2014 Field Studies Applications now available

Theme: “Heritage and Tourism”

2013 was an eventful year for “heritage” in Japan. UNESCO added both Mt. Fuji and Japanese cuisine to its World Heritage list. Such events bring new attention to the question of what should be preserved in the present to be enjoyed in the future.

How is heritage defined? Who decides what is preserved and remembered? How is heritage packaged for tourist consumption? What controversies and possibilities surround the future of heritage in Japan?

In this module students investigate the interface of heritage and tourism in Japan. We study how heritage attracts visitors and what role heritage plays in the construction of local and regional identity. Please join this unique chance to study about Japan in Japan!


May 12-15 Coursework at NUS
May 16-26 Study in Japan

At NUS we will learn about heritage, tourism, and qualitative research methods. Students will also present case studies of the locations we will visit.

Then, we will travel to Japan. We begin by traveling with Kyushu University students to Tomonoura, a picturesque village in Hiroshima Prefecture that partly inspired Miyazaki Hayao’s animated film “Ponyo.” Then we continue to several communities in Kyushu where heritage and tourism are relevant.

Along the way, students will experience a homestay and farmstay, try hot springs, go hiking, eat like a samurai at Kumamoto Castle, and visit historical sites.



In order to learn more about eligibility and costs, please download the flier and application here Flyer2014. Submit your application (including all necessary transcripts) by Friday, 21 Feb at 5:00pm.

Also, please read the FAQs about the program.

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.

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 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 7 of 10

“Community Collaboration” by Oh Pei Qi

This picture shows a shrine in Kurokawa Onsen, with nyuto tegata (入湯手形) hung on its sides. After using a nyuto tegata, a wooden passport for hot spring baths, visitors hang them outside the shrine and stamp them with wishes, including for love (恋愛成就), family (家内安全), safe driving (交通安全), and academic success (学業成就). The people of Kurokawa Onsen developed the nyuto tegata 27 years ago, and they have received a great response from the public. Each pass entitles a person to three baths at any inn in Kurokawa, so visitors can try baths even at ryokan where they are not staying. This shares business among all inns by encouraging visitors to go “onsen-hopping”. Tourists pay 1200 yen for each pass, and after subtracting the amount paid to each inn (250 yen for each bath entry) and the manufacturer of the passes (about 100 yen), the remainder contributes to local funds that help build more tourist-friendly facilities.

Besides using the nyuto tegata for entries to hot spring baths and praying for good luck at the shrine, tourists can also use the wooden passes to play table tennis or tegatakkyu (てがたっきゅう), a creative form of table tennis invented by locals and played using the nyuto tegata as a racket. Tourists can enjoy the game with locals and even take part in competitions. Through the process, it can create a sense of camaraderie between people. Locals also told us that they collect donations from players to send to people affected by the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake. In all, I think the nyuto tegata is a really innovative business idea that helps attract tourists, improve ryokan business, and bring life back to the small hot spring town of Kurokawa. It was due to this that the town was able to revitalize even without the aid of government funding. I think it is an interesting story for us to learn from.

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.