Japan

Japan’s Most Beautiful Villages: Shirakawago

As the title suggests, there should be some beautiful picture of this beautiful village in central Japan in this post: so here it is. Located in the mountainous regions of Gifu Prefecture near Takayama city is the beautiful city of Shirakawago. It’s so beautiful that it’s even listed in one of the 39 Japan’s most beautiful villages alliance(only in Japanese). This post has been long overdue and I apologize for the lack of posting but as my last post suggests, that young people are heading out to Tokyo and the larger cities for better opportunities I still feel that there is so much more that the country side in Japan has to offer. This committee that decides the “beautiful villages” has a nice guideline on how it decides which villages should be on the list. Just because the villages “looks” beautiful doesn’t cut it. For example, the village of Iitate over in Fukushima was chosen for its “madei way” of life which incorporates a self-sufficient life style not relying on technology nor nuclear power(the irony as this village was affected by the recent crisis). But the way people interact and appreciate each other’s presence within the community was also seen as a big part to these guidelines. If you ever get a chance to break away from Tokyo I would highly  recommend hitting up one of the many beautiful villages in Japan.

At the entrance of Ogi Village.

Ogi village. Rice fields and the light green color covers the entire vicinity.

Shirakawago is worldly known for its gasho-zukuri minka homes.

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The narrow road leads you back into the village.

The water is as clear as you can get. You can see all sorts of fish and animals along the water route.

View of Shirakawago from the top of the observatory.

Shirakawago awaits you.

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The Misconception of “Tokyo = Japan”

This topic has been on my mind for quite some time especially after living abroad and hearing from my non-Japanese friends talk about their travel experiences in Japan. Especially after the 3.11 crisis, one of the first reactions I noticed was the foreign concern over whether or not Tokyo was affected by the earthquake and tsunami. Second impression was people saying “Oh Tokyo is not affected, phew then everything is cool”. I agree, Tokyo is the capital city; center for Japan’s politics, economy, culture and society and if Tokyo was hit hard by the earthquake and tsunami, the effect on Japan and the entire globe would have been detrimental(hence the nuclear reactors were strategically tucked away in a local environment but we can talk more on this later). But from my experience abroad, besides a small number of Chinese people who have come to  love the flower gardens in Hokkaido, most people will definitely start off in Tokyo and maybe visit Kyoto to see the “ Real Japanese culture” if they have time. I think it’s right to say that most people can’t name another prefecture other than Tokyo or Osaka. From this concept  it is not a mistake for foreigners to think that Tokyo is what Japan is all about. But from this 3.11 crisis and the effect of the Tohoku region to the rest of Japan has taught us that a much more balanced country with resources spread across the entire country is desperately in need.  But domestically speaking, why is everyone moving to Tokyo? This summer I have spent much of my time traveling around the local scenes around Japan and I can clearly see that not only the birth rate in Japan is in decline but it’s even more severe in the regions outside of Tokyo. “The youths have all left and found a new living in Tokyo and Osaka” said one of the shop keepers in Miyazaki prefecture.

This trend of human resources, information technology centering in Tokyo has stopped the development of other areas in Japan. When in times of crisis I can’t stop but to think of how the US has New York as its financial center and Washington DC as the center for politics; China has Shanghai and Beijing … you get my point. But this nuance of “If I go to Tokyo, I can make something/prove something for myself” ideology still exists today especially within the youth. It’s also interesting to note that the flexible and easy passage to Tokyo, making it possible for anyone in Japan to relocate to Tokyo. For a comparison with China, it’s not that easy for a Chinese person living in a third tier city to move into Beijing just because there’s more opportunities in Beijing. You need to have enough money saved up to get by in Beijing. Either way, this crisis has taught us many lessons and this idea of centralizing everything into Tokyo needs to stop now and regional government bodies need to step up. Is another round of Tokyo re-bidding to host the 2020 summer olympics really necessary? I’d prefer seeing Hiroshima and Nagasaki co-host it more than anything. Surprisingly enough I run into people who are surprised that the city or Hiroshima still even exists today…

I don’t know the GDP break up of Korea off the top of my head but Seoul as the financial center and capital could be similar to Japan as its proximity to the North Korean border(DMZ) has always been a concern to many of the Korean specialists that I have come into contact with.

Around Shibuya Station in Tokyo in the afternoon with busy traffic

A platform at JR Shibuya Station

The JR Subway Map at Shibuya Station. Most prefectures surrounding Tokyo have benefited from the proximity to Tokyo and its relatively cheaper real estate.


[Photo] Where’s the news about Japan these days?

It’s been 100 plus days since 3.11 and unless you are in Japan, I feel that you rarely hear too much about the aftermath of the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami these days. In China, after a week or two topic of interest quickly switched over to the nuclear reactors in Fukushima. Its’ interesting to see how most of the major foreign media companies spit fired all they want talking about how Fukushima is the next Chernobyl and they ignored how the survivors are dealing with their changed every day life. No one can deny the great amount of hysteria that was caused by the foreign media journalists post 3.11. Foreigners in Japan or “flyjins” were in panic and had no choice but to flee the country believing the words from their media of origin. In Japan, I feel that most Japanese media companies looked up to foreign media outlets in the past. You could find that most articles in Japan would use an US media company to enforce the writer’s point or thesis. But what happened? I have seen stereotypical adjectives come up in pieces that if a writer really understood the complex society of Japan, he/she would never have used; such terms like Ninjas or Kamikaze to describe the Fukushima 50. The greater portion of interest for readers and writers may be over but in reality, Tohoku region is still in ruins today even after 3 months. In a country like Japan, still left in ruins even after this much time, to me, tells the story of how significant this incident really is. Since being back in Japan for a week now I can’t stop but to hear stories about the survivors from the Japanese media; how it has changed Japan as a society and how people interact with one-another. I learned today that over 1,500 children have lost one or both of their parents from the earthquake and tsunami. According to NHK, the government has stated that family members who have not been found past 3 months can be declared dead as opposed to the usual 1 year rule that was applied in Japan. That means family members are rushed to find their beloved ones as reconstruction is carried on at high pace; making it harder for them to find family members. There are days recently that not a single body is found as more than 7,000 people are still missing. In Japan, survivors yearn for their family members body to return back to them even if they know the person is already dead. All I ask is for everyone to take a moment and please think about the survivors and the family members of the victims. Their journey to recovery  has just begun while the aftershocks have yet to end.

By: Go Katayama

Chinese people take a close look at the "Japan Tohoku Earthquake Photo Exhibition" at 798 Art District in Beijing


[Flashback] Mount Bandai, Fukushima Prefecture 2010

Couple days ago, my Chinese friend had asked me if I had ever been to Fukushima Prefecture as he wanted to get a better sense of what this whole region is like. Chinese media has been covering the radiation levels as much as western media and you could easily find an article or two on the front page of the major news source for the last couple weeks. Putting aside all the talks on radiation, Fukushima to me was a place full of nature and beauty, attracting tourists from all over the country. Last summer, when I briefly visited Fukushima what stood out to me the most was Mount Bandai. Mount Bandai is located in the outskirts of Tohoku’s second largest city of Koriyama and is famous for its “goshoku-numa” or the 5 color lake (see photo below). These lakes were formed with the volcanic  eruption imparting mineral deposits to the Five Colored Lakes giving each of them their own delicate color. In China, there is also the famous Jiuzhaigou Valley in Sichuan Province, which also has these colored lakes in a much larger scale. From what I know, the vast majority of Koriyama residents have not evacuated and are trying to live their lives as normal as possible but it’s just a shame that these beautiful sceneries won’t be seen for some time until the radiation levels lowers in the region. It’s a pity that Mount Bandai and Jiuzhaigou were both located near where the natural disaster had occurred. I wanted to share some of these images since you rarely see any news on Fukushima but the radiation these days. I thank you for your continued support for Japan. Japan still needs friends.


[Photo] With You Japan, Live Strong 2011 March 19

First off, I am thankful for all the new subscribers and readers of my site. Please check out my info page to learn more about my work and photography from Asia. It has truly been an encouraging last couple days receiving numerous messages and tweets from around the world. As far as my current residence in Beijing goes, I was walking around an area around the Drum Tower, when I saw a sign on top of a designer store that read “With You Japan, Live Strong 2011 March 19”.  It was nice to see a store in China thinking about Japan. For the latest updates on Japan’s situation and road to recovery, I am translating Japanese media into English on my twitter feed @gokatayama. Feel free to follow me and join in on the conversation.


[Flashback] Matsushima, Miyagi Prefecture 2010

I debated whether or not I should post these photos but I can’t stop but to think of Matsushima, one of the three views in Japan. Located in Miyagi Prefecture, Matsushima is a group of 260 islands, in various sizes, covered in pine trees. With the earthquake last Friday, I have seen many sources that this scenery is now gone and 600 people were killed in this area. I saw twitter feeds saying that the tsunami came through Matsushima and now it is empty and it doesn’t have the same feel that it did last week before the earthquake hit. For the latest updates on Japan’s situation and road to recovery, I am translating Japanese media into English on my twitter feed @gokatayama. Feel free to follow me and join in on the conversation.


Earthquake in Japan: a Letter from China

Dear friends and families,

It’s been a while since I have made my last post on my site. I’ve been busy making sure that all my family members and friends were okay in Japan. Fortunately, my relatives and families reside in the western part of Japan and so everyone was okay. But this devastating earthquake which took tens of thousands of lives away will not only affect the North-eastern(Tohoku) part of Japan but the entire population of Japan and the interconnected world. The aftershocks continue at this very moment and Japan’s largest challenge to recovery will take time.

Living in China, I can feel that the Chinese population can relate to what Japan is going through at the moment as there was an earthquake in Yunnan last week and in Sichuan in 2008, which is still new in everyone’s memory. I was happy to see so many of my Chinese friends and colleagues ask me if my family and relatives were alright. I also saw a video from the Sichuan earthquake victim’s telling Japan to not give up. It left me in tears when I saw this. Everyday I am touched by the people who are praying and trying to make a difference to help Japan from around the world.

Here’s my heartwarming story from Beijing:
I walked out of my apartment to grab some breakfast this morning at the usual vendor who sells eggs and sausage for about 5RMB(about 0.75USD), prices went up from 3RMB about a week ago. I enjoy having a 1-2 minute conversation with him in Chinese since he’s curious about me and what I think about China. He knows that I’m from Japan and this morning he asked me if my family was alright and told me to never give up. He said he is originally from Sichuan and he lost a family member in the 2008 earthquake. “Times like this, we need each-other”. I was really touched by his simple remarks and gave me power to push on.

Living in China, it is hard for me to contribute directly and help with the relief efforts in Japan and I though that I could help by spreading the word on how everyone can help out right in your living room. It’s been 4 days after the earthquake but Japan is still in need of your help. At this very moment, the survivor’s of the earthquake at the evacuation centers are starving and are lacking warm clothes and blankets. Please make a small donation at the Red Cross’s website here.

I am also continuing to translate and interpret Japanese media and useful information on my twitter feed at @gokatayama. I will also be making daily posts on my thoughts and photos I took from Sendai and Fukushima in the following days from last year when I was in Japan.

#prayforjapan

Best,

Go Katayama
3/16/2011


[Photos] Port of Aburatsu (Miyazaki Prefecture, Japan)

What I enjoy most about going back to Japan is definitely the food but also the scenery along the pacific coast. I drove down to one of the famous ports in the south side of Japan in Miyazaki Prefecture: Aburatsu Port. Since these photos were taken on new years day you can see the ritual trees calling for a good year and colorful flags representing each of the boat’s name.


[Photos] Ageing Countryside in Japan

When most people think of Japan, they might think of the high-tech flashing lights all over the Tokyo metropolis. But my favorite scenery within Japan would have to be 800 kilometers west from Tokyo in the Chugoku region at the tip of the main island in Japan. What most people would consider the country side has recently become a victim of youths moving out to the larger cities like Osaka and Tokyo for better job opportunities and schooling while the elders keep aging. It is said that Tokyo now makes up one-tenth of Japan’s total population of 120 million. Where agriculture is strong on the country side, it is evident from words such from Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara that “Only 1.5% of Japan’s gross domestic product comes from agriculture and the nation should pay heed to the other 98.5%”. Hence, the country side of Japan has lost its spark, as population continues to decline everywhere but Tokyo and the larger cities. This city of Satosho currently has 30,000 residents and is continuing to decrease year after year.

A typical neighborhood in Okayama prefecture. Mirrors are used instead of traffic lights.

Roads winding down hill through the rice fields.

Rice fields neatly lined up getting ready for harvest season

Scenic view of Satosho and the rice fields at dawn

JR Sanyo Line train passes by. There are usually 3-4 trains an hour connecting Okayama and Hiroshima.

Even during the what should be a rush hour period not too many people are to be seen.


[Photo] Omikuji

I’ve been really behind on posting photos from when I was in Japan so I’m gonna be going back and forth between Japan and China photos this week. This one was taken on new years day in Japan or ‘Shogatsu'(正月) when I visited a local shrine for ‘Hatsumode’(初詣). Hatsumode is the first shrine visit of the new years in Japan where people make wishes for the year to come. Some shrines in Tokyo would have 3million visitors on new years and you could see people throwing coins at the shrine since it takes way too much time to get to the shrine itself. But the one I went to was a small local shrine in Miyazaki prefecture so the wait wasn’t that long. For hatsumode it is also common for people to buy a ‘omikuji'(御神籤), which has random fortunes written on strips of paper that gives you fortunes based on your love life, health, income stability, child-birth, and disputes resolution. For more information on omikuji click here. But if the omikuji that you happen to pick out of the many has a bad fortune, its tradition that you fold it up and leave it at the shrine. Also its said that its even better if you can tie onto a branch or a string one-handed.