Today we introduce you to five icons of Japan that you need to see now before these few vestiges are completely lost!
1. Sento–local public baths 銭湯
Up until WWII, most houses in Japanese cities were built without baths (even if you did have your own bath, you’d probably have to share it with your neighbors). Instead, local sento, (public baths) were located within walking distance in the neighborhood. People would change into their yukata or pajamas and head to perform their ablutions at the end of the day. With the day’s activities finished and nothing left to do but sleep, people spent a long time in the large, steaming-hot baths that soaked out all the stress of the day, both mental and physical. The size of the tubs and the socializing aspect would have been impossible to replicate at home even if you did have your own bath.
I also enjoyed this aspect of the public bath house when I first moved to Japan and lived in a small six-mat tatami room near the university. Over four years I got naked with my neighbors. The large bath hall with its high acoustic ceilings reverberated with ladies’ laughter that spilled out onto the evening streets as neighbors caught up with the day’s gossip. I learned to speak Japanese with a distinct echo.
But nowadays houses are all built with private baths, so the sento culture is dying out. Only the old lady who lives in that decrepit old house on the corner still goes to thesento–if there is one left in the neighborhood.
Japanese bathing rituals are still carried out at the onsen, where you’ll get a more modern, luxurious hot bath experience in natural hot spring water, but you’ll probably have to drive there, pay a lot more money for the privilege, and the socializing aspect will be almost non-existent. The onsen will also be much cleaner and beautiful because they are made to attract local tourists. Thus they will not have a mural of Mount Fuji hand-painted on the inside of the bath house wall, revealing faded colors and cracked lacquer paint. Nor will they have aging, coin-operated message chairs that look more like torture devices with the rollers sticking out to jab into your back. And they certainly won’t have hair dryer chairs that require a large glass globe be lowered over your head and a tornado-producing wind that hovers over your head while your locks stand up and whip around as if they’re inside a blender. Doesn’t the sento sound much more interesting than the onsen?!
Local sento are few and far between these days but you can still catch a part of this Japanese bathing history if you search the oldest neighborhoods of any city. Look for a chimney that looks more like a smoke stack coming out of the top of the building (remember Spirited Away?) or a noren curtain out the front with the ゆ mark on it, the symbol of a sento.
Or check out this website for locations by prefecture.
2. Ama Divers 海人
▼Mikimoto pearl divers
While the above photo may look like surgeons ready to operate on a whale in its own aquatic environment, they’re actually ama pearl divers, a distinctly female Japanese profession. The ama divers have a two-thousand-year-old history and used to dive in fundoshi loin cloths while tethered to a wooden barrel that floated on the ocean’s surface. Nowadays they wear white outfits but still dive–sometimes as deep as 25 meters (82 ft)–with just a mask, unassisted by oxygen. They must be able to hold their breath for up to two minutes, and expel the air gradually as they resurface. While in the 1950s there were still some 17,000 ama divers in Japan, there are only around two thousand left, most penetrating the waters of Ishikawa and Mie prefectures. These days they retrieve abalone and other shellfish from the bottom and almost all of the divers are over 40 years old.
Mikimoto Pearl company made the ama famous when they started using them to retrieve oysters so they could plant irritants into their mantle cavities to create pearls. The ama then returned the mollusks to the sea bottom. Mikimoto Pearl Island in Toba (Mie Prefecture) holds demonstrations for tourists. Although it is just a demonstration, at least you can still see the divers while they are extant.
3. Seto Inland Sea Islands 瀬戸内海／瀬戸内
▼Four-hundred-year-old bon dance, Shiraishi Island, Okayama Prefecture
Out of approximately 700 islands in the Seto Inland Sea (also called the setonaikai or setouchi in Japanese), the largest is Shodoshima with a population of around 20,000. But the majority of the Inland Sea islets support traditional fishing communities of less than 500 citizens. With the decline of the fishing industry in the Inland Sea coupled with the push in education after the war, the islands are losing their populations to the cities that offer higher paying jobs and more modern lifestyles. The islands have been left with aging and stagnant populations. The government has attempted to make the islands more accessible by building bridges to connect them with the mainland. While bridges ensure the survival of these islands, the traditional lifestyles are disappearing due to the proximity of outside influences.
But what about the other islands? Those without bridges and that you still need a ferry to get to?
These islands, because they are still fairly isolated, still maintain their traditions. But with no focused plan to revive island economies, these communities are fading away.Ferry services are cut back (or stopped completely), and the few remaining families move to the mainland due to lack of services. Yet each of these islands has its own unique culture: folkloric traditions, bon festivals and Shinto rites. Each island that dies takes an entire set of unique cultural values with it.
It is still possible to see the traditional Japanese island way of life and experience 400-year-old ceremonies as the sole outsider (as well as the only foreigner!) present. In fact, a few tourist-friendly islands are hoping to survive by inviting sightseers, including foreigners, to come out and experience island life. Islands like Manabeshima (population of 230), Shiraishijima (pop. 556) and Kitagishima (pop. about 1,000) in the Kasaoka Island chain (Okayama) are island gems that are dropping out of sight fast and taking their ancient traditions with them. Naoshima (Okayama) and the lesser islands of Kagawa Prefecture are supported by the Benesse Art Site Naoshima and the Setouchi Triennial Art Festival (the next one is 2016) which offer the chance to see art against the background of traditional island scenery. So get out and see the Inland Sea islands before it’s too late!
4. Terraced Rice Fields 棚田
▼Terraced rice field, Mie Prefecture
Terraced rice fields are a scene reminiscent of South East Asia such as Bali or Vietnam, but before Japan’s industrial revolution in the ’60s, they could still be seen all over the country. At that time, rice was the main agricultural product and the grains were planted, cultivated and harvested by hand. With so many mountains, terraced paddies allowed rice to be grown on places that were otherwise considered unusable. The rice fields offered other benefits including maintaining biodiversity in the environment, holding back water during the rainy season to prevent landslides, and adding to the greenery and scenery around Japan. The industrial revolution not only lured people to the cities, but it also rendered the terraced rice paddies unfit for sowing since machinery could not easily reach or be used in such narrow, sometimes very steep, stacked fields.
While the tanada have been almost completely abandoned, there has been an effort to preserve some of them recently via government subsidies and non-governmental campaigns.
5. Tsukiji Fish Market 築地市場
Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, established in 1935, is the largest wholesale fish market in the world. It is here were a single Blue Fin Tuna sold for a record US$1.7 million. The market is also one of the top five sightseeing spots in Tokyo for Japanese tourists. But this icon is scheduled to be relocated to make more room for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. This has created great controversy, especially since the move has been delayed by two years already due to decontamination efforts of the new 40.7-hectare site, a man-made island in Tokyo Bay where previously a refinery was located. Recently, additional tainted ground was discovered leading to more time needed for clean-up safety measures. Although the new venue will be twice as big as the current 230,000 square meters (around 2.5 million square feet), many people will miss the old atmosphere and the quaint restaurants that have thrived around the current market for so many years, including Dai, Japan’s highest-ranked sushi restaurant. And while everyone understands the need to update and innovate, we all know that not all the charms of the past are necessarily transferred to the newer more futuristic establishments. Nor will all of the old restaurants be able to weather the move.
Current Location: 5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Tokyo.