Caroline Kennedy at Imperial Palace

On Nov. 19, 2013, I took a friend from Hawaii around Tokyo and when we headed for the Imperial Palace, we saw this large crowd on the streets. Most were middle-aged and older people. The palace was closed off to tourists as well. Couldn’t see the famous Nijubashi Bridge.


I asked a bystander what was going on. She said they were waiting for “Caroline.” No mention of the last name. “Caroline” in Japan automatically means “Kennedy.” Although I always think of Neil Diamond’s song which coincidentally is about the Caroline they were waiting to see.


So I stuck around for about 15 min. and sure enough, at around 4 pm, her horse-drawn carriage appeared after she had shown her credentials to the emperor. I whipped out my camcorder and still camera and started shooting.


There were two horse-drawn carriages and I correctly assumed she was riding in the first one. No one waved Japanese and American flags though.


Fortunately, she was sitting on the right side of the carriage facing my side of the street. You can see her in this photo. Wish she waved to us. As soon as she passed, the crowd dissipated.

We haven’t had such a star ambassador to Japan in a long time, not perhaps since Edwin Reischauer in 1960s or the beloved Mike Mansfield in the 1980s. Welcome to Japan, Sweet Caroline!

Read more about her in Japan here:



Yae no Sakura, NHK Taiga Drama 2013

This year’s year-long, weekly NHK Taiga Drama TV series will start airing tonight on Jan. 6. Titled “Yae no Sakura,” it’s about a woman warrior named Yae Niijima (1845-1932) from Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture. Aizu-Wakamatsu is famous for Tsuruga Castle (photo) and as the site of a Boshin War battle between pro-Emperor forces and pro-shogun forces who lost. Yae was on the latter side. After the war, she fought for equality for women and mastered English well enough to write one of Kyoto’s earliest guidebooks in English. (I wonder if a copy is still available.)

Her husband Joseph Hardy Neesima or Jo Niijima had studied in the US and founded a Christian school which became the prestigious Doshisha University in Kyoto. Yae will be played by actress Haruka Ayase. I remember her in the TV series “JIN,” about a brain surgeon who went back in time to the Edo Period. She was quite good (for a former bikini idol).

Everyone hopes that this Taiga Drama series will help bring back tourists to Fukushima. Aizu-Wakamatsu is one of Japan’s best provincial tourist cities, right up there with Sapporo, Sendai, Kanazawa, Matsue, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Kochi, Kagoshima, and Naha. It has many attractions and historical sites within a small area. The tourist infrastructure is well developed and I liked the convenient tourist shuttle bus stopping at the major sights. I highly recommend a visit to Aizu. More about the drama:

More photos of Aizu-Wakamatsu here.

Swiss man walking across Japan

Thomas Köhler's walking route.

I would call it the ultimate travel adventure in Japan. A man from Switzerland, 44-year-old Thomas Köhler, is undertaking a walking trek across Japan, from the northern-most point of Cape Soya in Hokkaido to the southern-most tip of Kyushu at Cape Sata. That’s about 2,500 km (1,550 miles).

He started walking on Aug. 1, 2011 and plans to finish by mid-December 2011. He walks at least 22 km a day. He has a daily blog called Walking Through Japan at:

He posts a short note for each day together with a good number of photos. He’s doing it to bring attention to Japan to the tourists in the Western world who are avoiding Japan after the earthquake and Fukushima accident on March 11, 2011. Thomas is a former travel agent specializing in Japan and felt compelled to help Japan get those tourists back.

His adventure is self-financed, but he’s getting a lot of support such as occasional complimentary hotel rooms. Otherwise, he stays in a tent. He’s meeting a lot of friendly people along the way and he makes time to see the sights as well. Amazing.

Since he’s walking along the Japan Sea Coast, those of us in Tokyo won’t be able to see him. But it was a wise plan to walk along the largely rural Japan Sea coast rather than on the Pacific Ocean side which is much more urban and hazardous.

I wish I had his stamina and gall to do something like this. I would never walk it though. I enjoy bicycling too much. I’ve done long-distance bicycling trips in Japan, but none lasted more than 8 days or so. It was great fun and a great way to see Japan.

Good luck to Thomas!

*Also see The Japan Times article about his trek.

The Toilet Goddess song

The song, Toire no Kamisama (The Toilet God or more accurately, The Toilet Goddess トイレの神様) sung by Uemura Kana (植村花奈) is back at No. 1 on the music charts in Japan (as of Jan. 2011). This song debuted in spring 2010, and no doubt, Uemura’s appearance in the NHK Kohaku Utagassen (Red and White Song Contest Festival) on Dec. 31, 2010 reboosted the song to the top. Not only that, a special 2-hour TV program dramatizing the song aired on January 5, 2011 (sponsored by toilet makers).

I’m not a music critic, but I can tell you, this song is destined to become one of Japan’s all-time classics, to be remembered for generations to come. It’s one of 2010’s defining songs of Japan. Twenty, thirty, or more years from now, people recalling the events of 2010 will bring up this song. Singer Uemura Kana is now inducted in the annals of Japanese music history.

It is a megahit, but it has gone beyond where most megahits can go. This song hits the hearts and souls of many of us in Japan. I haven’t heard such a poignant and tear-jerking song in a long, long time. The folksy melody is simple, and the story-telling lyrics is instantly-striking and easy to understand in Japanese. When you first hear it, your ears become magnetized to the song and you cannot help but listen to the story and get emotional. Many people in the audience (including the judges) were crying as Uemura performed the song at the Kohaku Utagassen.

The song really blows a fresh wind into the Japanese music scene dominated by ubiquitous bubble-gum songs by large, all-girl groups of marginal talent. It has also restored my faith in the Japanese music market which can apparently still recognize and love real songs amid so many artificial, prepackaged, and prefabricated ones. It also goes to show that down-to-earth songs like Toilet no Kamisama can and will always outclass bubble-gum (what I call junk-food) songs.

It’s rare when a hit song appeals to multiple generations. It has struck a deep chord among not only the younger generation, but also among the elderly (especially grandparents). It’s a song coming at a time when family ties are not as close as before in Japan. It has made grandparents in Japan wonder whether they will be remembered as fondly by their grandchildren. And wonder what they should do to leave such lasting impressions on their grandkids. The song also makes the younger folk wonder if we are being (or were) kind enough or worthy enough to our beloved grandparents. The song really spotlights back-to-basics family values, something which we are prone to forget or neglect while we are caught up with the realities and stresses of daily life. That the family is really the nitty-gritty of what’s important in life. The song is really an anthem for family ties.

Needless to say, if you don’t understand Japanese (especially the Kansai dialect), you won’t be able to appreciate the song. It’s definitely a love song (actually a love story), but not a typical one. It’s about the love between a granddaughter and her grandmother sung from the viewpoint of the granddaughter who is the singer Uemura Kana.

The song starts with Kana in the 3rd grade when she began living with her grandmother in a house next door to her parent’s house in Kawanishi, Hyogo Prefecture in 1990. Kana helped out with household chores, but was not good at cleaning the toilet. So her grandmother (obaachan) told her that the toilet actually had a beautiful goddess (megami). If she cleaned the toilet, she would grow up to become as beautiful as the goddess. From that day on, Kana cleaned the toilet spic-and-span (pika-pika) every day, wishing to become a beautiful woman (beppin).

The song then mentions a few family trials and tribulations. Once Kana went with her obaachan to go shopping and eat out, but obaachan had forgotten to videotape a Yoshimoto comedy TV program which Kana wanted to watch after getting back home. Kana got very upset and chided obaachan. Later when Kana was a teenager, she started having arguments with obaachan and couldn’t get along with her own family (mom and three siblings). She didn’t feel at home anywhere so she hung out with her boyfriend and didn’t come home during holidays. She stopped going out to eat and playing board games with her obaachan and they drifted apart. Kana asks herself why people hurt each other like that and keep losing things precious to them.

Kana eventually leaves obaachan and moves to Tokyo to try and make it as a singer. Two years later, obaachan is hospitalized and Kana comes homes to visit and sees her thin and frail. Kana greets her with, “Tadaima!” (I’m home!) as she did in the good old days, but before they hardly talked, obaachan just scolds her to go back to Tokyo and kicks her out of the hospital room. (Obaachan wanted Kana to concentrate on her singing and didn’t want her to return until she succeeded as a singer.) The next morning, obaachan passed away quietly. Obaachan apparently waited for Kana to return before passing away.

Kana then grieves to herself that although obaachan raised her well, she regrets not being able to pay her back as a filial granddaughter. And even though she was not a good grandchild, obaachan still waited for her to return before passing away.

Toward the end of the song, Kana wonders if she really did become a beppin (yes she did), and she pledges to continue cleaning the toilet spic-and-span. At the end of the song, she thanks her grandmother in the Kansai dialect.

I know that just reading this English summary does not make this song sound as impressive as it really is. The story and emotions can only be conveyed by the singer and the song itself to people who can understand Japanese. The Kansai dialect makes the song sound so homely and earthly, the singer’s voice is sweet and easy to listen to, and the melody is simple and infectious. Right on the button. I just wanted to write about it because I haven’t seen any English articles about this song which does it justice. You might ask how or why would there be a goddess in the toilet of all places? Well, in the Shinto religion, a god (kami or kamisama) can be almost anywhere. A toilet is something essential for all of us, aiding our health and well-being, so why not have a god there too?

Also, for people like me who have had Japanese grandmothers fondly remembered, this song can really bring tears. When I moved to Japan, both my Japanese grandmothers (in the Kansai area) were alive and well. They have since passed away well into their 90s and I have many fond memories of them. I wonder too if I did enough for them before they passed on. All I can say is, Obaachan, obaachan, honmani arigato-o.

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