Inakadate’s Tanbo Art! ~ Art works displayed over a summer ~

Transforming rice paddies into art

The journey to the village of Inakadate-mura is a car trip of approximately 40 minutes from Aomori Airport. Another route is to take a train on the Ou Main Line from JR Shin-Aomori Station to Kawabe Station and then take a taxi for about ten minutes. Inakadate-mura is literally an environment of countryside (inaka) surrounded by rice paddies (tanbo). Although the village has a population of only about 8,200, each year from mid-July to mid-August it’s swarmed by visitors. The sole purpose of their visit is to see “tanbo art (rice paddy art).” Last year, as many as 250,000 people visited Inakadate-mura.

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The history of tanbo art goes back to 1993 when an event featuring “rice” was held in the village. To convey the enjoyment of growing rice and the fun of farming, letters were arranged in rice paddy fields by planting different colors of rice plants, which were later improved with the incorporation of pictorial elements. Through the use of more detailed, artistic designs, the method eventually evolved into the “tanbo art,” whereupon it drew greater attention. It is unknown whether the improved artistic quality is what attracts visitors by the hundreds of thousands, but artistically speaking the “real thing” has the power to attract people.

The tanbo art in Inakadate-mura is now one of Aomori Prefecture’s main sightseeing attractions. Although similar tanbo art can be found in other areas of the country, in comparative terms that of Inakadate is considered highly valuable.

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As the design themes for the year 2014, which marks its twenty-second season, “Mt. Fuji and the Hagoromo Legend” was chosen for the first (main) tanbo art and “Sazae-san” (© the Hasegawa Machiko Art Museum) for the secondary tanbo art. “Mt. Fuji and the Hagoromo Legend” was selected because of Mt. Fuji’s designation as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site. The main rice paddy field features a pair of art works divided by a road that runs in between. Thus the longer side of each art work exceeds 100 meters, being sufficiently large in scale to attract huge crowds.

Seven colorful rice plants

The first question that comes to mind with anyone who sees the rice paddy art is whether it’s created with rice plants alone. Yes, it’s true. Only rice plants are used. It’s obvious, too, when seen from ground level, as the fields are entirely covered by rice plants. The first ricepaddy art for this year used seven colors and ten plant varieties, including “purple-leafed rice” “yellow-leafed rice” and “Tsugaru Roman.” However, as with the Nazca Lines, the designs cannot be grasped from the ground. It’s essential that the art works are appreciated from the observation tower at the Village Hall, which has the appearance of a Japanese castle. On the observation deck, security guards repeatedly call out, “Please do not stop. Keep moving,” but no one listens. Most of the visitors stop to take photos, trying to capture the entire view in a single shot.

Himeji Castle Finally Reemerged

A restoration project for the main keep of Himeji Castle was undertaken in October 2009. The so-called “Heisei (Japanese traditional era name) Restoration”–which took place 45 years after the Showa Restoration in 1964–and for approximately four years the main keep was entirely covered in scaffolding. Then, in June of this year, the scaffolding was finally disassembled and the castle was revealed. Coated in dazzling white plaster, the beauty of the walls calls to mind that of white herons, true to the castle’s nickname, “White Heron Castle.”

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Positioning of the construction

The restoration work was concentrated on [1] white plaster reapplication, [2] roof replacement and [3] anti-seismic reinforcement. Compared to the Showa Restoration, in which buildings were dismantled for repairs, the Heisei Restoration is considered small in scale. Nevertheless, the restoration work for the largest tourism resource in Himeji City was strategically planned to maintain tourism revenue and preserve cultural assets.

“Tenku no Shirasagi,” an observation facility for the restoration work   

Tenku no Shirasagi” (“egret’s-eye view” at Himeji Castle) was established to deepen the public’s understanding of the protection and preservation of cultural assets. It was open to public for two years and ten months–from March 2011 to January 2014–during the restoration period. What is notable with this facility is that it played the primary role in resolving the number-one concern in regard to the restoration project: the decrease of tourism revenue. Thus the facility has helped to maintain revenue by attracting visitors with its observation deck built 100 meters above sea level inside the roofed scaffolding structure, offering the thrill of observing the castle architecture at close hand.

The number of visitors to the facility reached 1.84 million in total, offsetting the decline in the number of visitors to Himeji Castle (approximately 710,000 in 2012 and 880,000 in 2013). The admission to Tenku no Shirasagi was 200 yen, securing approximately 100 million yen in revenue per year. Combined with the admission to Himeji Castle, which was discounted to 400 yen during the renovation, the revenue totaled roughly 300 million yen, sufficiently maintaining the existing labor force and steady castle operation.

Four thousand tons of foundation stone/concrete

Stakes could not be used to secure the foundation when the scaffolding for Tenku no Shirasagi was erected. The areas in and around Himeji Castle are designated as special historic spots, so no ground could be excavated without revealing remains or artifacts. Therefore, to carry out piling work in the areas, excavation research was conducted and measures were taken to protect these archaeological resources. Consequently, the construction period was extended. For that reason, the foundation for Tenku no Shirasagi was built above-ground (instead of burying the foundation). After conducting a boring investigation to confirm the soil strength, foundation stone/concrete amounting to 4,000 tons was laid out, and the scaffolding structure was built on top of it.

Total cost of construction nearing 2.4 billion yen

The total cost for the construction of Tenku no Shirasagi, and other renovation work, was initially projected to be 2.8 billion yen, which, after the bidding, resulted in somewhere close to 2.4 billion yen. For this restoration project, approximately 65% of the total cost (about 1.8 billion yen) was planned to be paid at national expense and approximately 35% (about 1 billion yen) at city expense. Of the share borne by the city, approximately 50% was expected to be funded by public donations. In the end, the public donations exceeded 400 million yen and 50% of the city’s share of the cost was secured. The Showa Restoration (1956 to 1964), by comparison, cost approximately 1 billion yen (equivalent to about 4 billion yen today) and required a labor force of 250,000 persons, which explains why the Heisei Restoration is considered small in scale.

Grand reopening set for March 27, 2015

Approximately 8 months remain until the castle reopens, and Himeji City estimates that the number of castle visitors in 2015 will reach 1.9 million. In 2009, the number of castle visitors exceeded 1.56 million, due to last-minute demand before the restoration. While the maximum capacity of visitors to the castle’s main keep and other attractions is said to be approximately 7,000 persons, 20,000 persons visited the castle per day immediately before the initiation of construction in 2009. In the light of this experience, security and other practical simulations are currently being carried out. The exhibits within the castle have also been renewed and, through the use of AR technology and QR codes located in places, visitors will be able to enjoy audio guidance and virtual images on their smartphones and tablets.

The central part of Himeji City is undergoing various renovation projects, including the redevelopment of the area around the train station. However, its core project still is the restoration of Himeji Castle, the city’s largest tourism resource. Approximately 80% of all tourists to Himeji City visit the area in and around Himeji Castle, and over 50% of them leave the city on the same day. Consequently, several issues must be resolved in order to expand the city’s revenue generation in tourism. For now, we’ll wait and see how the reopening of Hijemi Castle affects the area.

 

The Forefront of Sports Business

~The Tokyo Olympics decision sparks excitement~

The performances of young athletes leading the Japanese sports scene have had a great influence on children and their parents alike, inspiring them to become future Olympians and world-class players. With the approaching Tokyo Olympics, various sports associations have begun to strengthen the development of athletes/players. We are likely to see a huge boom/upward trend in sports activities among young, aspiring Olympians as well as adults who are in turn inspired by them. Here are some sports facilities and classes that are rising in popularity.

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The rise in popularity: Ward-run skating rink

The Sochi Winter Olympics concluded on February 23. Japanese athletes acquired a total of eight medals, second to the achievements at the Nagano Olympics. Among them, the figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu stole the spotlight. He is the first male figure skater to achieve an Olympic gold medal in a field that has been rising in popularity, following the accomplishments of competitors such as Mao Asada and Daisuke Takahashi.

Perhaps due to the effect of the Olympics, Edogawa Sports Land–a facility run by Edogawa Ward–has drawn a great deal of attention. In addition to being the only such facility among all the 23 wards of Tokyo to offer a ward-run ice skating rink (open in October through May), it also accommodates games such as tennis and futsal. Many skaters, ranging from beginners to Japan’s top athletes, visit the rink from all around the nation, “seeking its ice.” The rink has a long history, having been opened by Edogawa Ward in 1982 in response to the voices of elementary school children who wanted a skating rink. The rink accommodates a broad spectrum of ice sports, including figure skating, speed skating, ice hockey and curling, and provides classes for beginner and intermediate students.

The rink recorded 25,865 visitors–a record high in recent years–from the general public this January. Even in March, in which an average of 10,000 visitors is expected, it welcomed 21,985 visitors this year. With the popularity generated by the Olympics, the annual number of visitors has exceeded 110,000 people.

 

The volleyball school with a great reputation

Six more years remain until the Tokyo Olympics. During the previous Tokyo Olympics held in 1964, a Japanese women’s volleyball team known as the “Witches of the Orient” obtained the gold medal and received much recognition. Subsequently, however, the men’s and women’s Japanese volleyball teams went through a period of defeat against foreign teams. Recently, the popularity and skill/performance in volleyball, particularly in women’s volleyball, has been on the rise.

Ohca Sports Management, a nonprofit organization (NPO) that runs the “Ohca Volleyball Club & School,” has extended its reach beyond Tokyo to other regions across the nation, such as Shizuoka and Hiroshima. Thus the membership has seen an increase, thanks to its reputation as a “sport class that’s fun for adults too.”

The cost for a single 50-minute class is 2,990 yen (the lowest general public fare). Their biggest appeal lies in their one-on-one lessons that include the “serve-lesson course,” “spike-lesson course” and “receive-lesson course,” but team lessons are held by spontaneously grouping the day’s attendees. In our interviews of the participants, it was clear that they represented a variety of goals: There was an office worker who was always interested but never had a place to practice; a teacher who had no volleyball experience but was appointed as the volleyball club advisor and wanted better coaching and playing skills; and a girl who wanted to make the team at school.

 

The challenge that class businesses have faced

Given an age in which the need for places of lifelong learning and communication becomes a common topic of discussion, the sports classes and facilities within the region and society play an increasingly important role. However, with demand decreasing due to declining birthrates, aging and a shrinking population, the balance between supply-and-demand and operation costs has become a significant issue. Methods of operation will vary greatly, depending on whether an organization owns a sports facility, and the reality for small to medium-sized private businesses is that it will be costly to enter the field of sports education.

The pure heart and sparkle in a person’s eyes when he or she engages in a sports activity is the same regardless of one’s age. In order to create more places for them to thrive, private businesses might consider collaborating closely with public organizations such as local governments that own such facilities, and provide appealing sports content through a synergistic effect.

Eating Eel (Unagi)on the Midsummer Day of the Ox (Doyo Ushi no Hi)

“Eat eel on the midsummer Day of the Ox”: This is a unique Japanese custom that has been around for as long as we know. People start to crave eel at this time of year, even outside the Day of the Ox, and supermarkets and other stores actively sell the delicacy at bargain prices. Why did we come to eat eel on this day? In order to get to the bottom of it, we looked into the history behind the association of eel with the Midsummer Day of the Ox.

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When is the Midsummer Day of the Ox?

The Day of the Ox, in 2014, falls on Tuesday, July 29. However, last year it fell on Monday, July 22. Why is this day set on a different date each year?

It is because the dates are based on Japan’s old (lunisolar) calendar. The seasons in ancient Japan were divided based on the Inyo Gogyo Setsu, or the Theory of Five Elements. The five elements of wood, fire, metal, water and earth were divided into “wood = spring,” “fire = summer,” “metal = fall” and “water = winter,” with “earth” built into each of the seasons. The period when “earth” is present in the season was referred to as Doyo Youji, which was later shortened to Doyo.

 

Inventor Hiraga Gennai popularized the term

Why did we establish the custom of eating eel on this day, and why did the saying emerge? There are many theories, but it seems most probable that Hiraga Gennai popularized the term. Hiraga Gennai was a renowned genius during the Edo period. Aside from his accomplishments in areas such as botany and Western studies, he was also known as an intellectual, entrepreneur and inventor. When an eel-shop owner and friend asked Gennai what he could do to increase sales, he suggested using the old custom that it was good luck to eat a food that starts with “u” (as in unagi or eel) on the Day of the Ox. Thus the phrase, “Today is the Day of the Ox (Ushi no Hi),” phrase was coined. The anecdote states that this phrase caught on then. It is still used today.

 

Effective not only for summer fatigue but also for longevity

Eel has many nutrients that are effective for recovery from fatigue and the prevention of decreased appetite.

It has an astounding amount of vitamin A. Its vitamin A content is said to be about 4,400 micrograms for every 100 grams. In comparison, sardines have 40 micrograms and mackerel have 24 micrograms. Aside from having the fats necessary to absorb vitamin A, it is also rich in DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid).

According to research by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, Hamamatsu–famous for its eel–was ranked the number-one city for healthy life expectancy. It seems only natural to assume that there is some connection between the fact that the city spends most heavily on eel and that it has the longest healthy life expectancy.

 

What will happen to the price of eel!?

We would love to continue eating eel in order to stay healthy, but recently young eel (shirasu eel) have been difficult to catch, causing market prices to sky rocket. Consequently, this ingredient has become more expensive than ever. The catch this year has been comparatively fair, though, and prices are expected to stabilize.

We all need to consume eel, with its abundance of stamina-rich ingredients, to get through the hot summer days.

Holding a Large Scale Propositional Exhibition

Seeking “Values that Only Foodservice Can Provide”

A comprehensive exhibition for the foodservice industry, Takase Foodservice Expo 2014 (hosted by Takase Bussan Co., Ltd., of Chuo-ku, Tokyo) was held for two days on June 10 and 11 in the exhibition hall of the Tokyo International Forum. “Specialite: Specialty Values that Only Foodservice Can Provide” was set as a theme of the exhibition. Having been organized once every other year, nearly 220 companies (about 330 booths) from all over Japan presented a total of more than 10,000 food products at the event.

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A Long Queue at the Opening

Mr. Tomoyasu Takase, the president and representative director of Takase Bussan, made a welcome speech at the opening ceremony held prior to the actual opening. “I would like to propose not only delicious, affordable food but also a new value that people can experience only when they eat out. I’ll do my best to contribute all I can to the foodservice industry,” he said.

 

Authentic Ingredients and Lively Business Talk

The exhibition hall was packed with 330 booths, and each company presented its signature ingredient and dish with samples for tasting. The special booth occupied by the host, Takase Bussan, drew the attention of visitors with various clever menus such as the original domestic wine, “Super food (menus to energize the body),” carefully selected products from Hokkaido, menus for the current boom in bars, and desserts using liqueurs.

Slightly unconventional was a mashed-potato dispenser presented by Nestlé Japan (Chuo-ku, Kobe). Many visitors stopped to watch the machine produce creamy, fresh mashed potatoes just with a press of a button.

Moreover, elements to characterize the expo were many value-added, upscale ingredients that were prepared in accordance with the theme of the expo (Values that Only Foodservice Can Provide). Various processed-meat products offered by Fratelli Beretta, an Italian company that formed a business alliance with Takase Bussan this month, were representative of such elements. The dense flavor of well-aged prosciutto and salami impressed the visitors who stopped by for tasting.

Visitors were also strongly motivated to find ingredients that might lead to a hit menu or that are utilized in their restaurants. Every booth seemed to have a visitor who was engaged in an intense conversation with the operator of the space.

 

Presence of a Celebrity Chef

There were other performances such as a cooking demonstration by a celebrity chef and a lecture by a famous foodservice entrepreneur, thus attracting the attention of visitors who were eager for such a rare opportunity.

Visitors particularly admired the demonstration of making “ice-cream combination dessert” by Mr. Roger Van Damme, the Belgian maestro of desserts who was recognized as the Chef of the Year by GaultMillau (the most influential restaurant guidebook in France) in 2010. Furthermore, the booth was extremely popular, since a limited number of the ingredients used for the demonstration were offered for tasting. It seemed that those foodies were more than satisfied with the offerings.

 

Further Vitalization of the Foodservice Industry

The foodservice industry has faced difficulties, including higher ingredient prices due to the depreciation of yen starting last year and rising costs of energy and labor. Also, consumers’ needs change year after year as seen in the boom of pancakes and Spanish bars that target a young female audience.

Tackling such needs is a challenge faced by the entire industry. However, as the foodservice exhibition was aiming at “creating new value,” there was a passion in the convention hall that was sure to spark a boom in activity.

Visiting Colorful Chichibu Abundant Nature and Historical Street Views

Chichibu is located in the western portion of Saitama Prefecture. It consists of Chichibu City and other towns such as Yokoze, Minano, Nagatoro and Ogano. The area, which is adjacent to Gunma Prefecture, Nagano Prefecture, Yamanashi Prefecture and Tokyo, is blessed with an abundance of nature and a deep history.

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Water Resources with Excellent Quality: Chichibu Headwater Area

Chichibu area is ideal for the harvesting of delicious fruits, because it has superb water resources and significant day-to-night temperature differentials. There are farms and orchards for strawberries, grapes, blueberries, cherries and other crops, and the farms that open to tourists welcome numerous visitors on holidays.

The area is also well known for soba noodles. The Arakawa district (formerly Arakawa Village), where the cultivation of for soba is especially thriving, counts over 60 farms and about 30 soba restaurants. They offer freshly grained, kneaded and cooked soba noodles. There are also facilities where you can experience the craft of soba-noodle making.

Additionally, shaved ice made by Asami Reizo, a natural ice refrigeration store in Minano-machi, Chichibu County, is introduced by a variety of mass media every season. It has become so popular that there is always a waiting line at the store.

 

Whisky and Wine, Grown in a Productive Environment

The tasty water and ice provided by a productive natural environment would naturally lead one to think of whisky. Also, delicious fruit (particularly grapes) could lead one to think of wine. In fact, whisky and wine are currently hot topics. Ichiro’s Malt, distilled by Venture Whisky Ltd. (Midorigaoka, Chichibu City), offers lines such as the Card Series and Leaf Series other than the flagship single-malt known as Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu. This whisky has received high praise throughout the world, starting with the highest evaluation in the Japanese whisky section by the British, “Whisky” magazine. It boasts huge popularity despite its relative scarcity.

Also, Chichibu Rouge, produced by Fukada Shoten (Hinoda-machi, Chichibu City), is a brand of red wine (white wine is Chichibu blanc) that was developed in collaboration with local grape farms and brewers. The wine was awarded a silver medal at the Japan Wine Competition in 2011 and the “Best in Division” award in the European/domestic improved variety blended red wine category in 2010. There is now a plan to construct a winery in the Yoshida district to vitalize the production of good-quality wines as “Chichibu-proud fine wines.”

A Traditional Craft from Chiba Prefecture: Boshu Uchiwa

Boshu Uchiwa – Characterized by a rounded handgrip that utilizes the natural form of bamboo, Boshu uchiwa is recognized as a Japanese national traditional craft and has long been regarded as one of the top three uchiwa, along with Kyo uchiwa from Kyoto and Marugame uchiwa from Marugame City, Kagawa Prefecture. I suggest that everyone experience Boshu Uchiwa’s cool soft breeze, which is completely different from what a plastic uchiwa would produce.

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The Beginning of Uchiwa-Making

The production of uchiwa in the Kanto region began in the Edo period. At that time, the southern part of the Boso peninsula was an area for the production of bamboo, the main material of uchiwa-making, and supplied it to craftsmen in the Edo region (Tokyo). It is said that uchiwa-making in Chiba Prefecture began in the Meiji period.

Later, uchiwa wholesalers in Nihonbashi, Tokyo suffered from the disaster of the Great Kanto Earthquake. The production of uchiwa expanded when the craftsmen from the affected area moved to the current Funakata, Tateyama City, which was located near a bamboo production area and had access to the sea via the port of Nago.

Nago, Funakata and Tomiura (presently Tomiura-machi, Minamiboso City) were fishing villages in those days. Uchiwa-making became popular as a side job at home among the fishermen’s wives, who took care of the households when their husbands were away. Thus the area became known for uchiwa-making and produced 7 to 8 million a year during the end of the Taisho period through the early Showa period.

 

Twenty-One Steps in Handcrafting

Uchiwa-making starts with the selection of bamboo. The complete process consists of 21 steps, all of which are performed by hand.

Medake (Simon Bamboo) is used as the main material. Bamboo is trimmed during the colder months from October to January, as bamboo’s interior becomes denser. First, the bamboo’s skin is peeled, after which the bamboo is washed with water and polished. Next, the bamboo is cut. A hole is opened in the part that will become a grip. The bamboo “bones” are woven with thread, a bow is inserted into the hole of the grip, and both ends of the thread are tied to the bow when the weaving is finished. This creates a window (mado) and the bone structure that opens in a shape of a fan is completed. However, the finishing process continues. The curves in the bones are adjusted by burning, paper or fabric is pasted on, the unnecessary bones are trimmed away, the edges of the fan are finished, and so on.

Only four or five uchiwa per day could be made if the entire process is handled by one person. Thus the work is divided among several people.

 

Lack of Successors, Aging Craftspeople

Boshu Uchiwa was, in March 2003, recognized as Chiba Prefecture’s only traditional craft designated by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry. At that time, Bosyu Uchiwa Shinkokyogikai (Boshu Uchiwa’s promotional association) had seven corporate members, but eventually one company closed its doors. Today there are only six members. Craftspeople are aging, and under the current conditions it is difficult to ensure that the skill will be passed on to a succeeding generation.

Uchiwa-making originally thrived as a side job at home, based on the divided-work system. The system is a challenge if one person is to complete entire process by himself/herself, but it is also a burden for teachers to train others in the skill. The number of successors will not increase unless an added value is adapted to products to sustain reasonable prices that allow the craftsmen to earn a living.

The price of Boshu Uchiwa varies from 800 yen for a small example to several tens of thousands yen for a more elaborate or high-quality product. People would be willing to pay over ten thousand yen to a product when they see a craftsman’s demonstration at a department store. The unit price becomes higher if traditional craft is recognized as an added value.

Various attempts have been made, including that of making uchiwa using traditional Japanese paper or textiles for yukata (summer cotton kimono) from other regions; or by collaborating with craftspeople for tegaki-yuzen (hand-painted dyeing designs for kimono). Hopefully, this proud traditional craft from Chiba Prefecture will gain more recognition and the skill will be passed on to the next generation.

This summer, I suggest that you experience the unique characteristic of Boshu Uchiwa. Savor the soft, cooling breeze that a whip of bamboo can create.