Friday, November 25, 2011

Honma Dekka? An Exchange Program

The other day, I met an Australian girl who has come to my home prefecture as an exchange student. She told me she would be attending school in Niigata City for the next two months and was interested in Japanese fashion and culture.

This was her second trip to Japan as she had visited Tokyo, Kyoto and Miyajima on a school-sponsored excursion two years ago. I noticed that she always carried a book with her and she admitted to me that she was something of a bookworm. I found her to be quite engaging and smart.

I immediately liked her. Admittedly, however, I am almost predisposed to liking exchange students. You see, I spent the summer of 1977 in Annapolis, Maryland with a wonderful family whom I am still in contact with to this very day.

Also, my son spent a year as an exchange student in Raleigh, North Carolina. It made such an impression on him that he decided to spend a year in Venice, Italy to study philosophy and international relations at a university there.

As my blog mentions, I am the chief of the Niigata chapter of the Experiment in International Living. In fact, the Australian girl I met came here under the auspices of my organization.

Coincidentally, I was watching a Japanese variety show, “Honma Dekka” (“Is it True?”), which is hosted by the famous Japanese comedian, Akashiya Sanma. One of his guests was a chiropractor, Takuma Usuda, who seemed very familiar to me.

Suddenly, I realized that he was one of the students that I had taken on an exchange visit to Springfield, Illinois some 25 years ago. I was so surprised to see him, I went online and found his email address and sent him a message.

He wrote back that, not only did he remember me, but that he also felt that he owed me a lot. He told me that he attributed much of his success in life to that summer he spent in the States and that it had encouraged him to study abroad.
He told me that he owns a practice in Tokyo and that he also teaches part-time at Waseda University. We have since made plan to reunite in Tokyo sometime in the near future and talk about old times, perhaps over a cup of sake.

This is why I have such a passion for exchange programs. I truly feel that they can make a difference in the lives of the students who participate in them. I want students to go abroad and I want to find families who would like to act as host families for these students. If you are interested in hosting exchange students, please feel free to contact me. I would love to hear from you.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

KAKURI Corporation

Mr. Mutsuhiro Kato, the vice president of KAKURI Corporation, is like a magnate, attracting the attention of other entrepreneurs in Sanjo City. He often tells people that dreams can become goals if you work hard.

He said he used to dream of selling his wares all over the world, but it now is a goal that has been partly attained. “It takes time,” he said, “but I never give up.”

(The chisels won an award for Good Design from Japan Institute of Design Promotion.)↓
Sanjo City has long been noted for the production of hardware and metal ware tools and goods. KAKURI Corporation, which deals mainly with carpenter tools, such as saws, planes, chisels, knives and kitchen cutleries, stands out amongst its competition.

Mr. Mutsuhiro Kato, who is in charge of the KAKURI Corporation’s factory sector, KAKURI WORKS LTD., said that half of the products made by the factory are sold to overseas clientele. Its high-quality tools are particularly popular in China, where it has shifted much of its production.

While he had some struggles breaking into China’s market, after doggedly negotiating with Chinese buyers for ten years, he gradually gained friendships and trust and slowly built the company’s reputation there.

Mr. Kato, who continues to tirelessly meet with businesspersons from around the world, hopes to expand his company’s global sales even further. His next dream is to increase sales in Europe, and he, along with other young, up-and-coming entrepreneurs in the Tsubame-Sanjo area, make an annual trek to display their commodities at a trade fair in Ambiente, which is in Frankfurt, Germany.

Likewise, when Europeans and other foreign businesspeople visit this area, they often visit his company and he acts as their host. English, he says, is the language they often communicate in.

 (Mr. Kato with Chinese students at his factory in Sanjo City.)

He is such a diligent worker that many people ask to hear about his successes; however, he is not reluctant to disclose his failures, and welcomes anyone who wants to learn from him. If he is asked to talk about exports from Sanjo City, he never hesitates. He often gives lectures to business and community groups and sees these as opportunities to volunteer his knowledge.

He loves these opportunities to greet people from all over the world and views these “chance meetings,” as he calls them, as very important. Whether it is in Japanese or English, he loves communicating.

(With consummate skills, KAKURI's accomplished, experienced hand finalizes ultimate-level blades.)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Snowpeak - natural lifestyle creator

He sits down to a family dinner only a few times a month as his hectic schedule takes him everywhere, throughout Japan and overseas. He often works from morning to midnight.

Is Snowpeak’s president Tohru Yamai a typical Japanese workaholic out to get rich? No, he says, he mainly works to make his community wealthier and its people happier. However, he is ambitious and his ambitions have grown bigger and bigger over the years as he has expanded the business that was handed down to him from his father.

His business’s success has allowed him to open a new company headquarters on a hilly ranch site four times as large as the Tokyo Dome baseball park in the Shitada District of Sanjo City in April. The site was chosen because Snowpeak deals with the production and distribution of outdoor gear, and the areas surrounding the new building are some of the best camping sites around.

Along with the new headquarters, 60 of his 130 staff members moved to Shitada, planning, designing, producing, selling and even repairing high class goods there in this all-in-one building. The office building won an award for Good Design from Japan Institute of Design Promotion.

He said Snowpeak brand goods are more luxurious than those used by most traditional campers, but they are also highly user-friendly and fashionable. Likewise, his camping sites are of a more sanitary-design and are as equally luxurious as the goods he sells. However, his company doesn’t just please those of us who enjoy camping right here in Sanjo, it also has shops throughout Japan as well as foreign countries such as Korea, Germany and the USA.

Mr. Yamai’s unstoppable quest for excellence didn’t just start after he came to be president of the company. Even back in his high school days when he was on the baseball team, he played with the sole goal of playing for the national high school championship at Koshien Stadium. He had dedicated his whole life to that point to baseball.

After entering university in Tokyo, he pursued his outside interests with far more dedication than he gave to his course work. However, as he grew to be a full-fledged member of society, he began to channel the same energy he had spent on sports and partying to helping others. When a devastating flood hit Sanjo City in 2004, he volunteered to help in the cleanup every day for more than three weeks, without ever visiting his office. Likewise, after the great 3/11 earthquake, his company collected a total of 10,000 tents, sleeping bags, mats and rugs from all over Japan and provided them to many victims and many volunteers who were helping out with search, rescue and restoration projects.

These days, a lot of his energy is devoted to sharing his love for nature and healthier lifestyles. When he’s not doing that, he is helping to foster young and energetic entrepreneurs and business people by volunteering his experience and knowhow. When he was still an active member of the Japan Junior Chamber, the older members tutored him and helped him to “grow up” and he now feels compelled to give back.

As for his company, he hopes that it will be able to serve 100,000 customers a year in five years. As a “citizen of the earth,” as he sometimes refers to himself, he simply wants to contribute positively to society.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Time-Honored Classy Onsen Ryokan, Rankeiso

Rankeiso, located in the Shitada area of Sanjo City, is popular among “onsen” lovers young and old as it is one of Niigata’s best hot spring inns.

When I was a high school teacher in Sanjo, I often volunteered to be an organizer of school parties in order to choose Rankeiso as the venue as it is an ideal setting for relaxing parties.

Recently, I met Rankeiso’s president, Keigo Otake, who is the fourth-generation manager of this family-owned inn. Though he comes across as a bit shy, he is not timid when he speaks about the three points that make his inn one of Japan’s best secluded hot spring spots.

First, he noted, the quality of the inn’s onsen baths is outstanding. The cold spa water is quite rich in minerals and surprisingly tasty. It is a little salty and tastes like seaweed tea. He even uses the water to make Onsen-gayu, a special type of rice porridge for breakfast.

A second factor that makes this inn an unforgettable experience, he noted, is the tantalizing cuisine. Four distinguished chefs turn any of the inn’s traditional country-styled dishes into a high-class banquet. (Having recently attended a family reunion at the Rankeiso where we partook of many of the inn’s best delicacies, I can personally attest that this is no exaggeration.)
The third element, he touched on, and perhaps the most important, is how the inn lies in gentle harmony with it natural surroundings. Scenic woods envelope the inn while the Sumon River runs beside it, allowing those who come there to feel as one with nature.

During our talk, Mr. Otake noted that the “Go” in his given name, Keigo, means “five.” In this way, his parents and grandparents consigned in him five wishes. He didn’t say a lot, but he knows what his family expected of him and he is obviously full of high hopes for his inn.
He didn’t brag about his high ambitions to expand his business, but he did modestly mention that he would like to keep pace with the times. He then concluded my interview by saying he envisions the future of his inn, the village and its people, all the time.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

English Lessons in San Francisco

Niigata University of Management, where I teach English pedagogy, sends students to overseas schools each year. Students here have opportunities to visit campuses in China, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States.

Last month from September 4th to 17th, I escorted a small group of students who wanted to study English to San Francisco. They attended Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, south of San Francisco, which has an affiliated language school within the campus that offered them a two-week special language course.

I was responsible for taking care of them during the program, but while I stayed at a local motel in Belmont, the students were staying with host families in San Francisco. It was good for them to be able to meet and learn how American students spend their home and campus lives.

The language school, named TALK, offers English courses to meet the needs of a wide variety of students. My students took a placement examination at the beginning of the course, and were put into suitable small-sized classes.

Notre Dame de Namur University was founded in 1851 and is one of the oldest universities in California. ( The campus is located about twenty minutes south of San Francisco. The famous Silicon Valley, home to Google, Yahoo, Intel and Apple, is ten minutes away, and it is also a close neighbor Stanford University. Like San Francisco, Belmont’s weather is gorgeous, always mild, cool and clear, though walking around in the sun can still leave you sweaty.

The language school provided a lot of extra activities, such as sightseeing trips to downtown San Francisco, tickets to a San Francisco Giants’ baseball game and a bicycle outing that took us across the Golden Gate Bridge. As a proponent of international exchange programs, I believe programs like this truly expand a student’s knowledge and provide the kind of perspective and experience needed in today’s global society.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Iiyuratei Spa Reopens in Novemeber

Two months have passed since a dreadful torrent washed away several places in the Shitada district. Most of the devastated areas have been restored, but there are still many places along the mountainous roads and rivers that have not been. Full restoration will take more time.
One such area is Shitada’s most popular resort facility. Its name, Iiyuratei, is a pun based on a local dialect, meaning “It’s indeed good hot water.”
The spa, which looks down from the spectacular view atop Mt. Yagigahana, just upstream from the Ikarashi River, was damaged to a great extent and will need another month of repairs before reopening. Once it does, I highly recommend going there as it is in walking distance of the beautiful rice terraces of which I am particularly fond. The hot spring and health facility, which welcomes Onsen lovers throughout the year, is also connected to the Hayabusa Sports Center and is in the vicinity of the Yagigahana Auto Camping site. I think it is an ideal place to spend a weekend.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

We’ve had enough natural disasters.

In Japan, everywhere, except Hokkaido, experiences “the rainy season” before summer. Traditionally, we have had very steady rain during that time. We have also tended to get our fair share of typhoons in summer and fall. These rains have made our country rich in water and crops.

However, recently, it never rains but it pours. This week, another big typhoon, the second in a month, rampaged through Japan. It is now common to read in the reports of the Meteorological Agency phrases like “the most powerful typhoon on record,” “the warmest day/summer/year on record,” “the largest storm in recorded history,” and so on.

The Ikarashi River in Sanjo City, famous for its beauty, was believed to have been rendered harmless after its banks were reinforced following what was believed to have been a 100-year flood that damaged large portions of my hometown seven years ago.

However, on July 31, we experienced rainfalls so heavy that even this new infrastructure was overwhelmed and the overflow again destroyed many houses, buildings, roads and even the terraced rice paddies that I mentioned in a previous blog. “A natural disaster strikes when people lose their memory of the previous one” is an often quoted Japanese saying. These days, with the last disaster still fresh in our minds, another one comes without mercy. If these recent abnormal weather patterns represent my country’s new normal, then we truly need to learn how to live with disasters.

 These pictures show Sanjo City in 2004.

 This one was taken this past August.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Himesayuri Lilies and Tanada Rice Terraces

On a fine sunny June day, I went to admire the official Sanjo City flower, himesayuri, and tanada, the terraced rice fields at Kita-Imogawa. This hamlet, which is located on the outskirts of Sanjo City, faces the eastern side of the cliff off Mt. Yagigahana (see the picture shown with the title of this blog article).

Himesayuri, my most favorite flower, literally means “princess lilies,” but is translated as “star lilies” by Sanjo City officials. Its alternative name is otomeyuri, “maiden lilies.” They are listed as endangered, and can be found only in a limited number of places in Japan, but they are ubiquitous around the ruins of Takajo Castle and its surrounding hiking trails.

Around this area, the somewhat dainty flower is known to bloom from mid-May to mid-June. The flowers in the pictures below were not from Takajo, but were unexpectedly found along the paths of the paddy fields at Kta-Imogawa. When I saw them, I wished they had been protected by ringed fences.

Look at the beautiful photos of Tanada below.
The Kita-Imogawa’s tanada is listed as one of Japan’s top 100 terraced rice fields by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry of Japan. The rice-planting season was just finished a few weeks ago, and I believe this is the most beautiful time of the year to view them.

I feel so serene looking down at the village from the top of the tanada.

It is definitely easier to plant rice in plain fields, but the lack of space in the mountainous villages made farmers decide to reclaim heavy slopes, creating graduated terrace steps. These turned to be some of the most delicious rice produced in Japan as these mountainous areas are rich in pure waters from melted snows, a determinative of the quality of rice.

Niigata prefecture is the largest, sometimes second largest, producer of rice output in Japan. For that reason, Niigata is also the biggest sake and rice cracker producer as well.

If you get the chance, why don’t you hike along Shitada’s trails?

Monday, May 30, 2011

My colleague is appearing in the TV program

On the set of NHK's Netchu Stadium

My colleague, Tim Finney, visited NHK Studios to tape an episode of Netchu Stadium. Tim, an English language instructor at Niigata University of Management, was included on a panel of thirty guests that talked about American comic book heroes who are popular in Japan. During the taping, he was situated right behind the special guest panelists. He said, "We filmed two 45 minute shows. This (picture) shows the set as it was during the first show, which was primarily about the Marvel Comic characters, Spider-Man & Iron Man. See if you can spot me amongst my fellow ‘otaku’ (nerds)!”
The shows run on 6/9 & 6/16 on NHK's BS Premium at 11:30 p.m.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Harpsichord producer restores medieval music

Living in a tranquil and snow-deep countryside, Shitada, in Sanjo City, a serene artisan sedulously has produced cembalo, an Italian word for harpsichords, and clavichords for many years. Yashushi Takahashi, now a half-century old, is also my old high schoolmate.
The harpsichord was believed to be invented in the late Middle Ages. European harpsichord makers were making the instrument as far back as the Renaissance and Baroque music eras. Due to the rise of the piano in the late 18th century, it lost popularity. However, after gradually making a comeback in the 20th century, it is once again resurgent today. Players now perform both older works and contemporary music with the harpsichord.

The clavichord is also a European stringed-keyboard instrument. Its history is a little longer and was mainly played for practice purposes and as an aid in composition.
Surprisingly, Yasushi collects materials, designs the instruments and, with the exception of such things as nails, screws and strings, he makes and assembles everything in his studio workshop.
He is normally reticent and genial, but if you get him talking about his instruments and music, he becomes impassioned. When it comes to his craft, he is even willing to bring (drag) his harpsichord across oceans and continents, to show off his wares as he did at an international exhibition and convention in Italy in 2009. There, he spoke at length in English about both his large masterpieces and production activities in Japan and received the applause and adulation from those in attendance. (The subject of his speech was “A Study of Clavichord Scale Design.”)
He is now dreaming of holding a small concert and gathering in Niigata for devotees of older musical instruments to exchange and share knowledge, ideas and love of music. Please feel free to visit his website and learn more about medieval musical instruments.
Of course, you can also buy one.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Hanami Season Coming Up!

Spring has come to my house at last.
Japanese people enjoy tracking the "sakura zensen" (cherry-blossom front) as it moves northward up the archipelago in concert with spring's warmer weather. Sakura usually come earlier here in my city, but, while cooler temperatures have delayed them, "hanami" (cherry blossom viewing) season is finally upon us!

In fact, the ones in my garden are almost at their best. Adding to my enjoyment are the bush warblers singing beautifully in the trees in a neighboring small shrine.

Symbolic to us is the fleeting beauty of the cherry blossom. Because of their short blooming time, extreme beauty and quick death, they represent the transience of life. Let’s go on a cherry blossom viewing picnic.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Doll Festival

March 3 marks the “Hina Matsuri” or “Doll Festival.” It was formally called “Momo no Sekku” or “Peach Festival for Girls.”

The following two pictures show a typical doll display set up in houses with daughters. The dolls are customarily handed down from mother to daughter and often go back generations. Usually the set includes dolls representing the emperor and empress, three court ladies, five musicians, two ministers and three servants situated on five to seven stepped-shelves covered with a red cloth.

After the display is set up, daughters dress in a traditional-styled Japanese kimono. Afterward, family members gather in the room and enjoy drinking shirozake, a sweet, non-alcoholic sake made from rice malt, and eating sweetened puffed-rice crackers while listening to or singing a song written specifically for the festival.

This custom became popular after the Meiji Era near the end of the nineteenth century, however it is believed to have its origins in Heian court practice, about one thousand years ago.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Niigata Prefecture in White

Looking at Mt. Yagihana covered with snow makes me feel peaceful. People from outside of Niigata may want to enjoy beautiful snowy scenes and skiing on the hills, but for most of Niigata’s residents and many other people in the northern part of Japan, this year’s huge snowfall is a matter of life and death.

My residence in Sanjo City usually does not have too much snow, but as you can see in the pictures below, my house is buried under a blanket of white snow. The snow is not what you might call a “powder snow,” but rather, it is damp and heavy. My biggest worry is that it might collapse the house so I had to clear it from the roof.

Until the early February, we were fighting against the snow, plowing and shoveling. Unlike us, some people living closer to the mountains were completely snowed in, especially the elderly. Fortunately, there is a lull in the weather.

It reminds me of the snowfalls Niigata used to receive in my youth. As the years went by, however, my prefecture has received less and less snow each year, at least until this year. Perhaps our unpredictable weather patterns are due in part to global climate change.