009 has been the year of the Bull, or Water Buffalo (plodding along, never giving up, persevering).  2011 will be the Year of the Rabbit (my year, thankyouverymuch).  But 2010 is for the Tiger:  active, self-assured and ready to strike at opportunities.  More on the Chinese/Japanese calendar below.  Here’s a nice, 2 min 10 sec video from Japan (titled): Year of the Tiger.  New Year’s Card.  How to Paint a Simple Tiger.”

Here’s a Happy New Year 2010 vid from Alien Eye, a Tokyo-based boutique marketing firm.  What I like about this 1 min 47 sec vid is that it pretty much captures “a day in the life” of anyone strolling the streets of Japan … ;o).

Stay tuned for updates on this page over the next several days and week.  Please consider joining others in signing-up (right-hand side of this page) so you’ll be notified by email of updates here on Japanese New Year Traditions, the Chinese/East Asian Zodiac, and other end-of-the-year/beginning-of-2010 information and esoterica.

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Japan has used the Gregorian Calendar since 1873,  5 years into the Meiji Restoration, but being a nation with close cultural, geographic and historical ties to and influences from China, the 12-year cycle Chinese calendar continues to hold great sway and influence in most Japanese hearts, at least from a standpoint of tradition and sentimentality.  Most Japanese New Year’s Cards  — Nengajo — (having gone into the mail by the millions and millions over the past few days in order that they be delivered on January 1st!) will feature a tiger motif.  Here’s an example:

Found at this website

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Otoshidama ( お年玉 )  is the Japanese custom (also in China and elsewhere in East Asia) where adults give children New Year’s envelopes containing money (bills only).  Japanese bills come in ¥1,000 (somewhat rare) ¥2,000, ¥5,000 and ¥10,000 increments, so children (depending on their age and relationship to the adult giver) can expect anywhere from ¥1,000-¥10,000 (around $11.00 to $110.00 given today’s exchange rate).  Envelopes are colorful and cartoony and cute.

Here’s how Kit-Kat (yes, that Kit-Kat) has gotten in on the otoshidama trade, combining a box of chocolate with an otoshidama envelope, suitable and intended for mailing from grandma to grandson/granddaughter  —  with, of course, a Year of the Tiger motif:


.  .  .

お正月 O-Shogatsu

Shogatsu (or O-Shogatsu) are the amalgam of customs and celebrations that mark and are intertwined with celebrating the New Year in Japan.  Special foods eaten, temples visited, decorations made and gifts given all begin at 12:00 midnight on January 1, and continue for the next three (3) days.

Houses are cleaned and decorated in the days preceding O-Shogatsu.  Families walk or ride together (many at midnight, January 1) to their neighborhood Buddhist Temples and Shinto Shrines, businesses shut down, and Shonenkai (New Year’s Parties/Feasts) flourish.  Among the decorations are the front doors of homes and businesses, often sporting with pine (松 matsu, symbolizing deep-rooted strength), bamboo (竹  chiku, symbolizing the ability to bend with but overcome the winds of adversity) and plum fronds (梅  bai, symbolizing hope – plum being the first tree to blossom in the spring, with buds often bursting forth even through the late February snows).


In about three (3) hours (I write at about 8:30 a.m. U.S. Central Time), no less than 17 monks will take up the ropes attached to the log that strikes and rings great bell at Chion-in Temple in Kyoto and will swing that log into the 74 ton bell  108 times to ring-out the negative passions (greed, hate, envy…) of those who hear it and cleanse all for a fresh start for 2010.   It’s a tradition that’s gone on year after year for hundreds of years at Chion-in, which was established in the early 12th Century by a disciple of Hōnen, priest and founder of the Jodo (“Pure Land”) sect of Buddhism.  “The colossal main gate, the Sanmon, was built in 1619 and is the largest surviving structure of its kind in Japan.”  Here’s a rough vid I made of an, uh, event I ran into as I walked by the Chion-in Main Gate (Sanmon) about 45 days ago (also featured in another Front Page piece just below):

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“Live Japan!” (that’s a quote)

I’m not quite sure if that’s “Lĭve Japan”  or  “Līve Japan”.  Whatever it is it’s the name of the just-launched Japanese government’s 2 month travel campaign with a goal of getting 10 million foreign tourists to Japan in 2010.  Good for them.  I hope it works out.


From the Campaign Website. Note: more hugging going on here (between foreigners, of course) than in 10,000 airport meetings between Japanese.


And you, you are invited by the Japan Tourist Agency to go for a chance to win any number of travel prizes to Japan, simply by filling out this survey (actually, I did.  Just took a couple of minutes).

The heart of the campaign, though, is the JTA’s urging expats in Japan to send “Greeting Cards” to their friends and families back in their home countries, inviting them to visit them (the expat “correspondents”) in Japan.  I like the “Meet. . .  In Japan” thing.  I can see it now:  “So, where do you want to meet tonight?  Starbucks?  That new Mexican restaurant?”  Response – “Hey!  How about Japan!”  “Cool.  Say, around 6-ish?”

Japan is, by the way, a great place to visit . . .


Kurodani dera Garden. Nov 2009.


Neighborhood restaurant. Tokyo. Nov 2009.


Just behind Shoren-in. Kyoto. Nov 09.


Vending Machine (自動販売機). Tokyo. Nov 09.


Where sweet surprises and surreal ironies abound (vid captured on cheap camera) . . .

Chionin temple in Kyoto, by the way, is one of the most famous throughout Japan.  Every New Year’s Eve Chionin’s massive bell, forged in 1678, is rung 108 times (an auspicious number in both Buddhism and Hinduism), can be heard throughout Kyoto’s Eastern Mountains, and is broadcast on national television.


Buy Nothing Day 2011: Nov. 25-26. Zenta Claus says…


Buy Nothing Day 2011: Nov 25 (North America) – November 26 (International)

While already referenced in this post (below) I wanted to take a moment to bring attention to Zenta Claus and  “Buy Nothing Day”  ( 無買日).  I first encountered Zenta Claus in Kyoto, back in November 2003, at a little coffee shop called “Buttercups” (still there on Shirakawa-dori).  At the time Buttercups was one of the few internet cafes in Kyoto.

Zenta Clause.  Passively advocating "Buy Nothing Day".

On the bulletin board next to the one PC available for use was a little piece of paper with a Santa Claus practicing the lotus position with a little “thought bubble” beside his head with the kanji “” in the middle of it; 無 meaning “nothing”, or, in the Zen Doctrine, “emptiness” or “void”.  Underneath in English was a call to recognize “Buy Nothing Day” and (passively) fight Christmas Commercialism (and all Holiday Commercialism, for that matter) by taking a 1-day symbolic vacation from consumerism.  The Zenta Claus photo above is a much prettier version of the little ink-on-paper sketch that I saw on that Buttercups’ bulletin board.

“Buy Nothing Day” is actually a Vancouver creation.  It has its critics (“It’s just a ‘feel good’ thing”, “People will just buy the next day”, etc.).  To me, though, it serves as a reminder that the Season should not be about the number or price or shinyness of gifts.  And, indeed, that’s a Good Thing.

I should note (with some embarrassment) that I missed this year’s official Buy Nothing Day, 24 hours world wide November 27-28.  I don’t think I bought anything that day anyway.  It was, of course, “Black Friday” in the U.S. when I make a point of not going to stores anyway.

So, whether you subscribe to the  “I get anxiety attacks in Malls and WalMat”  or the “Keep Christ in Christmas”  or the “Don’t feed the Corporate Monkey”  or the “Keep the Miracle & Rededication in Hanukkah” or the “I’m sick of all that stuff”  school of thought (these are not mutually exclusive, mind you), this one’s for you.


UPDATE: This piece was posted two (2) days ago, December 15, 2009.  Yesterday, December 16, a Time Magazine story caught on and spread like wildfire around the net:

“But to a growing group of Christians, this focus on the commercial aspect of Christmas is itself the greatest threat to one of Christianity’s holiest days. ‘It’s the shopping, the going into debt, the worrying that if I don’t spend enough money, someone will think I don’t love them,’ says Portland pastor Rick McKinley. …

“McKinley is one of the leaders of an effort to do away with the frenzied activity and extravagant gift-giving of a commercial Christmas. Through a savvy viral video and marketing effort, the so-called Advent Conspiracy movement has exploded.

“…says one youth pastor whose church is part of the Advent Conspiracy.  ‘When you start jacking with people’s idea of what Christmas is and you start to go against this $450 billion machine of materialism and consumerism, it really messes with people,’ he explains.  ‘It takes a lot of patience to say there’s a different way – Christmas doesn’t have to be like this.'”

Interesting, isn’t it?  Here, again, is the full article.


Satsuma, Part II

Satsuma, Part II

温州蜜柑, さつま町

Satsumas. The family tree. Slocomb, Alabama.  November 2009.


Note: This is the second of my 2-part piece on “Satsuma”, a word whose meanings and connotations and connections cross hemispheres and centuries (as do most words, actually).  To read-up on where we’ve been so far, please check out Satsuma, Part ITo repeat a previous caveat (or, perhaps, disclaimer), this is meant neither as scholarship nor literature, but will hopefully be something the reader finds interesting.


So, how does a small, southwest Alabama town come to be named after a defunct Japanese feudal province?  Easy:  take a real, physical, tangible part of that province and relocate it to across the wide Pacific, then the North American continent, to cleared land just north of Mobile Bay.

Satsuma. From my family’s South Alabama tree. I have one left from those I picked over Thanksgiving Weekend.

First, a little review.  Satsuma, Japan, is the name of a peninsula at the extreme south of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s 4 main islands.  Up until the latter part of the 1800’s it was also the name of a feudal domain that — after the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion against the recently-formed, reform-oriented central government — was broken up.  Satsuma is also the name of a particular style of porcelain ware(occasionally derivative from the more famous Imari ware, also from Kyushu), first crafted (as all the first porcelain ware in Japan) by Korean artisans in the early 1600s.  And, Satsuma is a type of Mandarin Tangerine, first cultivated in China, although according to wiki:

The Chinese and Japanese names reference Wenzhou, a city in the Zhejian Province of China known for its citrus production. However, it has also been grown in Japan since ancient times, and the majority of cultivars grown in China today were cultivated in Japan and reverse-introduced into China in modern times.  (LetsJapan.Wordpress Note: Wenzhou’s city flower is the camellia, same as Alabama’s state flower.

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Fruit Stand Sign. Wicksburg, Alabama. November 26, 2011.

Satsumas to Alabama

It’s worth noting that the Satsuma Rebellion was crushed in 1877, because it was in 1878 that the locals of Satsuma, Alabama, say that former Union Army General (and U.S. Minister to Japan) Robert Van Valkenburgh imported and introduced satsuma trees to north Mobile County, Alabama  (for more on Van Valkenburgh, please see Satsuma, Part I).  Van Valkenburgh had returned from his post in Japan in 1869.  We know that when Van Valkenburgh returned to the U.S. he settled in Suwannee County, Florida and, in 1874, was appointed to the Florida Supreme Court, in which he served until his death in August 1888.  I highly recommend your following this link to a bio on Van Valkenburgh, which mentions his second wife’s, (first wife Catherine died in 1863), Anna’s being instrumental in introducing satsumas to the Florida Panhandle.  Although some local, Satsuma, Alabama, lore suggests that Van Valkenburgh introduced satsumas to that part of the state, I can find no record of his having a direct hand in that.  Be that as it may, there is no question that Robert and Anna Van Valkenburgh were the link tying Sastuma, Japan to the Southeast United States and, ultimately to Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas where satsumas are still grown.


Robert B. Van Valkenburgh

Cold Snap(s)

Bringing us up to the present day can be done summarily:  in 1910 “Pace Orange Orchard” maintained about 100 acres of pecan and satsuma trees in north Mobile County, Alabama and in 1915 the unincorporated town of Satsuma was established in the area.  Satsuma orchards were enlarged and it seems thrived, but a series of hard winters in the Deep South during the Teens and into the Twenties of the last century killed-off too many of the trees to make commercial cultivation, at least on a grand scale, viable.  Of course, some satsuma growers remain, notably south Louisiana’s Simon Citrus Farm.  Following are two photos from Auburn University’s archives of satsuma cultivation in Mobile County:

Picking satsumas in J.Lloyd Abbot’s grove. November 1925.


Mobile County Agricultural Agent, W.C. Vail, inspects satsumas. November 1925.


In 1959 a Town Charter for “Satsuma, Alabama” was presented to, and approved by, Mobile County and State of Alabama officials and, thus, 2009 marked Satsuma’s 50th Anniversary.  It has a population of about 6,000.  It a particularly pretty little town in the spring, when the azaleas and dogwoods are in bloom.  Last Saturday (December 5) it staged its annual Christmas Parade.

Satsuma, Alabama, azaleas in the springtime.

Photo via this Town of Satsuma, Alabama website.


The Other Satsuma

It seems no small irony to me that while there is, indeed, a Satsuma, Japan, that Satsuma (さつま町) was not incorporated, did not exist as a town named “Satsuma” until March of 2005, when the towns of Miyanojo and Tsuruda merged under the new name “Satsuma“, now known in Japan as much for its hot springs and traditional inns as it is for its citrus heritage.  It’s population:  27,300.

Satsuma, Japan.


Hot bath at one of the many “ryokan” (traditional inns) in and near Satsuma, Japan



* “Satsuma” is also the name of a restaurant in London.  One of the lunch specials is a vegetable yaki soba for £5.00 (“Takeaway Only”).


* “Satsuma” is a new brew (Satsuma Harvest Wit) by the Abita Springs brewing company of New Orleans, featuring the juice from Louisiana-grown satsumas (another Van Valkenburgh legacy).  Says Abita’s website:

“Abita Harvest Series incorporates the finest Louisiana-grown ingredients. No artificial flavors, extracts or oils are used in Abita Harvest Series, only real fresh ingredients that are Louisiana-grown and Louisiana True.”

Below you can watch an 8-minute video on Abita’s “Satsuma Harvest Wit”, if you’re so inclined.  I’ve actually had a couple of these and though I’m not much for “flavored” beers, I found it pretty tasty.


*  Then there’s the London band, “Satsuma” (what’s with London?).  It’s not exactly my cup of cha, but, well, here they are live, singing “Quiet! Quiet! Easy! Easy!”  I do kind of like the verse about Brave New World.


For anyone who’s made it through this whole thing and who isn’t totally exhausted, at least regarding “All Things Satsuma”, I provide the following additional links:

Auburn University’s Satsuma Page.

Texas A&M’s Satsuma Q & A Page.

>   A Satsuma Facebook Page.

>  A photo of the WWI Era Japanese Battleship Satsuma.

>  Links to the Louisiana’s Satsuma and to  Texas’ Satsuma.


“Ishi no ue ni mo san nen…”

In a Front Page piece from back in the summer,  I discuss (among other things) and provide examples of kotowaza (proverbs or wise sayings), including —

“Even monkeys fall from trees” (Saru mo ki kara ochiru / 猿も木から落ちる )

and “Sit on a rock for 3 years” (Ishi no ue ni mo san nen / 石の上にも三年).

“Even monkeys fall from trees” is pretty easy to understand.  In other words, even those with the most apparent skill (whether in social climbing or quarterbacking a college football team [St. Tim]) will someday get their comeuppance.  “Sit on a rock for 3 years” is a little more obtuse.  In sum, it means “be patient”.

So, with that noted, I ask those several of you who’ve emailed me about when I plan to post Satsuma, Part II (the follow up to, surprise, Satsuma, Part I) to please sit on a rock for 3 years, or, perhaps, just 3-5 more days.  I’m very appreciative of your eagerness to read the follow-up.  Hold on, I’m coming.

.    .    .

With that out of the way I post below, as several brilliant non-sequiturs, a few photos from bygone days, 1990-1, when I lived in the small town of “Asaki” (not the real name), Hyogo Prefecture.  This town forms the backdrop for my story “Etsuko“.  I’ve only recently come across these photos.  I haven’t really “cleaned them up”, yet, so pardon any old pits or shmutz on them.  Enjoy.


Woman walking her dog. Near my house in "Asaki". Spring 1991.


Youngsters at Hyogo Prefecture ski resort. February 1991.


Ruins of Takeda Castle. December 1990. One trainstop and a 30-45 min climb "Asaki", where I lived in 1990-1.


Roll Tide. 波が圧延しよう!

For more than 6 months this has been a Japan-oriented blog (with a little venture into India and China, here and there).  Tonight I draw (a little bit) outside the lines (see the Japan tie-in just below) and say, “Roll Tide, Roll!”

I should note that many, many Japanese grads of Chiba-dai, Kansai Gaidai (me, ’84), Nanzan Dai and other Japan-base colleges have attended The University of Alabama.  That JVC (Nihon Victor) has a manufacturing plant in Tuscaloosa, that Honda has a plant in Lincoln/Talladega, Alabama, that Toyota has a plant in Huntsville, Alabama and that Sony is in Dothan.

Alabama Rolls over Florida, 32-13, to win the Southeast Conference Championship and go to the National Title Game in Pasadena, California.


From summer of ’84, a present given to me by a group of Chiba University students with whom I whiled away 6 weeks on the UA campus.  A week after they gave me this flag I was on a plane to Japan, my first overseas trip, to begin my Exchange Student Experience at Kansai Gaidai (a university between Osaka and Kyoto).

Going home gift from Chiba U students. Summer '84.

I got together with these same students, my friends, for a night in Los Angeles (they were spending a week in California on their way back to Japan, I arranged a one-night layover) and, then, a couple of months later I traveled up to Chiba University (just north or Tokyo) to hang out with them for a weekend on their home turf.  Several of them remain dear friends who I see from time-to-time when I’m in Japan, or when they are on business in the U.S.  All brought together through distance and over time via the University of Alabama.


Satsuma, Part I


Satsuma, Part I

温州蜜柑, さつま町

What people in the Deep South call a Satsuma.


Note:  after reading and, hopefully, enjoying this piece, please make sure to visit “Satsuma, Part II“, which brings this history and many of the twists and turns surrounding All Things Satsuma, up to date.


When I was a kid in Northern Virginia in the ’60s and ’70s, my father made a point of treating the family to oranges and tangerines and all such citrus fruit around Christmas.  There were always a couple of tangerines in the stockings on Christmas morning.  This was nice and I came to associate that citrus smell mingled with those of pine from the Christmas tree and hot chocolate and burning wood from the fireplace and sometimes snow with the whole holiday season.

But I didn’t really get why all varieties of orange were so special to my South Alabama born-and-bred father until he, as well as my West Virginia-raised mother, would from time-to-time reminisce about growing up during the Great Depression and how a few oranges were such an incredible treat, were a luxury, around Christmastime.  Being raised during the “boom” ’60s and ’70s, such a time as that in which my parents were raised was difficult for me to comprehend.

There was another reason, though, that tied my father, who just past away last year just shy of his 86th birthday and his and my mother’s 60th wedding anniversary, to all manner of citrus as December rolled around.  Growing up in the very Deep South gave him and his family put them in relative proximity to Central Florida’s orange groves, whose annual bounty came in season beginning around late September, extending into the winter.  But there was more:  it wasn’t until the late 1970s, when my immediate family moved from the cacophony and concrete of Metro D.C. to the pines and placidity of extreme Southeast Alabama (7 miles from the Florida Line), that I began to learn that this part of the country had its own, “native” citrus crop, a direct descendant of what’s now Kagoshima Prefecture, Kyushu Island, Japan . . . and the Meiji Restoration, a retired Union Army General, and Civil War . . . in Japan.  How small the world is.  How integrated times and places can be.

My family’s satsuma tree. November 2009.



In 1878 retired U.S. General Robert Van Valkanberg, fresh from a diplomatic posting in Japan, made his way to the wilds of Southwest Alabama to make manifest his dream to become a citrus baron.  In 2005 two towns situated at the southernmost tip of Japan’s southernmost large island, Kyushu, merged to become the small city of Satsuma-cho, “-cho” meaning “town” in Japanese (さつま町).  Several times over Thanksgiving Weekend 2009, I walked out from the back door of my parents’ home in southeast Alabama, 7 miles from the Florida line, and picked and ate small, delicate, sweet and sour “mandarin oranges”, locally called “satsumas“, and thought of my father who about 10 years earlier planted the tree that continues to bring them forth, ready-to-savor, beginning around every early-to-mid November.

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“a most agreeable day”

In the waning months of the U.S. Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Congressman Robert Van Valkenberg — a New York lawyer who had raised militias to fight in the war (he commanded the New York Volunteers 107th Regiment at the Battle of Antietam) — to the post of U.S. Minister to a newly-opened Japan, a country that was experiencing its own internal upheavals after 250 years of isolationism, feudalism and internal stability.  The former ruling Tokugawa Shogunite (generalissimo) Regime had recently been toppled, the Emperor had been “restored” to his place of prominence as Japan’s leader, a cabinet of sorts had been established to advise Emperor Meiji on reasserting and consolidating his family’s position in Japan, and various skirmishes and all out battles were breaking out throughout Japan (and would do so for a couple of decades to come) between those loyal to the Emperor and those loyal to the Shogunite.  It was a confusing time.  And these were the times, in August 1866, that General Van Valkenberg arrived in Tokyo Bay and was received by the new, fragile government as Washington’s top liaison to Japan.  According to one contemporary account, it was, all in all, a most agreeable day.

Satsuma tree. Slocomb, Alabama. November 2008.


Now exactly how Gen. Van Valkenberg became familiar with a particular type of tangerine grown on the southern tip of Japan’s southern most large island, Kyushu, appears lost in antiquity.  However, what’s not debatable is that as the United States’ Foreign Minister to Japan from 1866 until November 1869, there’s no doubt that he was treated and feted to all of Japan’s best delicacies, which would include the best citrus from what was then-called Satsuma Domain (Satsuma-han), later to become part of present day Kagoshima Prefecture.  Van Valkenberg’s familiarity with Deep South Japan also came by way of his intervening in one of the internal struggles — and battles — which flared between rival “pro-Emperor” vs. “pro-Feudal System” armies in Southern Japan, known as the Boshin War and waged in the heart of old Satsuma Domain.  Minister Van Valkenberg initially blocked the delivery of the French-built ironclad ship, C.S.S. Stonewall, to the Japanese government, desiring to keep the U.S. neutral during Japan’s civil war(s), but eventually delivery was made and a ship originally built for the Confederate Navy went into service as Japan’s first ironclad navel vessel.  Another twist to the story:  when in 1865 the then-named C.S.S. Stonewall (later renamed the Kōtetsu by the Japanese navy) first arrived off the U.S. East Coast, manned by Confederate sailors, one of the U.S. ships that met it was the U.S.S. Kearsarge, which in June 1864 sank the Confederate raider, C.S.S. Alabama, off the Cherbourg, France.  Small world.

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Please see:  Satsuma,  Part II:  satsumas arrive from Japan to Alabama (and Florida, and Louisiana. . . ).  Cold snaps wipe-out dreams (ahh . . . doesn’t that say so much), new towns are born, beer’s brewed and, well, other things happen.

Local Satsumas (right). Wicksburg, Alabama. November 26, 2011.