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.

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 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 3 of 10

“Generating Change in Minamata” by Tingfeng Lee

This image depicts the hourly and daily electricity generation (発電電力) at Minamata City Hall, Kumamoto Prefecture. It reflects the eco-consciousness of residents and forms one effort to revitalize their hometown in light of its poisonous past. Minamata is widely known for Minamata Disease, a neurological disorder caused by severe methyl mercury poisoning due to the release of untreated wastewater by the Chisso Corporation into Minamata Bay in the 1950s. However, in recent decades Minamata has been trying to strike a balance between environmental protection and economic progress. Aimed at creating a “Zero Waste City,” Minamata residents separate their rubbish into 23 categories for recycling, an unusually high number in Japan. This is in conjunction with the city’s 4Rs campaign – Refuse, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. In 2001, Minamata City was awarded the ISO 14001, an international certification for environmental management, and the city was named “Japan’s Eco-City Capital” in 2011 for spearheading Japan’s environmental efforts. Shadowed by lingering impacts of Minamata Disease, the city continues to be in cognizant of its past through the Minamata Disease Municipal Museum (水俣病資料館) and Minamata Disease Archives (水俣病情報センター). Attracting both domestic and overseas visitors, these facilities impart important lessons from the city’s past and inculcate the need for environmental awareness.

A visit to Tanaka Shōten (田中商店), a recycling company based in Minamata City, provided a better understanding of how a company in this “Eco-capital” tries to advocate both environmental protection and economic sustainability. Without incurring any cost for raw materials (notwithstanding manpower and equipment), when recycled trash gets delivered to the company, Tanaka Shōten aligns economic viability with the city’s environmental vision. From recycled beer bottles to paintings made of recycled glass, Tanaka Shōten periodically launches new products in response to market trends and demands.

In the course of the two-day experience in Minamata City, it dawned upon us that the city’s revitalization efforts are not merely top-down but rather a form of community spirit that binds local residents with the local government and private businesses. Like a phoenix from its ashes, the residents of Minamata City have risen from their past to create a better tomorrow.

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!

Ghost town tourism

What are the moral implications associated with visiting places precisely for their dark sides?

Dark tourism and slum tourism involve visiting locations with a horrific, sad, or risky present or past. Dark tourism typically refers to visits to sites of sorrow – think concentration camps, sites of assassinations, and prisons. Slum tourism refers to visits to impoverished neighborhoods, where people live in squalid conditions and/or areas often considered too dangerous to visit without a guide – think favelas in Rio de Janeiro or the slums of New Delhi. In either case, the goal is to see something most others have little interest in. Such tourists tend to be politically engaged, well-educated people who are conscious of gross inequalities in the world. They feel empathy for others and want to look behind the glossy facades created for them in tourist districts. However, underlying these kinds of tours is an ethically shaky desire to witness the suffering of others – either in the past or the present.

One of the underlying goals of any study tour is to introduce students to a side of a place/city/country that they previously were unaware of; or, to make real an aspect of the place/city/country that students only read or heard about.

In my effort to introduce students to the multiple sides of rural Kyushu, I wanted to show them not only cities undergoing a kind of revival, like Minamata, and largely successful places, like Kurokawa Onsen, but also places that are struggling with economic demise and depopulation. However, in doing so, was I participating in an ethically questionable practice akin to slum tourism or dark tourism?

I hadn’t considered the problem before our mini bus dropped us off; however, as we walked along the deserted alleys of Tsuetate Onsen, this ethical question began to rise to the surface. Along with an acquaintance and long-time resident of a nearby town, I began explaining the former heyday of this town, explaining how shifts in tourist desires, forms of transportation, gender expectations, social relations at work and more led tourists to gradually leave Tsuetate. It would be too simple, and inaccurate, to say all of the tourists who once filled Tsuetate now fill Kurokawa, but I’m sure for the local business owners it must feel that way.

Beginning our walk in Tsuetate

A small sign announces Tsuetate’s recognition on an NHK program as the most “hometown” (furusato) street

We had the town to ourselves. In the hour that we explored the attractive twists and turns of its streets, we only encountered seven people – two tourists checking out of an inn, the inn owner seeing them off, two other inn owners returning from business outside town, and two shopkeepers. In a resort that still has dozens of hotels and inns with hundreds of rooms, it was sad to see so few people.

One of the attractive, yet dilapidated, alleys

Ironically, perhaps, many students later remarked that they enjoyed Tsuetate precisely for its quiet streets and its sense of calm. While I do not deny students the joy of quiet streets, one cannot imagine local business owners happy about quiet streets. Quiet streets means no visitors. No visitors means no business.

Shuttered inn – out of business and nearly impossible to renovate

The entrance of a former inn

There are endless challenges to revitalizing Tsuetate – narrow streets and limited access not only dissuades elderly visitors, unfortunate given the demographic shift taking place in Japan, which promises more older tourists for years to come. The narrow streets also make it extremely difficult and costly to repair and renovate buildings in desperate need of a makeover. In some places, only a wheelbarrow or dolly will be able to transport the necessary materials – wood, concrete, glass, pipes, toilets, fixtures, kitchen items, tatami mats, bedding, the list goes on.

Reminders of past guests, some recent

While we were talking about all of these challenges, I had the sickening feeling that business owners were eking out an existence just meters away, behind the walls of their inns. We were talking about this place as if it were a ghost town, where tourists used to come, workers used to live, businesses used to thrive. Students were busily photographing empty streets, rusted window sills, broken tiles, all the while half-joking that the entire town could be used for a large-scale haunted house at Halloween.

Abandoned inn on the right

Worst of all, we were only visiting for an hour. Then we would leave and stay the night in Tsuetate’s local rival hot springs village, Kurokawa. Kurokawa doesn’t need our money or our praise, while Tsuetate clearly does. Two of the people we met along our tour were inn owners. One closed his inn a few years ago to stop losing money. Now he makes handicrafts from bamboo. We stepped into his store and looked around. However, only window shopping feels wrong when the entire town is suffering. One student purchased something.

Abandoned inn

The last person we met has just renovated his inn, which we passed before meeting him. He invited us to visit the cafe, but we were already on our way to the bus, and some of the students were tired and depressed. It was emotionally draining to walk through a place that was so run-down. It was like sorting through an attic full of someone’s keepsakes – things that are tattered and faded. In each object one imagines how someone in the past enjoyed it, but now it looks sad and used.


It strikes me now that if we want to move past being voyeurs of the plight of Japan’s rural villages, we should stay in them, infusing them with our money and our energy. Of course, like all tourism, this will involve choosing some places at the expense of others. Geographer Peter Matanle believes the future of Japan’s small cities, towns and villages involves nothing less than a zero-sum game, in which some towns will become deserted. Will these become ghost towns like those that dot the Western United States? Will Japanese and foreign tourists visit these places and speculate on what life was like in the past? Did we already do this on our study tour?

A few inns still show some life

Date of visit and photos: May 22, 2012


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