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ARTS&CULTURE November 22, 2018

Japan’s Demographic Time Bomb

Japan's Demographic
Photo by Freedom II Andres via Flickr

Underlying Japan’s placid, efficient and affluent surface are some hard realities that do not bode well for the nation in the long run. The economic crisis of the 1990s, combined with the relentless rise of China, has shaken Japan’s dominant economic position in Asia. The economy remains strong, relative to many; but Japan has the largest government debt in the world, and growth remains low.

But a factor that worries most Japanese is connected to economics, but is more fundamental still: The Japanese have one of the lowest birthrates in the world. The country’s population has already begun a decline from its 2008 peak of 128 million, and currently (2018) sits at roughly 126 million. Additionally, the Japanese population is aging rapidly, with the highest life expectancy rate in the world, at nearly 84 years.

Japan’s Demographic Time Bomb baby
Photo by tenaciousme via Flickr

Current estimates are that the population of Japan will continue to fall, plunging to 87 million by 2060, at which point the elderly (those 65 years and older) will comprise 40% of the population (it is currently 28%).

This is potentially catastrophic for a country built on the modern economic model, with its focus on perpetual growth and ever-growing consumption, each generation ultimately supporting the aging generation that came before it. But the Japanese seem at a loss as to what to do about it. The government has taken to offering cash payments for each child produced, but the payments would do nothing to defray the actual costs of raising a child.

Japan’s Demographic Debt
Photo by Richard West

Other schemes have been suggested, but the problem seems to be a matter of psychology as much as of economics. Shaken confidence after the so-called “Bubble Economy” burst in 1991, followed by decades of stagnant economic growth, have been blamed. The rising costs of starting a family have hindered the all-important family and household formation that power modern economies. And academic pressures on the young have dampened the enthusiasm of a whole generation to pursue careers.

But slowing population growth is a common issue in most of the developed world; Japan seems uniquely stymied. This impasse has come to be epitomized in the popular imagination by the distinctive problem of the hikikomori. Literally meaning “pulling inward,” the hikikomori are younger people (now up to 40 years old) who have dropped out of society and decided not to grow up. Avoiding jobs, homeownership, romantic relationships and raising children, the hikikomori stay with their parents through their twenties and even into their thirties, surfing the Internet in the safety of their childhood bedrooms, and otherwise refusing to engage with the adult world.

Rough estimates are that anywhere from a half million to one million hikikomori have withdrawn from society, which in a nation Japan’s size is a slow-moving disaster. Ask any Japanese, and many will have stories of friends’ children, or even their own, who are hikikomori, and who lack the basic skills to survive in the real world – especially once their parents die.

In addition to this, add the pressures of caring for the increasing numbers of the elderly, especially since the Japanese tend to live longer than people of other countries, and many of whom are barely scraping by financially. For a country of Japan’s social self-consciousness, and community-mindedness, the social safety net is relatively thin – and fraying. An ongoing problem is Japan’s enormous national debt, which, at roughly 236% of GDP, is the largest in the world, according to the IMF.

Japan’s Demographic Time Bomb Aging
Photo by hans-johnson via Flickr

This declining population is compounded by the increasing urbanization that is also common around the world, but especially acute in Japan. Tokyo has long been the largest conurbation in the world, at 35 million people, nearly a third of the Japanese population. In 1950, 53 percent of Japan’s population lived in urban areas; by 2014, 93 percent did. But the impact of this urbanization on Japan’s smaller cities and villages is profound, leaving only the elderly to do farm work in towns that younger people abandoned when they moved to the cities. Hundreds of municipalities in Japan are in the process of depopulating, becoming ghost towns.

Photo by halfrain via Flickr

Exacerbating all of this is Japan’s characteristically closed nature. One concrete way in which isolation continues to impact the country is in its resistance to immigration, one way that countries like The United States, Canada and the United Kingdom continue to grow. Nearly two-thirds of Japanese in a recent poll still resist the notion of allowing foreigners to become Japanese citizens. Even those whose families have been in Japan for generations – ethnic Koreans and Chinese – are set apart as different, not real Japanese. And if the Japanese aren’t making enough new “real” Japanese, then Japan’s fate is not just uncertain: It is dire.

Japan’s character has long been defined by its separateness, its uniqueness, and its self-conscious desire to hang on to its identity; it has done so with remarkable success. And the resourcefulness of the Japanese is undeniable: History teaches us to never underestimate what the Japanese can do when they put their collective effort into it. But the demographic drop is a challenge to match any the Japanese have faced before.

Without course corrections that could strike at the very heart of Japanese identity, the country is on the path to becoming a museum piece, and the elements of its culture, which so beguile the world, will become frozen in amber, beautiful but lifeless.

By David Watts Barton

TRAVEL November 8, 2018

Winter in Japan: Things to Do and Everything Else You Need to Know

Winter in Japan often goes overlooked by visitors due to the hype surrounding the spring cherry blossom season and vibrant foliage of autumn. Winter, however, provides an equally incredible Japanese experience where you can witness numerous exciting events and activities that are only offered at this time of year.

Japan’s winter landscapes are magical and fewer crowds mean better enjoyment of key landmarks and attractions. From exciting snow festivals to adventurous winter sports, winter in Japan offers incredible experiences that are not to be missed. Let us look at the many things on offer during the winter season and other things you should know when visiting Japan this time of year.


Mount Fuji - Fujiyoshida, Japan - Travel photography
Photo by Giuseppe Milo via Flickr

From the northern island of Hokkaido to Okinawa in the south, Japan’s winter weather can be drastically different depending on where you are. Winter runs from December through February, with the northern regions and western coast along the Sea of Japan seeing the coldest temperatures and heaviest snowfall. The eastern coast along the Pacific, as well as the south, tends to stay dry, with sunny days that rarely drop below freezing. Japan’s larger cities such as Tokyo and Osaka enjoy mild winters with little snowfall. In addition to colder weather, expect shorter days throughout the winter, with sunset occurring around 4:30-5:30pm. February is the peak time for enjoying winter sports and the beautiful winter landscape.


Japan offers visa exemptions for 68 countries including the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. This allows for short stays of up to 90 days for tourism purposes or visiting friends and family.


Otaru Canal
Photo by Reginald Pentinio via Flickr

Traveling to Japan during the winter season equates to far less crowds than are experienced during the three other seasons. The spring hanami, summer holidays, and autumn koyo attract most of the attention from domestic and international tourists. A winter visit allows you to take in most of Japan’s notable sights and attractions with fewer crowds and lines. However, it should be noted that the period around New Year’s is considered one of the busiest travel periods both for domestic and international travelers within Japan. You can expect intense travel activity occurring from December 29 to January 4 when many travelers are visiting family or enjoying time off. Be sure to also check opening times for museums, restaurants, stores, and attractions, as many places may be closed over the holidays.

Things To Do:

Winter Sports

Snowboarding in Nagano
Photo by sean via Flickr

The town of Niseko on Hokkaido Island is home to Japan’s finest skiing and snowboarding. Enjoy four interlinked ski resorts within the Niseko United including Grand Hirafu, An’nupuri, Niseko Village, and Hanazono. The ski season runs from late November through April where you will enjoy great lift systems and well-tended slopes. Other great locations for winter sports include Myoko Kogen, Naeba, Kagura, and Tazawako Those not up for downhill skiing can enjoy snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and ice skating at numerous locations around the country.

Onsen Hot Springs

Shiretoko Kamuiwakka Onsen
Photo by thefriendlyuser via Flickr

Nothing beats taking the chill off winter like a long soak in Japan’s soothing nutrient-rich hot spring baths. Popular throughout Japan, these natural outdoor hot springs can be found in every prefecture. Gunma Prefecture offers the famous onsen resorts of Kusatsu while Takaragawa onsen offers unisex baths where you can enjoy a session with your partner or family members. Check out the Manza Onsen in the Kantō region, Kamuiwakka onsen in Hokkaido, or the many onsen baths of Beppu on the island of Kyushu in the south.

Sapporo Snow Festival

Light show
Photo by Danielle Olson via Flickr

Japan’s most celebrated winter festival, the Sapporo Snow Festival takes place in Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido. Be awestruck by incredible artistic masterpieces crafted from snow and ice that depict things such as anime characters, dinosaurs, famous landmarks, and dragons. In addition to the massive snow sculptures that are created by teams from all around the world, visitors can enjoy sledding, snow mazes, ice bars, music, and regional food. The event takes place in February each year.

Winter Wildlife Experiences

Onsen Day
Photo by azkin via Flickr

Humans aren’t the only ones to enjoy a relaxing onsen bath in winter. Each year, visitors flock to Nagano prefecture to witness the snow monkeys, or Japanese macaques, soak in the winter onsen waters of Jigokudani Yaen-koen. The monkeys are present here year round, but the winter landscape provides the best setting for photography. Another incredible winter wildlife experience is witnessing the red-crowned cranes. The cranes winter in the Tsurui-Ito Tancho Sanctuary, where they perform their elegant mating rituals that are fascinating to watch and capture on camera.

Winter Illuminations

Photo by Marufish via Flickr

Japan’s winters may be lacking the pink cherry blossoms of spring and the red and yellow leaves of autumn, but there is no lack of color thanks to the many winter illuminations that can be found across the country. Large displays of fairy lights can be witnessed in all the major cities including Tokyo and Osaka, as well as smaller towns. Notable displays include Tokyo’s Marunouchi illuminations, Osaka’s Midosuji illuminations, and the famous Kobe Luminarie. The dazzling light displays often begin in November and run through the holidays. Some even extend into late winter.

Yuki-no-Otani Snow Wall

Snow-wall (yuki no otani) at Murodo Tateyama
Phot by Ankur P via Flickr

Located in the Toyama prefecture, visitors to the Tateyama Murodo plateau can walk among towering walls of 20m tall snow walls created by snow removal vehicles clearing the Alpine Route roadway. The massive 500m long snow wall is formed late in the season and extends into spring, with a side of the road being designated for pedestrians to safely walk and admire the walls.

ARTS&CULTURE October 19, 2018

The Great Japanese Empire, 1868-1947

world war two

The period after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 is known as the beginning of modernization in Japan; but what occurred during that period went well beyond men adopting Western-style suits and the introduction of streetcars and factories. That’s because many of those factories also quickly went to work building weapons of war, and in the years between 1868 and the attack by the Japanese on the United States territory of Hawaii in 1941, Japan went from a closed, feudal country to a world power the Japanese called Dai Nippon Teikoku: The Great Japanese Empire.

Japan’s meteoric rise stunned the dominant Western powers (the British, French, German, Russian, Dutch and Americans) that had established global dominance and had been carving up the rest of the world, often fiercely competing for territory, resources and influence. Japan, having just come out of its isolation, quickly realized that the only way it would survive in such shark-infested waters was to become a shark itself.

Thus, from the Japanese historical perspective, the four years we know as World War II were merely the climax of several decades of conflict between Japan and China, Japan and Korea, Japan and Russia, and even Japan and its eventual ally, Germany.

The newly-modern country began creating a strong, outward-facing military soon after the Meiji Restoration began in 1868. In 1894, with what the Japanese conceived as a defensive measure to shore up a vulnerable neighboring peninsula, Japan’s military invaded Korea. This became known to history as the First Sino-Japanese War, since it was actually an attack on Chinese (Sino) dominance in the Korean peninsula. When Japan’s modern military defeated China’s in less than nine months, the humiliation upended the Asian power structure, and among other things, set China on a path to revolution and civil war in the 20th century.

After that first war, and its unsatisfactory treaties, Japan became more aggressive, which led eventually to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. That second war was waged over (and in and around) Korea and northeastern China, which Russia itself had invaded in 1900, using the pretext of defeating the so-called “Yellow Peril” of Japan. But Japan’s preemptive 1904 attack on the Russians led quickly to a second victory, making Japan the first Asian nation in modern times to defeat a Western power. By 1910, Japan had fully occupied Korea, and the seeds of the Great Japanese Empire had been established. It would endure and expand for the next 37 years.

Image from page 290 of "New geographies" (1910)

Subsequent conflicts would engage these same states, including newly-powerful Japan, for the next few decades. Japan entered World War I even before the United States, allied with Britain and France against Germany, and many of its warships (and navy) fought as far away from Japan as the Mediterranean. Japan eventually made common cause with its old rival Russia as well. In its home sphere, Japan took control of key Pacific islands until then claimed by Germany: the Caroline, Marshall and Mariana Islands. Japan held these islands until the U.S. took them toward the end of World War II.

The decade after World War I had ended in 1918 was, in Japan as in the Western democracies, a time of relative peace and economic boom times. The vote was expanded, two political parties vied for power, and the Japanese increasingly enjoyed their new position in the world. But the worldwide economic crash at the end of the Twenties came to Japan as well, and Japan entered the Thirties with its military once again politically-empowered. By mid-decade, these conservative military forces had come to envision the recreation of the old shogunate, ruled by the military, and driven by a nationalism that comported nicely with the National Socialism growing in Germany and fascism in Italy.

Adding to that was an old problem the Japanese had long faced: A shortage of raw materials. Now that it was an industrial power, its access to oil, iron and rubber meant it had to buy them from nearby China, eastern Russia and far-away South East Asia. Following the template laid out by the expansionist Western powers, Japan decided to simply take what it needed.

To this end, in 1931, at the start of the Great Depression, Japan launched an invasion of China’s three northeastern provinces, north of Korea. Japan dubbed the conquered territory Manchuria (Manchukuo), after the Manchus who originated there, and installed a puppet regime. A similar puppet state followed in adjacent Inner Mongolia in 1936, and in 1937 Japanese troops entered China proper, taking advantage of the civil war between Mao Zedong’s Communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists.

Thus began what would come to be called the Second Sino-Japanese War, vastly larger than the first, which would, with time, morph into the more familiar conflict known as World War II. Japan’s rapid expansion into British Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore, as well as the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia), would continue across Asia into the 1940s – eventually leading to total defeat in 1945.

By David Watts Barton

TRAVEL October 12, 2018

Autumn in Japan: Things to Do and Everything Else You Need To Know

autumn in Japan falls
Photo by Syuzo Tsushima via Flickr

Japan offers four distinct seasons and it could be argued that autumn is the perfect season to fall in love with the country. While it may lack the famous cherry blossoms of the spring hanami season, it provides just as much vibrant color in the form of autumn foliage. Cooler weather makes hiking more comfortable and there is also the benefit of fewer tourist crowds as well as lively festivals and events to experience.

Come along as we explore just some of the many things to do in Japan during the autumn season as well as other helpful information regarding visiting the country during this time of year.



Photo by Marufish via Flickr

The weather in Japan during autumn varies considerably depending on the month. September can still see warm summer-like temperatures but cooler weather with chilly nights usually ushers in by the time November rolls around. Of course, Northern Japan including the regions of Hokkaido and Tohoku will see colder temperatures earlier than Southern Japan. You can expect more rainfall early on during autumn in the months of September and October. It is also important to note that part of the typhoon season falls during the autumn months, with September bringing the highest possibility.



Japan offers visa exemptions for 68 countries including the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. This allows for short stays of up to 90 days for tourism purposes or visiting friends and family.



 Autumn In Japan Calm Chaos
Photo by Reginald Pentinio via Flickr

Although crowds from spring and summer will begin to thin out as the autumn shoulder season kicks in, it is still wise to book accommodation in advance due to the popularity of autumn foliage viewing. There are also several public holidays to be aware of such as Health-Sports Day in October as well as Culture Day and Labour Thanksgiving Day in November. This often results in sightseeing spots becoming more popular with domestic tourism and hotels may book out early.


Things to Do:


Autumn Foliage Viewing

Tinted autumnal leaves / 紅葉(こうよう)
Photo by TANAKA Juuyoh via Flickr

One of the greatest highlights of autumn in Japan is the colorful fall foliage. Known as koyo, the leaves begin changing color around late September to early October in Northern Japan as well as higher elevations and usually peak around mid to late November for cities like Kyoto, Tokyo, and Hiroshima. Tokyo’s annual Meiji Jingu Gaien Ginkgo Festival takes place around mid-November to celebrate the golden ginkgo trees where you can enjoy the colors of autumn among dozens of food vendors. Other great Tokyo locations for fall foliage include Rikugi Garden and Ueno Park. Check out Tofukuji Temple as well as Eikando Temple in Kyoto and don’t forget about great national parks such as Oze and Daisetsuzan for more private viewing experiences. Of course, the Fuji Five Lakes region also offers incredible fall foliage with Mount Fuji as a backdrop.


Taimatsu Akashi Fire Festival

One of Japan’s three major fire festivals, the Taimatsu Akashi has been held annually for more than 400 years. Giant torches are carried to the summit of Mount Gorozan where come nightfall they are lit to the sound of taiko drums. The entire mountain looks to be ablaze as those lost in early historical battles and recent earthquakes are honored.


Tokyo Game Show

TOKYO GAME SHOW 2013_035 Autumn in Japan

This popular video game expo takes place in late September and features the latest releases from Japanese game makers as well as selected international companies. The first two days of the event are reserved for industry and press only but days three and four are open to the public. The event is usually very crowded and playing the newest games requires queuing early. See the latest games and gaming equipment from companies like Namco Bandai, Capcom, and Sony as you are surrounded by thousands of cosplayers dressed in all kinds of crazy outfits.


Nagasaki Kunchi Festival

Dragon-snake dance at Nagasaki Kunchi festival
Photo by lensonjapan via Flickr

Nagasaki’s most notable annual event, the Kunchi Festival takes place every October. Centered around Suwa Shrine, Otabisho, Yasaka Shrine, and Kokaido, visitors can enjoy great food and traditional Japanese dance performances which include dragon dances and large floats. You will notice a bit of Chinese and Dutch culture thrown into this centuries-old festival as well. Tickets for paid seating to this 3-day event sell out quickly and can be difficult for non-Japanese speaking tourists to purchase. There are, however, numerous areas where you can catch some of the action without a ticket if you can navigate the crowds.


Food Festivals

Autumn in Japan beer fest 2018.
Photo by MIKI Yoshihito via Flickr

Autumn is a great time for food lovers to visit Japan. Numerous food festivals offer delicious traditional Japanese cuisine across the country. Visit Tokyo’s Komazawa Olympic Park in October for the annual Ramen Show where you can sample different varieties of ramen from around Japan. Check out Hokkaido’s Sapporo Autumn Fest to find Japanese cuisine prepared by chefs of local popular restaurants in addition to great wine, craft beer, and sake. Crowds gather around Odori Park to not only sample delicious Hokkaido food, but also to learn what goes into creating such dishes. Enjoy sampling items such as Hokkaido ramen, soba, sea urchins, and scallops.


Kochia Carnival

Photo by hirohiroslope via Flickr

Every autumn, the Hitachi Seaside Park becomes a colorful field of pinkish-red kochia. Around 30,000 pom-pom looking Kochia plants are planted each summer on Miharashi Hill and gradually they turn from green to a vibrant reddish hue as autumn arrives. They are joined by pink and white cosmos flowers. Come spring, the fields become draped in blue nemophila flowers. Enjoy music and Japanese cultural experiences during this month-long celebration that takes place from mid-September to mid-October.

ARTS&CULTURE September 20, 2018

Sento Baths: The Everyday Onsen

Modern sento at Takayama.jpg
By sanmaiFlickr: Modern sento at Takayama, CC BY 2.0, Link

The love of a hot bath has been a part of Japanese culture for centuries, in part because of the volcanic nature of the archipelago, which often means hot springs, also in part because of the Japanese love of communal activities, and ultimately because, what’s not to like? It’s a hot bath!

But as with many activities, the Japanese have refined the taking of hot baths into something approaching a ritual, and visiting Japan without visiting an onsen, or natural hot spring, is to have an incomplete visit to the country. We have addressed the rituals and manners of the onsen elsewhere on, but there is another option that is more common, and more accessible – and considerably cheaper – than the traditional onsen.

The sento is a public bath akin to the hammam in the Middle East, where local people can go get a good bath for a reasonable price, usually around 450 yen, and half or less for children. And although they have been decreasing in number as more and more homes have their own baths since the 1970s, a visit to a sento is still enjoyed for its communal aspects, and a visitor would be wise to search out this simple, everyday pleasure.

By Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

With more than a thousand in Tokyo alone, the typical sento is tucked away in a residential district or small commercial area and is simple and utilitarian, as one might expect. Their layout is often similar, with high ceilings, an entry area with an attendant’s desk known as a bandai and two areas, separated by a relatively low (1.5 meters) wall, for men and for women. Sento feature many of the same items seen in a typical gym or bathhouse anywhere: A scale, a toilet, a changing area with lockers, some beverages and in many cases, beds for babies (but only on the women’s side). Joining these are typical Japanese items such as short stools and wooden buckets for bathing before entering the bath itself.

This last is an important aspect of any visit to a Japanese sento, onsen or even private home: Bathe first! This makes sense in any public bath, but the Japanese are adamant about it, even at home: One must already be clean when one enters the bath, which is for relaxation, not washing.

Public Domain, Link

The roots of the sento are in religious ritual bathing, which goes back as far as India, where bathing in Hindu temples was a rite of spiritual purification as much as a hygienic activity. As with much Asian culture, it migrated with Buddhism to China, Korea and then Japan, though surely anyone lucky enough to have a hot spring nearby didn’t need Chinese Buddhists to tell them that bathing in it was a good idea!

Nevertheless, it was in Buddhist temples that bathing got a foothold in Japan, more than a thousand years ago, during the Nara period, where they were first used only by monks and priests. But as time passed, more and more people were allowed to use them, and the first commercial sento is said to have been opened in the 13th century, in Kamakura. But it wasn’t until the Edo period of the 19th century that yuya (hot water shops) became common.

Japanese Baths.jpg
By Browne, George Waldo, 1851-1930 – Japan : the place and the people, Public Domain, Link

These days, most sento are chlorinated for health reasons, another way in which they are distinguished from onsen, which feature natural hot spring, of mineral-infused water, where additional chemicals are generally frowned upon. But sento are more practical institutions, and keeping out bacterial is a high priority when so many people use the water.

As with onsen, people with tattoos are generally barred from using the facilities, because of the long association by the Japanese of tattoos with gangsters, or yakusa. Visitors are often cut some slack in Japan, however, and those with subtle tattoos will probably have no problem. But if your tattoos can easily be covered with a bandage of some sort, you may feel less self-conscious about breaking this cultural taboo.

Because the genders are separated, most sento are entered naked, and wearing a bathing suit may strike the Japanese as odd. But children are allowed into the opposite sex’s bathing area generally until the age of eight, though some places still allow girls into the men’s until they are 13!

That said, women were long employed by sento to scrub men’s backs and otherwise serve them, and many sento were for a time associated with prostitution, though laws have long been established to discourage the commercial interaction of male customers and what were long called yuna (hot water women). This aspect was gradually shut down with the arrival of Admiral Perry and the Americans in the late 1800s, and has continued to be discouraged into modern times.

That said, by far most sento are neighborhood establishments, casual, inexpensive, utilitarian and made for the whole family, and should not be missed.

By David Watts Barton

FOOD&DRINK, KYOTO September 13, 2018

Must Eats in Kyoto

Vegetarian meal at Buddhist temple
Photo by Andrea Schaffer via Flickr

Once Japan’s Imperial capital, Kyoto is known for its temples, shrines, and beautiful natural landscapes. The city also presents a rich culinary history, offering several famous dining styles, local dishes, and confectionaries to tempt your taste buds. Japanese food is very regional, with each region having its own specialty dishes and ingredients.

Follow this guide to the most delicious high-quality must eats in Kyoto and where to try them.

Shojin Ryori

Must eats
Photo by S. via Flickr

Shojin Ryori consists of a collection of dishes made without animal products, making it the perfect option for vegetarians or vegans. Full of flavor, the dishes of Shojin Ryori usually incorporate tofu, natto, and seasonal vegetables. A typical meal usually includes three small side dishes, soup, and rice. The idea is to bring balance to the body by choosing ingredients to match the seasons along with selecting 5 colors and 5 flavors. Flavors are enhanced by using seasonings such as soy sauce, sake, or mirin. The best place to enjoy Shojin Ryori is within the restaurants of Buddhist temples.



Yudofu must eats in Kyoto
Photo by City Foodsters via Flickr

A popular comfort food during the winter months, yudofu is a very simple dish that is very healthy. Known as “hot tofu”, the dish has but just a few ingredients of which include tofu, dashi kombu (Japanese stock using kelp), and water. Add flavor to the meal by adding sauces such as soy sauce, ponzu vinegar, or sesame sauce. The dish makes a great appetizer or meal if you’re looking for something light. Sample this great dish in the popular tofu restaurant Yudofu Sagano in Western Kyoto.



must eats in Kyoto Sesame Yatsuhashi
Photo by Monte Bianco5 via Flickr

Those with a strong sweet tooth will want to sample yatsuhashi. This popular sweet treat is made with glutinous rice flour, sugar, and cinnamon. You can try it three ways: baked, unbaked, and unbaked with red bean paste. The unbaked version is known as nama yatsuhashi, raw triangles of goodness which can be eaten plain or filled with bean paste. The baked variety looks like curved rectangular crackers or biscuits and usually has an intense cinnamon taste. You can also find yatsuhashi in flavors such as chocolate, strawberry, banana, and green tea. Look for this treat is souvenir stores and airport gift shops.



must eats in Kyoto Yuba Twists
Photo by Máirín via Flickr

Yuba is made from boiled soymilk. The skin that is created when the soymilk boils away is dried to create this “tofu skin”. A bit chewier than tofu, yuba doesn’t have that much flavor on its own and therefore is best experienced with soy sauce, wasabi, ginger, or soup. Yuba is said to have come to Japan from China around 1200 years ago, with the first experienced in Kyoto. You can try yuba raw like sashimi or dried in the form of yuba sticks or twists. Yuba is high in protein and iron with little cholesterol. Great restaurants to try yuba are Toyouke Jaya and Gyatei.


Matcha Desserts

must eats in Kyoto Matcha Cream Puff
Photo by Kirinohana via Flickr

Kyoto is well known for its matcha desserts which are made from finely ground powder of specially grown and processed green tea leaves. Kyoto’s “Uji matcha” is considered a specialty and one of the finest examples of Japanese green tea. Kyoto offers numerous matcha cafes serving up delicious and healthy desserts using matcha. Desserts include matcha macaroons, shakes, matcha cake rolls, emerald pecan brownies, matcha tiramisu, matcha custard, and matcha parfait. Head to places like Nakamura Tokichi Honten and Charyo Tsujiri to sample some of these tasty treats.


Nishin Soba

must eats in Kyoto SOBA
Photo by Toshihiro Oimatsu via Flickr

Soba is thin noodles made from buckwheat flour. Kyoto’s clean pure waters produce some of the finest soba and a popular dish to try in Kyoto is nishin soba. Nishin soba consists of sweet and tender herring that is presented over a tangle of soba noodles. The herring is cooked in soy sauce and sugar and its addition to soba noodles became popular in 19th century Kyoto. If you aren’t into herring, you can also enjoy soba with toppings like tempura, duck, or curry. Check out one of Kyoto’s oldest soba restaurants, Matsuba Soba, for great tasting nishin soba.

Which one of these must eats in Kyoto sounds most appetizing to you?

ARTS&CULTURE August 22, 2018

The Individual and the Group In Japan

There is an old saying in Japanese which translates as “The nail that protrudes will be hammered down,” and it says much about the place of the individual in Japan’s group-oriented society.

All cultures must balance the often-conflicting needs of the individual to be happy, and of the society to function. But in Japan, historically and even up to the modern age, that balance more often favors society over the individual.

A recent court case in Osaka made this point in a stark, almost ridiculous fashion: A young woman sued her school because she, with her naturally dark brown hair, was harassed and intimidated by school authorities into dyeing her hair black to match her fellow students’ hair.

Imperial Palace, Tokyo
Photo by John Gillespie via Flickr

Now, social conformity is the rule in most traditional societies, where ostracism is the ultimate punishment; but Japan has all the appearances of a modern country, and the Japanese are most certainly a collection of unique individuals. Singular creatives like Yayoi Kusama and Haruki Murakami and many others make that abundantly clear. But such artists are also the exceptions that prove the rule: The “hammer” comes down with swift efficiency on average Japanese who step too far away from the culture’s well-established norms.

There are several reasons for this, which are rooted in Japan’s long geographic and cultural isolation, its racial homogeneity and its legendarily-efficient productivity, and they are not without positive effects: Japan is a unique, well-integrated and generally highly-functioning society that provides its people a sense of national self that is rare in the modern, rapidly-shifting world.

Japan’s isolation, at first geographic and then by decree, led to it evolving as a separate, homogenous culture. The Japanese see themselves as a nation apart even now, and there are enormous benefits this – the Japanese know who they are. But the cost has been that, in order to be truly Japanese, one must observe Japanese norms, and these are not optional. They are also ruthlessly enforced by the people themselves.

Photo by Janko Luin via Flickr

There are other reasons: Japan’s economy, before the post-War industrial “miracle,” was based on rice farming, which requires group efforts that an individual, or even an individual family, could scarcely manage alone. The creation of rice paddies, the management of water, the planting, harvesting and processing of rice are fundamentally group activities, and in order to make that work, group cohesion became essential to group success – that is, survival.

The upshot was that any individual who decided that he didn’t need to work with the group was very quickly disabused of that notion. The “rugged individualism” so admired by many in the West was anathema to the Japanese – and it still is.

It is telling that, in addition to the very clear proverb of the nail, there was no equivalent of the word for “individual” in Japanese prior to the opening to the West in the Meiji Restoration of the late 19th century. The words shakai (society) and kojin (individual) appeared only as translations of English words when these concepts were introduced. Until then, they had simply not been necessary.

What the Japanese had instead was the word mura, from the verb mureru, which means “to flock together,” as birds – and who thinks of birds as individuals? Thus, this “flock” of people were bound by something called seken, which means society, or more accurately, “the power of public opinion,” which still holds enormous sway over the members of the flock.

This worked fairly well for the society as long as it developed in isolation, and the strict social hierarchy of Japan’s medieval period – which ended with the Meiji Restoration in 1868 – kept everyone in place. But the industrialization and modernization that followed, then accelerated since the end of the Second World War, and has been a byproduct of the rapid globalization of the Information Age, has thrown Japanese society into conflict, with itself as well as the modern world.

Thus, trends such as the rise of divorce, the decline of family formation and other indicators of the change from collectivism to individualism – which has affected most cultures around the world – has been particularly stark in Japan. The Japanese are still acculturated to prefer group activities, group identities and to be suspicious of any nail that sticks up too far above the others.

Dancing Down the Street
Photo by Yiannis Theologos Michellis via Flickr

Combine this with the fundamental concept of wa, or harmony – which the Japanese go to great lengths to maintain, and which will be covered in another post – and one can see that even in the modern world, the position of the individual is still subject to the group.

Thus, the need for the hammer has, if anything, increased, even as it has been challenged by school girls who want to retain their natural hair color. The girl’s court case, filed in October 2017, is still pending.

By David Watts Barton

ARTS&CULTURE August 9, 2018

Traditional Japanese Wedding Dresses (Shinto style)

Photo by Marco Mastrojanni via Flickr

You will find four major styles of wedding celebrated in Japan including Shinto, Christian, Buddist, and non-religious. In the past, it was the Shinto style wedding that dominated Japan. This style of wedding became popular in the early 20th century before it was replaced by the more westernized Christian “White Wedding” in the late 1990s. Even though Christians make up about only 1 percent of Japan’s population, Japan has adopted the fancy flowing white gowns, exchanging of rings, bouquet toss, taking honeymoons, and more.

While Christian-style weddings may now be the preferred type of ceremony in Japan, accounting for over two-thirds of unions, let us take a deeper look into the elaborate Japanese wedding dresses of the more traditional Shinto style wedding. Shinto style weddings involve several wedding dress changes throughout the celebration and we will discuss outfits worn by both the bride and groom. It is a beautiful tradition that is sadly vanishing from Japanese culture, not only due to Christian style weddings, but also because Japanese marriages have dropped to record lows in recent years.


The Shiromuku

Photo by gwaar via Flickr

Let us start off with the bride. For Shinto weddings, brides typically start by wearing an ensemble known as a shiromuku. This mostly white ensemble is worn during the wedding ceremony and signifies pureness, cleanliness, and virginity. Being dressed in white is also symbolic of the bride being a blank canvas for accepting her new husband’s ideas and values.

The shiromuku consists of a white furisode kimono that has a trailing hem called a kakeshita. Over this, a maru or fukuro obi (broad sash) is worn around the waist and is secured by a scarf-like obi-age and a rope known as an Obi-jime. Next a second robe-like kimono known as an uchikake is put over all this.

Footwear consists of tabi socks and zōri sandals and accessories include a hakoseko purse, sensu folding fan, and sometimes a kaiken knife (from the age of the samurai). While western brides often wear veils, the shiromuku often consists of wearing a large white hood known as a wataboshi. This is said to hide the bad spirits that exist in a woman’s long hair as well as making the bride’s face only visible to her husband. Other brides may choose to wear a tsunokakushi hat over their shimada wig which is adorned with kanzashi hair ornaments. Wigs are styled in the Edo period shimada style. Some brides may wear the wataboshi during the ceremony and then switch to the tsunokakushi for the reception.

While most of the shiromuku ensemble may be white, the kimonos as well as the wataboshi and bows may be lined in vivid red.


The Iro-uchikake

Under the cherry blossoms
Photo by gwaar via Flickr

After the wedding ceremony, brides get ready for the reception by changing into a much more colorful iro-uchikake. The iro-uchikake is most often bright red but may also be gold or more modern colors such as deep purple or turquoise. The garment often features beautiful designs consisting of cherry blossoms, cranes, or other Japanese motifs. The symbols chosen often are meant for the purpose of bringing good luck or fortune.



Brides looking for a little less formal dress often opt for a hikifurisode. It is a classic kind of bridal kimono that may simply be worn at the wedding reception. The hikifurisode is generally an o-furisode which has a longer sleeve length. It is often worn with a small trail and without a fold at hip-height. Brides choosing to wear a hikifurisode often get to showcase their own individual style a bit more by adding their favorite accessories. While many brides use the hikifurisode as a third change of clothes during the wedding, some may choose it as their sole dress since it is lighter weight and often much more inexpensive than the other two more formal choices.


Mon-tsuki Haori Hakama

Groom Shinto Wedding Attire
Photo by jpellgen (@1179_jp) via Flickr

While the bride’s attire may get the most attention, the groom doesn’t escape having to dress up. Although the groom isn’t expected to go through the often multiple costume changes the bride must endure, they do dress up in what is known as a montsuki haori hakama. This consists of a traditional formal kimono known as a mon-tsuki that is adorned with family crests, a pair of striped hakama trousers, and a haori overcoat.

Much like the suits or tuxedos worn by western grooms, the formal kimonos worn during Shinto style weddings lack color. They are often black or grey with white family crests. This type of garment is worn not only by the groom but also by many male wedding guests.

ARTS&CULTURE July 20, 2018

How Baseball Came to Japan (and Became Japanese)

Photo by takako tominaga via Flickr

Though one might naturally assume that baseball came to Japan during the U.S. occupation after World War II, this quintessential American sport was actually one of Japan’s earliest Western imports, during the Meiji Restoration, having arrived in the archipelago in 1872. Brought by an American, the sport was quickly adopted, and adapted, by the Japanese, and thus has a history in Japan nearly as long as its history in its home country.

Which is not to say that the Japanese play the sport the same way as Americans – or at least, with the same attitude. While Americans celebrate the home run hitters and fastball pitchers who rise above their peers to become baseball stars, and individual stats are followed obsessively by fans, the Japanese, true to their cultural heritage, make team cohesion and harmony the focus. As with many other imports, the Japanese have made baseball – now besuboru (bay-sue-boe-rue) – into something distinctly Japanese.

The Japanese National Tourism Organization once noted that besuboru (also known in Japan as yakyu, a combination of the characters for “field” and “ball”) is so familiar to the Japanese that some are surprised when they hear that it started in the United States.

Interaction between Japanese and American teams has been a feature of Japanese besuboru from the start, culminating in 1934, when an American All-Star team that included Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth and Lefty Gomez visited Japan to play 16 exhibition games against the All-Nippon Stars, a largely-amateur assembly. The Americans won every game – Ruth alone homered 13 times in 16 games – but the Japanese were inspired by several close games, and the characteristic Japanese sense that, were they to stick to it, they could challenge the Americans. Soon enough, the Japanese turned pro.

陽 岱鋼 Dài-Kāng Yáng Yoh Daikan
Photo by Takahiro Hayashi via Flickr

The first Japanese pro team, the Yomiuri Giants, was formed in 1936, but an actual league, Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) didn’t come together until 1950, when it became the overarching pro organization, similar to Major League Baseball in the US. Divided into two leagues (Pacific and Central) of six teams each, NPB isn’t a big league in terms of numbers of teams, but what the Japanese lack in numbers they make up for in intensity.

Besuboru is different. Everything from the ball to the strike zone to the dimensions of the field are smaller than in U.S. baseball, but the differences go much deeper: Since it was originally conceptualized by the Japanese as a form of martial art, akin to kendo (a form of sword play), besuboru in Japan ends up being subject to all the Japanese obsessions with form, face-saving and group harmony that rule most Japanese undertakings. Instead of a focus on individual players who excel in the context of the team – a great home run hitter in American baseball does his work within the context of the team, but is still celebrated for his individual accomplishments. As always in Japan, the individual is only as good as his ability to function within the team, even at the expense of his own ambitions.

These differences show up starkly when foreign players who are hired by Japanese teams assume that what works in American (or Cuban, or Dominican) baseball will work in Japanese besuboru. The difference lies in the importance of the group, or in this case, the team. A great player who draws too much attention to himself, even if it’s by hitting well or striking out a string of opposing batters, risks alienating his own teammates, even embarrassing them. More than once has a player who hits too many big hits, or strikes out too many opposing batters, could find himself benched until he cools off. In this way, no one stands out too much, and no one loses face. Even if they lose the game.

D7200 Testing - JPEGs
Photo by troy_williams via Flickr

Needless to say, this is contrary to most competitive players in most sports the world ‘round. But this is besuboru, not baseball, and for the Japanese, it works.

That said, a number of Japanese players have proven themselves, sometimes brilliantly, in American baseball, starting with the all-star Ichiro Suzuki early this century, right up to the present day (2018), when the California Angels’ pitcher/slugger Shohei Ohtani has jaws dropping all over Major League Baseball. More than 50 Japanese pros have transferred over to U.S. baseball since Ichiro cleared the way, and many have proven to be stars in the U.S. as well as in Japan.

For the visitor, seeing besuboru in Japan is generally overlooked by all but the most rabid baseball fans, but visitors ought to consider trying a game, which are not expensive and can be a cultural experience as well as an athletic one. Especially fun are the cheering sections at games, where fans, divided by team loyalties into parts of the stadium, passionately call out fight songs and bang on drums for the length of the game, once again showing that team spirit and group organization are among the highest values of the Japanese – even when enjoying an imported game.

Photo by kagawa_ymg via Flickr

And then there’s this: Even if you’re a dedicated fan of the American hot dog, you’ll probably never regard it with quite the same affection after spending a Japanese ball game enjoying Japanese bento boxes and fresh sushi. This is one area where Japanese besuboru could markedly improve American baseball.

By David Watts Barton

KYOTO July 11, 2018

Gion Matsuri: Japan’s Most Famous Festival

Photo by S. via Flickr

The month of July officially kicks off the start of Gion Matsuri in Kyoto. It is not only the largest festival in the city, but is also one of the most famous festivals in all of Japan. It is a festival that can be traced back to the 9th century where it was hoped that the celebration would appease the gods that had the power to inflict a range of natural disasters.

Today the festival is a wonderful way to experience authentic Japanese culture, witness exciting float processions, meet local residents, and enjoy delicious food.

History of Gion Matsuri

Gion Matsuri came about when a plague outbreak ravaged Kyoto, leading Emperor Seiwa to call on his people to pray to the god of the Yasaka Shrine, a Shinto shrine that is located in the Gion district of Kyoto. This is how the festival became known as the Gion Matsuri.

Photo by Takashi Hososhima via Flickr

The festival was a way of calling on the gods whenever they were in need and eventually the practice became an annual event. Only during the Ōnin Wars was the popular festival interrupted. The festival went on to become a way for local merchants to show off their wealth by creating impressive floats. Many of the floats that are used today have been used for centuries. They are continually cared for and refurbished by the local people. Influences from the Middle East and Europe due to the Silk Road trade route is apparent by the artwork that makes up many of the floats.

Today, visitors can enjoy a month of intriguing events and celebrations including the Yoiyama which takes place twice during the month in the lead up to the famous float processions. During Yoiyama, one can experience lively night celebrations which run for the 3 nights before each float procession is held.

Yoiyama- Night Celebrations

As previously stated, the Yoiyama night celebrations take place on the three nights before each float procession. The first Yoiyama celebration takes place from July 14-16 and is the more lively and celebrated of the two. During this time there will be road closures and the traffic becomes pedestrian only.

Photo by Ryosuke Yagi via Flickr

The streets become filled with street vendors selling delicious food and you can watch locals and visitors dress up in yukata, or casual summer kimono. Focus your attention on streets such as Karasuma and Takoyakushi for the most action.

The Float Processions of Gion Matsuri

The Gion Festival incorporates two separate float processions that are held on the 17th and 24th of July, known collectively as Yamaboko-Junko. The procession parades large elaborate floats through the streets of Kyoto, mostly centered on Shijo, Kawaramachi, and Oike streets.

Photo by TAKA@P.P.R.S via Flickr

The first procession takes place on July 17th, beginning at Shijō Station and finishing at Karasuma Oike station. The second procession takes place on July 24th and follows the same route as the first, only in reverse by starting at Karasuma Oike station. The parade of floats makes three dramatic turns known as tsujimawashi, which are not to be missed.

The procession is made up of two types of floats which are known as yama and hoko. The hoko floats are less numerous but are the larger of the two varieties, often reaching heights of 25 meters and weighing in at 12 tons. The yama are the more numerous variety of floats and are topped with a pine tree.

Gion Matsuri parade - Hoko float turning
Photo by S. via Flickr

Both types of floats are elaborately decorated and often have themes. The floats are truly a form of moving art as they show off traditional artworks that include sculptures and Nishijin textiles.
The second parade is referred to as Ato Matsuri Junko where you can enjoy fewer crowds but you should be aware there will be fewer yama and hoko floats during this procession.

If you wish to have a close up look of the floats before the procession, they are usually grouped near the Shijo-Karasuma intersection. After the processions, the floats are dismantled and returned to storage for the next year’s celebrations.

Other Gion Matsuri Events

Don’t miss the Omukae Chōchin (Lantern Reception) and the Mikoshi Purification which are both held on July 10. During the lantern reception, watchmen carry lanterns from the Yasaka Shrine along with dance performances from women who carry out the Sagi Odori and Komachi Odori outsides places like Kyoto City Hall and Yasaka Shrine. The Mikoshi Purification involves carrying portable Shinto shrines to the Kamogawa River where they are purified by priests.

Mikoshi of Gion Matsuri
Photo by Run Mizumushi-Kun via Flickr

After these events you can watch as locals spend several days constructing the elaborate floats that will be presented in the upcoming processions. This is known as the Hoko and Yama-tate.

During the first Yoiyama celebrations, you can witness the Byōbu Matsuri or Folding Screen Festival. Local notable families allow the public to see many of their treasures and family heirlooms, which may include painted screens, kimonos, and artwork. Items are usually placed in front of their homes and some may open their doors to allow you in.

During the second float procession on July 24, you can witness the Hanagasa Junkō or Flower Umbrella Procession. Watch as vibrant umbrella floats make their way from Yasaka Shrine accompanied by beautiful geiko, or geisha. The procession allows you to experience several dance performances as well.

The closing of the Gion Matsuri takes place at Eki Shrine on July 31.