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World Heritage Sites in Japan

30 Sep

 

Kasuga Taisha, part of the Nara World Heritage Site

It gives me great pleasure to introduce John Dougill as my guest blogger.  He is the author of Japan’s World Heritage Sites. Take it away, John.

In 2012 I set off to tour all of Japan’s World Heritage sites, travelling the length of the country from the north of Hokkaido down to Okinawa as I had been commissioned by a publisher to produce an illustrated guide to the sites.  It was an auspicious year to do the trip —not only was it the twentieth anniversary of Japan’s first World Heritage registration, but it was the fortieth anniversary of the Unesco convention.

Japan is a surprisingly long country, and the trip took over four months as I moved steadily southwards from the subarctic in Shiretoko down towards the subtropical in Okinawa and Ogaswara.  Contrary to the popular notion of Japan as a place of overcrowded cities, the journey began and ended in remote areas of unspoilt nature.

Shuri Castle (Okinawa)

Shuri Castle (Okinawa)

Few countries can be as pleasant to travel around as Japan, for its people are unfailingly polite and the transport system efficient and timely. Though public transport was my preferred option, car rental sometimes proved the only practical option.

Along the way there were plenty of adventures. In the mountainous Shirakami area of northern Honshu my driver fell asleep at the wheel one afternoon, not only wrecking the car but managing to strand us in one of the few spots in Japan with no mobile access and no passing traffic. As midnight approached and we sat vainly trying to sleep in the wrecked vehicle, a flashing light split the darkness and a small police car arrived to tell us that we were camping illegally!

Beach tree in Shirakami-Sanchi (Aomori prefecuture)

Beach tree in Shirakami-Sanchi (Aomori)

There were other close encounters. At Shiretoko the hiking group I was with almost came across a mother and cub brown bear, said to be the most dangerous combination for humans. We thought we had steered well clear of them, but had to think again when we came to a clearing with uprooted plants and pungent smell. A few minutes earlier and we would have inadvertently stumbled upon them.

Bear in Shiretoko Peninsula (Hokkaido)

Bear in Shiretoko Peninsula (Hokkaido)

Shiretoko coast

Shiretoko coast

Two days later in Shirakami Sanchi I did stumble upon a bear, at the aptly named Black Bear Falls. It was coming round a bend in the path, and although the advice in such cases is not to panic, I was just about to run for my life when fortunately the bear beat me to it.

Sadly it was not possible to do all the sites full justice, for hiking every single nature trail and pilgrimage route could take years. Moreover, there were times when it seemed that fate was determined to thwart me, for it seemed everywhere I went there was something under repair. This was sometimes due to the natural disasters that plague Japan — the pond garden at Hiraizumi had been damaged by earthquake, and the surrounds of the Nachi waterfall by a typhoon.

There was a greater factor at play, however: of the 3600 buildings in Japan designated as important cultural properties, 3300 are wooden. When these ancient buildings need renewing, the repairs can be costly and time-consuming.

Byōdō-in under repair (Kyoto)

Byōdō-in under repair (Kyoto)

Seigantoji (Wakayama)

The Seiganto-ji pagoda and Nachi waterfall, part of the Kii Hanto site

So which were my favorite sites?

The biggest ‘wow’ came amidst the fabulous gnarled cedar trees of Yakushima even though I’d been to the island before and knew what to expect. Walking in the woods one early morning, I stood riveted to the spot as the sun came up over a hillside and a whole swathe of forest was slowly brought to life by its spreading rays. It was as if a black-and-white painting was being transformed before my very eyes into full colour. Sheer magic!

Deer in Yakushima (Kagoshima)

Deer in Yakushima (Kagoshima)

Yaku monkey in Yakushima (Kagoshima)

Yaku monkey in Yakushima (Kagoshima)

The site that most took my fancy, however, was my final destination. It was quite literally ‘a voyage of discovery’, for the only way to Ogasawara is 25 hours by ship. It means that relatively few travel to the thinly populated islands despite the beauty of subtropical hillsides set amongst Pacific blues. They were registered with Unesco because of the unusual life-forms that have developed over the millennia, but for myself the history of the islands was no less alluring.

Until the 1840s Ogasawara was uninhabited, and the archipelago was first settled by a group of Westerners and Pacific Islanders (some of whose descendants remain to this day).  At one point Britain and the US were arguing over ownership, and only after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 did the islands become officially part of Japan.

There is something of the charm of the southern seas about Ogasawara, and perhaps it was the enchantment of distance, or perhaps it was simply because my journey was drawing to an end, but whatever the reason Japan’s most remote World Heritage turned out the nearest to my heart. You could say it was one site that truly ‘registered’.

Ogasawara

Ogasawara

Flower in Ogasawara

One of the unique flowers endemic to the Ogasawara Islands

Since the writing of this piece, another World Heritage site has been added to make a total of 18 in all for Japan.   The Tomioka Silk Mill in Gunma was registered this year with Unesco.
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JOHN DOUGILL is the author of Japan’s World Heritage Sites (Tuttle, 2014).  He lives in Kyoto and writes a blog about the role of Shinto in Japanese culture, http://www.greenshinto.com.

6 Tips for Learning Japanese

2 Jul

JapaneseHave you wondered why some people learn a language better than others?  I’ve had a long time to think about this subject, because I’ve spent most of my adult life using my second language – English.  When I moved to the U.S 16 years ago, I spoke very little English.  After many trials and errors I began to realize some essential knowledge that applied to acquiring English that no one had taught me.  And then I realized that the same principle applied to learning Japanese, while teaching Japanese to Americans.  Here are 6 tips for learning Japanese:

1. Let go of your fear of being embarrassed

I think this is the most important aspect of learning any language – let go of your fear of being embarrassed.

When we’re trying to speak a language we don’t know very well, it is natural to be self-conscious.  We want to pronounce words correctly while appearing intelligible.  But being concerned about these things won’t help you improve the language.  You’re going to make mistakes and possibly going to embarrass yourself.  The sooner you accept that, the faster you’ll become fluent.

And here is a good news:  No one cares about your mistakes as much as you do.   So don’t worry about it and move on.

2. Speak clearly and loudly

Japanese people speak to each other as if they were whispering or mumbling.  But if you spoke in this matter with your beginner’s Japanese, they can’t understand you.

Believe it or not, sometimes it is a simple matter of speaking loudly, clearly, and slowly that will help a person understand you.   This is related to the first point – Don’t be afraid of making mistakes.  So when people don’t understand you, here is what I want you to do: First, repeat exactly what you just said, but do so more clearly and loudly.  Then, if the person still does not understand you, try a different word or a sentence.

3.  Practice it every day

Learning a language is very much like learning to play a musical instrument.  It’s better to practice it 15 minutes every day than 1 hour once a week.  Learning a language takes discipline, commitment, and willingness to do the same thing over and over again until you master it.

4. Develop a good sense of hearing

Having a good sense of hearing is imperative to learning a new language, because it requires you to distinguish subtle nuances in sound.  I believe that being a musician has helped me learn new languages over the years.

So how does one develop a good sense of hearing?  For starters, turn down the volume when listening to music or watching TV. Listening to loud sounds can damage your ears, and it has long term consequences.

5. Learn Japanese from a person of the same sex

This is very important if you want to learn casual/informal Japanese, because Japanese men and women speak quite different when speaking casually (We speak polite forms similarly).

Over the years I’ve met many American men who speak Japanese like Japanese women, because they learned it from their Japanese ex-girlfriends or female friends.  As you can imagine this is not the most attractive thing.

6.  Find a person who wants to understand you

How well someone understands you has partly to do with how well you speak the language, and partly to do with how much they want to understand you.  You probably already know this, because it’s the same thing even when two people speak the same language.

In my first year in America when I spoke little English, people who understood me the best were those who were interested in what I was trying to say and who cared enough to make that effort.  Whenever we’re having a conversation, it’s a two-way street.

I hope you’ll find a Japanese person who is willing to spend his/her time and energy to understand you.  This is probably the fastest way for you to learn Japanese.

If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world. ~Ludwig Wittgenstein

Related Article:

Is Japanese Hardest Language to Learn?

9 Things You didn’t Know about Shinkansen

1 Jun
Shinkansen at Tokyo Station

Shinkansen at Tokyo Station

The Shinkansen (新幹線 new trunk line), also known as the “bullet trains” is a network of high speed railway lines in Japan. The shinkansen network consists of multiple lines, connecting most major cities on the islands of Honshu and Kyushu, with construction of a link to the northern island of Hokkaido underway.

Traveling by the shinkansen can be pricey, but it’s an incredibly pleasant and comfortable experience.  It’s by far my favorite way of traveling the country.

Here are 9 interesting facts about the shinkansen:

1. How reliable is it?

According to the report in 2012, the Shinkansen’s average delay from schedule per train was 36 seconds, including delays due to uncontrollable causes, such as natural disasters.

2.  Is it safe?

The Shinkansen has an impressive safety record.  Over the Shinkansen’s 49 year history, carrying nearly 10 billion passengers, there have been no passenger fatalities despite frequent earthquakes and typhoons.

3. How fast is it?

The maximum operating speed is 320 km/h (200 mph). Test runs have reached 443 km/h (275 mph) for conventional rail in 1996, and up to a world record 581 km/h (361 mph) in 2003.

4. How many Shinkansen do they run per day?

About 800 trains per day, although the number of tarins depends on the day.

5. What is “Shinkansen Theater”?

It refers to the cleanup crew who clean the entire train in 7 minutes.  I don’t know how they do it, but the shinkansen is always clean.  You’ll have to see it to believe it.  Check out this video.

6. Who invented Shinkansen?

The shinkansen was invented by Japan’s chief railway engineer, Hideo Shima (島 秀雄).  He wanted to design the trains to “feel like an airplane” which he succeeded in creating.  After retiring from the railway career, he became the head of the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA), where he pushed the development of hydrogen engines to power rockets.

7. Can you bring food and eat at Shinkansen?

Yes, you can.   It is typically not okay to eat in most other trains in Japan, but it is fine to do so at Shinkansen.  Most people bring foods and beverages and enjoy them on the train.  For this reason you’ll always find stores selling bento box (lunch box) at Shinkansen stations.

8.  Are there discount tickets for Shinkansen?

Yes, check out Japan Rail Pass .  Note that this is available only for foreign tourists, and it has to be purchased before arriving to Japan.

9.  Can you see Mt. Fuji from Shinkansen?

Yes. When you are traveling on the Shinkansen around Shizuoka prefecture, you can enjoy viewing Mt. Fuji if the weather is good enough.

View of Mt. Fuji from Tokaido Shinkansen Photo by Alexander Mirochnik, Under the Creative Common License

View of Mt. Fuji from Tokaido Shinkansen
Photo by Alexander Mirochnik, Under the Creative Common License

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