Japan Times: Japan’s rural temples target mass foreign and luxury tourism

Japan Times (by Junko Fujita):

Deep in a forest in Japan‘s Fukui Prefecture, a 13th century Buddhist temple where Steve Jobs once dreamed of becoming a Zen monk has teamed up with a Tokyo skyscraper builder to seek the commercial enlightenment of foreign tourist dollars.

As a weak yen fuels record tourism, Eiheiji Temple, local authorities and Mori Building Co. — the construction company behind some of Tokyo’s glitziest retail palaces — plan to redevelop the site, including placing a ¥1.3 billion hotel nearby. From there, a new path will be built leading visitors to the spartan site that intrigued the Apple Inc. guru.

Japan’s temples have long been business and tech-savvy, offering lucrative services like funerals while courting domestic tourists — a recent Eiheiji exhibition featured video from a drone operated by a monk. But compared to other parts of the world, religious sites outside centers like Kyoto have been slow to target mass foreign tourism.

What has changed is a shrinking population using temples less, crimping revenue just as annual overseas tourist numbers surge toward Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s goal of 20 million well ahead of a target date of 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Olympics. Japan’s farther-flung regions, long suffering a rural exodus, now want a piece of an influx led by visitors from China, South Korea and Taiwan that is bolstering big-city economies.

Eiheiji is a monastery that has been isolated from the rest of the world,” said the Rev. Shodo Kobayashi, a deputy administrator at the temple. “But we cannot be divorced from our community forever. We need to respond to the needs of local governments to increase tourists.”

Eiheiji needs money to support monks in the kind of intensive Zen retreat training that once appealed to Steve Jobs. But visitor numbers have skidded to less than half a million a year, nearly two-thirds below a late-1980s peak when group tours organized by Japanese companies and neighborhood associations were at the height of their popularity.

For the temple and local authorities, a new bullet train line that connects Tokyo with neighboring Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, offers a lifeline. The picturesque castle town just over 50 miles away is seeing a surge in foreign tourists whisked from Tokyo in just over 2½ hours.

The temple aims to spend ¥1.3 billion to build a two-story hotel offering modern comforts — including alcohol — to 80 guests in the adjacent town of Eiheiji, while the surrounding Fukui Prefecture’s authorities will redevelop the path leading to the temple in a project to be completed by 2020.

With a place to stay the night, tourists will spend more time and money,” said Shouji Kawakami, an Eiheiji town official. Local officials hope to double the number of visitors to the temple by 2025.

For Yasuo Sasaki, head of the promotions department at Fukui Prefecture, the stakes go beyond tourism itself. “We need to strengthen our brand power to attract more tourists,” Sasaki said, “then we could revive our economy and people in Fukui will regain pride and confidence.”

It is an ambition shared by many of Japan’s less-traveled cities and towns, largely left behind while the Tokyo metropolis continues to grow in economic power.

But while these places invest in new facilities, for Kosuke Motani, chief senior economist at Japan Research Institute, it will remain difficult for locations that have fallen out of favor with domestic tourists to see a return.

In order for them to attract foreign tourists, they need to have something very unique,” said Motani. “It is very challenging for places that were deserted by Japanese people to attract foreign tourists.”

Still, some say foreign tourists can, and will come.

At Chusonji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Iwate Prefecture that traces its roots back nearly 1,200 years, promotions aimed at attracting visitors from Taiwan and Thailand are paying off, and will be stepped up, said senior temple priest Kaisyun Chiba. A broad central government push to encourage visitors to Japan is also helping, he said.

We have been making efforts to attract tourists but we haven’t done enough,” said Chiba. “How hard we try to attract them would be a key for the future.”

Back at Eiheiji, shaven-headed monks in black robes will continue to go about centuries-old rituals. But those interested in joining their austere training regime may be discouraged by Steve Jobs’ conclusion after consulting his spiritual advisor, an Eiheiji-trained monk who also performed his marriage service.

He said there is nothing over there that isn’t here, and he was correct,” the former Apple leader told writer Walter Isaacson in his authorized biography. “I learned the truth of the Zen saying that if you are willing to travel around the world to meet a teacher, one will appear next door.”

A guide to New Year traditions in Japan

Japan Today (by Ran Matsugi):

While New Year’s Eve is a time for parties and fireworks in many countries, in Japan, it is usually a somber time when people return to their hometowns to enjoy a few days together with their extended families – not unlike Christmas in the West.

However, the lack of parties does not mean Japan is a boring place during the New Year holiday period. This time of year is rich in tradition and culture, and if you have never experienced New Year in Japan, you’re missing something.

Here is a guide to some New Year traditions and what they mean.

Omisoka (大晦日)

Why is New Year’s Eve called “omisoka” in Japanese? In the old calendar, the last day of each month used to be called “misoka”. “Miso” can mean 30 in Japanese, and “ka” means day. Although not every month has just 30 days, the tradition of calling the last day of the month “misoka” remained, and the last day of the year became “omisoka” (great last day of the month). After the new calendar was adopted, all the other “misokas” became less popular, but “omisoka” remained.

Osoji (大掃除)

This refers to the end-of-year cleaning which takes place in offices and homes. It is believed that by cleaning your house, you can purify your residence and welcome the “Toshigami-sama” (god of the coming New Year).

Kadomatsu (門松)

As soon as Christmas Day is over, the Christmas trees and decorations come down and New Year decorations go up. “Kadomatsu” are made of three cut bamboo sticks and pine tree branches and are put up in the entrances of buildings or houses. The bamboo shoots, which represent heaven, earth and humanity, are believed to attract the gods. The gods dwell in the pine until Jan 7, after which time the decorations are taken to a shrine to be burnt, releasing the spirits back to their realm.

Toshikoshi Soba (年越し蕎麦)

People eat soba at around midnight to ward off evil spirits before the New Year comes. Some also wish for a long life, or long-lasting connection with families by eating soba. Rakuten research reports that 67.5% of people surveyed are planning to eat “toshikoshi soba” this year.

Joya no Kane (除夜の鐘)

“Joya no Kane” or purification bells are important at New Year Buddhist ceremonies in which the priest rings the bell 108 times. According to Buddhist beliefs, the number 108 corresponds to the number of evil desires that we suffer from. It is believed that by listening to or ringing the bell 108 times, you can get rid yourself of those evil desires. Many temples allow people to participate in ringing the bell.

Ganjitsu (元日) and Gantan (元旦)

Why are there two words meaning New Year’s Day? “Gantan” generally refers to the morning or sunrise on Jan 1, while “Ganjitsu” refers to the first “day” of the New Year.

Nengajo (年賀状)

On New Year’s Day, you’ll see legions of Japan Post employees whizzing along on scooters delivering New Year greeting cards. Though the custom has lost some of its popularity in recent years – young people tend to avoid sending the cards, while others design their own cards and send them by email – “nengajo” are still important for businesses and the older generation for expressing appreciation and best wishes for the New Year. “Nengajo,” many of which are hand-written, also have lottery numbers on them.

Hatsumode (初詣)

The most popular activity on New Year’s Day is “hatsumode” or first visit to the shrine. The bigger shrines like Meiji in Tokyo, Kawasaki Taishi in Kawasaki and Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto are packed with hundreds of thousands of people from early morning throughout New Year’s Day. Many people go to smaller shrines in their neighborhoods. If you go, you’ll see burning incense sticks. The smoke itself is called “zuko,” and shrine visitors wave it over their heads to purify spirits and their bodies for the New Year.

Hamaya (破魔矢)

You’ll often see people leaving shrines, holding wooden arrows. These are given to shrine visitors to put somewhere in their homes to ward off evil spirits. The point of the arrow isn’t sharp; it’s just a decoration.

Osechi ryori (おせち料理)

This refers to special New Year delicacies traditionally made before New Year’s Day, and meant to last for seven days without refrigeration. The original reason for needing it to last for seven days is because there is a seven-day period of non-cooking to appease the fire god, Kohji. He would get upset and cause a natural hazard if you made fire so early in the year. In later years, this non-cooking period has changed to give housewives a rest during the New Year holidays since they worked so hard until New Year’s Eve. The food often comes in an elaborate bento box.

Kagami-mochi (鏡餅)

This decoration consists of two round rice cakes and a mandarin (mikan) on top. Traditionally, the cakes were adorned with a different citrus fruit known as “daidai,” which were considered auspicious as the meaning of the word can be translated to “generation after generation”, representing the family’s wish for a long and prosperous bloodline. The rice cakes are supposed to be an homage to the mirror of the sun goddess Amaterasu. With its round, mirror-like shape, “kagami-mochi” symbolizes the renewal of light and energy at the start of a new year.

Otoshidama (お年玉)

On New Year’s Day, children aged 22 and under receive monetary gifts from their parents and grandparents in specially decorated envelopes called “Pochi Bukuro” (Pochi bag). According to the Allabout questionnaire, the popular amounts of “otoshidama” are 1,000 yen for children younger than 6, 3,000 to 5,000 yen for children aged 6 to 17, and 10,000 yen for 18 to 20+ students.

Fukubukuro (福袋)

Many department stores and other retailers now open on New Year’s Day, giving children a chance to spend their “otoshidama” as well as tempting other shoppers with these lucky bags. Some people hit store after store and emerge with an armful of “fukubukuro.” The bags contain various items with a total value of twice the price of the bag.

Japanese Zen Buddhist temple starts selling instant vegan soba and udon noodles

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RocketNews 24:

Upon coming to Japan, a lot of people are surprised to discover just how difficult finding vegetarian food can be. Many people imagine Japan as a country that eats very little meat, and while that’s definitely true in comparison to North America and western Europe, the flipside is that you’ll find at least a little bit of meat in just about all dishes, including salads and vegetable stews with surprising frequency.

Things get trickier still if you’re trying to stick to a vegan diet. Even something as simple as noodles are generally out, since almost all broths are made with meat or fish stock. But if you’ve got an aversion to meat coupled with a craving for soba or udon, you’re in luck, with two new types of vegan instant noodles produced by a Zen Buddhist temple.

As a temple of the Soto sect of Zen, Yokohama’s Soji Temple is primarily concerned with nourishing the souls of worshippers. The institution’s newest venture, though, is more concerned with your physical nourishment, as evidenced by its name, Zen-Foods.

Many devout Buddhist monks in Japan adhere to a strict vegan diet called shojin ryori. In recent years, the cuisine has obtained a somewhat chic status, bolstered by its healthy image and connection to temple lodges that have become increasingly popular places for travelers to stay.

Under the supervision of Soji Temple, Zen-Foods has produced two types of instant noodles, both completely animal product-free, in accordance with the rules of shojin ryori.

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The Gahomen Soba buckwheat noodles, despite their elegant background, are made like any other instant variety. Open the lid, sprinkle on the soup powder, add hot water, and wait three minutes for everything to cook. Once it does, you’ll have a bowl of soba, swimming in a kelp/soy sauce broth, topped with soybeans, fried tofu, kikurage mushrooms, and an assortment of chingensai, warabi, and zenmai greens.

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Meanwhile, the Gahomen Udon wheat noodles’ has a vegetable broth seasoned with salt. While soba and udon toppings are largely interchangeable in Japanese cuisine, Zen-Foods gives its two types of noodles completely different accompaniments. With the udon, you can look forward to lotus root, green beans, and taro, among other veggies.

The udon does require a little more patience, though, as its cooking time is listed as five minutes. Looked at another way, though, that’s two more minutes for quiet meditation, self-reflection, or simply looking forward to your hot, healthy meal.

Gahomen Soba and Udon can be ordered here, directly from Zen-Foods, in packs of 12 for 3,600 yen (US$30).

Many of Japan’s 16 UNESCO World Heritage sites fly under the radar

RocketNews 24:

Did you know that Japan has 16 locations on the list of UNESCO World Heritages? Could you name them all with any sum of money on the line?

Survey Research Center, Co. Ltd. conducted a survey that showed that most people could not. When asked whether they were interested in Japan’s world heritages, 67.8% of those surveyed responded affirmatively. However, only 4% of respondents knew all 16 Japanese sites.

See how many you can name before looking at the list below:

1. Yakushima [Kagoshima Prefecture]

2. Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) [Hiroshima Prefecture]

3. Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Ryukyu Islands [Okinawa Prefecture]

4. Itsukushima Shinto Shrine [Hiroshima Prefecture]

5. Shiretoko [Hokkaido Prefecture]

6. Hiraizumi – Temples, Gardens and Archaeological Sites Representing the Buddhist Pure Land [Iwate Prefecture]

7. Ogasawara Islands [Tokyo Metropolis]

8. Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama [Gifu Prefecture]

9. Himeji-jo [Hyogo Prefecture]

10. Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and its Cultural Landscape [Shimane Prefecture]

11. Shirakami-Sanchi [Akita and Aomori Prefectures]

12. Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area [Nara Prefecture]

13. Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities) [Kyoto Prefecture]

14. Shrines and Temples of Nikko [Tochigi Prefecture]

15. Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara [Nara Prefecture]

16. Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range [Nara, Wakayama and Mie Prefectures]

How did you do? You might have noticed that both natural locations and manmade structures can qualify as world heritages.

The survey also showed that over half of Japanese tourists add the option of visiting a world heritage site when they take a tour on vacation.

Find out more about world heritage sites by watching “The World Heritage” on TBS at 6 a.m. on Sunday, November 27. The first program will focus on natural heritages, and the program that airs on Sunday, December 4 will deal with cultural assets.

Watching these shows and learning more about world heritages will surely enrich your mind and deepen your appreciation of Japanese history, and they may even give you some ideas for your next trip within Japan.

Source: TBS “The World Heritage”

Strapped for cash, 1,400-year-old Kyoto shrine leasing part of its grounds for condo development

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RocketNews 24:

One of the things that makes Japan such a compelling place is the country’s long cultural history. The upkeep of centuries-old buildings can be extremely expensive, however, especially since traditional Japanese architecture is mainly wood, reed, and paper, which aren’t exactly the sturdiest building materials.

As we’ve seen before, sometimes even sites of historical significance can struggle to make ends meet, and Kyoto’s famous Shimogamo Shrine is no exception. That’s why in order to raise the funds it needs, the institution, which was founded some 1,400 years ago, is planning to lease a section of its grounds for the construction of a complex.

Although it’s been around in some form since the 6th century, the Shimogamo Shrine has gotten a number of publicity boosts in the modern era. The shrine was designated a UNESCO world Heritage Site in 1994, and much of the surrounding forest is part of the Tadasu no Mori, an old growth nature preserve that’s listed as a national historical site.

In even more recent years, the shrine was depicted in in the 2013 Kyoto-set anime The Eccentric Family, and the shrine remains one of the most important Shinto sites in Kyoto, beloved for its fall colors and host of the Aoi Matsuri festival, held every year on May 15.

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This year, however, the shrine’s finances are looking bleak. Like many shrines, Shimogamo periodically takes part in a ritual called Shikinen Sengu, wherein new shrine buildings are constructed to replace the old ones as the homes of the gods. Shimogamo Shrine does this once every 21 years, and with Shikinen Sengu scheduled to happen in 2015, expects to incur related expenses of some three billion yen(US$25.2 million).

Government funding should provide about 800 million yen, and, like many shrines in Japan, Shimogamo is also likely to receive donations from major business entities. However, two months into the year, donations are not projected to be nearly enough to cover the necessary costs. In response, Shimogamo Shrine announced earlier this week that it is planning to lease out a section of its shrine grounds for the construction of a condominium complex.

Head Priest Naoto Araki said that the ordinary monetary offerings the shrine receives over the course of a year are applied to ordinary administration and maintenance costs, but points out that the latter are rising every year. Faced with the additional burden of finding a way to pay for 2015’s Shikinen Sengu, he has come to the conclusion that there is no other choice that will enable him to preserve the shrine for future generations but to build the condos. The 50-year lease is expected to bring in about 80 million yen annually for the shrine.

▼ A map of Shimogamo Shrine

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Conservationists will be partially relieved to know that the proposed construction site, while still on the shrine grounds, lies outside the World Heritage Site and national historic site boundaries. The 9,650-square meter (2.4-acre) plot, which borders the Mikage-dori road, was formerly the site of housing for the shrine’s priests. Following World War II, the area was repurposed as a golf driving range because of financial difficulties, and in the early 1980s became a parking lot, which saw less and less use as other lots were built in the area.

In keeping with Kyoto’s reverence for its past, any development will have to comply with a number of regulations meant to preserve the city’s traditional beauty, and the developers are currently in the middle of preliminary talks with Kyoto’s Municipal Beautification Council. The proposed 107-unit complex would be spread among eight buildings, each a modest three-stories tall and no more than 10 meters high so as not to mar the surrounding views, with traditional Japanese tile roofs. Within the complex, the same type of elms as those which grow in the Tadasu no Mori woodlands are scheduled to be planted.

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Despite these concessions, many online commenters still weren’t happy about the news.

“I was really surprised to hear about this. I don’t mind if they charge admission to the shrine, but I want them to call off the condo construction. It’ll ruin the scenery.”

“At first I thought, ‘That’s just wrong,’ but it looks like there’s no other way for them to get the funds they need, so it can’t be helped.”

“Even if they’re a World Heritage Site, is this the only way for them to survive?”

“Ah man…are they still going to be able to film samurai TV shows there?”

If approval processes go smoothly, construction is expected to start in November, with completion of the complex estimated in spring of 2017.

Temple in Thailand plans separate toilets due to lack of bathroom etiquette by Chinese tourists

Wat Rong Khun, better known as the White Temple, is one of Chiang Rai’s most famous tourist attractions

Bangkok Post: 

One of northern Thailand‘s most famous temples plans to build separate toilets for Thais and other non-Chinese tourists, officials confirmed on Saturday.

Wat Rong Khun, better known as the White Temple, in Chiang Rai will add the new toilets as a solution to complaints about the lack of bathroom etiquette by Chinese tourists, temple officials told DPA.

Previously, the temple had banned Chinese tourists altogether after Chinese tour groups had left the toilets in a state of disrepair.

They had defecated on the floor, urinated on the walls outside and left sanitary pads on the wall of the bathrooms,” said an official who requested anonymity.

The temple’s designer, Chalermchai Kositpipat, said in a television interview that it was “impossible” for other tourists to use the bathrooms after the Chinese tours, so he would build new ones.

Reports of misbehaviour by Chinese tourists have become an increasing source of concern as their numbers swell. Last year, 4.62 million Chinese visited Thailand, accounting for 18.7% of all international arrivals, more than any other nationality.

In another recent incident, a tourist identified as a Chinese national kicked a bell at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai. A video posted anonymously online drew widespread condemnation.

In the short film, the man first posed for a photo with a row of bells before kicking one of them while laughing as he left the sacred grounds. Reports of tourists in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai relieving themselves in public have prompted further complaints.

In response, officials have come up with an etiquette manual in Chinese on how tourists should behave in Thailand.

Two Japanese prefectures are completely void of historical temples due to anti-Buddhist movement during the Meiji Restoration

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RocketNews 24:

Japan is often praised for its ability to preserve traditional customs and architecture while still functioning as a modern society. There are few other places in the world where you can be in the middle of a buzzing metropolis, only to turn a corner and be face-to-face with a shrine that has stood for centuries. But did you know that there are actually entire prefectures that do not contain a single old temple?

Join us after the jump as we explore two such places and explain exactly why architecture that was hundreds of years old disappeared.

The first place we’ll take a look at is Kagoshima Prefecture. There is plenty of evidence that Buddhist temples existed in the area, as numerous ruins are protected to this day. Let’s take a look at a few:

Fukujyou-ji

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Oosumikokubun-ji

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Honryuu-ji

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As you can see, there are lots of ruins, but no ancient temples to be found. In fact, Japan has an average of 1,600 Buddhist temples per prefecture, but Kagoshima only has 485, all of which have been built within the last 200 years. What’s even more surprising is that at the end of the Edo Period (1603-1868), there were exactly 1,066 temples and 2,964 Buddhist monks, by 1874 there were none.

A similar story unfolded in Kochi Prefecture. Aside from also having a disproportionately low number of temples, Kochi is the only prefectural capital in Japan without a Pure Land sect Buddhist temple.

Of course, Kochi is a part of Shikoku, the site of the most well-known temple pilgrimage in Japan, the Shikoku JunreiHowever, taking a look at a map detailing the locations of all 88 temples on the pilgrimage trail shows something surprising:

shikoku_map_22

Kochi (the southernmost area on the map) is the largest prefecture in Shikoku, but has the least amount of temples along the pilgrimage route. So what happened?

The answer is haibutsu kishakuan anti-Buddhist movement during the beginning of the Meiji Restoration (1868 to 1912). Triggered by the new government’s official policy of separating Shinto and Buddhism, and heightened by lingering anti-Buddhist sentiment, violence, rioting, and the destruction of Buddhist temples was common during this time.

▼ Here we see temple bells being smelted for bronze during the haibutsu kishaku.

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▼ Here we see the burning of sūtras during the haibutsu kishaku.

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Hardest hit, as you may have guessed, were Kagoshima and Kochi, where haibutsu kishaku was most fierce, leading to the eventual destruction of all temples in the area.

However, as Japan continued to modernize and Buddhism became widely accepted and treasured, reconstruction efforts began. For example, Daiji-ji in Kagoshima was built in 1340, destroyed in 1869, and reconstructed in 1879.

▼ Daiji-ji in Kagoshima

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Zenraku-ji in Kochi was destroyed at the beginning of the Meiji period, and was reconstructed in 1929.

▼ Zenraku-ji in Kochi

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The fate of Kochi and Kagoshima’s temples is unfortunate. Although centuries of historical architecture was lost during the period of haibutsu kishaku, we’re fortunate to still have many fully preserved temples to visit throughout other parts of Japan.