Apr 152014

imageFrom man-about-Osaka, Urano-san:

In Japan, we often see people taking a walk with their dogs. Almost all the dogs wear very colorful clothes. Why is this?

Sometimes owners walk with their dogs in their arms or transport them in a baby carriage, which looks very humorous to me.

Every owner carries some bags and papers to collect the droppings of their own beloved dogs and never leave them on the road, even in the park. Owner’s manners are always very good, something which we Japanese can be proud of.

In Japan, smaller sized dogs are prefered, because they are taken care of within the narrow Japanese houses common in urban areas.

Near my flat, there’s an animal hospital, a pet shop and a doggie salon. That animal hospital accepts patients for medical care 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s equipped with a very high level of medical instrumentation including an X-ray machine, a MRI scanner, and more. We’ve heard that medical treatment costs are very high at this hospital, however it looks very busy.

At the pet shop, many kinds of animals are sold: dogs; cats; fish (in fresh and salt water); birds; squirrels; crocodiles; snakes and many other species. The price of dogs or cats is typically more than 100, 000円 per animal. During the weekend, that pet shop is full of visitors.

It sells not only animals but also all the goods necessary for keeping one’s pet healthy, comfortable and stylish. Goods for dogs are especially plentiful; ball shaped feed, canned food, snacks, cakes(!), ice cream(!!), diapers(!!!), clothes and more; almost all the goods are similar to the ones necessary to take care of human infants and toddlers. I truly feel that I ate rather inferior quality food when I was a child living in a much poorer Japan compared to the kind that today’s pampered Japanese dogs eat regularly.

The hair salon for dogs seems to be always busy, though the cost is far higher than my typical bill at the barbershop.

In spite of the fact that there are many areas where people starve to death in the world, what is the current Japanese situation? I once heard a trusted veterinarian’s opinion that dogs kept within a house are not so happy, because they are confined in limited-sized rooms and therefore under greater stress than is natural. In addition, they are not allowed to have contact with fellow dogs of the opposite sex.

Are they truly happy?

Dec 122012

As an island nation, it is no surprise the Japanese took to fishing from early on. But the fishing industry has continued to grow beyond just a means of survival, incorporating leisure and tourism industries.

First and foremost, fish is grown in fish farms and caught in oceans as a means for food. Japan has been criticized by the international community for its “research” based whale hunting, or violent dolphin drives brought to light in the documentary “The Cove.” Fishing globally is endangering fish populations as the human demand for consumption increases annually. On a brighter note, the Japanese government and other nations are beginning to cooperate and develop fishing technologies that fish more efficiently. The future will tell if these promises and efforts become reality.

There are two “traditional” forms of fishing that can still be seen today, though as a tourist attraction. Ayu fishing was practiced by the samurai, and yours truly a few months ago! It involves fishing with a very long 15 feet (three meter) bamboo pole. Often you then have to catch your own bait of bugs or small crabs hiding in the ocean rocks. Then pierce them while they are alive so the bait moves– it’s not for the squeamish. Another form of fishing is cormorant fishing. Fishermen in row boats would tie one end of a string partially around the neck of cormorant birds. The birds would swim along the boat hunting their own meals. They could swallow small fish, but large fish become stuck in their tied throats, becoming meals for the fishermen.  

Leisure fishing has also taken off in Japan. Fly fishing is popular in mountain streams, but what do the city dwellers do when they don’t want a long trip to the mountains? Welcome to urban fishing. These areas within city limits are pools filled with fish. You rent your fishing equipment and pull up a seat along the other dozens of fishermen along the edges of the pool.   Catch and release and call it a day.

There are two favorite fishing activities I enjoy in Japan. First is the fishing game at matsuri, or festivals. You are given a piece of circular paper and must try to catch as many goldfish as you can before the paper breaks. But my all time favorite fishing activity is Doctor Fish. In this activity, you are the bait. You put your feet in a pool of water and hundreds of little fish come to eat the bacteria and dead skin cells off your feet. It tickles a bit, but afterwords your feet feel fresh. And you can be happy you gave the fish a tasty meal.

Happy fishing!

Nov 062012

When my Japanese friends ask me to translate the word tanuki I am always a   little unsure of how to answer. The most popular translation I have seen is “raccoon dog” but I have also heard “raccoon,” “badger,” and “mischievous demon.”  The tanuki is a real life animal rarely found outside of Japan. It’s cuddly, it’s cute, and it is well referenced in Japanese literature, proverbs, mythology, and art—particularly statuary. The tanuki is most famous for several distinct characteristics and the fact that it loves to play tricks on people.

According to Wikipedia, the tanuki has 8 traits it can be identified by:

*a hat to be ready to protect against trouble or bad weather;
*big eyes to perceive the environment and help make good decisions;
*a sake bottle that represents virtue;
*a big tail that provides steadiness and strength until success is achieved;
*over-sized testicles that symbolize financial luck;
*a promissory note that represents trust or confidence;
*a big belly that symbolizes bold and calm decisiveness; and
*a friendly smile

Most laughable to foreigners are the tanuki’s in-your-face…um…pokéballs. You’ll see the smiling tanuki in storefronts, sold in gift shops, and I even found one in a men’s restroom with everything hanging out. We had a bit of a staring contest. He really made me feel stupid then uncomfortable, but alas that is what the tanuki specializes in.

A tanuki in Japanese folklore can shape-shift. It is said a kitsune or fox has seven forms, but a tanuki has eight. While the fox uses its powers to tempt people (sexy jutsu anyone?) a tanuki changes its shape to deceive. I recall reading an old Japanese tale where a tanuki becomes a teapot, but he is discovered when someone puts the pot on a fire to prepare some tea. Tanuki are not the smartest of creatures.

I’ll leave you with a proverb about tanuki:


Reading: Toranu tanuki no kawa zan’you
Japanese Meaning: Counting the skins of badgers you have not yet caught

English Equivalent: “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch”

Oct 142012

The mountainous terrain of Japan crams people into a few major concentrated cities whereby sidewalks can be just as crowded as local streets. Everywhere you go it seems there is nowhere to relax–a real problem if you want some alone time with a spouse or girlfriend or boyfriend. One of Japan’s solutions is the love hotel. When Westerners hear the word “love hotel” images of cheap, sleazy, and dirty motels come to mind. Yet Japan has made the love hotel experience a clean, fun, and relaxing world of privacy.

Sometimes love hotels are hidden and other times they are right out in       the open. During the 80’s and 90’s it was normal for love hotel   architecture to take on fantastical form. Castles or loud designs to attract attention were widespread and can still be found in parts of Japan. More common is a plain-looking establishment slightly off the main streets of highways. Many love hotels look just like ordinary buildings from the outside. There is no sign that says “Love Hotel Here,” but there is one way to tell if the place you will lodge is a regular establishment or one of a more intimate nature. A sign outside the front entrance will have two prices: one for overnight, and one option for a few hours “rest.”

Today’s love hotels stress the importance of privacy. Busy city love hotels have an entrance with only a control panel to greet you. You choose a room from what is lit on the control panel (darkened rooms mean they are occupied). Select the room, pay for it there at the panel and follow lit up arrows on the wall or floor to you room. Other hotels have their own systems. Some have interaction with a human, but there is no visual contact. A small counter is where money is exchanged and voice communication is over intercom. This prevents any embarrassment. In the countryside where a car is essential, love hotels are a bit different. Parking lots open up to over a dozen small buildings with attached garages. Pull into a garage and pull and lock the curtain to show others that the attached room is occupied, but more importantly to prevent anyone from catching a glimpse of your car or license plate. Pay at an ATM in the hallway and the door to your room unlocks.

It is hard to say what happens exactly in a love hotel. Since they are private and the rooms are much larger than regular hotel rooms, the options are endless. Sometimes people hold parties in them. Also there is often karaoke systems in the room included in the room charge, so in reality a karaoke outing in the room and bringing your own alcohol can end up cheaper than going out to karaoke, plus you can sleep in the room. Since pets are not allowed inside most hotels, my friend stays at love hotels because she can sneak her dog in. After entering the room though, there are obvious hints that this is a place of romance. Often a Jacuzzi style bath or large shower, an emperor’s sized bed, and sexy toys or costume catalogues are there to use at your leisure or a small fee.

Love hotels are uniquely Japanese. What you decide to do inside them is your choice.

Sep 292012

October is just around the corner and that      means it is time for Halloween. Halloween is a little different in Japan. Halloween itself has Pagan and Christian origins, yet today is primarily a holiday of spooky fun and celebration–at least in my home of North America. Last year was my first Halloween in the Land of the Rising Sun and I can’t wait for the next one. What’s not to love about the parties, seasonal treats, and the…Gaijin Train?

Popular in Japan and around the world are Halloween parties. The international university I attended had a rowdy party, while some schools I taught at had Halloween activities and parties for the children. We even had the young ghouls and goblins journey room to room saying “Trick-or-Treat” and receiving candies for their efforts. Unfortunately, if you knock on someone’s door October 31st in a terrifying mask, you’ll likely be in trouble with the police because trick-or-treating is not a public custom. I saw decorations around the malls and offices to get us in the holiday mood, but pumpkins being carved were rare. However, oddly enough, pumpkin foods were consumed in masse.

“No, we don’t eat pumpkin on Halloween in America” I recall explaining to my Japanese friends for the seventh time. They do in Japan. One cool thing about Japan around Halloween time is all the pumpkin dishes available. It is not uncommon for Japanese to enjoy eating pumpkin time to time throughout the year, but Halloween is when it’s nearly unavoidable. Pumpkin pie in October? Sure sign me up! Pumpkin flavored coffee? Hmmm… Well I’ll settle for those delectable pumpkin pie cheese cake flavored Kit-Kat bars. Fun Kit Kat flavors like green tea, apple, or soy powder should be reason enough to travel to Japan! And then there is the Gaijin Train.

Every year on or around Halloween there are rumors of the Gaijin Train. A Gaijin is a foreigner.  The Gaijin Train, also known as the Halloween Train, is full of Gaijin and their Japanese friends that take over for a night of mayhem. According to official records, the hijacking of a train each year on the Yama-no-te Line (the green line that goes around Tokyo in a giant loop) does not exist. If that is true, why did hundreds of police officers guard the train stations just a few years ago because of concerns from the community? The Halloween Train used to be advertised in English newspapers in Japan, but now like the subway itself, it is underground. Blogs, email, and word of mouth spread among Tokyo’s expatriate community just days before the big event, revealing which train, time, and platform the massive Halloween party takes place.

Japan’s version of Halloween may not be the Halloween I grew up with, but it can be just as fun. I have yet to ride the legendary Gaijin Train, so it remains on my long list of things to still do in Japan. For now I will enjoy dressing up, partying, and eating my Kit Kats and pumpkin.

Hello October and Happy Halloween!!






Sep 072012

Osaka Ali rides the Hankyu Line train often and his eye frequently goes a-wandering. Recently, an in-car ad for a University called Ritsumeikan in Kyoto caught his attention. The poster was attractive enough to get him to look at their website. The events page yielded an even more interesting find: a panel discussion with the former president of the Japan Foundation, Kazuo Ogura. The title of the discussion was what hooked him, “Geneology of Anti-Globalism”. Faaascinating …

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Ogura was recently invited to be a visiting professor at Ritsumeikan, a role to which he brings considerable experience. The Japan Foundation is a government organization (part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) that promotes Japan and Japanese culture around the world. Their main work includes arts and cultural programs, Japanese language education and intellectual exchange. As president of the Japan Foundation, Ogura oversaw literary symposia on the work of Haruki Murakami, arts exchanges with Afghan craftsmen, educational programs for Chinese students, programs for teens in disater-struck Aceh, Indonesia, co-operation between the US and Japan after Hurricane Katrina and the launch of the Japanese in Anime and Manga website. He additionally served as a deputy foreign minister for the Japanese government as well as an ambassador to three countries. He was joined on the panel by two other professors at the Ritsumeikan College of International Relations.

Osaka Ali decided to check it out, understand his adopted country a little better, and find out from the panel why they think that the world is turning against the idea of globalism. From the sub-prime crisis to the financial meltdown in Europe to the Arab Spring, the global fabric has been straining and tearing. Now grass roots phenomena like the Occupy movement are growing and spreading. “Geneology of Anti-Globalism” sought to learn where these movements came from, what birthed them, how they survive and thrive and how they are influenced by their local conditions.

The discussion covered many topics ranging from the number of democratic countries vs autocratic ones, export and import flows, money transfers, the degree of freedom of expression in various countries, the loss of languages and dialects, the proliferation of Non-governmental Organizations and even the number of foreign films to Japanese films in the Japanese movie market. It was enough to make an amateur researcher’s head spin (are you still with me?). Norihisa Yamashita and GyongSu Mun, both professors at the Ritsumeikan College of International Relations, also enriched the conversation contributing perspectives on the Trans Pacific Partnership treaty and Japan-Korea relations. Luckily all was made understandable by very capable translators commissioned by the University staff.

Who’s down with TPP? (Yeah, you know me)

After the discussion, Ali got a chance to talk to Professor Ogura and was able to ask him what his view of recent activities by anti-Globalist movements meant as well as what it means to be pro-, counter- or even perhaps alterna- globalism. His answer was a surprise in its simplicity. He said, “People reject globalism when they feel that they cannot participate. When you feel that globalism is something being done to you, you might reasonably reject it.” Participation in society, government, the world is the answer when the interconnected world makes life less than ideal and more like a straightjacket. The message Ali took from the conference is that the world will inevitably become smaller, but opportunity and duty require our participation and our voices. Even learning to communicate in a new language is way to participate, to be active and not a passive victim of global changes.

The panel participants with Professor Ogura at far left

After that Osaka Ali realized that he had a international-sized hunger in his belly. Heading home, he stopped in downtown Osaka. He had to reach out for a little bit of familiarity, somewhere, somehow … comfort food. But where to find the right meal after the deep intellectual discussions, amongst throngs of gastronomic choices available in downtown Umeda? Then, turning around after passing through the station, it stood just ahead … a grand announcement of the only kind of meal that could satisfy. The “Big America Grand Canyon” burger at McDonald’s. Osaka Ali made his way into the familiar fast food paradise without reluctance. Globalization 1 – Osaka Ali 0 …

The Monster Truck of Burgers





Jul 172012


In a tiny temple in Sakata, Yamagata Prefecture there are two priests which have been sitting endlessly since their death over 250 years ago. These Buddhist priests of the Shingon sect preside over the temple and according to the city registry, they are still alive. As living priests, the two receive stipends that help support and maintain the temple. We were told each was atoning for a sin.  By killing themselves, these priests believed they can repay for their sins and also protect the community by suffering for all their sins through a long and painful death. It was obvious to me these mummies were not like the Egyptian mummies in my history books. First of all, these mummies were completely black, dressed in exquisite robes, and had shiny “skin” (though the shine is a protective coating of wax). Their tale of death is a remarkable feat and an interesting tale.

Over a 3000 day period, a priest that wishes to try to become a living mummy must go through increasingly difficult stages of self starvation. The first 1000 days consists of extreme exercising and fasting. The next 1000 days are reducing the diet to pine bark and leaves and drinking arsenic water. In Yamagata and a few other prefectures, natural springs contain trace amounts of arsenic. The poison was in small amounts, so it killed slowly as it accumulated in the living mummy to be. There are no such springs in Akita, and thus no living mummies in this prefecture. The fasting and self poisoning was strictly followed to remove all the excess fat (and eventually muscles and brain matter) from the bodies of the priests. If there was any fat at all after the final stage, the body would have trapped gas that would expand and destroy the body. If a priest survived the first two stages, the last stage was to be buried alive. A shaft was dug into the ground and the priest entered it. Then the shaft was enclosed with stones and only a long pipe lead to the surface. This pipe was used for air and as a means to hear the bell the priest rang while meditating. As soon as the people above stopped hearing the bell ring, they covered the pipe, sealing the tomb forever.

After a few years, the priests are dug up. Most priests’ bodies are destroyed by gases left in body, insects, improper sealing of the tomb, or for millions of other reasons. But the priests believed if one’s body was not carefully preserved it was because the partitioning priest did not faithfully follow the starvation suicide ritual truthfully.  Less than thirty of an estimated thousand or more priests were fully preserved. Unlike the Egyptian mummies, the Sakata priests’ maintain their organs, although dried out, inside their bodies. The priests’ elaborate robes are changed every twenty years. Strands of the robes are put into charms and sold as good luck mementos. For their extreme sacrifice and good for humanity (in their eyes) the Sakata living mummies deserve to be revered throughout the generations, because as the mummies demonstrate, life continues after death.

Jul 142012

Que the Bond theme … Osaka Ali can hear that signature guitar as he writes. And then the sweet lyrics of … “Nobody Does It Better” …


Yes, that’s a vintage Lotus Esprit S1 tearing through the city streets. Ah yes, she’s a beautiful sight to behold. Q Branch must have fallen on hard times and had to sell off the motor pool, piece by classic piece. Maybe 007′s Aston Martin DB5 is being driven around the streets of Malta for all I know.

Jul 092012

Osaka Ali has been told that in the land of the Rising Sun, religion is a taboo subject of conversation. But I find it hard to observe this proscription, especially when spirituality can be so kitschy and cute. So, let’s broach it, shall we? Look at this urban diety:

Kind of makes you want bow to him with a handful of incense and then tickle his feet, don’t you agree? Who is this sidewalk god-ity? His name is Billiken, and he is a sort of patron saint of free wheeling-and-dealing downtown Osaka. If you are thinking what I was thinking the first time that I saw him, you are wondering where he came from. He could be the obscure love-child of an enlightened being and a Kewpie doll, for all we know.

In actual fact, Billiken is not native to Osaka, or Japan, or even Asia. Billiken is American, in a stranger-than-fiction turn of events. He was born in 1908 in St. Louis, Missouri, the brainchild of Florence Pretz, an American art teacher and inventor. Initially, her creation was designed to serve as a charm doll novelty to be marketed to children in the US who were fascinated by all things exotic.

Billiken’s popularity grew, morphed and eventually waned, but not before he made it to the shores of Japan. The figurine’s debut here occurred in 1912 at the opening of Luna Park, a long disappeared Osaka attraction. It has been said that Billiken idols were even installed in some actual Shinto shrines to be honored, but were removed when war clouds emerged over the Pacific and western cultural imports fell out of favor.

As immortalized in the classic film “Waterloo Bridge” (1940), buying a Billiken is good luck, but receiving a Billiken as a gift is better luck still. What are Billiken’s main attributes? It is hard to say, really. One part of the Billiken metaphysical philosophy might be “It’s all good”. Another part might be “No worries, mate”. But my favorite is found in the inscription on the bottom of this Billiken idol found on the streets of Osaka near Yodogawa station: The God of the Way Things Ought to Be. That’s groovy …

So, if you find yourself in Osaka and you are temple-and-shrine-hopping, make sure to make a pilgrimmage to visit the venerable Billiken. Rub his soles for good luck. Then imagine how things ought to be.

The Original Osaka Billiken idol can be found in the historic Tsutenkaku Tower located at 1-18-6 Ebisu-Higashi, Naniwa-ku, Osaka, 556-0002. Admission is 600 for adults, 300 for kids. The tower is open year-round. (http://www.tsutenkaku.co.jp)

Special thanks to Akie Watanabe of All Star Tours for first enlightening Osaka Ali about the legend of Billiken.