Kyushu Shinkansen commercial

A few days ago I learned about this fantastic commercial celebrating the completion of the Kyushu Shinkansen in 2011. I finally watched it today.

View video here: Kyushu Shinkansen CM

I have followed news of the train line’s construction on and off for nearly a decade. I was in Japan in 2004 when the first leg opened between Shin-Yatsushiro and Kagoshima. At that time I saw many news reports about both the celebrations and the controversial siting (and construction) of stations and tunnels along the line. Some cities wanted stations with the hope of increasing business and tourism, while others worried that the location of new stations distant from their downtowns (necessary to accommodate the long, specialized cars) would only speed the economic decline of the existing business district (possible in places like Minamata). 

More problematic were all of the people who must live in the shadow of the railway’s immense concrete columns, or next to new tunnels and tracks suspended ten or more meters in the air that cut through communities, thereby not linking these mountainous communities to the rest of Kyushu, but only emphasizing their remoteness. 

Of course, the commercial does not address any of these controversies. It shows inaugural run of the entire line from Kagoshima to Fukuoka. This opening ceremony was celebrated by thousands of people along the route who stood out in the cold to wave to the passing train. At the end the narrator thanks everyone and hopes that the Shinkansen will usher in a new era for Japan:


On that day, thank you for waving.
Thank you for smiling (or laughing).
Thank you for coming together as one.
The Kyushu Shinkansen line is now complete.
A new energy is born in a united Kyushu.
From a united Kyushu, Japan should become more enjoyable.
The Kyushu Shinkansen, with you, is now complete.


Let me make one thing clear, I love this commercial. I watched it five times in a row upon first encountering it this morning. I cried every time. There is something about the spirit and creativity of people coming together for a public display (in any country) that pulls on my heartstrings. And as the train passes these thousands of people, I recognize those urban and rural landscapes. They speak to me, reminding me of hundreds of hours of cycling past rice fields and hot houses. I recall my farmer friends and acquaintances. I also think about the general excitement that comes from the completion of most large construction projects in Japan, whether they are really necessary or not. There is a party atmosphere. 

But then I think back to the controversies and think about all the people who did not come out to wave. I suppose that is inevitable with any large project. There will always be people who receive no benefit, or even whose lives are made worse. 

What is more interesting about this commercial, though, is that it did not run on television. In fact, it now has more than 800,000 hits on YouTube, but the celebration was not aired on normal television, as was originally intended. The reason is that this opening ceremony took place on March 12, 2011, one day after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. As the Tohoku region was reeling with aftershocks, searching for lost loved ones in the rubble, and keeping an eye on the deteriorating situation at the Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant in Fukushima, it was deemed inappropriate for people in Kyushu to be exhibiting so much … joy. 

That does not deteriorate my enjoyment of the video, but the broader perspective of the timing of its creation is fascinating, don’t you agree? 


By the way, the theme song in the CM is “Boom,” by Maia Hirasawa, a half-Japanese, half-Swedish singer/songwriter. What a rockin’ song! Gotta love a band with a tuba.

Publication in “Landscape Journal”

I just received word that my paper A Landscape of “Undesigned Design” in Rural Japan will be published in Landscape Journal, in early 2014 (33:1). I will provide more information when it is printed. In the meantime, here is the abstract:

ABSTRACT  Rural landscapes have long stimulated nostalgia for a simpler time and place. In contemporary Japan, real economic and social problems in the countryside have brought new attention to the role of rural communities in the formation of Japanese identity. In this paper I introduce Kurokawa, a hot springs resort that has spent the past three decades emulating the rural idyll through what it calls fūkeizukuri, or “landscape design,” en route to becoming one of Japan’s best known rural tourist destinations. I contextualize Kurokawa’s adoption of a themed landscape in the mid-1980s, and I explain the design choices that have gained Kurokawa so much attention, including those found in the built and natural environment. Here, I emphasize the role local actors have played in creating and enacting the landscape. I conclude by showing how the village’s adoption of a nostalgic rural theme has strengthened its status as not only an exemplar of the idealized aesthetics and social relations of the past, but also a rare rural community successfully adapting to the present.

Student posts – 2013 field studies module

If you read this blog from latest post first, the following explanation provides some explanation about the ten student posts below:

At this year’s event at the Japan Creative Centre, I asked each student to contribute one photo that represented some aspect of the module, along with a 400-word caption that explains the relevance of the photo to the module. The next 10 posts display this student work.

Student photos with caption line the hall of the Japan Creative Centre

Student post 10 of 10

“Lacking Lifeblood in Rural Japan” by Craig Tan

This photograph shows a hair salon in Tsuetate Onsen (杖立温泉), Kumamoto Prefecture. Tsuetate used to be a bustling onsen (hot spring) town during the Showa period, but in recent decades it has seen a steep decline in visitors. When I stopped by, the salon was closed, despite it being in the middle of the day when most businesses should be open and at their busiest. The salon was shuttered and will remain closed for at least another week before it opens for business.

It is common practice for businesses to mention the days when they will be closed. For example, it is common to find a notice informing customers that they are ‘closed on Tuesdays.’ So, the salon was strange in the sense that it only informed customers of when it would open. And when it did open, it was only for four specific days a month. This was the general atmosphere of the entire town, where numerous shops and restaurants remained closed throughout the day. In fact, only two restaurants in the whole town were open during lunchtime when we visited. Even the convenience store, which people expect to be open 24 hours a day, was open specific hours during the day and closed at night. To deal with the shortage of customers, ryokan owners inform shops and restaurants how many customers they will host each night, information the shops and restaurants use to decide when to open their business.

Tsuetate Onsen is trying to revitalise. Many efforts have been made to try to attract visitors, including a marathon, specialty pudding that differs in each ryokan, and perhaps their most successful event, the koinobori (鯉幟) festival. Still, Tsuetate does not see the number of visitors of its neighbour Kurokawa (黒川温泉), and the town remains rather quiet. Like many other small towns in Japan, Tsuetate is facing an ageing and declining population. Local residents are the lifeblood of any city or town, and perhaps that is the reason why Tsuetate is in its current position. It seems that only by retaining or inviting the younger generation to Tsuetate can it achieve its aim of revitalisation.

Student post 9 of 10

“Aging and Revitalization” by Germaine Tan

Tsuetate Onsen, a hot springs town located in Oguni Town, Kumamoto Prefecture, was our first destination and the one I liked most. Tsuetate was prosperous in the Showa period, but like many other rural areas in Japan, it is now in the midst of decline.

A dull and silent street made worse by a drizzle greeted us after our two-hour bus ride from the airport. However, the quiet streets and old buildings surrounded by billowing steam evoked nostalgia and gave us a sense of “old Japan”. We found a place for lunch that could fit all of us, but the owner was overwhelmed by the thought of preparing food for such a big group. It seemed clear that she rarely has so many customers, which further reflects the lack of visitors to the onsen.

After lunch, we were assigned different areas of town and tasked to observe the surroundings and talk to locals we encountered. My partner and I hardly saw anyone in our assigned area, and we found nearly all houses and shops at the edge town were closed or abandoned. It is sad that this once prosperous area is now like a ghost town. We were lucky to find an elderly woman at a gasoline stand able to chat. She mentioned that a serious case of ageing population and many young people leaving for better opportunities in the cities has resulted in the loss of vitality within the town. Furthermore, rising competition from nearby onsen like Beppu, Yufuin, and Kurokawa, coupled with the stagnant economy, has caused fewer people to visit. However, the people of Tsuetate are still trying. There are activities such as the famous koinobori display, whereby carp streamers are hung above and across the river, the Tsuetate puddings, and several festivals. But the effects of these activities remain limited, since they are seasonal.

I was astonished to find that when asked if she hopes the onsen can return to its glory days she replied, “Isn’t it fine to just remain like this? We brought up our kids, instilling them with the idea that it is okay (to work in big cities in future) to not return. Tsuetate can return to the days before it became prosperous and famous, running small business in peace and tranquility.” Her reply struck me hard into thinking about the true purpose of revitalization. What does it mean to revitalize? To what extent should we revitalize? How should towns like Tsuetate, with a majority of old people, best survive in future?

Student post 5 of 10

“Weaving Revitalization in Old Age” by Janice Chen

This is Matsumoto-san, a bamboo-weaving instructor at Midori no Sato (みどりの里) in Ashikita (芦北), Kumamoto Prefecture. Matsumoto-san is a retired high school teacher who continues his passion for bamboo weaving in his golden years. He became so skillful that he began taking students of his own.

In this picture, we were introduced to an array of baskets woven by Matsumoto-san, as well as the traditional Japanese bamboo décor (pictured here) that triggered his fascination with the art of bamboo weaving. We felt his strong enthusiasm for bamboo weaving in his elaborate explanation of this innocent-looking bamboo decor.

As an instructor, Matsumoto-san not only passes on his knowledge of a skill, but also preserves a part of Japanese traditional culture. Even in old age, he continues his passion to spread his art.

Matsumoto-san’s jovial and zealous attitude towards bamboo weaving can be seen as a form of revitalization for small towns like Ashikita, where young people are few in numbers. In Japan, where small villages and towns are affected greatly by the demographic problems of aging population and depopulation, senior citizens like Matsumoto-san are doing their part to reinvigorate rural areas by continuing to be active in their own interests, and incorporating that energy back into their local communities.

Student post 4 of 10

“Rural Decline and Revitalization” by Kasper Koh

The first day of our 10-day field trip in Kyushu brought me to the village of Tsuetate. During a two-hour walk around the area I found the streets empty, nearly all shops closed, and dilapidated or abandoned buildings everywhere – all on a Sunday when visitor numbers should be high. This proved a stark contrast to the pictures of Tsuetate’s past glories, hanging on the walls near our ryokan (inn). They show Tsuetate in the Showa period, bustling with life with well-maintained buildings that are slowly being ‘reclaimed’ by nature today.

A few locals I met expressed that Tsuetate is currently in a sad state, like many villages in Japan’s rural hinterlands. They have lived in Tsuetate most of their lives and witnessed the continuing population decline, as people move to the cities, schools close due to a lack of students, and the economy generally suffers. Locals seem resigned to the fate that this trend can only worsen as time passes. Most hope that chiiki saisei, or regional revitalization, will help Tsuetate regain its past glory, but most have little clue how to go about it. Yet having been to Kurokawa Onsen, which is doing much better due to the combined efforts of all residents, I believe that Tsuetate is capable of revitalizing if locals forge cooperation with one another. Some movements are in progress, like a collaboration between ryokan to sell puddings of different flavors. It seems only time will tell if Tsuetate will revitalize.

However, towards the end of my stay at the place, I learned about a woman who actually moved to Tsuetate because it was becoming a quieter and thus nicer place to live in. All the while I was getting evidence that the current situation was bad and returning to the past state is something desired, yet someone appears to like the place in spite of this. Looking at the photos outside my ryokan, I wondered whether returning to the past, lively state would truly be a good thing if there is good to be enjoyed from the current situation. I guess revitalization is truly in the eyes of the beholder.

Student Post 1 of 10

At this year’s event at the Japan Creative Centre, I asked each student to contribute one photo that represented some aspect of the module, along with a 400-word caption that explains the relevance of the photo to the module. The next 10 posts display this student work.

Student photos with caption line the hall of the Japan Creative Centre


Here is the first photo

“Sweet Revitalisation” by Francesca Chua

This is the pudding that sparked my curiosity in Tsuetate Onsen, located in Oguni Town, Kumamoto Prefecture. The “Tsuetate Pudding Legend Project” started a few years ago with 14 shops, restaurants, and ryokan (inns) working together to sell different flavours of pudding, all called “Tsuetate Pudding.” Tourists earn a stamp for each Tsuetate Pudding purchased, and when they collect ten stamps, they receive a souvenir from the Tsuetate Tourism Association Office.

This pudding idea is a creative reworking of a past local specialty, the amatamago (甘玉子), or “sweet egg.” Today’s pudding is made with the milk from local Jersey cows and cooked using the steam from Tsuetate Onsen. After hearing of this project, I and several classmates set out to investigate the origins and aims of this local revitalization effort.

Eventually, we found the originator of the idea and spoke with him, a young, seventh generation ryokan owner. From our short conversation, we could sense that he is not only passionate about cooking (he is a culinary master), but also constantly thinking about his guests and the future of Tsuetate. He acknowledges depopulation as a problem in the region, and so he wanted to come up with something that would attract tourists year round. He also hoped to create something that would keep shops open in Tsuetate Onsen, to give his guests something to do on the streets of town. As a chef, he came up with the idea of Tsuetate Pudding, made with local ingredients. Many shops, restaurants and ryokan then adopted his idea and joined the “Tsuetate Pudding Legend Project” with original pudding recipes of their own.

At the end of our conversation, not only did we satisfy our hunger for the truth behind the project’s origins, but we also satisfied our craving for the pudding, since he generously treated us to one pudding each! Even though this project may not be a huge movement, it is undoubtedly an effort by locals to revitalize the region in a small but meaningful way.