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A Trip Up North

It’s been a while since the last time I’ve posted here; the busy season is starting to ease up, and there’s finally time to share a little bit of my personal life on here.

Last September, my wife and I took advantage of the long weekend to explore the Noto Peninsula in northern Ishikawa — for whatever reason, we’d somehow never gotten around to visiting most of Noto, and there’s a lot up there to enjoy.

The Chirihama Beach Driveway is a popular destination, and for good reason: it’s a lot of fun to drive your car on a beach! (Incidentally, having a car made safely traveling during the pandemic a lot easier, especially because we made a point of doing things like eating meals at weird hours to avoid crowds whenever possible.)

Being able to drive directly on the beach seems like it shouldn’t be that exciting, but somehow it’s a really unique experience. The sand is, unsurprisingly, exceptionally hard, to the point where if you stomp on it, the most it might do is crack.

We stopped at a roadside rest area near the Chirihama Beach Driveway, to take advantage of their free car shower (to wash off the sand), and found a collection of fun sand sculptures!

In addition to this large main one by the entrance, there were a number of others around, presumably all sculpted by taking advantage of the incredibly fine, hard sand.

We continued our trip up along the coast with a late lunch at a charming little restaurant with an exceptional view and (importantly!) outdoor seating. What I didn’t expect was how they presented their menu:

Udon noodles with nori seaweed: ¥650.

Incidentally, their “business cards” were also small stones with their name and address hand-painted on. Very charming!

We finished our drive along the coast with a stop at an old-fashioned Agehama-style salt farm. In addition to the “real” hands-on experience, they also have a bucket of water where anyone can try out the technique they use to sprinkle the seawater onto the sand (so they can concentrate the saltiness before washing it off and cooking it out into salt). It’s much harder than it looks — you need to twist your wrist as you throw out the water! (Special thanks to my lovely wife, for serving as the model in this video)

If you’re ever in Noto, I definitely recommend stopping by and trying this out in particular! I could have spent all afternoon trying to perfect my saltwater-throwing technique. And of course, there’s plenty more to see and do in Noto, but that’ll have to wait for another day.

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Take Me Out to the Japanese Ball Game

After many years living in Japan, I finally did something I’d been meaning to do for a very long time: see a baseball game at the legendary Koshien stadium. The Hanshin Tigers were playing the Chunichi Dragons, and while I once lived near Nagoya, I could not deny the incredible passion of the Hanshin Tigers’ fans.

It wasn’t until after we arrived at Koshien Station that it finally occurred to me that the Hanshin line, the railroad we took in, almost certainly owns the Hanshin Tigers, which would certainly explain the extra trains on the schedule for game days, as well as the unique exit-only ticket gates at Koshien station.

“Decorated

We’d arrived! Granted, the view from the train station wasn’t great, possibly because of the highway that was seemingly built after the stadium.

What a view!

Our friend took a picture of my wife and me outside the stadium, from a much better vantage point. The lighting on us wasn’t great, but, well, there was a highway casting a shadow.

I know I’m making kind of a weird face here

For some reason, as we entered the stadium, we noticed that they were handing out Tigers hats. On the upside: free hat! On the downside: 1990-style faded denim? My wife didn’t wear a hat that day, and it was very hot and sunny, so she took advantage of the free hat, even if it’s not usually her personal style.

Hats!

The game itself was fun, if largely uneventful. One thing we noticed that was rather different from baseball games in the US is that after every time a ball went into the stands, they would make an announcement (“Foul balls are very dangerous!”) and even sent cheerleaders out with a banner to the same effect. Oh, also, there were cheerleaders, which aren’t really a thing at American baseball games — they’re more associated with football and basketball.

Cheerleaders teach the dangers of foul balls!

It’s hard to capture in a photo, but another thing about the atmosphere that’s quite different at Japanese baseball games is the music. In the US, baseball is generally associated with organ music (for reasons far too complex to go into here — there’s a great episode of the podcast Every Little Thing that delves into the topic in detail, if you’re interested!), but in Japan, the norm is constant music played from the stands by fans, generally on trumpets and other horns. Apparently, this used to be the norm in the US, too, but nobody really does it anymore.1

Another thing that happened that I was not used to was the fact that relief pitchers were brought onto the field in a Smart ForTwo.

Don’t call it a ‘smart car’!

However, it is my understanding that this is not a standard part of baseball in Japan.

One last ritual that we really enjoyed came during the seventh inning: the stadium sold special balloons with noise-making nozzles on them, and fans would buy them and blow them up in preparation for the middle or end of the seventh inning.

The little blue patch in the top left is the Chunichi Dragons' fan seating

The fans sing the team’s fight song, then release their balloons all together for a really unique experience. Unsurprisingly, it was a much more impressive show of fandom for the Tigers than for the Dragons, but it was still a lot of fun.

Overall, it was a great experience! We might have to find another chance to see another baseball game at Koshien, one day.


  1. Because of this, it’s easy to tell if old baseball video games, especially on the NES/Famicom, were made in Japan or the US, based on whether they had background music. 
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Delightful Art Installations in Omihachiman, Shiga

Recently, I went to the Biwako Biennale (English page) in Omihachiman, Shiga. If you’re in the area, you can go too! It’s running until November 11, 2018.

First of all, Omihachiman is a charming little town, worth the trip by itself. There’s a reason you’ll find essentially this same picture, taken by a hundred other people — it’s a beautiful view that isn’t hard to enjoy.

Lovely canal!

Our main destination that day, though, was the Biwako Biennale, an art installation festival going on throughout Omihachiman. For ¥2,200, we got admission to a variety of very cool art installations.

These were generally built into old houses or other old buildings — these art installation biennales and triennales are becoming fairly popular throughout Japan, especially in smaller towns where dropping populations are leading to vacant buildings.

Some of the exhibits are full-scale installations that simply must be visited to be properly enjoyed (such as the hanging lights near the top, or this one above), but some of them were collections of smaller items. For instance, this next photo is one of several similar items; though it looks like a jar or vase or something wrapped in a cloth, the whole thing — “cloth” and all — is made of clay.

And then there was this large, impressive work. Perhaps the most impressive aspect was the fact that every part of it was made out of food. The bags below, in fact, contain examples of some of the seeds and other items used in the sculpture above.

If you have the chance, I absolutely recommend visiting for yourself! It’s still running for another week or so, and these photos only scratch the surface. A lot of the exhibits can only be properly experienced in person, so I didn’t even try to photograph them! And some of them, well… some of them are at least sort of expressed in video, but they’re still a lot more fun in person too.

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The Spirit of the Old Edo Lives On… through Shopping

They say that back in the days of the Tokugawa shogunate, the feudal lords (or daimyo) from throughout Japan would alternate spending a year in Edo (now Tokyo) and spending a year at home.

This is the sort of fact that feels like it could be, but almost certainly isn’t, related to the “antenna shops” of Tokyo.

Bridge Niigata

Word is that Tokyo’s “antenna shops,” or shops dedicated to specific prefectures, began to spring up in the early 1990s. Today, these shops can be found in clusters around Tokyo, mainly in Ginza and the adjacent Yurakucho, but they can also be found in other areas of town, too: there are a few in Nihonbashi and Aoyama, as well.

Mie Terrace

These shops generally offer a selection of foods and snacks from the prefecture in question, as well as a collection of local sake and other products: for instance, Toyama’s antenna shop features tin items from Nousaku, as well as binzasara, a type of traditional musical instrument. Nara’s offers local pickled vegetables. Fukui’s offers heshiko preserved mackerel. These stores offer quite a range of items, including, in one case, wooden dressers and chests of drawers(!).

Mahoroba Nara

Some of these shops can be quite sizable: the one for Ishikawa, for example, is three stories(!), continuing up to the second floor and down into the basement.

Ishikawa Antenna Shop

Interestingly, though these are relatively prevalent in Tokyo, they can occasionally be seen elsewhere: in Kyoto and Osaka, for example, I’ve seen stores dedicated to Shiga, Okinawa, and the prefectures on the island of Shikoku.

On the other hand, I do feel like maybe Eataly in Nihonbashi doesn’t quite count as an antenna shop, as thematically appropriate as it may be.

Eataly Nihonbashi is not nearly as large as the one in New York, but still pretty good

If you can’t make it out of Tokyo, these shops are a fun way to get at least a taste of the rest of the country — or, if you miss the unique specialties of elsewhere in Japan, a taste of home.

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Off the Beaten Path: Yokai Street and Halloween in Japan

In the past three or four years, it has been almost impossible to not notice Halloween making a rapid transition in Japan from “not really a thing at all” to “very much a thing,” though in practice it’s hard to say how much of the modern traditions of, say, American Halloween have been adopted.1

That old traditional favorite, blood glasses

What is most interesting about Halloween in Japan, arguably, is not the fact that Japan has more than its own share of ghost stories and other eeriness, but the fact that so little of it seems to wind up overlapping with Halloween — summer is the season of ghost stories in Japan, or at least that seems to be the stereotype.

In their defense, these ghost breads are positively adorable.

In Kyoto, however, there is a little shopping street, only about 400 meters long, that has benefited perhaps more than most from Japan’s newfound interest in autumnal spookiness. Drawing on local folklore from a thousand years ago,2 this little street rebranded itself as “Yokai Street,” named after the yokai monsters from Japanese folklore, in the hopes of drawing visitors to stir up business and revitalize the local shops. One of the main signs you’ll see of this is little figures of traditional creatures from folklore out front of the shops, often made from whatever the shop sells, or sometimes just folklore-based variants on common things like the “watch for children” sign.

Watch for cyclops children at play

CURRENT MOOD:

The local temple also holds semi-regular Mononoke-ichi art and craft markets, where visitors can buy coasters, sculptures, socks, art books, and more, all of it with a monsters-from-Japanese-folklore theme, or at least, say, eyeballs or white foxes. Depending on the season, you might also be able to get yourself a special bowl of shaved ice.

Current tally: 2 sad, 1 happy

One of the biggest events for this street, though, is a revival every several months of an old tradition based on the same legend: the Hyakki-yakō, or, essentially, “night of a hundred monsters.”3 As night falls, people crowd this street for a parade of monsters and ghouls, organized as a revival of the sorts of costumed parades once held in this part of Kyoto, many centuries ago.

Lanterns and fursuits!

Tengu guy wearing legitimate tall and narrow geta sandals! (not pictured

More foxes, or maybe cats? I am not good at animals.

Fox mask done in makeup, with cool weird contact lenses!

The “HAPPY HALLOWEEN” banners decorating the shops on the next street over last weekend may have been more conventionally Halloween-themed, but Yokai Street certainly felt much more in the spirit of the holiday. Perhaps that’s why they scheduled the parade for October.

For more information on Kyoto’s Hyakki-yakō and Mononoke-ichi events, check out their web site (in Japanese only). Their next event, as of this writing, is schedule for the second half of December: they’ll actually be visiting Tokyo to hold a Mononoke-ichi market there!


  1. Trick-or-Treating still seems decidedly exotic, but on the other hand, Halloween decorations can be seen popping up everywhere. The decorations have been generically “Christmas” or “Valentine’s Day” enough that it has led my wife and me to occasionally jokingly refer to them as “Merry Halloween” decorations. Lots of orange and black around, though, in any case. 
  2. During the Heian era (794–1185), at least in this part of Kyoto, it was said that old household tools and items thrown out while cleaning your home would hold grudges for being disposed of so coldly, so the tools decided to become monsters of various sorts to take their revenge on those who threw them out. As a result of this belief (or legend), there were nighttime parades held in this area centuries ago where people would dress up like these monsters. 
  3. Interestingly, this phrase is also used in a non-literal sense to refer to a state of utter chaos. 
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I Really Like Osaka.

Osaka is easily one of my favorite places in Japan — up until early in the 20th century, it was actually the largest city in Japan (and the bombings it experienced during World War II certainly didn’t help it). What’s perhaps more interesting than its size, though, was its traditional clout: back during the feudal era, the merchant town of Naniwa (its name at the time) was enough of an economic powerhouse that, to no small extent, the city just ignored the shogunate government in Edo (now Tokyo).

Because of its history as a city built on and around business, rather than, say, politics and governance (Edo/Tokyo or Kyoto) or culture (Kanazawa), Osaka developed a reputation for… well, for everything that a city with lots of money and nobody to really answer to would develop a reputation for. In particular, Osaka became a center for both food and entertainment, in addition to commerce.

Even today, Osaka’s place in modern Japanese culture leans heavily toward the entertainment industry. The National Bunraku Theatre, dedicated to bunraku puppetry, is located in Osaka, rather than Tokyo as one might expect of a “national” anything.

Of course, more than highbrow entertainment, Osaka is closely associated with lowbrow popular entertainment. It’s widely regarded as that place you go if you’re an aspiring comedian, and rumor has it that people will even cultivate an Osaka accent as a way to make their way into the comedy world.1 This focus on comedy and showmanship has become a fundamental part of Osaka’s character — I’ve said on numerous occasions, half-jokingly, that while your stereotypical Tokyo resident might want nothing more than to drift, ghostlike and unnoticed, from public transit to their office and back every day for forty years, then retire to the country, the stereotypical Osaka resident doesn’t so much believe as simply knows that they will one day be on TV, so it’s crucial to keep in practice every single day.

This can be seen in parts of casual Osaka culture like nori-tsukkomi, which is essentially an extension of straight man/funny man comedy duo dynamics, where, for example, someone might ask for a bottle opener to open a bottle of beer, in response to which someone might hand them, say, a wrench, and say “here you go.” The proper response to something like this in Osaka is to play along for a moment, pretending to use the wrench (or whatever) as a “bottle opener,” after which point the norm is to react in an exaggeratedly exasperated way to the fact that no, of course it’s not a bottle opener.2

One fun thing about this deep cultural emphasis on comedy is its effect on local marketing:

The tooth is basically shouting

A billboard for a dental clinic. The headline at the top reads, in a thick Osaka accent, “Do you want to get your teeth drilled, or don’t you?” The message below the picture says, “If you don’t want to get your teeth drilled, then take precautions [to prevent cavities]!”

The Osaka police also have some really great marketing as well:

“Even if you can’t transform, you can still be an ally of justice.”

“Ideal job candidate.” (The copy underneath the picture reads, “For people who want to preserve their sense of justice.”)


  1. Interestingly, so far as I’m aware, this particular phenomenon isn’t necessarily limited to Japan: I seem to recall having heard a long time ago of a comedian being given advice by a mentor, who told them to, among other things, work to develop at least a hint of a southern US accent. 
  2. This comes directly from a fantastic episode of the TV show Himitsu no Kenmin Show, a show about unique local differences in various regions of Japan that the locals are often unaware aren’t universal. The example given happened with a hidden camera at a restaurant (and actually kept going), where the waiter would bring out a bottle of beer without an opener, and bring out silly things when customers asked for an opener. Osaka has such a uniquely straightforward and showmanship-oriented culture that Kenmin Show has a segment on it practically every week, with the occasional comparison to how people in Tokyo would react to something like responding to a waitress’s “Have you decided what you’d like?” with “Your phone number” (the answer: with a terrified stony silence descending around the entire table, instead of a laugh and/or a clearly fake response like 110, Japan’s emergency number), or how casually people in Osaka ask about one another’s salary or rent (“It’s like asking someone, ‘Did you watch Kenmin Show last night? What’s your rent?’ Same feeling.”). 
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The Secret Ramen District of Kyoto

Kyoto usually brings to mind history and elegant culture, and for good reason. However, Kyoto also has more colleges per capita than any other city in Japan, giving it a second, very different personality.

One particularly good example of these dual personalities is food. While Kyoto has many exceptional kaiseki restaurants, there are also many restaurants for college students, and that means ramen. In fact, on Higashioji-dori, between Ichijoji and Shugakuin stations in northeast Kyoto, there are currently fifteen ramen shops, with no fewer than five more a fairly short distance away.

Perhaps most surprisingly, especially given Kyoto’s reputation for delicate, subtle, refined cuisine, what most of Japan thinks of as thick, rich ramen (like Hakata-style tonkotsu soup, made from pork bones) is considered “average,” or even relatively light, in Kyoto. For ramen, and seemingly ramen alone, Kyoto craves nothing more than something rich, thick, and flavorful.

Kyoto prefers a type of soup called marudori paitan (a type of chicken soup made by cooking chickens, meat and all, at a rolling boil, instead of the usual clear chicken stock made by simmering carcasses without the meat, making sure to prevent it from coming to a boil), and in extreme cases the soup is thick enough to nearly be a sauce — the noodles sit on top of the soup, instead of sinking into it, necessitating stirring.

In fact, the original Tenka Ippin (a relatively famous chain, known for their rich chicken soup) is located in this part of Kyoto, and in recognition of local and nationwide ramen preferences, their thickest and richest ramen soup is only available at their original shop in Ichijoji.

If you find yourself in Kyoto and you’re a fan of ramen with rich, thick soups, it’s worth making a trip to this area to try some out! My personal favorite is Akihide (the last one in the video), but when there’s this much competition, you’ll find that everyone is great, just as a matter of keeping up with the surroundings.