2014 Field Studies Module News

The Department of Japanese Studies learned this week that it has again received a generous donation from the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Singapore, to hold the Field Studies in Japan module again in May 2014.

This means I am in the middle of planning the schedule, readings, theme, and learning activities for our next trip. Please check back on this blog for a link to the application, which I will post early in January 2014.

In the meantime, you can read Frequently Asked Questions about the program here.

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 8 of 10

“Nature and Me” by Alvin Lee

To nature, humans may be small, while to us nature is full of resources. Nature can greatly impact our lives depending on how we treasure and use it. We often discuss how humans negatively impact the nature, and why we should preserve nature, but this field study made me reconsider how we can make use nature to revitalize local economy and increase tourism.

In the first image, I am sitting on a path near the top of Hiranodai, a hill located near Kurokawa Onsen, Kumamoto Prefecture. Away from the city, there was only a view of vast grasslands, trees and mountains. Busy city life seems to pause, and time flows more slowly than imagined. Even though one feels a connection to the peace and quiet of nature, one recognizes that the path to this spot was all man-made, created for people. I then wonder if this might always be the negotiation between humans and nature throughout centuries. This thought carried into my two-day farmstay experience in Minami-Oguni, Kumamoto Prefecture (second image, below). The farm practiced self-sustainability, growing and eating its own food, making pottery to sell during the winter, making senbei from rice to sell in town, and hosting guests searching for a quiet weekend or holiday away from the city. Nature offers us food to survive and opportunities for businesses, and even supports the cities we live in presently.

I went to Kyushu to study regional revitalization, or chiiki saisei, and to learn how a region could be revitalized. This requires amazing effort by communities. In Kurokawa, youth are revitalizing their family businesses with new ideas; however, they still must rely on the natural onsen to attract tourists, a natural resource that the town has used for centuries. In Minamata, people are working towards a common goal, to create an eco-friendly city that requires constant recycling efforts by everyone. Through the field study, I felt a constant focus on the importance of nature to humans, as humans can use nature to generate prosperity in a region. If we can look at nature with a different perspective, maybe we can strike a better balance between the negotiation of humans and nature, so that we can live in a cleaner and better world.

Student post 6 of 10

“Hiking in ‘Nature’ on Mt Aso” by Tan Li Yun Evelyn 

Mt Aso is an active volcano located in Aso, Kumamoto Prefecture, at the center of the world’s largest caldera. In this image, it may not appear that we are hiking up the steep incline of a mountain, but going on a leisurely walk. Paved paths for pedestrians on the right co-exist with roads for vehicles on the left, making the crater accessible for large numbers of tourist. Despite the sunny weather, the landscape and climate can be harsh at Mt Aso, which we discovered the hard way.

I took this photo while lagging behind the others, due to the steep incline and the nearly unbreathable air. I started coughing the moment I stepped outside the souvenir shop. Signs there informed tourists that the giant, steaming crater was inaccessible due to the high concentration of sulphur dioxide in the air. However, the path to the volcano was still open to tourists.

We tried our luck at catching a glimpse of the crater, walking through “nature” that is not endless fields of flowers dotting green grass. The scenery slowly changed from green to grey. There were rocks everywhere; no sign of life except us troopers and the occasional car zooming by. The landscape was boring – how was this “nature tourism” if there are no plants, no colours? My image of nature as forests and flowers lining footpaths, with sunlight peeking through the canopy, simply did not belong on this volcano.

A few minutes after taking this picture “nature” again tested us as the concentration of sulphur dioxide became too high and we were forced to evacuate the mountaintop. Far from a boring landscape, Mt Aso provided a thrilling adventure where I had to use all my senses to detect danger. In retrospect, it was not as boring as I thought, and I started to appreciate the volcano and nature as more than simply “beautiful scenery.”

Student post 2 of 10

Farewell to the farmstay (polaroid image)

Singaporean Students meet Farmstay, Nostalgia Happens(?!)”

by Tan Jing Ting 

This picture was taken at the end of our farm-stay at Saconue no Kaeru (さこんうえの蛙 – http://saconue.com/), in Nakabaru, Minami-Oguni Town, Kumamoto Prefecture. The women stayed here, while the men stayed at a different farm-stay house about a 10-minute walk away. While learning about regional revitalization, we spent two nights here, with all our meals made from fresh produce. With a vegan among us, the meals were 100% without meat, and still 100% delicious. The farmers in the village creatively utilize their existing resources to create farm-stays in order to diversify their businesses beyond just farming. In addition, we learned that the men stayed with a different family in order to spread the farm-stay business evenly within the village. Our host father said that for the entire village to prosper, the community should progress together. This is one of the essential elements for regional revitalization: a strong community spirit.

One concept we learned prior to the trip was furusato (literally ‘old village’), which appeals to nostalgia. While the farm-stay was not exactly nostalgic to us young Singaporeans, we were nonetheless able to have first-hand experience of some aspects of an old village. A huge part of this was due to the hospitality of the host mother (center, with the handkerchief around her head). I have fond memories of her rushing in and out of the main dining room (wooden structure which we were standing in front of) to deliver dishes and fervently explaining all the ingredients used in them. I couldn’t understand much of what she said (note to self: enhance Japanese vocabulary on fruits and vegetables), but her enthusiasm was infectious. It made us Singaporeans wonder if we could be as strong and lively as her in our old age. Indeed, what is furusato without old people?

You might have noticed that this is a photo taken with a Polaroid photo. This is not by chance – the Polaroid produces an effect unlike digital or film cameras, making it seem as if a long time has passed since the photo was taken. It is my attempt to induce nostalgia. Secondly, this is also an example related to the “tourist gaze”, a concept by Sociologist and tourism scholar John Urry (1990), who argues tourists “choose where to go in order to capture places on film,” a process that builds on the tourist experience. No digital camera can produce such a nostalgic effect. This Polaroid photo captures the “perfect ending” to my memory of the farm-stay.

Field Studies in Japan 2013 – Applications now accepted

Theme: Tourism and Regional Revitalization

May 13-17 Coursework at NUS
May 18-28 Study in Japan (tentative, could return as late as May 31)

Japan’s postwar economic miracle was not experienced evenly. Industrial pollution, wasteful construction projects, and rural depopulation damaged human health and the physical landscape of many regions around the country.

Two decades after the collapse of the bubble economy, many places continue to struggle. However, there is hope, with many people fighting to revitalize their communities in the face of economic and demographic problems.

In this module students investigate the revitalization efforts of a handful of communities in Kumamoto Prefecture, particularly through tourism. Students will meet government officials, citizens, and business owners who care deeply about their communities and strive to develop ways to share the places they love with tourists.


In order to apply, please download the application here (JS Field Study 2013) and return it by Friday, 8 Feb at 5:00pm.

Here are some FAQs about the program:

  1. Is the schedule on the flier fixed? Answer: Yes; however, issues might arise that could push the trip back by several days.
  2. Is the module finished on 28 May? Answer: No. You will still need to be available to compete parts of the module (final paper, presentation) as late as 7 June.
  3. The flier says the trip will cost up to $1500. What does this mean, and how likely is it to cost less? Answer: $1500 is an estimate based on current prices and exchange rates, as well as due to a generous contribution from the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Singapore). The cost might change, although the most likely scenario is for it to be less. Therefore, you will need to commit to the program and prepare to contribute up to $1500 before we know the results. It is very likely that you will have to spend less than $1500.
  4. What does the $1500 cover? Answer: International airfare, domestic transportation (train, bus, taxi), overnight accommodations, entrance fees, and most meals. Items not covered include a few meals, one optional excursion, travel insurance, any personal shopping, and NUS credit fees.
  5. Does the $1500 cover the cost of the NUS credits? Answer: No, you will have to register for the module and pay for the credits prior to our departure.
  6. How many credits is the module worth?  Answer: 4
  7. Do the credits count toward the JS major? Answer: Yes. The module counts toward the 3000-level requirement for the major. This makes it ideal for all students, especially those who will do (or have done) exchange. Mapping 2000-level modules from Japanese universities is easy, but we do not normally map 3000-level modules. Therefore, majors and minors need to take 3000-level modules at NUS.
  8. I am about to graduate and do not need the credits. Do I have to take the module for credit? Answer: Yes. Only students enrolled in the module for credit can participate in the field study. However, please note that if you attend the field study you WILL NOT be eligible to attend commencement in July. Because you are attending a summer program, your degree will not be conferred until September.
  9. What is the difficulty level and how will the module be assessed? Answer: The module is standard for a 3000-level JS module. Marks will be based on participation, several presentations (group and individual), several on-site field exercises, and several written assignments. You can see some of the written assignments on this blog.
  10. What comes after the application? Answer: there will be a group interview in February or early March. Successful applicants should know the results soon after the interview.
  11. Can I participate as a year 1 student? Answer: Yes. You can apply, and you will be considered. Priority will be given to students who show maturity (at whatever age) and show they can handle the stresses of a homestay and an intensive 3000-level module.
  12. How much Japanese do I need to participate? Answer: As indicated on the flier, priority will be given to students with a certain level of proficiency, which can be shown either through modules completed, JLPT certification, or self-study. You will need to read some government documents and tourist pamphlets, survive in a homestay, take part in student exchange, and speak to strangers here and there. Most importantly, you have to be willing to make mistakes and keep trying!

Farming in Aso

During our farm stay in Minami-Oguni we faced a challenge: we were almost unable to do any farming. Farming was intended to be a central activity on our full day at Saconue no kaeru. After all, what is a farm stay without farming? However, a light rain all morning prevented us from doing any “field” work. Instead we spent the morning touring the hamlet.

We got our chance to farm in the afternoon. A short break in the weather allowed us to quickly assemble and transplant a few dozen edamame, the tasty soybeans that serve as an appetizer at Japanese restaurants around the world. It was not much of a challenge. We simply had to remove the plants from plastic containers and deposit them into the soil. However, it was a first for many students, and they appreciated the chance to get their hands (or at least their gloves) dirty.

Our edamame the day after planting

Grow little guys!

After the brief planting session Mr. Kawazu answered questions about organic farming and hosting guests at his farm stay. It sprinkled on us, but it didn’t dampen our spirits and our feeling of connection to the land beneath our feet and all around us.

The next morning we woke to a glorious day. We had time to walk around and see rice being planted, but our schedule prevented us from participating in any more agriculture.

Rice ready to be planted.

Planting with a tractor

Newly-planted field

Students walking on the "satoyama path"

Aside from relishing the trees and fields, we also wrestled with some big questions while at Saconue no kaeru: Is a farmstay ecotourism? Is it nature tourism? Is it sustainable? What does the future hold for this hamlet? How can these businesses grow just enough to boost family incomes, without congesting roads and overwhelming local residents?

A farm stay offers many exciting possibilities for owners; however, they must carefully manage their futures if they hope to be sustainable.

For Singaporeans, the farm stay brought many new experiences. Just being surrounded by trees and newly-planted crops and eating the freshest food possible seemed to have a calming effect on everyone. Like the rest of the guests who stay, we were able to “reset” ourselves before continuing with the last leg of the field study.

Saying farewell to our farmstay

Date of visit: May 20-22, 2012

Date of photos: May 22, 2012

Farmstay food

Every meal at Saconue no kaeru was an event. Dishes streamed through the door in rapid succession: salads, tempura’d vegetables and herbs, soups, things stewed, pickled, fried, steamed, and jammed.

Rice for everyone












Devil's tongue, beans, peppers, potatoes, daikon radish, tomatoes, lettuce, burdock root, eggs ... the list goes on. Humans are meant to eat such variety at every meal.

We also made our own sushi rolls for lunch.

The controlled pandemonium of self-made sushi with 15 people.

We ended the day with a pizza party, joined by local high school students. This was an incredible opportunity for cultural exchange, entirely in Japanese. We baked the pizzas in an oven made from volcanic rock from near Mt. Aso, and laughed late into the night.

Homemade pizzas

Cultural exchange with high school students (seated).

Cultural exchange


Date of visit: May 20-22, 2012

Date of photos: May 21, 2012

Farmstay in Aso

The town of Minami-Oguni has been squarely on the tourist map of Kumamoto (and Japan) for the past few decades because of the success of the hot springs resort of Kurokawa. It draws over a million visitors per year and frequently appears at or near the top of “best of” lists for tourist destinations.

However, there is more going on in Minami-Oguni than hot springs. Cafes and restaurants (including a number of soba shops on “soba road”) have sprouted all over the town, and there are a handful of natural sites worth visiting (like Oshidoishi).

But one of the most exciting developments for me is the increase in farm stays. Most residents in Minami-Oguni’s tiny hamlets do some farming, but this has not provided sufficient income for decades, so most earn more secure incomes elsewhere (farming, teaching). Recently, some have begun trying to supplement their incomes by allowing people to stay in their homes, and in some cases, help with agricultural tasks. By remodeling a few rooms and having an internet presence, families can offer urban residents a unique experience that people in the past may have experienced by visiting their grandparent’s house. These days, fewer people have grandparents living in such areas, so they turn to entrepreneurs like those here.

We were able to experience the incredible hospitality of two families who hosted us for two nights (20-21 May). Our main host was the Kumagai family, who operate Saconue no Kaeru. The food was mostly locally-sourced and homemade, and completely vegetarian. We were treated to a walking of the village, which included a tour of a lumberyard and wood-processing factory, a stop by a shrine, and a chance to feed some dairy cows.

Learning how to grow shiitake mushrooms by not "scaring" them.


Descending from the shrine

Feeding Oguni Jersey cows

Tour of wood-processing facility: turning Oguni-sugi into building materials

Date of visit: May 20-22, 2012

Date of photos: May 21, 2012

Nature Tourism – Mt. Aso and Nabegataki

There is an irony inherent in most nature tourism. In order for tourists to access and enjoy natural destinations, one must build infrastructure that eats into the very nature to be enjoyed. Nowhere was this more obvious on our field study than at Mt. Aso, where a ropeway, road, and walking path have all been constructed so that thousands of people can reach the top each day. Many other mountains in Japan, like Fuji or even the nearby Kuju, have only walking paths. On Mt. Aso, the walking path is a wide swath of pavement. At the top, tourists mill around and take photographs in a large space paved over. And at the bottom, huge parking lots have been cut into the valleys to accommodate buses.

Infrastructure built to accommodate tourists observing the volcano at Mt. Aso

Safety shelter at Mt. Aso

Parking at Mt. Aso

Parking lot at Kusa Senri

The same situation exists at a smaller destination: Nabegataki, a small waterfall that became famous several years ago from a bottled tea commercial. In the years since, locals have been forced to accommodate increasing numbers of visitors. They have built a new parking lot, next to the existing, small gravel lot. They have also built a staircase to the bottom of the hill to replace the previously steep and slippery path. Now the adventure to reach the waterfall is gone, although the area is much safer and accessible to more people.

Students choosing walking sticks that used to be necessary to avoid risk









The path to the waterfall in May 2011

New staircase to the waterfall, May 2012

Nabegataki waterfall

Group photo in front of Nabegataki

Variety of cairns at the waterfall

That is the irony of nature tourism. Nature is sacrificed so that tourists can access it.

Date of visit and photos: May 20, 2012