Japan's dangerous population shift

In Japan, the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, a government-affiliated organization, released an announcement projecting that Japan's population could fall from 127.09 million in 2015 to 88.08 million by 2065.  See "Kansai leaders grope for ways to keep regional population stable amid projected slide"

But that's not the worst news.

According to the organization's estimates in 2013 the eight major prefectures that make up the Kansai region are projected to lose about 25% of their population by 2050, and the age demographic will dramatically change, with over 40% of the population over 65 years old, and less than 10% under age 14.

Making babies is one major are of concern. There are a variety of social, business and other economic issues impacting Japanese society, leading to one of the lowest birth rates the country has ever seen.  There are not enough births to replace the current population at the same level. In 2016, the total Japanese population dropped by 162,000, the sixth consecutive year of population decline.  But in reality, during the same year the Japanese population actually dropped 299,000. The delta was a 136,000 increase in foreign residents, somewhat slowing down the dramatic population decrease.  See Japan Times "Japan’s population slips for sixth consecutive year but foreign residents slowing the fall"

One of the biggest problems facing Japan is a potential calamity that the central government of Japan just isn't addressing at all.  And the data is right in front of them: In 2015, the national census showed that Japan's total population had declined by 960,000 since 2010.  But during the same period of time Tokyo's population actually grew by 350,000. The reason? A well-known pattern of young people moving from smaller cities to two places, Tokyo and Osaka, and primarily the former. There's an unprecedented concentration of the Japanese population in the capitol.  So why is this so dangerous?

Experts advise that there is a 30% chance of a massive quake hitting Tokyo in the next 10 years, and a 70% chance of a major quake in the next 30 years. Those aren't the kind of odds I'd like to bet against. Japan learned a serious lesson from the Great Hanshin Quake that struck Kobe and the surrounding region in Western Japan in 1995. Not only were thousands of lives tragically lost, but that quake essentially "choked" the flow of critical utilities, goods and services, and more, essentially shutting down the economy for months if not years.  Even as I write this in 2017, more than 20 years later, Kobe is still struggling to recover to its prior economic state.

Reconstructing Kobe, by David Edgington

Reconstructing Kobe, by David Edgington

In his book Reconstructing Kobe, author David Edgington draws on years of extensive fieldwork and research recording the the first ten years of reconstruction and recovery of the city following the Great Hanshin Quake.  In reading the book, I couldn't help find myself becoming terrified of the potential ripple of issues that could fundamentally set Japan back decades should a major quake hit Tokyo while it houses such a disproportionate volume of Japan's population.

I think the central government should realize that now is the time to address the over-concentration of the Japanese population in Tokyo. Not just for residents of Tokyo, but for the survival of Japan as a whole when, not if, the next quake hits.

Of course, that's easier said than done. The first step Japan will need to take is making a decision that addressing the over-concentration issue is a priority. The second step will be looking at the possible options for addressing it.  The third step will be taking action.

As I drove through Kobe yesterday I saw signs of a solution all around me. Entrepreneurs starting new businesses - and small businesses - all over Kobe. And what I am learning is that Kobe, which is a wildly attractive city to non-Japanese such as myself, has the potential to attract more entrepreneurs from overseas, and in doing so could take the first steps of creating an entrepreneurial culture that actually results in new small businesses being created.  New businesses create new jobs, and Kobe, like many other beautiful places in Japan, has the beauty and amenities of a desirable place to live. I have met some people who really appreciate congested, frenzied deep-urban environments like Tokyo, but they are rare. And I'm not one of them.  The potential exists to reverse the over-concentration population issue, and it will require open-minded leaders within the cities, like Kobe, who truly want to see a solution to the problem, and in doing so potentially save Japan from an unprecedented calamity in the future.

The disaster that struck Kobe provides a very serious warning of the potential catastrophic effect of a forthcoming disaster in Tokyo with it's massively over-concentrated population.  All leaders in Japan should pay attention to this.  Ironically, the seeds of the solution exist in Kobe as well, and the potential exists for Kobe to serve as a progressive, forward-leaning and highly entrepreneurial city that could reboot Japan with energy and passion into the next century.

Today's kanji is 水 (water)

The kanji of the day is:

Pronounced すい (sui, on-yomi) or みず (mizu, kun-yomi).

水 means water.  It's an incredibly common kanji, and the compounds are interesting, as usual. For example:

水素 is pronounced すいそ (suiso) and means hydrogen. Literally "water element".

鼻水 is pronounced はなみず (hanamizu) and means nasal mucus. Yes, "boogers". Literally "nose water".

Isn't Japanese cool? And those who think kanji is torture for 外人 (がいじん, gaijin, foreigner), it's not. If you like language and culture, Japanese has got to be one of the best in the world. In high school, I went from a few years of classical Latin, which was my favorite, to French (my mother's native tongue), to German, and then Korean.  I never found the same passion I had for Latin until I studied Japanese because of the way it's structured, much like Latin words that, together with Germanic words, became the building blocks of the English language. You never look at the English language again after studying Latin; when you see the word "library", you don't see a building, you first see books.

As always, check out the video for the stroke order, and practice writing it a few times today!

Japaneur Podcast 001 - Basic approaches you can use to start learning Japanese

Well, hello there!

The Japaneur podcast is finally here. Ready to do a deep dive into Japan? Let's go! 行くぞ!

In this first episode of the Japaneur podcast, I cover the three approaches anyone can use to start learning Japanese and which one I think is best and why. I firmly believe that learning written Japanese is key to unlocking the language. I'm not convinced that the way I did it - at a research university - was the best way, so I'm going to try to save you a few thousand hours and a lot of money with some advice on alternatives.

Since the podcast is about listening, and not reading, I try to do a quick overview of just what you need to do - and nothing beyond that - about the three different types of written Japanese: Hiragana, katakana and kanji. Regarding the latter, I recently started a daily blog post on Japaneur focused on a select kanji every day. In this episode I discuss why I'm investing the time to do that for my son and I, and how you can benefit from it as well.

And here are some of the resources I mentioned in the episode that I think you'll like:

I'm new at this podcast thing, but super excited.  Have feedback?  A question?  Or a request? Connect with me on twitter @japaneur and join the Japaneur newsletter.

Today's kanji is 下 (below)

This morning we picked 下 for today's kanji.  下 is pronounced shita した、and when you read that, try saying it without the "i", more like "shtah".

下 is another character that proves immediately useful on your first visit to Japan.  It's used in a ton of different character combinations, and it typically means lower or below.  For example:

地下鉄
ちかてつ
chikatetsu (pronounced "chee-kah-teh-tsu")
subway (literally, ground/earth under metal line)

When you're walking around a train station and you see that sign with 下 in the middle, following the sign will probably get you to the subway. "ka" (pronounced "kah") is the on pronunciation of 下 and the kun pronunciation is shita. 

Here's another example, only this time with the kun pronunciation:

靴下
くつした
kutsushita (pronounced "koo-tsu-shtah")
socks (literally shoes below)

Much thanks to my son this morning for practicing his kanji together with me.

Today's kanji is 三 (three)

Today's kanji is the number three, さん, or san (pronounced "sahn").  San is the on pronunciation.  み, or mi ("mee") is the kun pronunciation. 

三 is written with three strokes from left to right.  Check out the video above.

We're not going in order or sequence yet, but that's cool because the way we're learning, anyone can go at their own pace, and if you focus on one little thing at a time, you're much more likely to keep it tucked away in memory.  I think we should stick to the 1st grade kanji before we move on to 2nd grade, so we have a bunch more to go!

As a bonus today, I found a ことわざ、or Japanese proverb, to go with 三。

早起きは文の徳
はやおきはさんもんのとく
hayaoki wa sanmon no toku (roughly pronounced "hah-yah oh-kee wah sahn-moan noh toe-koo")

It translates closely to "get up early and you'll be enriched".  It means roughly the same as the English "the early bird catches the worm".

Today's kanji is people 人

Ok, so I admit that last night before bed, I asked my kiddo what today's kanji should be.  He emphatically and instantly stated "hito":

So today's kanji is a fundamental! Hito (kun reading) or jin (on reading) is the Japanese character for person.  Some dictionaries say "man", but I think that's sexist, and entirely not applicable, as it could be "man" or "woman", and there are different characters for those anyway.

One of the key things about this kanji is that it's a radical, meaning, this kanji is actually a building block for other kanji, which is why you want to commit it to memory.  You'll also see this kanji in a ton of compounds where it's paired with other kanji to create different words.  For example:

友人 pronounced "you-gin" ゆうじん、meaning "a friend"

人生 pronounced "gin-say" じんせい、meaning "human life" (e.g. from beginning to end)

一人 pronounced "hee-toe-rhee" ひとり、meaning, "one person" or if you want, you can say 五人 pronounced "go-neen" ごにん、for "five people" (remember yesterday's kanji?).  See... this is where things get really cool.  Building blocks.  Just start learning one at a time, and before you know it, your vocabulary automatically compounds.  It's not that easy with English or a romance language.

Bento a.k.a. Japanese "box lunch"

There are few things as intrinsic in the fabric of Japanese culture as a bento (弁当) べんとう box.

My little one, just shy of two years old, went to his first day of school last week.  My wife got up extra early to make a box lunch for both him and his brother.  Here's his first bento, pictured.

Let's get into the history and etymology some other time.  For now, just enjoy the little onigiri (rice balls) smiling up at you.  I know my little guy sure did when he opened his lunch box at school.

Todays' kanji is GO! 五

おはようございます (ohayougozaimasu) everyone! Today's kanji is:

Pronounced "go", this is the number five in Japanese. 

Since we're just getting started, let's peel back another small layer of the kanji knowledge onion. Kanji typically have two "readings" or pronunciations. One's called the kun ("koon") reading, the other, the on ("ohn") reading. Another typical hang-up of non-Japanese learning is trying to memorize rules when to use one reading vs. another. I recommend not worrying about it yet, or ever.

The kun reading is native Japanese pronunciation, and the on reading derived from classical Chinese pronunciation.  There's a third type, reserved for use in names, but let's not go there since I haven't had my coffee yet this morning.

The on reading of 五 is go ご。The kun pronunciation is itsu いつ。A couple quick examples of the different use in what you'll hear and read are:

五日 itsuka いつか, the fifth day of the month.  Literally, "fifth day".

五月 gogatsu ごがつ, the month of May. Literally, "fifth month".

If you just picked up on the oddness of why one would use a native pronunciation when counting days, but the classical Chinese pronunciation when counting months, good job. えらいですね。Why do English-speakers spell knife with a K? I'm off topic. 

Today's Kanji 今日の漢字

This morning my son and I started a new thing:  今日の漢字。"kyou no kanji" 

Starting today, we're going to pick one kanji per day to focus on and learn.  My son's 6, so this is a great time for him to really get into kanji in a fun way.  It's great for me as well, since I just committed myself to getting JLPT certified, starting with the basics and going all the way.

Want to come along for the ride?  I have a degree in Japanese language and literature and, at one point, I had about 2100 kanji committed to memory, reading and writing. Kanji is the key to everything in Japanese, and most non-Japanese find it the most "overwhelming" part of the language.  It's not. It's just a bunch of pictures.  If you can recognize a circle from a square, you can learn kanji. And if you get some kanji under your belt, your Japanese learning will hyper-accelerate.

Sooooooo......let's get started.

Today's kanji is: 中 (naka pronounced "nah-kah")

In hiragana, 中 is なか。 It means "middle".  Other translations could be "in", "inside", or "center"

One of the best things about kanji is learning their radicals. Think of radicals as the linguistic equivalent of elements on the periodic table. The building blocks that everything else is made out of.  Radicals are the building blocks of kanji.  中 has two radicals:  The first is 口, kuchi, or mouth (for now, you can pronounce it "koo-chee", until I post a pronunciation guide for hiragana.  The second radical is just a vertical line , going down through the middle of the 口。

 

 

Transformers MASTERPIECE (and why I love shopping for Christmas)

Transformers MASTERPIECE Bumblebee, just ordered on Amazon in time for Christmas.

I love shopping, now that it's possible on Amazon.

It makes me feel a little bit like The Flash, moving between sites and products at a speed that would result in instant death for a mortal attempting the same kind of dexterity in a mall. Japan is beginning to catch on. I think it may take another five years before the Japanese discover their own iteration of progressive shopping.

I ordered some cool stuff this year, but probably the coolest toy I ordered is for my older son. He's six, and recently he's discovered Transformers.  Can you believe the toys have been around since 1984? Transformers is an American concept by the toy company Hasbro, based on two toys from Japanese maker Takara Tomy, Diaclone and Microman. The Transformers franchise is more popular than ever. My son digs the Netflix shows (there are three, and he's into the middle one).

My first transformer - and one of my first toys ever - as a kid was Bumblebee.  I still have it, and I entrusted Bumblebee to my son when he turned two. He didn't destroy it, thankfully. It's small, maybe a couple inches long, and looks like it would cost about 25 cents to manufacture.

So this year I splurged (shhhh... my son doesn't know it yet).  I found out that there's a special set of toys called Transformers Masterpiece, which looks to be designed almost entirely in Japan. The designs are award-winning, and it shows:

Growing up as a kid, I remember a completely different kind of toy than what I see today in the stores. My dad took me to the toy store and told me I could pick one toy.  So I did: A big metal Tetsujin 28 Godaikin by Bandai.  Metal, bigger, heavier, built-to-last, and the design didn't scream cheap-made-in-China. There was some really intense detail, and it was cool.  I was a kid, I didn't know anything about foreign policy or the scary stuff people around the world were doing that could blow it up, and I didn't care. I just got deep into playtime and imagination. This Bumblebee toy reminds me of those days.

It looks like a really cool toy.  I really hope he digs it.  

But even if he doesn't, you can count on finding me playing with it for hours around the tree this year.

The best Japanese language app for iPhone

One app that has lived on my home screen since it was released in 2008 is very simply called Japanese.

I've tried dozens of other Japanese dictionaries and language apps, but I always ditch them after a few uses.  Japanese, by renzo Inc., is exceptional. I tell every single person who expresses any interest in learning Japanese, regardless of whether they're a beginner or advanced, to get this app.

When I was studying Japanese at the university, I carried around a thick, heavy book by Nelson that was a required tool of all Japanese majors, the Japanese-English Character Dictionary. I still recommend getting this book if you're serious about learning Japanese. One of the best things I learned early on was how to look up any Japanese kanji character by its radicals. The 214 historical radicals are the building blocks of every Japanese kanji. Think of them as the elements that, when combined, create the thousands of different kanji characters available. You learn to look up characters by 12 steps. The first, for example, is the total stroke count of the radical.

Academically, this is awesome, and useful as you learn how to read.  But it's not so practical when you're out and about and just need to know something right away. Or if you're out at an Izakaya having drinks with friends. Not cool to pull out the big, heavy book.

That's where Japanese comes in.

It has 170,000 entries and over 70,000 example sentences, right in your pocket. With no Internet connection required. I bet Steve Jobs had this in his pocket on those frequent trips to Japan. Everything is broken down into syllables, and not only in Japanese, but also into the English alphabet. You look up words just by typing in English how they sound. That means any student with a basic grasp of hiragana can access nearly the entire Japanese language with a somewhat disciplined ear.  How cool is that?  No other app does that effectively.

The app uses Apple iOS's built in voice recognition, so you can also enter words with speech.  And even with conjugation, so it's no problem for Japanese to look up a given entry for you.

If you're studying Japanese, the app even has kanji lists broken out for you already with levels N1, N2, N3, N4 and N5.  And you can create your own lists.  I create lists for all sorts of things, from new words I learn on various outings in Japan, to vocabulary specific to my older son's Japanese education.  I even have a list created with the kanji my wife and I lovingly and painstakingly picked for their first names, which was handy for me to refer back to as I practiced writing them to commit them to memory.

Once you get a little more advanced in your Japanese writing, the handwriting recognition feature is fun and incredibly effective.  Sometimes it's easier to write a character, especially if you don't know how to pronounce it.  This has been a game-changer for me when I'm reading a magazine, newspaper, or just out and about anywhere in Japan.  Just tap to switch to handwriting mode and draw the character, and voila. Pure magic.  This is the kind of magic that iOS is all about.

Japanese by renzo Inc. is an indispensable tool for anyone in or around the Japanese language.  I can't recommend it highly enough.

The Art of the Sword Maker

I grew up listening to my father play beautiful music on classical guitars crafted by Spanish hands with decades of experience, passed down from each generation of luthiers.  Until now, I haven't discovered a craft and tradition as obsessed with perfection.

It's clear I've become obsessed with a topic when the pile of books and prints on my desk grows to a certain point. The recent topic is Japanese swords. 

I've been diving deep into stories, mythology and history related to Japanese sword making. And I came across this short video on Japanese swordsmith Korehira Watanabe (渡辺 惟平). It's brilliant.  Read about the maker of this short film, Takeshi Fukunaga, here.

Did you know swords like these are so sharp that a highly skilled owner could cut an arrow, at speed, in half? 

Music Monday: Have A Nice Day

I'm a big music nerd.  

I have iTunes accounts in Japan and California, and two iTunes Match accounts so I can merge all of it into one massive library.  Music plays throughout my day; It's the soundtrack to my life. And I love to share, so I've decided to post a favorite track, album or artist every week.

This week's track is Have a Nice Day (link to song in iTunes Store) by World Order, the group led by producer and director Genki Sudo (twitter).

The members of World Order dress to parody the perception of Japanese business types in suit and tie. Their videos are mesmerizing. I can't help think the parody goes even further with the synchronized robotic dance moves that are their trademark performance style.

No matter how much Japanese or English you know, this is a great song to start the day with. My son and I listen to it in the car on the way to school in the morning. It's positive, fun and inspiring. 

Want more World Order? Check out Imperialism. The band could do a way better job explaining their message in English on their site, but regardless of your position on foreign policy, it's a great track. Especially at the end of 2016, when things just got really weird.

Kyoto Yunohana Ryokan and Onsen Suisen

The sitting room inside each guest room looks out over the main garden.

In Kameoka, deep in the countryside inland of Kyoto, Japan, there's an area famous for its natural hot springs called Yunohana.  And like most natural hot springs, some great Ryokans exist to provide a uniquely Japanese experience that combines hospitality with a special kind of rejuvenation. Yunohana Resort Suisen is an exceptional and recently established Ryokan that offers the best of Japanese cuisine and hot springs in a lovely and peaceful environment.

In 2015 my wife and I coordinated a visit to Japan for my brother and I.  It was his first trip to Japan, on business for a board meeting in Tokyo.  After the meeting, we spent a day in the noisy melee of Tokyo. Then we traveled to Kansai, Western Japan, to experience some of my favorite cities: Osaka, Kobe, and of course Kyoto.

When most people think of Kyoto, they think ancient and they think temples. The Ryokans and onsen (hot springs) in the Kyoto region are exceptional, and if you're planning a trip to Japan, it's worth considering staying in at least one carefully selected Ryokan. Most travel advisors seem to recommend Ryokans within the city of Kyoto for the sake of convenience. I prefer to get away and go deeper into the countryside to experience nature in Japan a bit more intimately.

Which brings me back to Yunohana Resort Suisen. Like most of my favorite Ryokans, it's small at just 13 rooms in total. And in this case, the focus is entirely on ensuring all guests can take in everything Yunohana offers.

The main garden with Sakura blossoming at Yunohana Resort Suisen, in Kameoka, Kyoto, Japan. Each room in the main structure (to the right) overlooks the garden.

The accommodations are wonderful, of course.  Each room overlooks the main garden, and each room has a small sitting room to relax and take in the garden, which is somewhat traditional. The public (for guests) baths are on the first floor of the resort, with separate baths for men and women.

Across the garden and up the hill, just past a small shrine, is an outdoor, open-air private hot spring that you can reserve in advance.  We traveled toward the end of Spring, and the cherry blossoms were still falling when we arrived. We booked separate times so each of us could enjoy the open-air bath.

This, for me, was the peak and best part of our stay at Yunohana Resort Suisen.  In very Japanese fashion, upon arrival we received apologies from the staff because the weather report indicated that it may rain. Not the kind of apology you hear at resorts in Maui when the staff knows everyone was looking forward to sun and blue skies lounging around the hotel pool.  This was a more formal apology that the weather may not be perfect.

As it turns out, it was perfect for me. When it was my turn to enjoy the outdoor private hot spring, I visited reception for the key and walked up the hill, noticing a very small shrine on the property, several yards off the walking path. Was it here before the resort? Two statues - stone foxes - almost seemed alert as if guarding the shrine. At the top of the walking path I unlocked the changing room, got settled in, then quietly entered the private outdoor hot spring.

It was beautiful. There's something magical about sitting in a hot spring with the perfectly cool Spring air on your face, and cherry blossoms falling around you.  Then it became more beautiful. It started raining.

I can't quite express how amazing it is to experience all of those things at once, so I took a quick recording to give you a taste.   It's moments like this that make me swear to myself that I'll continue exploring Ryokans and onsens every year for the rest of my life. And it's experiences like this that compelled me to start this site, so I could share with others who would enjoy the same.

Imagine my surprise when, after I was done enjoying the private hot spring, to find this at the door of the changing room, all the way up the hill:

An umbrella placed at the entrance of my private hot spring, already opened by whoever brought it up the hill to have ready for me.

The service was exceptional. In fact, you won't even notice it unless you're thinking about it, which is the point of exceptional service.  It's invisible, and you simply notice the absence of things.

The other key experience at a Ryokan is the cuisine. Yunohana Resort Suisen created a beautiful kaiseki-ryori experience.  The dining is semi-private (or entirely private, if you opt for it). We enjoyed dozens of dishes prepared by chefs from local and seasonal ingredients, including bamboo, octopus, the highest quality kobe beef, and more. Breakfast was even more interesting, with a poached tomato stewed in miso, which was surprising and amazing.  Enjoy the gallery featuring just a few of the dishes we enjoyed. And no, that's not a Piranha, it's just a local fish that has some pretty fierce-looking teeth. But man won in this case, and it made a delicious course in our meal.  

The room was fantastic. Traditional elements but with modern touches. And extremely comfortable.

Departing Yunohana was as positive an experience as the arrival.

Japanese Hotels - Why good is often better

The recently remodeled Prince Sakura Tower Hotel in Tokyo

The recently remodeled Prince Sakura Tower Hotel in Tokyo

I like great service, I'm a fan of good food, and I'm very particular about where I sleep. I expect a hotel room to be safe and secure, exceptionally clean and very private. And now that I have children, my expectations are that much higher. Which is why I'm a fan of higher-end hotels. 

This is one of the reasons I love Japan.  In general, I've found hotels in Japan to be profoundly better in many ways to their western counterparts. For example, my family and I recently stayed at The Prince Sakura Tower Tokyo (links to booking.com). We've stayed at five-star hotels in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and more, but The Prince Sakura Tower Tokyo blows them all away (excluding ultra-luxury hotels like The Ritz-Carlton, but I'll get to that later). The service is exceptional, the basic breakfast buffet was delicious, and the care with which the facility is maintained by the staff can be felt everywhere.  In my mind, I created a new ranking: five-star-plus (5+).

The view from our room at The Prince Sakura Tower Hotel in Tokyo 

The view from our room at The Prince Sakura Tower Hotel in Tokyo 

Why good is often better in Japan

When I think back over the last several hotels we've stayed at in Japan, including the Hotel Okura in Kobe, the Hotel Granvia in Kyoto, I'm consistently impressed with almost every aspect of the stay. We even routinely book the Hotel Nikko at the Kansai International Airport on every inbound flight to Japan.  It's walking distance from the airport, and a perfect place to rest upon arrival instead of trying to make that last 4 hours of travel with two extremely tired young kids in tote.

Typical Japanese service is really good

These aren't ultra-luxury hotels, like the Ritz Carlton and St. Regis. But you'll be surprised at how great the service is. I think a lot of this comes down to what we consider to be "great service" in American or other western countries. The Ritz-Carlton is fiercely proud of their 1992 and 1999 Malcolm Baldrige awards, as they very well should be.  There's a lot to the Malcolm Baldrige award, but in a nutshell it comes down to performance excellence. So it shouldn't be any surprise that, in the country that basically invented the concept and practice of kaizen, or continuous improvement, that almost every hotel provides an incredibly predictable, reliable experience.

And then there's the surprise and delight that comes from the unexpected, which is part of what makes Japan so fun and cool.  Last year I stayed at the Westin Tokyo, in the Meguro Ward, together with my brother who was visiting Japan on business. We flew in together from California, and as is usually the case, we were tired and hungry checking into the hotel. I grabbed a room service menu and saw:

  • Beer (glass) $10
  • Draft beer (glass) $14

I'm from California and we have access to a lot of really good beer, including several local beers available on draft. Then there's just silly, plain emotional decision making. "If I'm going to spend $10 on what might be boring, I may as well instead spend $14 on something that's likely to taste better," said I to myself.

Boy, was I pleased with that decision. In less than five minutes, the room bell rang.  And at the door?  The bar.  They brought the bar to our room. Well, maybe not the entire bar, but a bar on wheels with a keg built-in, and accompanied by an individual very skilled and serving draft beer.

If you're a fan of the Ritz-Carlton and other similar, ultra-luxury hotels, you'll simply be delighted in Japan.

Ultra-luxury Hotels in Japan

I'm a big fan of the Ritz-Carlton, and have stayed numerous times at The Ritz-Carlton Osaka. And recently on one outing to Osaka we stayed a night at the St. Regis Osaka as well. If you are a fan of either of these hotel brands, you be perfectly satisfied and at home in Japan.

One of the interesting things I noticed is that a big, obvious differentiator in the United States between ultra-luxury five-star and just regular five-star is a predictable customer experience. In the United States, I'm used to getting less that professional service and attention at many five-star hotels, and I notice a lot of mistakes. In fact, an unfortunate reality that a good number of US hotels actually point at their "service recovery" rate (how well and often they attend to customer complaints and fix problems). 

I think it would be a lot better to point out the absence of issues instead.  When the error rate is so low in Japan across the board, the differentiators that remain to stand out are the ones that matter: Atmosphere, cuisine (my favorite), skillful and elegant service, the Concierge's deep local knowledge and network.

If you are visiting Osaka in Kansai, I can't recommend The Ritz-Carlton Osaka highly enough.  The location is great, and the service is exceptional. You'll truly feel cared for.  The St. Regis Osaka has some impressive features - like butler doors and floor-to-ceiling glass walls letting you look out over the city from your bath - but it's not nearly as conveniently located. I also preferred the food at The Ritz-Carlton far more. Room service is always more expensive, but the food at the Ritz always over delivers. The food at the St. Regis was barely average, but came at a huge price premium.

What hotels have you stayed at in Japan that you enjoyed? What did you enjoy about the stay?  I'd love to get your feedback and recommendations.

Introducing Japaneur

There is probably no other country that sparks curiosity like Japan.

Japan is simultaneously approachable, yet alien, and at times seemingly unknowable. I recently heard Tim Ferriss (@tferriss) interviewing Malcolm Gladwell (@gladwell) on a podcast, and Tim described walking around Japan for the first time like “being in a fever dream.” Malcolm described it as simply wonderful.  When you go to Japan for the first time, you’ll discover what they both mean. Japan is wonderful and interesting on so many levels.

25 years ago I traveled to Japan for the first time.  Since then, I’ve been exploring Japan’s language, cultures and customs. Some of my colleagues called me a Japanologist. I think I'm more of a flâneur: A curious, always-learning, always-discovering explorer.  But people like labels, so I coined Japaneur. And I decided to start this site. If you're Japan-curious, or if you're preparing for any kind of visit to Japan, this site and the forthcoming podcast are for you.

Japaneur is the quintessential insiders guide to Japan, with an outsiders perspective.

I decided to start Japaneur for four reasons: 

First, I’m doing it for myself.

I love Japan. I love it enough to have completed a degree in Japanese language and literature.

When my first son was born a few years ago, I suddenly discovered how little I knew about Japan, even after 20 years of experiences and exposure to the country. My wife, who is Japanese, and I decided to raise our son both bilingual and bicultural. All of the suddent I no longer needed to just understand Japanese, I needed to be able to communicate in ways college could never have prepared me for.

So Japaneur is a journal of sorts. The more I discover about Japan, the more questions I ask myself. It’s incredibly useful to use cultural and linguistic discovery as a mirror for self reflection - or maybe better yet, introspection. Now I have a place to collect and share my thoughts.

My son has surprised me several times with his questions, observations and actions. He literally thinks and dreams in two languages. This isn’t unique - my grandfather spoke eight languages during his childhood in Europe - but only now we’re discovering that bilingual children think and feel differently in both languages.  To me, it’s critical that I can keep up with him, because I’m his dad. And that means being able to relate to two cultures that make up his one culture that’s comprised of both.

Consider Japaneur my learning journal. 

Second, I want to share what I've learned, and learn from you. 

Learning about Japan can at times be frustrating, because most of information available in English is either bipolar or unnecessarily exclusive. I had to spend years getting a degree in Japanese to be able to access more - books, websites, and even situations and conversations not available in English.  Across most of Japan, the emphasis on learning and communicating more in English isn’t really working (more on this later). 

I’ve met a ton of people, from college students, to parents to really want to know Japan better. Consider Japaneur my attempt to make Japan more accessible to a global audience of people like me.

I also hope to meet and learn from more fellow Japaneurs. Each one of us must have so many experiences that, collectively, can help each of us better connect the dots as we learn more about Japan. 

Third, Japan matters to the United States and the world.

Japan is the home of core cultural and business concepts that have already radically changed the world, and could make it even better. That iPhone in your pocket is only possible because Steve Jobs vision was made a reality through manufacturing and distribution techniques that originated in Japan. From Tesla to Porsche to Hyundai, nearly all the processes that made their quality possible originated in Japan. 

And what about the cultural concepts of beauty, politeness and honesty that permeate Japanese society? The Japanese concept of space and waste could, if adopted by the west, radically shift our progress in conservation and preservation of our environment.

While certainly not absolute, honesty is a core value in Japan. In Japan, a credit card chargeback hits the bank, not the business. A business will not be a customer of that bank for long with a pattern of chargebacks. But this is the same country where credit cards are not needed to make a reservation.  To make a reservation is to make a promise. I remember a monk running down 15 flights of stairs to return ¥200 (about two dollars) to a visitor that received incorrect change at a temple for a purchase. How much better would our lives be if everyone’s actions were so oriented toward social harmony and cooperation? Just imagine if Americans could take their extreme individualism and balance it with thoughtfulness expressed for the sake of others.

Read the Japan Times for just a few days and you’ll realize that Japan is in trouble. Its economy continues to erode despite all the plans and promises by its current Prime Minister. The last world-changing technology revolution didn’t originate in Japan, it started in Silicon Valley. Japan’s population is in rapid decline, with a negative birth rate. More and more of Japan’s population is elderly, with less and less young workers contributing to the tax system designed to care for the aged.  And Japan doesn’t treat its own women equally, nor foreigners, both of which are key demographics for adding to the workforce in other countries. Japan’s in a pickle.

And we are too. Clyde Prestowitz explains why in the last chapter of his 2015 book Japan Restored. He summarizes why Japan failing is potentially disastrous to world peace and our global economy:

It is greatly in the interest of the United States to have a robust, democratic, militarily strong Japan that has made its peace with World War II, that conducts its own peace-oriented foreign policy, and that is willing to contract mutual security arrangements both with some of its key immediate neighbors and with the United States, as well as others such as Australia and India.  Such a Japan would greatly lessen the geopolitical burden of the United States while also strengthening democratic forces globally and contributing to worldwide economic growth.  The rest of the world, and especially the United States, has a huge stake in having this kind of Japan restored.

Most of us alive have experienced a world where the United States, a country in which its safe to challenge the establishment, is the greatest world power.  Japan is arguably the only country in Asia to have demonstrated massive, successful economic growth under a democratic government. Mr. Prestowitz explains that Japan is uniquely capable of furthering peace and prosperity in the world, be building stronger relationships with its neighbors and other major countries committed to freedom and democracy.  Of course, the alternative is terrifying.

I want my children to grow up in a world of peace and opportunity, and not in a world of war like the one my grandparents experienced during WWII.

Finally, let's not forget the fun

So far, I've been pretty serious. I didn't and won't forget the fun and strange. 

In what other country can you find an 18 meter tall (54') 50-ton robot statue at a park? Where Kentucky Fried Chicken is a Christmas tradition? Or a ghost (hoji-hoji) that compels nose-picking? An island full of cats?  High-tech toilets with fuzzy logic processors?

What better place to capture and share all the cool and interesting things Japaneurs discover around almost any corner in Japan?

Getting started

There’s so much to cover, discuss and write about. So as the greatest American travel writer Harry Franck would say, the only think to do is apply the seat of my pants to the seat of my chair and start writing.  

If you’re interested in Japan, stay tuned by joining my email list here, following @japaneur on twitter, and subscribing to the podcast once it goes up.  Please let me know your feedback, thoughts, ideas and questions.  

I’m certain we’ll learn from each other, and learn together. And the awareness we create could just help make the world a better place.

Maneki Neko 招き猫 A.K.A. the beckoning "Fortune Cat"

That cats bring luck isn't a new concept. The Egyptians were so enamoured with cats that they even worshiped the cat goddess Bast. If vermin including cobra snakes were problems in your home and you discovered that cats hunt and kill both (!!), you would probably be fond of cats, too.

Almost everyone's seen a Maneki-Neko 招き猫, translated literally as "beckoning cat". Sometimes they are perched at the entrance of a shop, other times sitting on a shelf looking over the sushi chefs toward the seated customers, or facing the door of the restaurant. Some Maneki-Neko have a swinging arm (motorized, mechanical, sometimes solar-powered) that looks like it's waving at you. Others are fixed with one of their two arms up, paw down.

Cultural side note: The way we gesture "come here" is very different than the Japanese way. We either use a finger in a curling up motion to say "come here", or swing our arm in the direction we want someone to go, or use our thumb to point the same, in a "come on over this way" gesture. Don't ever use the American/Western finger curling come here gesture in Japan. It's considered rude in Japan, and in some other Asian countries you'll get thrown in jail for using it (or worse). 

Instead, the Japanese will extend their arm partially or entirely with palm of hand facing the earth, and while keeping the arm relatively still, wave the hand down pointing to earth, then back up to a neutral position, palm facing the earth.  I made a little video demonstrating this here.

Where does Maneki Neko originally come from?

Maneki Neko comes from the Gotokuji Temple in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward, just a five minute walk from Miyanosaka Station on the Tokyu Setagaya Line.

In Japan, there are temples for just about everything. From fertility to business luck and beyond. The Maneki Neko is said to bring good luck in its direction. If you're looking to increase your luck, a visit to the Gotokuji Temple is in order.

There are many myths and legends surrounding the origins of the Maneki Neko. The most dramatic of stories is that of a cat who was cared for by a priest at the temple during the Edo Period (1603-1868). One day a Japanese feudal lord named Ii Naotaka was passing by the temple, and Naotaka and his servants took shelter from a thunderstorm under a tree near the temple.  That was when they saw the cat that appeared to be waving at them, beckoned to come inside the temple.   Curious, they followed the cat into the temple and were greeted by the priest. Shortly after entering the temple the tree was struck by lightning.  It is said Naotaka was grateful to the priest and offered forward gifts to the temple, all the result of the cat.

The Gotokuji temple sells the Maneki Neko statues and provides this version of the story on paper along with the statues:

The story of a Monk and a waving cat:
A long time ago when the temple was a shabby hut and the Monk could barely live on the small income he gained as practising mendicant. He had a cat and cared for it like his own child, sharing his own meal with it. One day he said to the cat, "If you are grateful to me, bring some fortune to the temple." After many months, one summer afternoon, the Monk heard sounds around the gate, and there he saw five or six samurai warriors on their way home from hawk hunting, approaching him and leaving their horses behind. They said, "We were about to pass in front of your gate, but there a cat was crouching and suddenly it lifted one arm and started waving and waving when it saw us. We were surprised and intrigued, and that brought us to come here to ask for some rest." So the Monk served his bitter tea and told them to relax. Suddenly the sky darkened and heavy rain began to fall with thunder. While they waited a long time for the sky to clear, the Monk preached Sanzei-inga-no-hou (past, present, future reasoning sermons).
The samurais were delighted and began to think about converting to the temple. Immediately, one samurai announced, "My name is Naotaka Ii. I am the king of Hikone, Koshu province. Due to your cat's waving, we were able to hear your preaching. This has opened our eyes, and seems to be the start of something new. This must be the Buddha's will." Soon after they returned home, Naotaka Ii donated huge rice fields and crop lands to make the temple grand and generous as it is now.
Because of the cat, fortune had been brought to the temple. Therefore, Gotokuji is called the cat temple. The monk later established the grave of the cat and blessed it. Before long the statue of the cute waving cat was established so that people might remember the episode and worship it. Now everybody knows the temple as the symbol of household serenity, business prosperity, and fulfillment of wishes.

When you visit Tokyo make sure to pick up your own good luck Maneki Neko from the Gotokuji temple. And remember, always be nice to animals, especially cats.

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The annual お守り (omamori) cycle

西宮神社 The Ebisu shrine in Nishinomiya

西宮神社 The Ebisu shrine in Nishinomiya

I usually make an annual visit to the 西宮神社 Nishinomiya shrine to pray (donate $) to Ebisu for great business luck in the coming year. Ebisu (transliterated as Yebisu.. ゑびす) is the god of fisherman, luck and the working man. This year a family member is going for me. He's returning the good luck お守り (read = omamori) that I bought in the prior year, and also picking up a new, larger お守り with the budgeted money I've set aside for my annual purchase of good business luck from the temple.  お守り needs to be returned to the temple it came from each year and replaced with newly purchased お守り.  The monks figured out a good recurring revenue model, centuries before the Internet and magazine subscriptions.

My donation never really compares to the big bucks power of some big Japanese companies. Their donations usually include what they make: Beer, sake, etc. And of course lots of money.

At the 西宮神社 Nishinomiya Shrine, there is a particularly big fish each year that you are supposed to affix money to - or better yet, getting money into it's open mouth - which creates good luck. It's usually big. The one in the picture is 250 kilograms and 2.5 meters long.