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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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Hunting for Bugs, in a Sense

It should come as no surprise that, much like the rest of the world, I have been:
  1. Not been going outside unless necessary
  2. Playing a great deal of Animal Crossing
Animal Crossing has proven to be quite a delight for a number of reasons (including the extremely good localization job done by Nintendo), but perhaps chief among them has been the way that it neatly fits a hobby I’ve had for a while now, for whatever reason. For years, now, I’ve been fond of photographing bugs and other small creatures when I encounter them when I’m out. Now that there’s more pressure not to go out unless necessary, there’s been less time for that hobby, but on the other hand, it’s been nice to have Animal Crossing available — and it’s been very interesting to note just how Japanese the various bugs are that are depicted in-game.
For instance, these jewel beetles can be found from time to time in Japan. They are indeed aptly named: they sparkle and glitter like gems in the sun. One imagines that this makes them highly visible to predators, though.
The spiders that show up in Animal Crossing (not the tarantulas) are also very similar to the kind of large, black and yellow spiders you’ll find throughout Japan, especially toward the end of summer or early autumn.
It’s interesting to note just how large some of the bugs you’ll find in Japan can be, too. This moth was large enough that we couldn’t help but wonder how it could fly. That being said, though, it did seem to be having some difficulty with that at the time.
Dragonflies are a symbol of mid to late summer in Japan, presumably because they are just EVERYWHERE. They also seem uniquely unafraid of humans, such as photographers, making them a great subject for getting up close to take a picture.
Speaking of big cool bugs that don’t really pose much of a threat to humans, I’ve always been fond of mantises. While they can be found overseas — I remember seeing them from time to time when growing up in the US — they seem to be much more common in Japan. One thing that’s especially endearing about them, to me, is that they don’t have a larval form. As a result, a young mantis just looks like a super tiny version of an adult mantis. For an idea of scale, that first photo is of a mantis nymph on the end of a ball-point pen.
And of course, there are other small creatures that are still fairly photogenic. Whenever it rains, it feels like suddenly a hundred snails appear near my home. I suppose that makes sense — they prefer wet environments, after all.
I also have an inexplicable fondness for small crabs. The river near my apartment seems to be home to a fair number of these little crabs — for an idea of the size, the crab is standing on a manhole cover, and its body is roughly the size of a circle made by touching the tip of your finger to the tip of your thumb. I’m not sure why it is that I find tiny crabs so adorable. Perhaps it’s the way they walk so slowly and smoothly compared to, say, cockroaches (which are decidedly not cute bugs). In any case, I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief tour of small animals from outside, as a way to help pass the time while you’re quarantined. Please stay safe, everybody!
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The Start of a New Year in Kanazawa

Certainly, Kanazawa is a beautiful city all year round, but there’s something about winter that feels truly iconic. Maybe it’s just the decorations that go up in December or so. (Please ignore the fact that it’s currently February — it’s been busy!)
At the train station, they put up a Christmas tree in the lobby with Kanazawa-themed decorations, depicting Tsuzumimon Gate (located out front of the station), Kotoji Toro (the iconic two-legged stone lantern from Kenrokuen Garden), yukizuri rope supports used to help trees handle the heavy snowfalls the region generally gets in winter, and — because it is a train station, after all — a Shinkansen train.
This display in Korinbo combines the Christmas tree motif with a slightly abstract depiction of a yukizuri support, for a uniquely Kanazawa approach. More distinctly Japanese, though, are the decorations you’ll see at entrances of both homes and businesses to greet the new year. Here’s a set from a shopping mall:
These decorations are called kadomatsu, and in fact, they’re a ubiquitous enough symbol of the new year in Japan that they’re among the original set of emoji (🎍). These sorts of decorations can be found pretty much everywhere at the end of December and the beginning of January.
A closer look at one placed out in front of a hotel. Delightfully, these decorations can be found even in what might seem like fairly unorthodox locations:
In this case, construction workers decided to spruce up the entrance to their construction site. Naturally, for the new year, the popular custom is to visit a temple or shrine, so I made my way to Oyama Shrine, which was beautifully lit up for the evening.
I’ve always been a fan of its iconic gate. Its blend of architectural styles — you don’t often see stained glass at Japanese religious buildings! — almost feels nowadays like a symbol of the internationalization of Kanazawa, or perhaps even Japan as a whole. If nothing else, it sure is pretty. We walked around a bit more in the area, and came across this unique-looking structure:
It took us a moment to figure out that this was a shrine building with an exterior built on to help it weather the winter. As you approach the front of the building, though, it becomes obvious. Even so, it was kind of an odd experience to look inside a building only to see what is, effectively, the outside of a building. We also saw this phone booth. Nothing especially wintery about it, or anything. It was just kind of fun seeing traditional local architectural styles applied to a phone booth.
If you visit Japan, it’s a common piece of advice to try to avoid the new year, because the whole country kind of closes for the first three or four days of January, but if you’re interested in a perhaps quieter, more contemplative experience (especially if you’re visiting someone), the new year in Japan can be beautiful in its own way.
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Trip to Kyushu!

For the recent long weekend, my wife and I visited Kyushu, because we’d never really spent much time there before. In this case, we mostly stuck to the northern part, around Fukuoka. One thing I’d heard about Fukuoka City is that yatai food stalls were a major part of the local culture. I’d always imagined that, say, there might be three or four out by major train stations, or something like that.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Along this river, at least on weekend evenings, there were dozens of these yatai. Probably as many as thirty or forty, with plenty of others scattered throughout the city: there were many more near the major train stations, and even just in various open spaces. We even saw one that was simply out on the sidewalk in front of a convenience store. This river is also kind of a famous part of Fukuoka City, apparently, and has the sort of large neon signs that Japanese cities’ nightlife districts tend to be known for.
I have a soft spot in my heart for the sorts of older, “animated” neon signs you’ll see in Japan that generally date back several decades. The pre-LED kind.
Our trip also took us to Dazaifu, home of Dazaifu Tenman-gu, a major shrine.
The train station architecture alone provided a solid sense of what to expect in terms of why this town is on the proverbial map.
Apparently, it’s common to come to the shrine to pray for success on, say, tests and other examinations, so there’s a ramen shop next to the station selling gokaku ramen, served in a pentagonal bowl. In Japan, wordplay is often a major part of things that are considered lucky or auspicious, and in this case, it’s based on the similarity between the words gokaku (pentagon) and gōkaku (successfully passing a test). The walk to the shrine was nice, with a number of charming old storefronts, and a definite theme of ume plums in their names and products. This makes sense: the shrine is a Tenman-gu shrine, dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane, or Tenjin, and ume plums are generally associated with him. (Come to think of it, Fukuoka’s nightlife district is also named Tenjin. I wonder if there’s any connection.)
A sweets shop named “Baien,” or “Plum Orchard”
Along the way, though, we also encountered one shop that didn’t quite feel like it fully belonged there, though it was very impressive nevertheless.
I have no idea why there was such a fancy Starbucks here, but… there was! The wood design continued inside, all the way through to the back of the shop. (Pardon the animated image; it was very difficult to capture the 3D feel of the design otherwise.) Not much later, we made our way to the shrine! It was nice.
We also made our way out to Karatsu, Saga for another event while we were in Kyushu: the Karatsu Kunchi festival. Float-based festivals are always fun, and this one was very impressive.
Each part of town has its own elaborate float, made mainly of lacquered wood, and people pull the floats around town with drummers and flute players aboard, sometimes even breaking into a sprint. At some points along the route, the groups come up very close to the edge of the street, where people were gathered to watch, and turn at the last moment.
A few of them, like this goldfish one, even have articulated parts! In this case, the fins move back and forth, and the whole top part is up on a pivot to tilt it forward and back. The floats tended to draw from mythology and history, with a few giant replicas of famous samurai warriors’ masks and helmets, as well as other designs like this treasure ship…
…and this shachihoko, a sort of mythical fish that you’ll often see on Japanese castle rooftops, as a way to ward off disaster.
On the way home, I couldn’t resist taking a few photos while we were at Fukuoka Station before getting on the Shinkansen to go home. We got castella cake from Fukusaya, a famous old shop that dates back hundreds of years. They’re based in Nagasaki, but they have a shop in Fukuoka, as well. Kyushu has a long history of sweets in particular, because for a long time, all of the sugar Japan imported came in through Nagasaki’s Dejima port, and as a result it’s common to add sugar to all sorts of cooking in Kyushu, even today. On the other hand, if I am going to be honest with myself, I took this photo mostly because Fukusaya’s logo made me think of Batman.
And with that, it was time to head home. Just one thing left to do before leaving:
Time to pick up some Kyushu souvenirs. Kyushuvenirs.
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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.


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.


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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Even a Pen Can Speak with an Accent

As anyone who has tried to master a second language can tell you, one of the biggest challenges is to lose your accent and sound like a native speaker — arguably, native-like pronunciation does even more to provide a first impression of proficiency than fluency of expressing ideas, fairly or not. Indeed, the word “shibboleth” — meaning an explicit indicator of in-group status — comes from a Hebrew word used to identify belonging by simple virtue of being difficult to pronounce. Historically, these shibboleths and other demonstrations of in-group status have varied significantly in importance: the results can be anything from not being automatically offered the foreign-language menu at a restaurant to, in some cases, literal survival.

Obviously, in my lifestyle, the former is the much more common variety encountered, and much of it is more a matter of simply learning ways to sound less “foreign,” in order to reduce cognitive burden on others and to avoid simply sticking out as being “unusual,” even in subtle ways.

Interestingly, my first exposure to the idea of having an “accent” that would out one’s status as a non-native speaker of a language came at the age of thirteen or so, during a middle school German class. We learned that, if we were to write our ones and sevens the standard English way, they would look, at a bare minimum, “odd” to native speakers:

I think we can all agree that the difference between ‘one’ and ‘seven’ is overstated anyway.

While a German speaker seeing an English-style “1” might find it a little unusual-looking, but would probably figure out what was intended, the English-style “7” would almost certainly be misread in isolation as a “1” written hastily at a bit of an angle. You may think the German “1” here looks a bit exaggerated, but if anything, I’ve demonstrated restraint — I’ve seen cases where the diagonal bit extends basically all the way down to the baseline. It is presumably due to the influence of German (especially in the US, and especially in my home state of Pennsylvania, which is full of road signs with German and Dutch last names on them) that the German-style “7” is also used in English at least semi-commonly.

On the other hand, Japan has its own way of making sevens a bit more visually distinct: a long serif is ordinarily added, making it look a lot like how ク is ordinarily handwritten. In this case, there’s no real ambiguity being resolved; the English-style “7” would be readily understood, even if, in practice, virtually everybody in Japan writes it with that serif.

Interestingly, your pen can give you away as a non-native speaker in Japanese, even without writing a single word.

Even this example looks like the Arrested Development logo. Or maybe a coupon.

It’s subtle, yes, but somehow, the English-speaking world learns at some point that you circle things by starting at 12:00 or 1:00 and going around counter-clockwise (almost certainly because that’s how the letter “o” is written, at least prescriptively in things like Palmer Method cursive), whereas Japan learns that you circle things by starting at 4:00 or 5:00 and going around clockwise, possibly due to the cultural influence of the enso.

Once you’re aware of this, it’s hard to miss in popular culture: an entire generation of western gamers has no doubt grown up wondering why video games depict things circled in a “handwritten” manner look kind of like a 9. Or perhaps that was just me. On the other hand, you have stuff like the logo for the TV show Arrested Development, which is admittedly not particularly well known in Japan, possibly because any attempt to translate or localize a comedy so heavily dependent on multi-layered English wordplay would be so self-evidently hopeless as to inspire little more than a bleak, mirthless cackle.

Incidentally, at least as of some time ago, when I worked in a Japanese middle school, this “non-native writing” phenomenon worked both ways. Japanese students starting English are taught the alphabet, but presumably due to the influence of kanji and the fact that they each have a proper stroke order, as well as the fact that these strokes are, almost without exception, downward or to the right, students are often taught what would be, to many native English speakers, relatively “unnatural” looking ways to write certain letters.

Yes, I am aware that some native speakers write these letters differently. We’re talking about the big part of the bell curve, mainly.

The biggest and most obvious difference is the fact that, in English, there is more willingness to move the pen upward, either while writing (as in “A” and “N”) or as a general trending direction (as in “E” above). Obviously, the examples shown aren’t entirely universal, since there’s some variation in how English speakers write — the written language is, generally, not taught in as formally regimented a manner as Japanese traditionally is — but by no means do the “native” examples above look unusual or out of place.

Ultimately, these sorts of things aren’t too important in terms of everyday practicality, to be honest; in very few cases will you find yourself expressing yourself inaccurately or imprecisely because you circled something the wrong way. On the other hand, as with any other form of work to minimize your accent in a second language spoken or otherwise, there is a certain satisfaction that can come from attention to detail, adding a level of polish to go beyond merely “good enough” — even if the ultimate goal is to not be noticed.

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On Car Shopping in Japan

Given that my wife and I have no real intention of buying a house or having a kid, last weekend’s trip to the Honda dealership to buy a car is easily the most “adult” thing we’ve done in quite some time.

Perhaps I should start a little earlier in the story. Our previous1 car, a 2003 Fit Aria, was absolutely starting to get a bit long in the tooth — leaving aside its generally unfortunate-looking condition after a number of harsh Hokuriku winters, the radiator was cracked and in need of outright replacement, and between the price of that and the fact that we’d be looking at a substantial outlay this June for the shaken car inspection (easily ¥200,000 or more, because there is a minimum fee of something like ¥60,000 or ¥70,000 simply for the two years of compulsory insurance, plus a huge amount to get that car up to code), we figured, hey, it sounds like time to consider simply replacing our car.

It actually looked even worse on the inside.

The car-buying experience in Japan is, as has no doubt been written about countless times on the internet, rather alien to Americans.2 While there is certainly a degree of upselling of optional luxuries,3 there is a refreshing straightforwardness about a lot of the process: there are certain packages that include certain features, and you simply pick one of them as a baseline to work from.4

The interesting thing, from an American perspective, is how much paperwork there is involved: the dealership will generally require official proof of a parking space (to be obtained from one’s landlord), an officially registered seal and a certification of its validity from the local government office, etc. The payment, if going with a single lump-sum payment rather than credit, is also quintessentially Japanese: the buyer simply transfers the money from their own bank account to the bank account of the dealership, and the dealership looks at the name on the transfer to confirm who it came from.5

And then, if absolutely everything goes right, you may have your new car in as little as a week.

That’s right: unlike in the US, where it is largely safe to assume that you will drive your new car home that very same day, in Japan, your new car won’t be delivered to the dealer for you to drive home for a week or longer, depending on the configuration you’ve requested, because of the fact that they more or less build the car to order. If nothing else, hey, that’s actually pretty neat that the car companies still operate that way. It was certainly a novel surprise to us, at least.

Incidentally, for the curious, the car we went with is another Honda: the N-Box.6

Hot New Squareness

It falls into a legal category known as kei cars, a special type of small, light vehicles with restrictions on engine displacement and wheel size. The upsides include significant tax breaks, absurdly good gas mileage (the official mileage estimates are something like 28 km/l, or well over 68 MPG, which is good but by no means breathtaking among kei cars), and ready availability of some parts (given that the wheel size is standardized, everyone has the right tires available), but with minor downsides like being too narrow to seat five. To be perfectly honest, I’d love to see kei cars make it big overseas, but odds are that there’d be some pretty significant hurdles to that actually happening.7 Still, though, it’s not hard to imagine that there’d likely be a market for a small, efficient car that gets 60+ MPG, with a price tag in the mid $10,000s.

In the meanwhile, we’ll have to simply enjoy our new car here, in the market it was designed for. With any luck, this one will hopefully last another fifteen years, like the one it replaced.

  1. Or technically, at the time of this writing (but not posting), current. Feel free to allow this to recontextualize everything written above, as technically being in the future tense. Alternately, feel free to ignore this fact. 
  2. With the interesting exception of Saturn, a GM brand based on how car sales work in Japan. 
  3. Such as floor mats. 
  4. Though the initial price estimate included a whole bunch of optional features added in, which we then had to ask to remove, one by one. It says a lot about car sales, universally, that this came as a surprise to neither of us. 
  5. A fun thing I learned when trying to pay for our car: unless you tell the Japan Post bank folks otherwise, there is a limit of ¥500,000 per day that you can send as bank account transfers in a single day from an ATM, which is not enough to purchase a brand new car. Obviously, it makes sense that there are safeguards against transferring frankly enormous amounts of money without prior notice, but it’s still inconvenient when I know I’m good for it and that I’m doing it on purpose. 
  6. I don’t have anywhere else to add this, so I’ll just put it in here: when we later went to pick up the car, a week after purchasing it, the manager of the dealership came out to thank us personally, and gave us a little pot of flowers. It was a really nice little gesture, even if he does it for every customer. 
  7. For one, the mere fact that these are cars built specifically to meet guidelines for a single specific country, for reduced tax purposes, is a major benefit domestically that obviously wouldn’t apply overseas. On the other hand, given that they generally get mileage in the same realm as hybrids, perhaps a few countries would be willing to give them a chance. There’s also a major built-in first mover disadvantage — the standardized wheel size in Japan is great, because there’s a whole industry of vehicles that use the comparatively tiny tires that kei cars call for, but if you were to try to sell one overseas, the exact opposite would apply: you’d have a new model of car that would need a size of tire that would be small enough to be vanishingly rare in, say, the US. This is presumably part of why kei cars haven’t really made it overseas, though it feels like they have a lot of potential in urban markets, where being compact but with lots of interior space would be key. Incidentally, speaking of small cars meant for urban markets, only a single foreign-made car has ever achieved kei status in Japan, and not even fully across the board: certain versions of the Smart Fortwo happen to be meet these legal restrictions. 
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A Surprising New Traditional Old Art Form

Japan has enough forms of traditional culture that, as an outsider, you eventually begin to simply get used to being exposed to entirely new fields you had never heard of. It’s another thing entirely to come across something that, apparently, even most Japanese people have never seen nor heard of.

Bonseki is a traditional art that I only found out about entirely by coincidence — an exhibition was being held in downtown Kyoto and I happened to walk by a rather striking display of white-on-black monochrome art.

The window display

The name bonseki literally means “tray stones,” and the name is apt — it uses lacquered trays as a base, upon which landscapes and other images are created using stones of every size, from fine sand sprinkled on and brushed around with feathers to large rocks placed by hand.

A demonstration of bonseki

According to the explanations given by the ladies present, who were showing off the art form and many examples of it, bonseki began as a way of producing drafts for Japanese rock gardens, using sand to represent raked gravel and larger rocks to represent the types of larger boulders often found in these rock gardens.

A dramatic use of larger stones for a sense of depth and realism

The techniques live on in relative obscurity — after all, how often do most of us design and plan rock gardens? — but the group continues to hold meetings with lessons like any other traditional art form, and the styles used and the works created with it have continued to evolve somewhat, though they are still ordinarily used for landscapes of various types.

Water made of sand, crashing up on rocks made of… rocks

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about these works of art came when I found myself asking, out of curiosity, whether any of them were for sale. I was told that, beyond merely being hard to maintain properly, it is, in fact, considered conventional to make no attempt whatsoever to preserve bonseki art for very long; rather, the norm is to simply brush away the sand and collect the rocks, much like their apparent cousin, the sand mandala.

A more contemporary sort of image

For that moment while they’re around, though, they certainly are spectacular.