The Ibaraki Contents Collection

Japan’s status as a soft power has been growing since the turn of the century, and recently the national government has increased its support of Japan’s culture industry. Not to be left behind, Ibaraki has also fortified its efforts to promote the local content industry.

The Ibaraki Prefectural Government launched the Ibaraki Contents Business Evolution Project in 2014, with the aim of supporting and nurturing creators in Ibaraki and developing the local content industry. Its activities include the establishment of the Ibaraki Creators’ House, a base for content production activities and the nurturing of young creators in Ibaraki managed by the Tsukuba Incubation Laboratory. The house currently hosts 12 creators. The project also aims to support the exhibition of Ibaraki creators’ works with the organization of the Ibaraki Contents Collection exhibition in Akihabara UDX, held on Sunday March 6th, and the Ibaraki Contents Software Awards, the ceremony for which was held during the exhibition.

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The idea behind the Ibaraki Contents Collection was 「あ、こんなのも作ってるんだ」 (‘Oh, they’re making things like this too?’), and it was held with the aim of increasing interest in and knowledge of the content industry in Ibaraki. Two of Ibaraki’s CIRs decided to take the opportunity to discover what creators in Ibaraki are up to, and attended the event.

38 booths featuring writers, animators, illustrators, comic artists, character designers, game designers, performers, and more were set up in two halls. On a stage set up in a separate room, a number of events were held throughout the day, kicking off with the Ibaraki Contents Software Awards 2015. The awards were separated into a smartphone app category and an animation category. A number of winning animated shorts were screened during the animation category, including some impressive works produced by high school students. The contestants were lucky enough to receive some feedback from the judges and special guests, who included Tomoya Aoki, the freelance blogger behind Ibaraking, and Production I.G. screenwriter Junichi Fujisaku, whose credits include Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Blood+, and Blood-C. After the awards were presented, Toru Noguchi, Director General of the Ibaraki Prefectural Government Planning Division gave a short address, in which he expressed his desire for content to become one of Ibaraki’s industries. There was also a special guest appearance from Ibaraki’s unofficial mascot Nebaru-kun!

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Touring the booths was an exciting journey of discovery. Although I knew that there are many creators from Ibaraki who have successful careers in the content industry, I knew very little about local indie creators. There were too many interesting people to discuss them all here, so I have included a list of the booths below with links to the creators’ websites.

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One of the main features of the Ibaraki Contents Collection was a special talk show on the theme ‘What it takes to make it as a creator’ by Shinji Higuchi, a film and special effects director best known as one of the founding members of Daicon Film (now Gainax) and director of Shingeki no Kyojin: Attack on Titan, and Ryusuke Hikawa, a researcher of animation and tokusatsu. They discussed Mr. Higuchi’s early career. It was very interesting to hear how his passion for film making as a student led to a successful directing career.

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A second talk session featured professionals from the fields of comics, games, and characters providing information on the current state of these industries and advice for amateurs looking to debut as indie creators. I was particularly interested to hear from Kei Otomo, a producer from the company NHN comico, developer of the smart device web comic and web novel reader app comico. He discussed how developing comics to be read on smart phones requires creators to take the scrolling top to bottom format into consideration when choosing how to lay out their works. The other presenters also discussed how changing technology has affected their industries.

Unfortunately we were unable to stay for the final part of the evening, the Ibaraki Creators Stage, featuring performances from the band Denshi Jision, screenings of short animations, a hero show using CG to introduce traditional Japanese performing arts, and more.

The Ibaraki Contents Collection was a wonderful opportunity to learn about creators in Ibaraki. If you are interested in their work, please take a look at the list below and check out their websites. Hopefully these government initiatives achieve their goal of raising the profile of the local content industry. I am certainly looking forward to more events like this in the future.

Ibaraki Contents Business Evolution Project Website
Ibaraki Contents Collection Website

What is the Ibaraki Contents Business Evolution Project?

Aim: Strive to promote the content industry by nurturing creators and creating a base for the production of content.

Activities
1. Manage the Ibaraki Creators House

2. Hold information sessions for residents and uncover talented creators
Create a network of creators, businesses, and organisations involved in the content industry, link with universities and hold seminars etc. in order to increase their knowledge and motivation as creators.

3. Support the exhibition of creators’ works
Match residents of the Ibaraki Creators House with companies and local industries and encourage the production of a variety of content through collaboration among creators. Display the results of this at the Ibaraki Contents Collection and link it to the development of business following the exhibition.

4. Hold the Ibaraki Contents Software Awards
Recognise anime and apps linked to the area, discover related talent and ideas, and promote the creation of an IT community.

Ibaraki Contents Software Awards 2015

Smart Phone App Category

Smart Phone Apps

Winner: Nobase! Nebaru-kun (Nebaru-kun wo Nobasu Shimin no Kai)
Runner Up: Hirameki Ibatouch!! (SHiFT-UP)
Runner Up: Ibachara Zukan (Ibaraki Prefectural Ryugasaki 2nd High School Commerce Department)

Smart Phone App Ideas

Winner: Omoidearimasu in Kasama (Kasama Omoide Seisaku Iiinkai)
Runner Up: Ryotei Fukuroda no Taki Keiei Simulation (Okawa Yosuke)
Runner Up: Ibaraki Yorimichi Navigation (Ishihara Hidemi)

Animation Category

Animated Short (Free theme)

Winner: Horikawa Demizu Hairu (Tani Yosuke)
Work
Creator’s Website
Encouragement Award: ÉMIGRÉ (Nakajima Wataru)
Encouragement Award: Kami no Ue no Arty to Bit (Azuma Misaki)
Fighting Spirit Award: Gourmet Bancho (Champon)
Judges Special Award: Series Otomodachi (Nagaya Masaharu/Ishimatsu)

Animated Short (Ibaraki Theme)

Encouragement Award: Hajimete no Oryori Suteki na Natto (Takeko Denno Sosakudan)
Fighting Spirit Award: Natto Nostalgia (Sakata Ryo)

Character Design

Winner: Nobara (An)
Second Place: Mitona (Nakano Sanae)

Ibaraki Contents Collection Booths

4th Cluster

Website

A group of students from Tsukuba University who got together with the common goal of making games. Their work includes the PC mystery visual novel game series ‘Campus Notes’, which is set at Tsukuba University. They are currently working on a smart phone RPG.

Categories: Game

ICH Manga-ka Group

A combined exhibition of Ibaraki manga artists, including Aoyama Takanori from the manga production unit RusuKey, whose manga B is currently being serialised on MangaBox, Kino Hinata, who penned the Manga Junior Meisaku work Night on the Galactic Railroad, based on the famous novel by Miyazawa Kenji, and Yokoi Sanpo, who adapts games into comic form for magazines including Famitsu DS+Wii, Terebi Game Magazine, and Pikopuri.

Categories: Game, Illustration

Otasaku

Website

Otasaku has managed the original character store ‘Otasaku Shop’ in Tsukuba since 2006. She produces cheerful and lighthearted merchandise and clothing using Otasaku characters, who are based on cats.

Categories: Character, Merchandise

Geek House Tsukuba

Website

A Geek House is a share house comprising mostly of tenants who are NEETs or engineers. Geek House Tsukuba is working on an apiary based on the IoT method. They commenced preparations in November 2015, and have since held study and hive making sessions.

Categories: Sharehouse, Apiculture

Imada Tama

Website

A manga artist who debuted in 2010 with Pachinko Fever (Issuisha). They have since published several works including Pachipro7 (Tatsumi Shuppan), Pachinko Dairensho (Nippon Bungeisha), and Nekodamashii, and Nekopuni (Mediax). In November 2015, their work Kazoku ga Inakunatta Hi was published as a book.

Categories: Manga

Harukaze Mika

Website

A manga artist from Tsukuba who attended Azuma Kindergarten, Elementary, and Junior High School and Takezono High School. She graduated from the Department of Law at Chiba University then honed her design skills in the Planning and Design Section of Kinmei Graphic Art. She currently resides in Tsukuba, working as a freelance manga artist and illustrator.

Categories: Manga, Illustration

Matsuri Hero Project

Website

The Matsuri Hero Project began as Tsukuba Hatsu! Matsuri Hero Soran Dragon in 2010. They have held hero shows and traditional Japanese performing arts shows all around the country and even overseas. They offer a range of action entertainment, including 3D collaborative shows and education packages.

Categories: Performance, Action

Hitachi Risshi Juku Business Journal Session

Website

A workers’ group where young owners, successors, and field managers of small and medium sized businesses in Hitachi and Hitachinaka of various fields, ages, and genders come together for study sessions. They shared ideas with local university students and created their own character and LINE stamps.

Categories: Character

SHiFT-UP

Website

This enterprise began as Studio Index in Hitach in 2003, and was primarily engaged in web design. After touring an overseas company, they began to design gaming apps. In 2015 they re-launched as SHiFT-UP, a smart phone entertainment app developer.

Categories: Game

Local Animation Production Project

A project launched from an Ibaraki Creators’ Network volunteer workshop to produce animation with a close link to the local area. They are striving to gain a wide network of supporters and have the animations they produce used to promote Ibaraki.

Categories: Animation, Tram

Koichi Uehara

Website

An independent animator who produces animations that resemble silhouettes. He also takes on character design and illustration work.

Categories: Animation

Sunekuma

Website

An illustrator and comic artist who enjoys drawing young characters and machinery such as planes and rockets. They want to create works that can be enjoyed by many people.

Categories: Illustration

Yotagarasu

Website

A literary circle consisting of Tsukuba University students and alumni.
Noriko Senju: Involved in a variety of writing projects such as publishing stories online and in pamphlets and writing game scenarios and popular fiction
Yowa Shido: Writes novels and game scenarios. Was a short-listed candidate for the 21st Dengeki Awards Comic Writing category.
Kugai Iori: Writes novels, comics, and game scenarios. Author of Kakuheki no Make Doll (Ponican Books) Yoneura Yuu: The youngest member, representing the next generation!

Isekai Toukei Kazoeuta

Website

A collaboration project connecting a serial novel with the Ibaraki Prefectural Government Statistics Division’s twitter. The project was planned by the Statistics Division. Yotagarasu from the Ibaraki Creators’ House writes the story and Tsunayama draws the main characters for use on twitter and the covers. The story currently has three chapters. It is uploaded every two weeks to the writing website Shosetsuka ni Narou.

Categories: Statistics, Novel

Kakkoi Rikei Yogo de Koi Shiyou!

Bikkuri Suru Hodo Yaku ni Tatanai! Rikei Kudoki Monku Shuu (A Collection of Incredibly Useless Scientific Pick Up Lines). This book features highly specific scientific vocab and a clumsy male scientist. A collaboration between Noriko Senju of Yotagarasu and Natsumi Furuyama.

Categories: Illustration, original work

Natsumi Furuyama

Website

A freelance illustrator specialising in illustration and character design active in Tokyo and Tsukuba since 2013. She recently illustrated the medical textbook Kanja to Kazoku ni Todoku Kanwa Care.

Categories: Illustration, Design

3D Girl Miri

A project by the Ibaraki Creators House illustrator Natsumi Furuyama, CG designer Akira Souma, and musicians Denshi Jision produce a 3D CG music video. Miri is the image character for Denshi Jision’s song ‘3 Jigen no Ano Musume to Kisu ga Shitai’.

Denshi Jision

Website

A white-clad ‘scientific’ entertainment group/band active in Tsukuba Science City. As the members are scientists, their unique electronic music influenced by modern culture features Tsukuba and scientific vocabulary.

Categories: Science, Band

Rista-Design

Website

A graphic design company. They design brand logos, posters, pamphlets, websites, stickers, and more. They will commence the sale of a 3D projection experience kit for smart phones from April. The prototype was on display at the Ibaraki Contents Collection exhibition.

Categories: Design, merchandise

Studio Nibun no Ichi

Website

A group consisting of a CG creator, graphic designer, and system engineer/ integrator. They are involved in a variety of production projects including videos, games, merchandise, apps, and illustrations in the pursuit of the concept of multi-use, which is one of the advantages of 3DCG.

Categories: 3D content production, video

Realize+

The event producer Realize+ was established in 2015. They are working on an event for late July. Specialising in music and video, they have undertaken a new goal of treasuring their connections with people so that everyone they come in contact with can become a ‘plus’.

Categories: Event, Music

Studio Kinako

Website

Studio Kinako is a studio based in rural Chikusei. They run classes and workshops for DJing, VJing, drums, keyboard, and DTM, produce music, and participate in events. They have participated in Comitia, Gallery Art Point Ginza, and Design Festa Harajuku.

Categories: DJ, Event

Techline

Website

This company is engaged in the provision of services and development of apps for stores using SoftBank Robotics’ product Pepper. They are currently also in possession of Pepper’s older brother Nao.

Categories: App development

Takuhiko Yokoyama

Website

Began working as an illustrator in April 2013. Has worked on individual and collaboration projects including ‘Kinder Book 3 2014 April Volume’, ‘Mushikui Note’ (Kanzen) ‘Fukashigi Plants Zukan’ (Seibundo Shinkosha), and ‘Watashi no Hatake no Chiisa na Sekai’ (Express Media Publishing, to be published).

Categories: Illustration, Insects

Tomu

Website

Organiser of ‘Moeshu Summit’, and event held every year in Akihabara attracting around 30,000 attendees, this company produces sake for a variety of contents. Their shochu ‘Vocaloid Lilly’ won the special aware Lilly Frankie at the 2010 Bin Awards.

Categories: Moeshu

Penton Kikaku Shitsu

Website

The owner of this toy design enterprise started it as a post retirement project, making use of their experience as a toy maker. Their interest in carpentry lead them to start making wooden toys using a 3D CAD and CNC tool. They won the Hyogo Governor’s Award at the 2014 Hyogo Prefectural Tanba Nenrin no Sato Woodwork Exhibition in 2014.

Categories: 3D CAD, Toys

Eiko Kuriu

Website

Born and raised in Tsukuba, Eiko Kuriu graduated from the University of Tsukuba College of Comparative Culture and Kuwasawa Design School. After working for companies involved in editing temple publications, lighting, and IT, she started working as a freelance illustrator in 2009. She mainly creates illustrations for books, magazines, and websites.

Categories: Illustration

Yasufujiya

Website

Joined a printing company after graduation. After 10 years working as a designer, they went freelance. In addition to graphic design, they also do illustration and character design.

Tag: Character, illustration

Ibaraki Prefectural Ryugasaki 2nd High School Commerce Department

Website

The commerce department started a project called ‘The commerce department began to use NetCommons’ as a part of the 100 year anniversary celebrations for Ryugasaki 2nd High School. The project includes activities such as the creation of groupware by students in the commerce department, a parent and child programming class using Viscuit, and the development of smartphone apps using Monaca.

Categories: App, Character

Oarai Introduction Booth

Website

Oarai is working hard to show the world why it’s a great place, with projects like a store in the Oarai Resort Outlet dedicated to displaying the things that make Oarai wonderful and events that allow as many people as possible to enjoy Oarai, the setting of Girls und Panzer.

Categories: Merchandise, sightseeing, event

Tsukuba Short Film Competition

Website

The Tsukuba Short Film Competition (Tsukuppe for short) is a film festival that is held to share culture from Tsukuba, uncover new talent, and to be a fun event for residents to enjoy. This year is the third year that it has been held, and director Yoshihiro Nakamura, who is from Tsukuba, will be participating as a special judge.

Categories: Video

Kenpoku Local Creative Project

Website

This project seeks to create a new style of working by renovating vacant buildings in shopping areas into shared offices and supporting creators and creative enterprises so that they can work without worrying about time and their workspace.

Categories: Northern District Economic Development Division, supporting creators

Studio Puyukai

Website

An animation studio based in Tsukuba. They have worked on a variety of projects, notably Agukaru, the short film ‘Mobile Suit Gakuen G-Reko Koshien’ included on the Blu-ray for Gundam G no Reconguista, and the short film ‘Pure Pure Purea desu’ available on the official Overlord anime website.

Ibaraki Nurse Center

Website

The Ibaraki Nurse Center is a support facility dedicated to utilizing the skills of those in the nursing field for society. They have created the characters Hapina-chan and Nurse Centre-kun, and are working to raise awareness of them and their work among those in the nursing profession.

Categories: Character

Ibaraki wo Shirou! Dai Campaign

Website

The slogan of this campaign is ‘Nobishiro Nihon Ichi. Ibaraki-ken’ (Ibaraki, the prefecture with the most potential in Japan). The Nobiru Ibaraki Senden Tai, a group made up on Yoshitimo celebrities lead by Yuuji Ayabe and Naomi Watanabe and assisted by Ibaraki’s unofficial mascot, the natto spirit Nebaru-kun, are working to spread Ibaraki’s appeal all around Japan.

Categories: Public Relations Division

Nebaru-kun

Website

Nebaru-kun is the unofficial mascot of Ibaraki. He is a natto spirit born to support Ibaraki, the home of natto, and all the children in the world.

Ibaraki Film Commission

Website

The Ibaraki Film Commission assists in securing locations for the filming of movies and TV shows and in attracting projects to locations.

Ibaraki Digital Contents Software Awards

Website

A contest honouring smartphone apps, short animated films, and character designs organized by the Ibaraki Prefectural Government, the Ibaraki Prefectural Sophisticated Information Society Promotion Council, and the Ibaraki Information Service Industry Association.

Categories: Ibaraki Prefectural Information Policy Division, Animation

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The Ibaraki Prefectural Government Office Mikoshi and the Mito Kōmon Festival

If you have been to a Japanese festival, you have probably seen a mikoshi before. Often translated as ‘portable shrine’, mikoshi are used to carry gods around the town during a Shinto festival. The gods usually reside in the shrines dedicated to them, but once a year they ride on the mikoshi around the town to visit the citizens, who celebrate and pray for the blessings of nature and stability in their lives. This tradition is known as mikoshi togyo.

1K7A1168On August 3, four Ibaraki ALTs and I joined the Mito Kōmon Festival mikoshi parade as a part of the Ibaraki Prefectural Government Mikoshi Association. We helped to carry the one tonne mikoshi up one of Mito’s main streets on the north of the station. The street was closed off from traffic and packed with people, both onlookers and mikoshi bearers. Whilst it was a hot day, we did not start until 2pm, by which time the sun had moved behind the buildings and a cool breeze flowed through the streets, much to the relief of the parade participants.

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2014 Ibaraki Prefectural Office mikoshi bearers

Each mikoshi had its own bearers, dressed in the uniform of their group. After the opening ceremony, the bearers took their positions beside their mikoshi. When the signal to begin came, the air filled with energetic cries of ‘Souya!’ as the bearers heaved the weighty shrines onto their shoulders and begin the slow procession up the street. It took over and hour to reach our destination, but each group had enough people to take turns carrying the shrine, and took regular breaks, placing it down on wooden supports called uma.

1K7A1167The bearers keep their steps in time thanks to one leading member who walks in front with clapping sticks and leads the chant. What the bearers shout differs from region to region – when I carried a shrine in Oita Prefecture, the chant was something like ‘Sen to sa! Ya to sa!’, but in Mito the chant is ‘Souya!’ shouted back and forth between the leader and supporters and those carrying the mikoshi. When the mikoshi procession stops, before placing the shrine down on the uma the bearers will sometimes cry ‘saa saa!’ as they shake the mikoshi (rather violently, much to the protest of my shoulders) up and down to amuse the god. The mikoshi groups compete to be the loudest and showiest, and you cannot put the mikoshi down until the group in front of you does, so these displays of heart and endurance can continue for quite a while.

1K7A1190The Ibaraki Prefectural Government Office mikoshi is a little different than most in that it does not actually house a god. Instead, inside the shrine you will find a list of the members of the Mikoshi Association. So why go to the trouble of making a mikoshi that has no religious affiliation? The mikoshi tradition is an ancient one that has been passed down through generations, and it is an essential part of the culture of almost every region in Japan. Regardless of its religious origins, mikoshi togyo is an event that brings people together to celebrate and pray for the health, wealth, and happiness of the community.

1K7A1171A group of young workers from the Ibaraki Prefectural Government Social Services Department started the Mikoshi Appreciation Club in 1977. At a time when interest in Japanese cultural properties like mikoshi was waning, this group was formed with the intention of having fun participating in festivals while honouring the mikoshi tradition and passing it on to future generations. That year they participated in the Mito Tanabata Kōmon Festival where 11 mikoshi took part, signalling the start of a mikoshi boom.

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The names of the Mikoshi Association members being placed inside the mikoshi before the festival

The Prefectural Government Office mikoshi was made by the Toyama Penitentiary as part of a rehabilitation program. It was completed in 1989 with the membership fees of the Mikoshi Association members and donations from other prefectural employees. It has participated in the Mito Komon Festival and a number of other events every year since. When it is not taking part in events, it is on display on the second floor of the Ibaraki Prefectural Office.

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Leader directing the bearers using clapping sticks

I asked the head of the of the Mikoshi Association, Mr. Nemoto, to give me some information about the Prefectural Office mikoshi and why it is important to the Mikoshi Association and the community. He explained that mikoshi help people to discover the wonderful things their local area has to offer and foster solidarity among community members. It is important not just for those carrying the shrine, but also those watching and supporting the bearers from the sidelines. These things make mikoshi an invaluable cultural property, and the Mikoshi Association plans to continue to actively participate in community events and treasure the enjoyment this brings festival goers with the hope that these activities will help foster healthy and spiritually rich citizens.

1K7A1255The day does not end when the mikoshi reaches its destination – that evening everyone who helped to carry the shrine is invited to join a party in the cafeteria of the Prefectural Office. This is not just a way to celebrate the end of a hard days’ work – it is based on the traditional naorai no gishiki, or ritual feast. After the god has been taken around the town, those who carried the mikoshi hold a special party where they eat, drink, and celebrate together in the presence of the god. The Governor of Ibaraki also attended this lively event and chatted with the prefectural employees. It was a wonderful end to a wonderful day, one that will become a treasured memory for all who participated.

Ibaraki Prefectural Disaster Drill

As anyone who has lived in Japan before knows, earthquakes are a part of daily life. Most of the time they are so small that you barely notice them – however, it is important to be prepared for the possibility of a large earthquake, such as the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. In order to provide citizens an opportunity to learn about what they should do if a large earthquake or other type of disaster occurs, many areas in Japan hold annual bousai kunren (disaster training).

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Areas in Japan have actually been holding disaster drills since the Edo period – usually revolving around putting out fires with bucket relays. September 1, the day of the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, was designated bousai no hi (Disaster day) in 1960, and many places in Japan hold disaster drills on this day.

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This year, Ibaraki Prefecture held its annual disaster drill on November 9 in Kasama city’s Geijutsu no Mori park. Despite the unseasonable chill there was a great turn out. Many organisations took part, such as the prefectural fire department, the police department, and the Ibaraki International Association, who invited a number of foreign residents to attend and gave some of its members the opportunity to practice interpreting in the context of a disaster situation.

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Participants were given the opportunity to be a part of a bucket relay, to learn how to use fire extinguishers and perform CPR on adults, children, and babies, perform the Heimlich manoeuvre on a mannequin, use their own manpower to generate electricity for a vending machine to get drinks out for free, experience different levels of earthquake in a truck that simulated the motion of an earthquake, and much more. There were rescue demonstrations from trains, crashed vehicles, and burning buildings. Helicopters flew overhead to collect data on the damaged areas and drop water on ‘fires’, and landed to carry gravely injured people to nearby hospitals.

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A number of tents provided information that would be helpful in a disaster, such as how to leave a message for your loved ones when the phones are down and what kinds of things you should keep in your emergency pack. Volunteers handed out steaming bowls of tonjiru (pork soup), a meal often provided at emergency shelters during disasters.

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All in all it was a very educational day, and one every resident should attend at least once.

Spirit Skills

You may be surprised to know that the original Aikido dojo was founded in Iwama, Ibaraki, in 1945. This is where Ueshiba Morihei settled in the later years of his life, building the Aiki Shrine first and then the dojo which soon became the world headquarters. Though the original dojo was severely damaged and reconstructed after the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, the newly renovated dojo still accepts students and is located not far from current Iwama Station.DSCN5055

Aikido, known as a martial art that endeavors to protect both the attacker and the practitioner from harm, not only focuses on the physical aspects of training but also on the spiritual. This is clear from the close connection between the dojo and the Aiki Shrine across the street, where the carefully raked gravel (in familiar zen-like patterns) speaks to the dedication of the students. In fact, during the time when the dojo was uninhabitable the students used the main house of the shrine for practices. The shrine is surrounded by a small wooded area, and also features a commemorative bronze statue of Ueshiba Morihei. DSCN5054

These days the dojo operates on a daily basis, accommodating both regular and live-in students. Live-in students pay a fee for their accommodations and practice three times a day, once at 6am, once at 2pm, and once at 7pm, and in between they are in charge of maintaining the grounds and other small tasks. Regular students are free to come a few times a week in the evenings for practice at a lesser fee, but are not required to take part in maintenance.DSCN5058

The dojo itself looks rather new, but still follows the same design principles as the original. In keeping with the Iwama style of Aikido, which promotes weapons training, there are even wooden swords on the walls for practice. There are several foreign live-in students among the practitioners so there is a good chance you will be able to attend without being a complete master of Japanese. However, even if you are just interested in visiting the birthplace of modern Aikido it is only a few minutes walk from the train station and can be an interesting side trip.DSCN5061

Forest Sanctuary

Purportedly established around 600BC by Emperor Jimmu, Kashima Shrine is one of Japan’s most venerated Shinto places of worship, and was once considered in the same rank as the lauded Ise Shrine. Even today it welcomes around 600,000 people every year for the New Year’s celebrations, and enjoys year-round patronage due to its plentiful and interesting events.

055The patron deity of Kashima Shrine is one of the gods of martial arts, Takemikazuchi-no-Okami, and there are sword-fighting schools on the premises that study the Kashima Sword Style invented by the region’s famous swordsman, Tsukahara Bokuden. Every year there are demonstrations of these and other martial arts as part of ceremonies to venerate the gods, which are a great opportunity to witness some legendary fighting forms at work.

056But one of the major highlights is the precincts of the shrine itself. Once you enter the main gate the resemblance to Ise or Nara is undeniable; though only a few feet outside lies a recently renovated shopping arcade and the rural sights of sleepy Kashima, the instant you pass inside you are greeted with the pure, relaxing breath of the old-growth forests and loam. Above you tower trees older than your ancestors, filtering the sunlight until the air itself seems to glow with trapped radiance and power. The scents and sounds of the forest immediately convey a sense of otherworldliness, and it seems odd that just moments ago you were passing cars and convenience stores.058

In addition to the usual charm and fortune sales spots they also have a deer sanctuary, where the curious animals come looking for food and attention from their visitors (while making the most adorable high-pitched sounds). The main shrine is peaceful and secluded, listed as a ‘powerspot’ for the area, and behind it is the path to a smaller, lesser shrine where the giant stone that is purported to trap the huge catfish that causes earthquakes is kept. Japanese tradition holds that catfish cause earthquakes by flipping their tails and legend goes that a giant catfish living underground caused many large tremblors until this rock was placed on top of it to stop it from moving. Definitely a place to visit if you don’t like earthquakes. If you follow the path down the hill you’ll find the purification pond that was used by visitors in the past to avoid bringing impurities into the shrine (and they now sell many flavors of soft ice cream too).060

An interesting feature of the summer is the mid-year purification ceremony held in June. For this a large straw ring is raised so that visitors can walk through it in a traditional figure eight pattern, thereby removing all of the last half-year’s impurities and allowing you to move forward with greater success. However, a visit at any time of year is more than enough to bring a renewed sense of calm and clarity, if that is what you are seeking.053

CIR Diary – The Red and White

This week Ibaraki welcomed another group of young ambassadors, from a country with the same color flag as Japan. Two groups of students, one from the Trafalgar School for Girls in Montreal and the other from Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, paid a visit to the small city of Hokota as part of the Kizuna Project, the first such visitors from Canada. As I entered the community center where they were taking part in a cultural exchange with the local citizens I was once again greeted with the bright eyes and excited smiles that connoted the curiosity and fascination they held for their new cultural vector.

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Inside the hall they were divided into smaller, blended groups that got to participate in two activities each from among the traditional arts of calligraphy, ikebana, kimono, chirimen handicrafts, and the famous tea ceremony. It was obvious just how much the local community had been looking forward to their visit; each section was carefully arranged, with local experts doing the instruction in traditional dress, and most involved gifts that the students could take home with them such as calligraphy sets. With the exception of the handicraft group, each area had its own interpreters on hand to explain the procedures, and before long the Canadian students were wandering around in ornate graduation kimono, sipping bitter matcha, spearing tulips and lilies on water-soaked spikes, hand-drawing their original versions of Chinese characters, and sewing up adorable little owl-shaped good luck charms. In fact, despite (rather, because of) the language barrier, the handicrafts group proved to be the most interesting to watch: the local women handed out diagrams and gave all the instructions in full-speed Japanese, and yet the students caught on simply by watching hand gestures and guessing at the meaning. Here was true cultural exchange at work, on so many levels: the old teaching the young, crossing generations and nations and languages to pass on a part of the human experience that cannot be replicated in any other way.

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In fact, upon mixing with the students to ask their opinions and impressions I learned that it was precisely this that most endeared them to Japan. In a marked contrast to the previous Kizuna group I had the opportunity to meet, the Canadian ambassadors almost universally cited the Japanese people as their favorite part of the experience. Most seemed overwhelmed by the kindness and sincerity, the helpfulness and generosity of their hosts. In fact, one student surprised me with a similar sentiment to one I’d experienced upon first visiting Japan, a fear of offending the countrymen. Having come with a perception of Japan as extremely traditional and severe (which, we must admit, is not entirely wrong) she had been haunted by a feeling of anxiety concerning making a faux pas, but had been relieved by the friendly and relaxed nature of their welcome.

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To be honest, this struck me as one of the many similarities between our cultures. Both Japan and Canada have a reputation (with a solid grain of truth) for revering etiquette and politeness, while still maintaining a very friendly and welcoming demeanor. Though Canada has little in the way of unified traditional culture from the perspective of much older countries, there is also the fascination for different cultures and lifestyles that continues to thrive in Japan. The Kizuna Project had provided the perfect opportunity for both sides to recognize parts of themselves in the other and discover new elements at the same time.

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However, it appears that it will not stop there. From the enthusiastic questions and comments I received regarding their future involvement with Japan, many students clearly have the desire to explore further opportunities. Just as my story began with a short three-week vacation many years ago, I saw the seeds of future dreams taking root among my countrymen. Whether it be applying for scholarships or work programs, family trips or simply passing along their experiences and impressions to friends back home, all appeared to be thoroughly enjoying their time in Japan and already considering how to make use of it in their lives.

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Though from here on they will be going to home-stay in Chiba and from there to Tokyo, it was gratifying to see them enjoying themselves so much in rural Hokota. In fact, some said that this was exactly what they had hoped for: an opportunity to see parts of Japan that most visitors would never get a chance to know. Local, hometown lifestyles, personal instruction in cultural traditions, interaction with what they considered the ‘real’ Japan, these and more were valuable experiences that arguably most tourists cannot hope to gain.

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Once again, I intensely enjoyed my time with them; it was hard not to be reminded of myself upon my first experiences with Japan, and I found myself reliving the sparks of excitement and fascination with the culture that had originally drawn me here. Their perspective was both nostalgic and refreshing, and it was inspiring to see another nascent generation of cross-cultural exchange between Canada and Japan evolving before my very eyes. I am indebted to them for their help, and wish them further wonder and discovery for the remainder of their time in Japan (and perhaps after as well!). Who knows where things may lead? We all started somewhere.

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New Eyes

Do you remember the first time you came to Japan? If you were like most of us, your eyes were sparkling with delight and wonder, your body possessed by an itch to explore every nook and cranny, and you were hooked from the instant you stepped outside. Have you ever wondered what that you might have looked like at that moment of discovery? I recently got the chance to witness this eureka euphoria firsthand as I got involved with the inaugural group from the Kizuna Project.

The Kizuna Project was created by the Japanese Government as a way of re-igniting the passion for Japanese tourism that had been somewhat diluted by the aftermath of the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake. The plan is to invite an estimated 9000 students from schools all over Asia and North America to come visit Japan for short or long term, and send another 2300 or so Japanese students abroad to some of those same schools as an exchange. While the students are in Japan they are given a tour of some of the most famous attractions, including, of course, Tokyo and its myriad facets, Kyoto, and Osaka. During that period they also spend some time with a Japanese family as part of homestay, and visit one of the prefectures struck by last year’s earthquake disaster so they can get an idea of the full impact of the tragedy and its lasting effects on the area. The ultimate goal of the project is to have these students return to their home countries and spread the word about their experiences in Japan, about the safety of tourism in Japan, and about the resilience and spirit of the Japanese people.

To that end, the first group spent 4 days in Ibaraki as soon as they arrived in Japan. Around 50 Students from Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh and Meridian High School in Idaho were united upon arrival and brought wide-eyed and jetlagged to meet the Prefectural Governor. All students were originally taking Japanese classes in their hometowns, and had already had some kind of introduction to Japanese culture through their studies, but it was fascinating to see them confronting it in person for the first time. Those who were chosen to meet the governor asked well-though-out questions about attracting industry to the area and making use of the entertainment industry to re-start tourism. But having seen very little so far it was too soon for the real excitement to set in.

However, by the third day there was no stopping them. They were brought to Hitachi Ni-ko High School to experience Japanese school life and meet students their own age, and from the instant their buses pulled into the parking lot the powder keg was lit. Though both groups of students were initially quite nervous and kept to themselves, it was clear they very much wanted to meet the other; it wasn’t until they were forced to play a game where they found a student from the other group and got them to teach them a new word in their language that things got interesting. Soon the room was filled with excited chatter as both groups realized that, despite the ever-present language barrier, they could communicate. The fascination with the ‘other’ took over and the room was overflowing with energy within seconds. When I asked the Japanese students what they thought it was interesting to hear their responses: ‘They speak Japanese so well!’ after the Idaho group sang a self-written song in mixed Japanese and English; ‘I saw someone who looks like Winnie the Pooh!’; ‘The girls are all so pretty!’. The Americans were equally enthusiastic, exclaiming over the cuteness of the girls (it was an all-girl school) and exchanging facebook contacts. In fact, many of the Americans told me that this interaction period had been the best part of the trip so far, and their euphoria was practically tangible.

Soon after the Americans were split into two-person groups and sent off to participate in regular Japanese classes. As I visited some of the groups it was interesting to see what they thought of school. Some students pointed out the different definition of ‘home economics’ they used here, others felt that the biology classes were much more hands-on. However, most students I talked to felt less surprise than wonder; almost universally they told me that they already knew what to expect when they got here and that this experience was exactly what they’d expected. Whether through anime or other forms of visual culture they had already come to know Japan, and were rather thrilled to find it exactly as they’d hoped; in fact, it seemed to me that they were overjoyed to actually be inside this world they had viewed externally for so long.

Later the students split into their high school groupings to make posters of encouragement for the local residents, after having viewed the damaged areas the previous day. Many felt that talking with a local fisherman in Kita-Ibaraki about the tsunami and its impact on his livelihood had been extremely meaningful, and actually seeing Otsu Port and the remaining damage there had helped them get an idea of the scope of the disaster. When I asked what his favorite part of Ibaraki had been one student mentioned Rokkakudo and its exquisite beauty; when I told him that it had been completely swept away last year and entirely rebuilt since he was amazed at the speed and craftsmanship. Others cited the architecture of the homes, or the traditional sleeping style with tatami and futon, or the kindness and generosity of the Japanese people they had met here. And every single student I asked immediately said they wanted to come back to Japan.

So, it seems the Kizuna Project’s first group is already fulfilling the aims of the project. Watching their excitement build with each experience and hearing their passion for a future connected with Japan reminded me of myself not so many years ago. Seeing things through their eyes helped me recall the wonder I held myself at that time, and it was exciting to hear their plans for the future. Hopefully these new spokesman will return to their country with tales that will inspire others to visit these shores, and hopefully someday they themselves will be able to return and continue the cycle of discovery and experience that is the beginning of new bonds between both individuals and nations.