Monday, July 26, 2010

Tokyo Sky Tree

Many Japanese can tell you that Tokyo Tower is taller than the Eiffel Tower, but that’s soon about to change. No, Tokyo Tower isn’t being cut down to the same size by the French, nor is the Eiffel Tower being extended. The reason is simply that a new tower is under construction in Tokyo.

“Tokyo Sky Tree” is the name of the soon to be the world’s tallest tower. When complete, it will stand at a height of 634 meters. This will be 24 meters higher than the second highest tower in the world, the Guangzhou TV and sightseeing tower in China.

Located in the north-eastern ward of Sumida, close to the popular area of Asakusa, construction of the Tokyo Sky Tree began a couple of years ago and at the time of writing it stands approximately 336 meters tall. This means that it has already become Japan’s tallest structure and it’s only half complete.

When completed, the tower will be used to broadcast an array of digital signals far and wide. TV and radio stations will make up the bulk of the tower’s broadcasting capabilities. Of course the tower will be a major tourist attraction. Visitors will be able to climb to a viewing platform and view the city from a height of 350 meters. Actually, despite being under construction, Tokyo Sky Tree has already become a major tourist attraction. Thousands of people flock to the site to take pictures of the incomplete structure.

Tokyo Sky Tree will have its grand opening in 2012. It can be easily reached from Oshiage station on the Hanzomon subway line.

Happy Mondays

Not the early-90’s band from the UK but the appropriate title for Japan’s national holiday/long weekend initiative.

Japan is blessed with a generous amount of national holidays. In fact, there are only one or two months in the year that don’t have at least one national holiday. A few years ago the government decided that as many national holidays as possible should fall on a Monday. Hence the term “Happy Mondays”.

Apart from offering a break to tired workers, the “Happy Mondays” idea is a great economic stimulus. The Japanese love to venture out into the countryside to sample the local cuisine and attractions of other areas. Purchasing unique snacks as souvenirs is a particularly big business in Japan. A steady flow of long weekends combined with heavily discounted highway tolls makes for a small economic boom.

The upcoming happy Monday , as this article is written, is “Sea Day”. Sea day takes place towards the end of July when rainy season has just about ended. The result is hopefully a day to spend by the seaside with family and friends in perfect summertime conditions. Needless to say, beaches and seaside towns during this weekend do get extremely crowded, so if you’re not one for throngs of people, then going to the beach on an alternate date might be a good idea. Crafty individuals may take advantage of huge amounts of people going to the beach or pools by visiting other more landlocked and quieter locales.

The happy Monday experience really kicks in around September/October though, with a flurry of national holidays during this time. Be aware that travel in or out of Japan could get very busy during these times, not to mention expensive! Be that as it may, a long weekend is always a good thing and anything that destroys the Monday blues is even better.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Opening of Japan

Japan has been radically different from other Asian countries for quite some time. Other than China or Korea, Japan began opening up much earlier, incorporating Western ideas and concepts, as well as Western traditions in order to reject the Chinese world order. Many famous Japanese personalities have been accredited in facilitating this openness. Emperor Meiji (reigned 1852-1912) once said “If only there is a way to accept what is good while rejecting what is not and to make our country second to none in the world”. This concept has been incorporated in many levels of society. Educators such as Okuma Shigenobu, the founder of Waseda University (one of the foremost universities in Japan) made the hybrid of East and West not only a goal but an ideal included in the school anthem.” Boundless is our future/ For we stand, bearing on our shoulders/ The grand mission of our great island nation/ Where the currents of civilizations/Old and new, East and West,/ Whirl in one vortex.
In the educations of children through stories and television shows, this concept of intercultural assimilation can be very evident. One of the most famous anime series in Europe, Heidi-girl of the Alps, is a perfect example of the Japanese ability to take integrating a story which is totally alien to its traditional history into the mind of Japanese children for several generations. The anime series is based on the Swiss novel “Heidi, Years of Wandering and Learning” by Johanna Spyri. In 52 episodes, the story of Heidi is told with a cute Japanese interpretation noticeable only to the trained eye.
Another anime series, famous in Japan as well as in Germany is the Japanese adaptation of Waldemar Bonsels’ “Maja the Bee” called みつばちマーヤの冒険 (Mitsubachi Māya no Bōken, "The Adventures of Maya the Honeybee"). The story that began as a children’s book in Germany, turned out to be a magical tale of a courageous yet lovable bee that does not hesitate to fight for the land and the creature she loves. Numerous children in Japan as well as in Germany saw this television series and cherish its memory.
Lastly, who can forget the famous story of Pinocchio with its Japanese adaptation The Adventures of Pinocchio (ピコリーノの冒険 "Pikorîo no bôken"). A Japanese-German co-production of what is probably the most famous Italian children’s story written by Carlo Collodi. While the original frame of the story remained, a lot of material was changed such as the Pinocchio’s sidekick the cricket was replaced by a little duck named Gina.
The apparent desire to merge the East and the West in the past hundred years, have left their marks all over the country. The metropolitan building’s shape in Shinjuku, closely resembles the famous church of Notre Dame in Paris. Equally the Tokyo Tower looks a lot like the Eiffel Tower in France. Foreign stories, such as the ones just discussed, emphasize the beauty of openness present in a country that has been secluded for so long.

Friday, July 9, 2010

As Easy as Falling off a Log

One particularly interesting thing about an island culture that has developed over a period of two thousand years or so, is that you’re bound to get very unique and sometimes very quirky festivals. Any Japanese culture buff will be able to tell you about the dozens of famous festivals and their reasons for being that happen all across Japan, but few may know of the Onbashira festival.

The onbashira festival (literally translated as sacred pillar/log) is a festival unique to the Suwa region of central Nagano prefecture. What’s particularly interesting about it is that it is so outrageous and outlandish that it only occurs every six years. Every six years the sleepy towns of Chino-city and Shimosuwa-machi are flooded with hundreds of thousands of spectators as the local townsfolk drag huge tree logs cut from the mountain forests, all the way into town, across rivers and down hills to the shrine. It is believed that the spirits of the trees can be brought to the town this way. The town’s spiritual energy must be replenished every six years.

It’s not as simple as it sounds though. Dozens of logs are cut and teams from each neighborhood decorate and drag them. This is a process of several days. Men ride upon the logs throughout the journey chanting and singing all the way. The city of Chino has a river to cross. Each festival, some log-riders plummet to their death during the river crossing. Shimosuwa’s festival involves sending the logs down a steep slope. Again, some log-riders perish in the fall. The whole event is even broadcast on national television.

This year’s main event has passed already but you can still catch the action. Smaller neighborhood versions of the event take place throughout the entire Suwa region for as long as a year after the main festival. These small scale onbashiras are a great experience and many neighborhoods welcome outsiders with free food and drink as well as a chance to have a go pulling the log. A lot of fun and not to mention safer than the perils of the main onbashiras crossing the river and tumbling down hills at high speed.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

B-kyu Gurume-Cheap, Fast, and Delicious!

Right now in Japan, “B-kyu gurume” (B-grade gourmet) is very popular among all age groups. B-kyu gurume refers to cheap and delicious comfort food, which are usually served home-style. B-kyu gurume restaurants have always been around, but it is recently that people became interested in them due to the recent economic downturn.

“B-kyu Gurume Festival” was held in Tsuyama, Okayama prefecture this year where 65,000 visitors came to try out these cheap and yummy foods. There were 54 B-grade dishes from all over Japan, which consisted of okonomiyaki, yakisoba, gyoza, and croquette. Among these dishes, Yakisoba (stir-fried noodles) was extremely popular. Because of the large crowd, many people had to wait for 4 hours in order to try out the dishes!

Information on B-kyu gurume can be found all over the Internet as well as on gourmet magazines. There is also even a TV show on cheap and delicious foods known as the "Kitanachelin" which the dishes are rated by famous TV stars.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Learning Japanese

Being in a foreign land where they speak a foreign language, it makes sense to try your hand at learning the local lingo. If you’re an English speaker though, it’s obvious how different Japanese is from English. It’s not like learning German or French where similarities with English abound. Even seasoned polyglots may find that their progress in Japanese may be slower than learning another European tongue. Having said that, learning Japanese is not impossible. In fact, no language is necessarily more difficult than another. All it takes is effort on the part of the learner.

So what’s the best method to be speaking Nihongo like a pro within months? Well, everyone is different so methods will vary, but most agree that immersion is one of the best ways to improve your oral abilities quickly. If you’re in Japan, then perfect. You have no choice but to speak Japanese wherever you go. If you’re not in Japan, try to find a Japanese language circle or course. Failing that, the internet is a great tool for Japanese language studies. Simple search engine searches will bring up useful tools like listening practice sites, grammar guides, dictionaries and even software for making your own flash-cards.

Many language learners and teachers agree that listening and speaking are among the easiest skills to learn in a new language. Especially if you are fully immersed in the target language. Reading and writing skills though often trail behind for most learners. This is often the case with students of Japanese. The writing system is completely alien to those whose languages use the Roman script. Many foreigners living in Japan can speak Japanese very well but struggle to read and write Japanese. This is due mostly to the thousands of Chinese characters or kanji used in Japanese writing. Rote memorization is pretty much the only way to learn kanji. Don’t worry though! Even Japanese people struggle with kanji from time to time.

The topic of language learning is vast and is filled with differing methods. Whatever method you choose, learning a little Japanese will make your visit or stay more enjoyable.

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