Japan, China, the Senkaku Islands, & Ginned-up Rage.

Several of the Senkaku ・Diaoyu Islands

= 19 Sept 2012 Update:  as quickly as they began, China’s raging protests end. Beijing pulls the levers on both . . . =

= 25 Sept 2012 Update:  Now Taiwan, feeling ignored it seems, has gotten into the act. See photo below . . . =

So what’s going on between China and Japan and the Senkaku (Diaoyu to the Chinese) Islands?  Where are these islands and what’s behind all the rage and sabre-rattling?  This is no scholarly report, just a little update and primer for the casual reader who wants some background on this stormy  (and potentially very dangerous) controversy.  While looking at the information below, please keep the following things in mind:  1)  Virtually no protests — certainly not in front of foreign embassies — occur in China without government approval and, in matters such as this, organization; 2) China’s going through a Communist Party / National Government transfer-of-power drama which, if the populace were to pay a whole lot of attention to it, would no doubt showcase cronyism and ineptitude; 3) Japan has elections coming up, too, and no Japanese politician wants to be seen as “bowing” to Chinese demands.

From the Wiki:

The Senkaku Islands dispute concerns a territorial dispute on a group of uninhabited, the Senkaku Islands, which are also known as the Diaoyu by China or Tiaoyutai Islands by Taiwan.  The archipelago is administered by Japan, while also being claimed by both the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China [Taiwan] (ROC).   [Following World War II] The United States occupied the islands from 1945 to 1972. . .

After China lost the [first Sino-Japanese] war [in 1895], both countries signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki in April 1895 that stipulated, among other things, that China would cede to Japan “the island of Formosa together with all islands appertaining or belonging to said island of Formosa (Taiwan)”.

The treaty, however, was nullified after Japan lost the Second World War in 1945 by the Treaty of San Francisco, which was signed between Japan and part of the Allied Powers in 1951. The document nullifies prior treaties and lays down the framework for Japan’s current status of retaining a military that is purely defensive in nature. 

There is a disagreement between the Japanese, PRC and ROC governments as to whether the islands are implied to be part of the “islands appertaining or belonging to said island of Formosa” in the Treaty of Shimonoseki.

Map of the Disputed Islands.

Thousands of Chinese Protesters Besiege Japanese Embassy (Japan Today — September 15, 2012).  Excerpt:

“Return our islands! Japanese devils get out!” some shouted. One of them held up a sign reading: “For the respect of the motherland, we must go to war with Japan.”

Protester Liu Gang, a migrant worker from the southern region of Guangxi, said: “We hate Japan. We’ve always hated Japan. Japan invaded China and killed a lot of Chinese. We will never forget.”

Japan and China:  Ghosts of the Past (The Guardian — September 17, 2012).  Excerpt:

Left to their own devices, relations between Japan and China are bound to improve. Both economies need each other. China is Japan’s single largest trading partner and bilateral trade hit a record $345bn last year. But things in the East China Sea are rarely left to their own devices. A move by the Japanese government to defuse an attempt by nationalists to buy disputed islands in fish- and gas-rich seas, by buying them itself, has led to six days of demonstrations in China. Japanese cars and car dealerships have been attacked, factories have been torched or broken into. Hundreds of Japanese companies and offices have been forced to suspend operation.  And the biggest wave of protest since the two countries normalised relations in 1972 – there were demonstrations in 70 Chinese cities – is not over yet.

SEPTEMBER 25, 2012:

AP/Taiwan Central News Agency Photo [25 September 2012] — Japanese Coast Guard boats shoot water cannons at Taiwanese Coast Guard boats in the waters off the disputed islands. About 40 Taiwanese fishing vessels and 12 Taiwanese Coast Guard boats took part in the action, finally pulling away after the water cannonade.



North Korea: It’s Starting… A news round-up

Joyful North Korean Soldiers dance in April 2012 for now-ousted General Ri Yong Ho.

I’ve been watching the news coming out of North Korea rather closely since the last dictator, Kim Jong Il died last December.  Over the past week or so things seem to be moving (by North Korean standards) at light speed.  Here are recent headlines (with the kicker at the end):

+ July 13, 2012Who is North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un’s “Mystery Woman?”

+ July 15, 2012Is Kim Jong Un Opening Up North Korea?

+ July 16, 2012Top North Korean General Loses Job.

+ July 20, 2012Kim Plans Economic Reform in North Korea.

. . . and, in late-breaking news:  Kim [Jon Il’s] Ex-Sushi Chef — “Kenji Fujimoto” — Invited Back to North Korea ( ! ).

My guess:  1. Jong Un went to school in Switzerland and didn’t want to look like a dork dictator in front of all his old classmates.  2. He’s got a hot, pop-singer girlfriend who’s just dying to make it big in South Korea and the West.  3. He wants to crawl out from under his dad’s and grandpop’s shadow.  4. He sees how the West turned on a dime with Myanmar/Burma once it began reforms.  5. Certain People in China told him it would be in his own best interest. Some combination of all that.

In 2005 I was in North Eastern China, not too awfully far from its boarder with North Korea.  Various adventures were had.  My last night staying in that part of China, though, I spoke with a local government official with some degree of frankness about the mood in China about North Korea.  This tale tells something of those several days in Anshan, China, with the payoff at the end, in re:  a “Practical North Korea.”


Philosopher’s Path, Kyoto ・京都の哲学の道.

Philosopher’s Path —  (Tetsugaku no Michi ・哲学の道), Kyoto.

It’s a walking path, a pedestrian trail, that runs about along a small canal (part of the Lake Biwa Aqueduct system) at the base of Kyoto’s East Mountain (Higashiyama ・東山).

Looking south along Philosopher’s Path. Autumn 2003.

Professor Kitaro Nishida (1870-1945) taught philosophy at Kyoto University from 1910 until 1928.  He famously strolled this Higashiyama canal path during his daily commute to the university and as he meditated reconciling Japanese and Western religious and philosophical tenants.  His most famous, and original, work was An Inquiry into the Good.*

Philosopher’s Path. Autumn 2003.

I enjoy all seasons, but autumn’s my favorite.  That said, with so many cherry trees lining Philosopher’s Path springtime and cherry blossom-viewing is perhaps most other people’s favorite time to walk the Path.  On some summer nights you can find yourself in virtual clouds of fireflies (hotaru・ホタル).  I haven’t walked Philosopher’s Path in the snow, yet, but can imagine the sublime beauty (and having it mostly to myself).

Philosopher’s Path on a warm May day, 2010.

Also along the path (especially as you get closer to Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion), you’ll find more than a few tea houses, coffee shops, souvenir shops, small boutiques and galleries.  On the southern end (right-hand side as you’re facing the eastern mountain) there’s Eikan-do temple, a beautiful place.  Philosopher’s Path also runs through some of Kyoto’s most expensive properties.  The photo below shows a garden entrance to one of the Houses of the Wealthy.  The view, though, is free . . .

Home. Along Philosopher’s Path. May 2010.


Map of Philosopher’s Path (and views of / links to nearby sites)

Just below this map click on “View Larger Map” and you’ll see it all much more clearly.  As you walk, this takes you from the east end of Marutamachi Street (丸田町道), across Shirakawa Street (白川道), up to Philosopher’s Path.  Note the other nearby sites, and some photos (click on the icon) to help you get your bearings:

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Coming next:  Ginkaku-ji (銀閣寺), a/k/a  “The Silver Pavilion” (that’s not really silver):

The “Silver” Pavilion. May 2010.


* Excerpt from an Amazon.com review of  An Inquiry into the Good:

“Nishida’s approach to metaphysics, however, is unique.  Nishida was personally influenced profoundly by zen.  Zen is often suspicious of abstract, rational conceptions of reality and instead favors a method of “direct seeing” in approaching reality.  This is in direct contrast to the Western method of approach to questions about the nature of reality which rely primarily on logic and rational argument in attempting to determine or uncover the nature of reality. Nishitani Keiji summarizes these different approaches well in his book on Nishida. Nishitani writes, ‘The sense of quest…as it appears in Plato’s dialogues entails a spirit of inquiry aimed at the gradual discovery through dialogue of something new, something not yet known to the participants.  This spirit appears as the standpoint of pure reason that seeks to uncover something new and completely unknown, to discover according to the laws of logic.'”

Kyoto’s Heian Shrine (平安神宮)


Heian Jingu Main Hall. May 2010.

Heian Jingu (平安神宮) is a “new” Kyoto Shinto Shrine, founded and constructed in 1884 to commemorate the 1,100th anniversary of the founding of Kyoto (then, “Heiankyo”) by Emperor Kammu and Emperor Komei, father of the Emperor Meiji who was reigning in the late-1880s (Note:  Emperor Meiji reigned from 1868-1912). Heian Jingu’s designation  as a Jingu, and not a Jinja (a “regular” Shinto Shrine), denotes that it is associated with the Imperial Family.

Heian Jingu on a chilly day. March 1991.


Omikuji (fortunes) at Heian Jingu. 2003.


Every June a National Noh Theater Performs at Heian Jingu. June 2003.


Pine at Heian Jingu. 2008.


Bride (left) and her mom on their way wedding at Heian Shrine (directly behind), with the Great Gate (大鳥居) in the background.


Faux Sake Casks (kazaridaru). Hiean Jingu front, for blessing’s sake. 2008.


Evening at the Great Torii, Heian Jingu Mae Street. 2009.

The Garden

Heian Jingu is famously known for its large garden.  While entrance to the main shrine area is free (see photos above), enjoying the walking behind the building complex will cost you a ¥600 entrance fee and it’s open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.  The garden was laid-out by the renowned designer Ogawa Jihei (who designed several of Kyoto’s famous, modern-era gardens) and meant for leisurely, contemplative strolling.  Here are several photos I’ve taken of The Garden from over the years . . .

Heian Jingu’s Garden. October 2001.


Ogawa used shakkei, “borrowed scenery,” in Heian Jingu’s garden. 1990.


Yes, that’s a model. Her real photographer stands just to my right. 2001.


Lilies in a cove of the central koi pond. 2001.


Sign at the stepping stone bridge. 2001.


A ticket stub I saved for Heian Jingu’s garden.

Heian Jingu is located in Kyoto’s Higashiyama (Eastern Mountain) area with Reisen Dori (street) running directly in front of it, Marutamachi Dori running along the block behind it, and Okazaki Dori up along side it on its eastern side.  Right where Okazaki Dori intersects Marutamachi Dori at Heian Jingu’s back, northeastern side, you’ll find the Three Sisters Inn Annex, where I’ve stayed countless times and which itself is just a few minutes walk to Kurodani Dera (Temple), Okariba (restaurant) and Hanafusa Coffee Shop.

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Coming up next:  Philosopher’s Path (Tetsugaku on Michi) –

Along “Philosopher’s Path” (哲学の道), Kyoto. 2003.

Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺)

Note on Photos:  I took all the photos and snapshots below, on multiple trips to Kiyomizu-dera*. They go back as far as 20 years.  Different seasons, different times of day, snapped with various cameras (from a Pentax K-1000 to a Motorola Android phone, and several others).  Note how the light, composition, resolution and “feel” varies from photo to photo.

Kiyomizu-dera. Main Hall looking south. May 2010.

We have a history.

As with so many other places in Kyoto, I first visited Kiyomizu-dera in the fall of 1984, when I was an exchange student at nearby Kansai Gaidai (University).  Yet the earliest photos I can find are from 1990, when I got back to Japan to teach in a rural middle school in Hyogo Prefecture, a couple hours away from Kyoto.  Before getting sent to our various school assignments, though, a pack of us Hyogo Prefecture “JET Program” teachers took at day trip into Kyoto from Kobe and I’ve managed to find a couple photos from that trip.  Since then I’ve returned many times with various people and groups.  Though I now “guide” people to Kiyomizu-dera, it never fails to amaze me.  Many memories are wound-up with it, too.  .  .

Kiyomizu-dera Entrance, Niomon Guardian Gate (仁王門) in foreground. 2010.

Better late than never

I need to write more on Kyoto’s better-known sights.  Ryoan-ji temple, with its famous rock garden, is the only one I’ve so far written about.  I’ve photo-essayed on lesser-known (to the Westerner) shrinestemplesart and antique streets, Kyoto’s most famous flea market, the main train station, and coffee shops and restaurants.  But not so much the “Centerpiece Destinations.”  This is no definitive history or even textbook summary on Kiyomizu-dera.  Instead, I’ll just provide some general, solid information, good links, and photos that I hope will make those who’ve not yet traveled to Kyoto want to go. If you’ve already been, I hope this will help bring back some memories.

Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺) Buddhist Temple

One of the more popular places from which to photograph Kiyomizu-dera. October 1999.

Kiyomizu-dera means “Pure Water Temple.”  Pre-dating the establishment of Kyoto by 16 years, Kiyomizu-dera was founded in  778 C.E. by the Buddhist priest Echin.  The complex hugs and is built into the side of Mount Otowa, which itself is part of Kyoto’s long, continuous East-side Mountains (Higashiyama).  The  present layout and complex was rebuilt in 1633 under the patronage of the third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu.  In 1994 Kiyomizu-dera was placed on UNESCO‘s registry of World Heritage Sites.  It’s also on Japan’s National Treasure list.


Jumping Off Kiyomizu’s Stage

One of Kiyomizu-dera’s main distinguishing features is its famous stage, or veranda, which juts out from the Main Hall over a ravine, affording visitors a great view of the mountain just across the ravine, southern Kyoto off to one’s right (see and click on photo below) and of other visitors almost 50 feet down below at the “Otowa no Taki” waterfall (see explanation and photos below).  The veranda’s held up by 139 massive keyaki (Japanese zelkova) pillars and more than 400 cypress cross-beams. . . without using a single nail.  It also spawned a Japanese saying or “kotowaza”  — “Leap off Kiyomizu’s stage”   清水の舞台から飛び降りる (きよみずのぶたいからとびおりる).  This translates into English as “Go for it,” or “Take the plunge.”

Looking directly west, past the southern side of the Pagoda. 2010.


Looking towards the famous “stage,” veranda. 2010.


CLICK on this one. View of Kyoto from the Stage/Veranda. 2010.


In front, looking towards Niomon. 2007.


Saimon, “West Gate,” with 3-tiered pagoda behind. 2010.

Jishu-jinja (Shinto Shrine)

Incorporated, but technically separate from, Kiyomizu-dera is Jishu-jina (“Jinja” meaning Shinto Shrine), which is dedicated to the Shinto deity of love and “good matches,” Okuninushi no Mikoto (his companion’s a rabbit).   Two stones, each set firmly in the ground near the shrine, are spaced about 30 feet (10 meters) apart.  If one can successfully walk from one rock to the other while thinking of their hoped-for love with eyes closed, the desired romance will ensue.  So goes the legend, and the daily practice, at Jinshu-jinja.


Tourists. Just through the Niomon, entering Kiyomizu-dera proper. 2011.


Walking on Sannenzaka towards Kiyomizudera (up and to the left). 2006.

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Three “Otowa no Taki” pics. . .  over 20 years.

Here’s some of what Judith Clancy, in her wonderful guidebook (which I highly recommend), Exploring Kyoto: On Foot in the Ancient Capital, says about the Otowa no Taki:

Just beyond the three restaurants is Otowa no Taki, the ‘Sound of Feathers Waterfall,’ from which water is channeled into three spouts that pour down from above.  Long-handled dippers are available for visitors to sample the clear, delicious water that inspired Echin to build his hermitage here, and which is the course of the temple’s popular name, which means ‘Temple of Pure Water.'”



August 1990.


Late September 2001.


Late May 2010.

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A 鳥’s-Eye View:  My Google Map of Kiyomizu-dera

“Grab” and move the image about, click on the little blue icons for information.

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Getting to Kiyomizu-dera

To quote extensively from this very good Kiyomizu-dera site:

[F]irst make your way up Ninen-zaka & Sannen-zaka walk, past the Omiyage shops until you reach the main gate of Kiyomizudera. . .  Walking from there into the temple you will walk under the Nio-mon or Gate of the Deva Kings. The Deva Kings, along with Korean lion-dogs (koma-inu) protect the temple from any evil that may enter. The right Deva King has his mouth open, pronouncing “A”, the first sound of Sanskrit while the other has his mouth closed, pronouncing “UN”, the last sound. Thus, it is thought that the Deva Kings represent the complete teachings of Buddha.

Continuing past the Nio-mon, you go up a second flight of steps to the Sai-mon (West Gate). Two more Deva Kings stand guard at this eight pillared gate built in the early 17th century.  To the gate’s left one can see the Shoro (Bell Tower) built in 1596, though the temple’s bell was cast in 1478.  Above the flying brace of the tower one can see the imperial Chrysantheum crest. . .


Afternoon sun on Jizo Bhodisattvas at Kiyomizu-dera. 2008.


*I write “Kiyomizu-dera” with the hyphen between the “Kiyomizu” and the “dera” to underscore the fact that the name of the temple is “Pure Water” (Kiyomizu  清水 ) “Temple” (dera  寺 ).  Most often in English it’s written as one long word:  “Kiyomizudera.”  The written Japanese is actually simpler, just three kanji, or Chinese-type characters, as shown in the title of this piece:   清水寺. So in Japanese it is one word, no hyphen.  But, again, I want English-only readers to better understand how the word is divided up.

Kiyomizu-dera ticket stub. From 2010.

Kawara & Yane ・瓦と屋根 – (Tiles & Roofs).

I dig traditional Japanese roofs.  Most, not all, are tiled.  The tiles are called “kawara.” Roofs are called “yane.”  Below are several links to sights that will tell you all about the various kinds of karawa and yane.  I just wanted to share some photos of kawara and yane I’ve taken over the years.

Kyoto Kawara. 2009.


Looking west from Kurodani Temple, Kyoto. 2004.


Kawara atop wall. Hiean Jingu/Shrine 平安神宮. Marutamachi, Kyoto. 2009.


Between houses. Yaginishiguchi. 2004.


To-ji Temple, Kyoto. Great Gate & 5 Story Pagoda. 2008.


Roofs between Kiyoicho and Washiocho, Kyoto. 2003.


Kurodani-dera. Kyoto. 2009.


Kyoto Kawara. 2003.


Yaginishiguchi. 2004.


Wall topped with Kawara. Eikan-doh, Kyoto. 2008.


Part of the Todai-ji temple complex. Nara. 2010.


Just outside of Kurodani-dera. 2009.


Himeji Castle. “Sachihoko,” dolphin-like kawara, guard against fire. 2008.


Chionin Temple Gate, Kyoto. 2003.


Wall and gate and roofs, while walking in Okazaki (Kyoto). 2008.


Looking down from the top of Himeji Castle. 1990.

More on Himeji Castle.

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Japanese Roof Types JCastle:  Roofs & Gables.

KawaraTypes and History.

OnigawaraDemon Kawara (which protect the house). A friend’s blog . . .


World’s Tallest Tower: the Tokyo Sky Tree. From the Narita Express.

I snapped these three views of the Tokyo Sky Tree back in August 2011.  I was riding the Narita Express out of town, heading towards Narita Airport and a plane back to the U.S.  The Sky Tree (see Fact Sheet below), the world’s tallest tower, second tallest man-made structure, will open to the general public next week, on May 22, 2012.

Between Buildings: the Tokyo Sky Tree. August 2011.


Above Buildings: Tokyo Sky Tree. August 2011.


On the Horizon: Tokyo Sky Tree. August 2011.


When you take the Narita Express in from the airport to Tokyo you’ll see it out of the right-hand side of the train.


* At 634 meters (2,080 feet) the Sky Tree is second only to the 829 meter (2723 foot) tall Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Toronto’s CN Tower is 553 meters tall.  Tokyo Tower, built in 1958, is 333 meters (1091 feet) tall.  Seattle’s Space Needle rises  184 meters (605 feet).

*  Owner:  Tobu Railway Co., Ltd., Tobu Tower Skytree Co., Ltd.

*  In Japanese:  東京スカイツリー.

*  The Tokyo Sky Tree is actually the world’s tallest tower.  The Burj Khalifa in Dubai is a “building,” not a “tower,” as it has floors all the way up

Constructed:  July 2008 – February 2012.  Principle Contractor:  Obayashi Corp.   Architect:  Nikken Sekkei.

*  Elevators 13.  At 350 meters, the Tembo Deck features a Cafe, Restaurant, Shop and a 360-degree, 70-meter (more than 43-mile) view into the distance.  Here’s the official “Floor Guide” webpage for this US$440 Million project.

English Website (including “How to Buy Tickets“).

*  Adult Tickets range from ¥1,000 to ¥2,500 (about $12.65 to $31.60), depending on ticket type.


The Sky Tree is on the Tobu Isesaki Line and is one stop from AsakusaAsakusa Station is a stop on the Ginza (subway) Line.

 > From in Tokyo

So if, for example, you’re in Ueno, just get on the Ginza Line heading for Asakusa.  Go 3 stops to Asakusa (a terminal station).  At Asakusa, change to the Tobu Isesaki Line and go 1 stop (to the next station) to Tokyo Sky Tree Station.

 > From Narita Airport

Well, the geniuses who designed all this didn’t make it very easy for the international traveler laying over in Tokyo for a few hours to go visit the Sky Tree. Here’s what I think is as good a way as any, but if someone knows a better way, please contact me and I’ll edit accordingly:

Narita Express (from airport) -to-> Tokyo Station (53 min).  Yamanote Loop Line -to-> Shinbashi, or Ueno.  Ginza (Subway) Line -to-> Asakusa.  Tobu Isesaki Line 1 stop to Tokyo Sky Tree Station.

As I’m very comfortable and well-traveled on the Tokyo rail system, this (above) is no big deal to me.  But given the size of and number of rail lines at Tokyo Station, etc., I’d be a little anxious about the first-time traveler into Tokyo navigating this without a Japanese friend in tow.

> The Tokyo Sky Tree and Earthquakes

I found a very good article on the Sky Tree (in general) which included this particularly interesting essay on measures taken to mitigate the effect of earthquakes on the tower:

The Sky Tree makes use of a shinbashira [link to more information on shinbashira], a central column that features in the architecture of Japanese pagodas. The column acts as a stationary pendulum to counterbalance seismic waves, greatly reducing the sway in the surounding structure.

Indeed, there are virtually no records of pagodas being toppled in quakes in Japanese history. The tallest wooden tower in the country, the 55-meter (180-foot) pagoda of Toji temple [link to my site’s Toji Temple piece – letsjapan.wordpress.com] in Kyoto, has been standing firm since 1644.

The Sky Tree’s shinbashira is a hollow concrete tube housing elevators and stairs. It’s structurally separate from the exterior truss but is joined by oil dampers, which help reduce quake shaking.

“The anti-quake measures in this structure can reduce quake vibrations by 50 percent,” Hirotake Takanishi, PR manager for Tobu Tower Sky Tree, told me. “We’ve run simulations showing the Sky Tree will withstand an 8.0-magnitude earthquake, and can withstand even stronger ones, but we can’t say definitely what its upper limit is.”

More on the Tokyo Sky Tree’s link to the ancient past

Japan’s Yayoi Era spanned from 300BCE to 300CE.  Long-time Kyoto resident John Dougill recently traveled down to Kyushu and visited the reconstructed Yayoi settlement Yoshinogara.  In the wake of his trip he worked-up this excellent blog piece, article and photos, on Yoshinogara.  Read John’s piece on Yoshinogara and see his photo of a burial mound pillar, what archeologists suggest would be a precursor to the shinbashira.  Of course totemistic pillars are not unique to Japanese culture.  But incorporating them into pagodas, then modern buildings and towers, which dampens the effects of earthquakes is uniquely Japanese.  This shinbashira article, from The Economist, tells us that this unique pillar was but one of the dampening elements incorporated into ancient pagodas.  Also, it mentions that archeologists in Japan have found evidence of pillars antecedent to the shinbashira actually dating back to the Jomon Period, some 12,000 years ago.

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World’s Tallest Towers. Source: Wiki Commons.


Omiyage ・ おみやげ: Gifts & Gift Giving.


Local pickled veggies & other omiyage-friendly treats. Kurama. 2011.

=  for more on Kurama, a small town just north of Kyoto, click here  =

Every culture has its gift-giving traditions.  A customary Russian, Slavic, welcome brings bread and salt with it. Gift-giving is a big deal in Egypt, too, when visiting someone’s home. One could write a book on gift-giving customs around the world.  I’m sure it’s been done, in fact.

Gift giving — when visiting friends or relatives, when going on or returning from a business trip or vacation, when coming back from a day trip to this or that tourist spot or hiking trip or most any leisure activity — is huge in Japan.  These gifts are calledOmiyage” (Oh・mee・yah・gay or おみやげ ).  There’s a whole industry, an entire economic sector, dedicated to making and selling gifts for travelers.  One just can’t visit Kyoto from Tokyo, or Hiroshima from Osaka, or Kinosaki from Yokohama, etc., without bringing back omiyage from family and friends and, if it’s a business trip, office colleagues.  There’s simply no counterpart in North America or any other Western country that I know of.

In the West we certainly have (cheap, plastic, crappy) souvenir and gift shops in abundance at all our amusement parks, ball fields, tourist destinations and the like.  And when it occurs to the U.S., one can pick up a Chinese-made Washington, D.C. snow globe, or Las Vegas key chain, but it’s just not the same.

Here’s some of what one site says about omiyage:

Any time you go on a trip or go to an unusual event, it is expected that you will return bearing gifts. However, most of these gifts are not things to be kept and cherished, but rather food to be quickly consumed and forgotten – space is at a premium in Japan, and so the best gift is something that takes up little space, preferably none. Sure, there is the odd ear cleaner for your grandfather or mobile phone strap for your girlfriend, but since you need to have something for everybody in the class or office, the most common item is a box of small confectionaries. Ideally these sweets are a local specialty of whatever place you travelled to, or otherwise represent that place in some way, but often they are just cakes or chocolates that some company has put in a shiny box.

In fact, the actual contents of the gift don’t really matter. In a perfect example of “it’s the thought that counts,” everyone will happily accept your gift and exclaim that it is indeed very delicious. It doesn’t matter that even though you went to Hokkaido, you actually bought your omiyage at Narita Airport. The point is, you went away and returned bearing a box of over-priced mochi.  

Every major train station is jam-packed with omiyage stores and kiosks, most of which are filled with beautifully-wrapped boxes of sweets (but not nearly as sweet as Western sweets), baked goods, rice cakes, local specialties.    The convenience stories in those stations have omiyage sections.  Many middle-sized and minor stations have their omiyage kiosks as well.  Of course all the tourist spots — the temples and shrines, the nature trails, the hot springs, the museums — have their in-house or nearby omiyage stores and souvenir shops, not unlike their Western counterparts, but moreso.

Omiyage & Souvenir Central. Outside of the Silver Pavilion, Kyoto. 2010.

Business travelers to Japan, and those who welcome business travelers from Japan, are disadvantaged compared to their Japanese counterparts.  For the Japanese can just pick up as much or many omiyage as they want at the airport on their way out.  Again, American and Dutch and British and Mexican and Canadian, etc. airports have their souvenir shops, but just not of the kind, nature or volume of Japan’s omiyage shops and stands and kiosks.

Omiyage (おみやげ) Store. Kinosaki Onsen (hot spring・bathouse town). 2001.

=  For more on Kinosaki Onsen, click here  =

One business innovation I’ve just recently discovered, after I received a traditional, multi-wrapped box of wagashi snacks (see photos below) from a Japanese businessman visiting from New York, are the Japanese omiyage shops stationed and staged round the world.  These are for Japanese business-types who are themselves posted or on assignment in cities around the world who are called upon to travel to other places in the country they’re based in.  What are they to do for traditional Japanese omiyage?  Now there’s an answer:  go to the traditional Japanese omiyage store in New York, or London, pick up the appropriate number of boxed and wrapped treats, and present them accordingly when visiting Birmingham, Alabama, or Birmingham, England.  It’s like staging blankets, tents and food in those areas of there world where you know an earthquake or hurricane will likely someday hit.

The aforementioned “Omiyage-Abroad” company is Minamoto Kitchoan and by visiting its website you can get a good idea of traditional omiyage.

Omiyage Unwrapped: made in Japan, purchased in NYC, given in Birmingham, Alabama.


In the photo below you can see Sunday afternoon tourists emerging from the maw of omiyage and souvenir shops that line the street on the way up to Kiyomizu-dera (temple) in Kyoto.

Kiyomizuzaka (with Kiyomizudera immediately behind me). May 2010.

Here’s another view of one of the approaches to Kiyomizu-dera, which is stiff with restaurants, tea houses, omiyage and souvenir shops –

Sannenzaka (pedestrian street). Nearing Kiyomizu-dera. May 2010.

=  For more photos from Kyoto, click here and here and here  =

Of course the Duty Free Shops, this one at Narita Airport in Tokyo, are good for buying “less traditional” omiyage (cigarettes and liquor).  Liquor used to be a very common omiyage among international travelers, but not so much these days.

Duty Free Shop. Narita Airport (Tokyo). August 2012.

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Bringing Omiyage to Japan, tips:

   * There are no hard-and-fast rules.

   * The more “local” the gift (from your city, your area, your state/province) the better.

   * Food is good, but it will need to travel well and some foods (meats, sausages, for example) are subject to Customs confiscation.

   * The gift should be wrapped.  I’ve started packing wrapping paper, cheap scissors and tape in my checked baggage and just wrapping gifts in my hotel room upon arrival in Japan.

   * Local “coffee table” books — with nice, scenic, historical, culturally-informative photos and simple explanations about where you’re from always make good gifts.

   * I’ve bought sheets of interesting U.S. stamps, have had them inexpensively framed, and have given them as omiyage. Their flat, light, not subject to breaking (if packed well) and unique.

   *  You should offer the omiyage with both hands, and accept omiyage given to you in the same way.  It’s just polite.

   *  For lots more on traveling to Japan, especially for the business traveler, please check:  “So you’re going to Japan.

Tornado in Japan ・日本で竜巻: 1 killed, 40 injured.

Earlier today — May 6, 2012 — a tornado (竜巻 – Tatsumaki) tore through Tsukuba (つくば市), Japan. Here are a couple vids of it, via YouTube:



The Japan Times Online is now reporting 1 killed and 40 injured.  I’m sure this will be updated over the next 24-72 hours.  Excerpt from article:

“A teenage boy died, around 40 people were injured and up to 500 houses were damaged Sunday after apparent tornadoes hit Ibaraki and Tochigi prefectures, north of Tokyo, prompting Ibaraki Gov. Masaru Hashimoto to ask the Self-Defense Forces to be deployed for disaster relief. . . .”


Kyodo News Photo: Tornado Damage in Ibaraki Prefecture.

Tsukuba, home to Tsukuba Science City and Japan’s space agency, JAXA, is just Northeast of Tokyo.  It’s in Ibaraki Prefecture, which is also home to the city of Hitachi, Birmingham, Alabama’s Sister City.  Metro Birmingham’s been hit by tornadoes again and again over the past year or so.

Tsukuba, Japan.

I’ll update as I get more news…

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As LetsJapan.Wordpress.Com readers may know, we’ve some history with tornadoes here in the U.S. Deep South, too.  Much of that quite personal for me:

+  March 1, 2012:  Tornado rips family property, my mom’s safe.

+  April 27, 2011:  Tornado devastates my college town, lumbers within a few miles of my house.

This Week in the Less Conventional News (15 April update)

It’s rare that I do a “News Roundup,” but the past several days have produced stories from Asia that just beg to be shared.  Some important, some interesting, some disturbing. . .  Judge for yourself.

Cleaning Crew. Shibuya, Tokyo. 2007.


+  Police Investigate Ibaraki Prefecture Man Killed by Python

This one’s sad, and a bit eerie to me I’ve been with a python in Ibaraki Prefecture before.  It was under adult supervision at the Kamine Zoo in Hitachi (an Ibaraki Prefecture city).  In fact, zoo officials sort of insisted.

Ben & Jerry’s Opens Flagship Store in Tokyo

Excerpt:   “The Tokyo store includes digital menu boards in Japanese and English, to inform customers about the popular U.S. flavors, as well as those exclusive to Japan.”

+   Kyocera to Build Japan’s Largest Solar Power Plant in Kagoshima Prefecture

Excerpt:  “[The plant] will provide enough electricity for roughly 22,000 households annually and, if replacing power generated from fossil fuels, will offset around 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide. . . .”

Policeman in Schoolgirl Uniform Arrested for Flashing  (some cops are bad, others weird, some combine the two).

Excerpt:  “Reports say the 37-year-old man was dressed in a sailor-style schoolgirl uniform at the time of the offense.”



Taj Mahal Tourist. Agra. 2007.

+  Bollywood Start Shah Rukh Khan Detained Again at U.S. Airport:  India NOT Happy

Excerpt:  “The actor was detained for over two hours by immigration officials after he arrived from India in a private plane with a group that included Nita, wife of Reliance Industries Chairman Mukesh Ambani, to address students at Yale University.”

    +  Joy of Electrification Lights Up Homes in These Remote Tribal Hamlets

Excerpt:  “Like the radiance from the new solar powered compact fluorescent lights (CFL) in his home, M. Ganesamurthy’s face shines with glee. His dwelling amid the jungles of the Western Ghats near Papanasam has received power connection, something which was beyond the imagination of the tribal population.”  



Market in Anshan, China. 2005.

+  China Deletes 210,000 Online Posts Over “Rumors”  (let freedom ring).

Excerpt:  “‘Actions of creating and spreading rumours via the Internet disrupt public order and undermine social stability, and will never be tolerated,’ the report quoted Liu Zhengrong, an official with the State Internet Information Office, which controls the web, as saying.” (gad)

Shaolin Kung Fu Museum Celebrates Groundbreaking Ceremony  (from 2 weeks ago, but worth mentioning)

Excerpt:  The foundation of Shaolin Kung Fu Museum was laid Thursday in Shaolin Tagou Kung Fu School, three kilometers northeast away from Shaolin Temple in central China’s Henan province.



O.K., here’s a weird & creepy bonus:  North Korea’s (the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s) OFFICIAL website.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll want to vomit when you get done browsing the site of this Nightmare Disneyland.

“The DPRK is the Juche-oriented socialist state which embodies the idea and leadership of Comrade Kim II Sung, the founder of the Republic and the father of socialist Korea.”

Sure.  Whatever.

Here’s a little vid I made about 18 months ago, not long before new crazed, creepy dictator, Kim Jong-Un took over after his dad, Kim Jong-Il, kicked the dictatorial bucket.  Jong-Un was “heir apparent,” then.  Now he’s just Dynastic Dictator No. 3.

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