Updated: Oct. 12, 2016 (now updating), by Philbert Ono
Welcome to shiga-ken.com!
An independent, unaffiliated, hobbyist website introducing Shiga Prefecture, Japan with photos, videos, sightseeing information, news, and articles all in English. “Shiga-ken” means “Shiga Prefecture” in Japanese.
It is my attempt to rectify the lack of information about Shiga in English for foreign tourists and residents. It is an ongoing project as I constantly add more content. Shiga-ken.com is the most comprehensive website about Shiga Prefecture you’ll ever see in English. Unless indicated otherwise, all the content was created by me, Philbert Ono (more about me below). This is how it’s organized:
The home page has two menus. The top menu bar shows the major sections while the side menu on the upper left provides direct links to the site’s main pages. The top menu bar has the following:
About is what you are reading now, explaining this website.
Blog (formerly named “Shiga News“) has informative blog posts about Shiga Prefecture for tourists and residents alike. Read about Shiga’s history and culture, sightseeing recommendations, festival and event information, etc. It is updated irregularly, usually once every few weeks or so. You can read the blog via the website or subscribe via email or RSS feed (click on the respective subscription icon on the upper right).
Photos is an ever-increasing collection of my photos of Shiga (15,700+) organized according to city and town. The images are in coherent photo sets (albums) showing festivals, temples, shrines, historic sites, gardens, townscapes, natural scenery, flowers, etc. They are part of my online collection of over 54,700+ images (as of Oct. 2016) of Japan at PHOTOGUIDE.JP.
Videos is an index to my YouTube videos (mainly festivals) of Shiga. You will notice that the video quality and length have improved dramatically over the years as video technologies and infrastructure have improved. You can also subscribe to my YouTube channel (user: photojpn) that features mainly festivals in Japan. Most of the Shiga videos are also embedded in my Shiga Photos albums and articles.
News (named “Shiga Headlines”) uses Twitter to present Shiga’s major news headlines carefully curated from local Japanese news sources. It also tweets website updates. Twitter is a microblogging service for short posts (called tweets) limited to only 140 characters including spaces. You can read my Twitter posts without joining Twitter. View my tweets on my Twitter page or in the side bar of the Shiga Blog. I tweet every few days or so and keep my tweets informative, interesting, or helpful. Every three or four months, I compile the tweets into a blog post under Shiga History. (This makes it searchable online.) The tweets go back to July 2013 when I started Shiga Headlines. If you’re new to Twitter, click here.
Articles is an index to my in-depth, text-heavy, and serial articles (train stations, etc.) about Shiga and Japan. The major articles are listed under the side menu on the home page, such as “About Shiga” and “Cities & Towns.”
The side menu on the upper left provides links to more specific sections and pages of shiga-ken.com. The side menu will collapse on small screens like on mobile devices. If it is collapsed, tap on the menu icon on the upper left to display the side menu.
The main area of the home page has three sections, “Trending,” “What’s New,” and “Popular.” “Trending” lists trending or big news, upcoming events, etc. “What’s New” lists the latest content added to shiga-ken.com. “Popular” lists popular posts and pages.
Questions and comments about this website or Shiga are always welcome. See my contact page. Sorry, but due to spammers, the user registration and commenting functions have been disabled on all my websites and blogs except YouTube and Twitter. (Even on YouTube, all comments are subject to approval before they appear. Spam and offensive comments are not approved.)
*Shiga-ken.com‘s home page is compatible with both personal computers and mobile devices (touch screens). Much of the content is presented under my sister website called PHOTOGUIDE.JP which also covers all the other prefectures in Japan.
Q: Who is behind shiga-ken.com?
Hello, I’m Philbert Ono, a Japanese American born and raised in the most beautiful and unique state of Hawai’i with both parents from Shiga Prefecture. I’ve been living in Japan for a good number of years. I’m quite fluent in Japanese: speaking, reading, and writing (with a computer). I can read Japanese newspapers, magazines, etc., with ease, although not as good as a native Japanese (since I’m not a native Japanese).
Professionally, I do a number of things. I take and license pictures, shoot/edit videos, do translations, and other things. Photography has been a major hobby ever since high school when I took a photography class. I also like to write, mainly about travel in Japan. It goes hand-in-hand with my photography. I’m a content creator, not a content aggregator.
Although I live and work in Tokyo, I visit Shiga every few months and stay at my parents’ home. Each time, I go out and see a place or festival I’ve never seen before in Shiga and neighboring prefectures. I’m especially interested in traditional Japanese things such as National Treasures (temples, shrines, etc.), festivals, historic sites, people doing traditional things, and anything else that is beautiful or interesting.
Whatever I learn, I also try to share with others. Therefore, this website is also geared for you to learn something new. My websites are therefore good for me, good for you, and good for all.
Q: Who sponsors shiga-ken.com?
Nobody except me. It’s a non-profit, voluntary project. All related expenses for travel, website hosting, etc., come from my own pocket.
Q: What made you decide to start shiga-ken.com?
From the very start, my Internet activities have always focused on helping people understand Japan better. This comes from my deep-rooted and natural desire to promote better understanding and relations between my native country (USA) and Japan, my ancestral home where I now live. All people who have had a bicultural upbringing have this natural desire to see both countries get along and understand each other. It’s like wanting to see your mother and father getting along. So I’m not doing it because I love the tourist industry.
That’s the fundamental difference between me and conventional people working in tourism PR in Japan. I’m doing it to promote better understanding of Japan. It’s a lifework that comes from a deeply-rooted passion. The others are doing it for commercial purposes and as a 9-to-5 job. To most of them, it’s a paycheck, not a passion. So that’s one thing you should understand about this website. It’s a lifelong passion. It’s unlike any other Shiga travel website you’ll ever find.
Visiting a country as a tourist is the first step in understanding any country. You can read up about a country all you want, but no book or video can substitute for an actual visit. And so I want more people to visit Japan (and Shiga). That’s why I started PHOTOGUIDE.JP and shiga-ken.com.
I wanted to rectify the lack of information about Shiga in English. Even today, no one in Japan’s tourist establishment nor Shiga’s official establishment are doing a good job at promoting Shiga for overseas visitors. Despite Shiga’s attractions and great potential, the tourist establishment is not really capitalizing on it nor doing it justice with regard to promotion and deeper understanding. The message is not getting through. Probably because there’s no real message. Year and year, decade after decade, they keep saying, “Biwako this, Biwako that,” that’s all. No creativity and no imagination in PR. Shiga definitely got the goods, but no eye-catching packaging and presentation.
I bought my first digital SLR camera in 2003 and started taking a lot of pictures of Shiga and other places in Japan. At first, I contributed some photos to Wikipedia which was getting really popular. I thought it was a great idea to have an encyclopedia-style page for every single village, town, and city in Shiga and the rest of Japan.
However, other Wikipedia writers/editors started to change or mangle perfectly good text that I had written. The images I added also sometimes got replaced by someone else’s images. That’s how Wikipedia worked, for better or worse. I saw my time and effort spent on Wikipedia going to waste as my contributions eventually disintegrated or got watered down by other people including non-experts. After a few months, I gave up and suspended all my activities on Wikipedia. I asked myself, “Why work on someone else’s project when I could well make it my own?”
That’s when I decided to create my own website dedicated to Shiga. Something way better than Wikipedia’s Shiga articles, longer lasting, and something which I had total control over. It was a very wise decision. You may notice that Wikipedia did leave a positive influence on me as I adopted Wikipedia’s free wiki software for part of my website.
It’s ironic that I wasn’t too interested in Shiga during my early years in Japan. I knew that if I wanted to visit places in Shiga, I could do so at anytime. So I was more preoccupied with seeing Japan’s most famous places like Tokyo, Hokkaido, Okinawa, Hiroshima, etc. But after visiting most of the major destinations as the years passed, I wanted to discover lesser known places and finally realized that I shouldn’t ignore Shiga any longer. This change of attitude is quite common even among repeat visitors to Japan. After you see the major sights, you want to visit the lesser known and more quaint places.
And so it was good timing to have a digital camera and a renewed interest in Shiga. This website was my way of learning more about Shiga.
Fluency in Japanese is also critical if you want to learn about Shiga (and Japan) and maintain a website like mine. The amount of information about Shiga and Japan in English is minuscule compared to the information in Japanese. You can never understand and explain about Japan in depth and breadth without fluency in Japanese. My comprehensive Shiga history articles, for example, can never be written without fluency in reading Japanese.
If you don’t believe me, imagine that you’re back in your home country like the U.S., UK, or wherever. Imagine that there is a native Japanese person living in your area. He/she is maintaining a Japanese website introducing local sights, etc., in Japanese for Japanese tourists. That’s great, right? But what if this native Japanese person cannot understand English well? Can’t read local English newspapers or magazines? Would you think that person is qualified to explain about your locality? This happens a lot in Japan. People who cannot understand English are in charge of producing English content. That’s why we often see poor English in pamphlets, on signs, etc., in Japan.
If I weren’t fluent in Japanese, I wouldn’t have started shiga-ken.com.
Q: You really got a lot of stuff about Shiga in English. How did you amass all this content?
Well, I started shiga-ken.com over 10 years ago in 2005. So that’s how long I’ve been doing it and with each passing year, the content naturally and gradually grows. The first few years was the high-growth period. I was very eager to flesh out the website content as soon as possible, so I spent a lot of time in Shiga trekking to all these places and taking pictures. But I soon realized that it would take more than a few years to see and do everything in Shiga. And even today, I still haven’t seen everything or visited everywhere in Shiga. But this is what keeps me going, knowing that there’s still a lot out there for me to discover.
You know what happens when a project goes on track, right? You do everything to keep it on track and it soon snowballs into a near obsession or addiction to make it bigger and better. I’m also a collector of Shiga images. Like any collector, my desire to expand my collection grew as my collection grew. It becomes an addiction. For example, when I first took some pictures of Hikone Castle, I wasn’t satisfied because I also wanted cherry blossom shots of the castle too. After getting the cherry blossom shots, I wanted the castle with fall colors too. Then with Hiko-nyan, and at night when it’s lit up, and from Lake Biwa (while on a boat). So it’s a never-ending quest. Fortunately, my addiction or obsession is not harmful nor unhealthy. Of course, if you don’t have the passion or interest to begin with, you’ll never reach this point.
My content strategy has two prongs. One is to create new content that can remain relevant in the long term. It has to have a “legacy.” My second prong is to add what I call “cumulative content.” This is content that builds on previous content. It expands or improves the previous content with more information and/or images. That’s why my online platforms (including the same system used by Wikipedia) are highly scalable and flexible to accommodate virtually unlimited content that can be organized in any way I want. Most of my new content leaves room for expansion and improvement.
Another major factor is my fluency in Japanese. By being able to read and understand Japanese, I automatically have direct access to the huge amount of information in Japanese. I can talk to interesting Japanese people directly. So I have a lot to draw on and work with. I still have loads and loads of Shiga content just waiting to see the light on my website. It’s infinite. Shiga-ken.com is still far from complete, and it will never be complete. Which is kind of sad when I think about it. If you cannot read or speak Japanese well, you would have very little to work with and your content would be very limited in both scope and depth. You don’t know what’s out there and you don’t know what you don’t know. Since I can read Japanese, I know what’s out there and I know what I don’t know (which is still a lot).
These days, I notice that the younger generation, when they start a website, blog, Facebook page, etc., they want to snap their fingers and like magic, instantly have all the content they need and attract hundreds/thousands of followers or Likes in a short period. They also want other people to do the grunt work and contribute content. They love to start something, but have other people finish it, which usually does not happen. This phenomenon is rampant at Wikipedia (and Wikitravel) with so many stub pages. I call them the instant-ramen generation who demand instant gratification and don’t take the time to cook up something better. They don’t prepare the vegetables, there’s no meat, and so there’s no proper nutrition nor growth.
You know, the more you put into it, the more you get out of it. That’s how it works with most things in life. And what goes around, comes around. I can tell you that the rewards of my websites have been immense, not financially of course, but in many other more important ways.
Q: Who contributes the content at shiga-ken.com?
It’s basically only me. Of course, I do have friends, family, associates, and acquaintances who contribute indirectly and irregularly by providing information and guidance, appearing in my videos, etc. Any images or articles contributed by someone else are properly credited.
Although I’m not against having a website where multiple people contribute content, I have little confidence that it would work in the case of Shiga unless you compensate the contributors. Shiga is just too obscure and the English-speaking audience just too small. I know Kyoto has a few English websites and magazines that have multiple contributors who do it for free or for a low fee. It’s because they know that there’s a significant audience and they want to make a name for themselves.
Getting volunteers to write for you is often an iffy proposition. They may or may not come through. Or the quality of their work may not be top-notch. So I don’t rely on other people on content. People who are really good at taking pictures, writing, etc., would or should have their own website or social media. Why do it for someone else’s project for free? Make it your project. It was always my intention to singlehandedly create the content here. The main reason is for me to personally learn about Shiga.
Q: What about Facebook and other social media for shiga-ken.com?
For shiga-ken.com, the only social media I use is Twitter. I use it as a convenient content management system for very short posts (news headlines). My number of Twitter followers is low, but it does not reflect the number of people actually reading my tweets because you don’t need to be a follower to read my tweets. Each of my tweets usually see well over a hundred or a thousand “impressions” (hits).
Social media is a numbers game and too many people are obsessed with how many likes, followers, friends, subscribers, comments, etc., they can get. In-your-face “PLEASE SUBSCRIBE/LIKE” notices are so annoying. I’m just not into that. For shiga-ken.com, I don’t use other social media like Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, etc., because of the following reasons:
- I can’t think of any practical and sustainable use for Facebook, etc., for shiga-ken.com. My other platforms already meet all my online content needs. I already provide enough content through my websites, so I’m not inclined to burden myself with Facebook, etc. Don’t want to spread myself too thin. FB is a great online outlet for people who don’t have a blog or website. But for me, since I’ve long had a blog and website, FB becomes superfluous or redundant (except for personal use).
- They are closed platforms (except for Twitter), meaning that you have to join FB, etc., to see most of the content. I shall never require my audience to join anything to see my content. I want my content to reach as many people as possible for as long as possible and not keep it in a “walled garden.” Although many people use FB, many people still don’t.
- A closed platform does not allow the content to be searchable online with Google, etc.
- Social media is for ephemeral content. It’s good for announcements, notices, jokes, news, etc. It’s not for lasting content. I require my content to be long-lasting and searchable. Only Twitter enables me to do this. I can even download my tweets as a file and repost them on my site. This is not possible with FB which is like a black hole for content. It sucks everything in without returning anything. So it’s really for disposable or single-use content. Use it once, then no one sees it again.
- Facebook is declining in content quality (even though the content was never that good in the first place with endless photos of food, pets, vacations, etc.). Fewer people are sharing original content and people are becoming content aggregators by sharing links to content created by someone else. People are getting tired of posting and seeing the same old things. It’s becoming less personal and less personable. I just don’t see FB as a viable platform for shiga-ken.com. I relegate FB for personal use only, mainly to stay in touch with close friends and messaging people.
- I don’t receive any money from the original content I post on Facebook. Facebook makes all the money from the content I post on FB. This bothers me. Even YouTube gives me a cut in any ads shown with my videos. But zero yen from FB.
- I’ve had previous experiences with social media such as mixi. Even after founding and building a nice Shiga-related community on mixi, it died after a few years when Facebook came along. So social media really is disposable, whimsical, unpredictable, unstable, and uncontrollable for the long-term.
- Unless you’re a celebrity, Facebook does not reach as many people as you would think or like. Even if you have an FB group or page with 1,000 members or likes, only a small fraction of them would actually read your posts. An even smaller percentage will “like” or comment on your post. It’s a platform where people love to post, but not really read. And because FB is geared for disposable content, the quality of the content is inherently low in most cases.
Q: Have you ever won any awards for shiga-ken.com?
No, and I have no desire to win any award. My real award (or reward) is the satisfaction I get when I learn something new about Shiga and share it with others. My true award/reward comes from within myself and not without. Of course, I do appreciate the compliments I receive from native English speakers who know and use my website. They are the only ones who can truly appreciate a website like mine.
Q: So where do you recommend to visit in Shiga?
Everything you see at shiga-ken.com is what I recommend. I know that’s a wide choice, so it really depends on what your interests are and when you plan to visit. If you’re interested in samurai history because you saw anime or manga featuring Ii Naosuke, Ishida Mitsunari, Oda Nobunaga, or Koka ninja, then you’d be interested in visiting Hikone, Nagahama, Azuchi Castle (Omi-Hachiman), or Koka. If you’re interested in Lake Biwa or endemic fish, visit the Lake Biwa Museum. Or if you visit in spring or fall, see a festival like Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri in April or Otsu Matsuri in Oct. Flowers are also everywhere like cherry blossoms at Hikone Castle and Kaizu-Osaki. Other places you may like is Chikubushima island and Enryakuji temple (World Heritage Site). If you want a glimpse into the traditional or rural lifestyle, visit the traditional townscape of Gokasho or the natural springs used in homes in Harie. If you want to get away from it all, Lake Yogo is quiet, tranquil, and scenic. So it really depends on your interests and by browsing through shiga-ken.com, I’m absolutely sure that you will find something you would want to see. If you contact me and tell me what you’re interested in and when you plan to visit, I’d be happy to give you free advice.
Q: Do you offer sightseeing tours in Shiga?
No, I don’t do it professionally. But first-time visitors shouldn’t have much problem getting around without a guide. You can also look at train schedules, maps, etc., on your smartphone. Having a guide would be helpful though, and I urge Shiga to nurture more volunteer tour guides (“goodwill guides”) who can speak English, etc. This is an area that Shiga needs to develop prefecture-wide (and not just in Hikone). It’s quite far behind Aichi, Gifu, and of course Kyoto. If you visit Nagoya Castle in Aichi Prefecture, you may find volunteer English-speaking guides standing by to show you the castle and palace. No need for an appointment. I was very impressed by their service when I visited in summer 2016. Not only that, they even have a ninja troupe named “Tokugawa Ieyasu and Hattori Hanzo Ninja Squad” to promote tourism in the prefecture. One member is an America to boot. This is what I mean by going the extra mile.
*If you search online, you may find one or two tour agencies in Shiga that offer guided tours in English for a fee.
Q: Do you work with the Shiga Prefectural government, visitors bureau, tourist associations, etc?
Many people ask me this. But with very few exceptions, no I don’t. I’m totally independent. I’ve reached out to such people in the past with mixed results. Like most government departments and agencies, they have their own agenda, ego, mindset, and politics, and I’d rather stay out of it. The fact is, most of them are not proficient in English and don’t even know shiga-ken.com exists even though it has been online since 2005. Even Shiga’s prefectural representative working in sister-state Michigan might not know about it.
I also find it difficult to maintain a long-term working relationship when the personnel changes every few years. It’s most difficult to work with people who are in charge with English PR when they cannot even understand or speak English. They are unable to judge the quality of English text. Even if I tell them it’s poor English, they cannot understand what I mean because they don’t understand English. They also don’t understand what is required to produce top-quality English and top-quality translations. And there are too many Japanese officials who think that their English or their subordinates’ English is good enough to be used in official and PR materials. This is why we often see incorrect and ridiculous English in brochures, websites, signs, etc. This happens not only in Shiga, it happens all over Japan.
Shiga (and many other prefectures) is still quite primitive and undeveloped when it comes to English-language proliferation, international tourism, and PR. Many tourism and local government websites in Shiga still use automated translation, Shiga Prefectural government’s English website hasn’t been been updated or redesigned in years, English tourist pamphlets have low-quality English, there are few or no volunteer tour guides who can speak English, and very few people (or none) can speak English in local governments and tourist organizations. Shiga has never been good at promoting itself or getting out of Kyoto’s shadow.
For example, Otsu Matsuri is one of Shiga’s major festivals. Shiga’s official tourism website has only two English sentences describing Otsu Matsuri. And Otsu’s official tourist website in English has NOTHING on Otsu Matsuri (and nothing on other Otsu festivals) as of this writing, although it has info in Japanese. JNTO does a little better, but provides no photos of the festival. Almost all websites, blogs, etc., that mention Otsu Matsuri in English are very shallow. Only my Otsu Matsuri blog post explains the story in detail behind each of the 13 floats’ karakuri puppet performances which are the festival’s highlight.
I’m also very concerned about the lack of up-to-date information for tourists in times of natural disasters. When Typhoon Man-Yi hit Shiga in Sept. 2013, I noticed that none of the tourist websites in Shiga provided any news or updates about railway and flooded road conditions, hazardous hiking trails (blocked by landslides), closed attractions, etc. Nothing in Japanese except on my shiga-ken.com page summarizing the damage. Obviously, there was no information in foreign languages either.
I know there have been a few foreign employees (CIRs, etc.) in the prefectural and local governments that may help with foreign-language PR. However, they too change every few years. By the time they accumulate a good amount of knowledge about Shiga, they are gone and replaced by newbies. The same thing happens to ALTs and university instructors.
Because of its obscurity, Shiga needs to work at PR much harder than other prefectures. They need to go the extra mile (or two). And they need to come together and work together. After all, we’re all on the same side and on the same boat, but we’re not a cohesive team yet. People need to reach out and coordinate and cooperate (連携) more.
Individuals, volunteer groups, organizations, and local governments in Shiga need to hook up and collaborate more. There are many ways to do this. International associations and tourist organizations should work together. Volunteer tour guides should recruit people from their local international association. The local boards of education should educate tourism people about local history and produce tourist PR. The visitors bureau should send English tourist pamphlets to Shiga associations (kenjinkai) in the U.S. It would enhance word-of-mouth PR. But I’m told that the visitors bureau refuse to do so. Maybe because they don’t have enough brochures or don’t want to pay for postage. When it comes to international PR, Shiga can’t afford to be stingy. Not when the Tokyo Olympics is around the corner in 2020. Shiga needs to reach out and work more on a grassroots level. Shiga has the goods (sights and attractions), but not the marketing savvy.
Q: What’s your connection with the Lake Biwa Rowing Song (Biwako Shuko no Uta)?
Biwako Shuko no Uta (Lake Biwa Rowing Song) is Shiga’s most beloved hometown song and nationally famous. The song is about college boys from Kyoto rowing around Lake Biwa. It mentions major sights around the lake such as Imazu, Chikubushima, Nagahama, and Chomeiji.
In 2004, I first came across this song, not in Shiga, but in Okaya, Nagano Prefecture of all places. Along the shore of Lake Suwa, there was a lakeside song monument inscribed with the lyrics. I was very surprised to see places in Shiga mentioned in the song. I took pictures and later did some research about the song. I learned that besides mentioning these beautiful scenes in Shiga, the lyrics also brilliantly described the journey of life. The meaning and imagery of the lyrics were mysterious, surreal, and fantastical. I was so impressed that I translated the song into English and posted it on shiga-ken.com and held a small photo exhibition for it in Otsu’s Shiga Kaikan in late 2005. Then one thing led to another.
An Asahi Shimbun newspaper reporter happened to see my photo exhibition and wrote about it in the paper. Some people saw the article and contacted me about my English translation. It was very encouraging to hear encouraging words from people. However, my initial English translation was just a translation and it didn’t match the melody. So I soon decided to create an English version of the song with lyrics that could be sung to the original melody.
Meanwhile, an ALT from Illinois teaching in Shiga on the JET Program emailed me after seeing my English translation online and told me that she was in a local choir and knew the song because they sang it in Japanese. Just my luck because I had been looking for a singer who could sing my English version when it was completed. Turned out that she also had a twin sister working as an ALT in Kagawa Prefecture and they both could sing together! After meeting them and hearing them sing (audition) together, I was like, “YESSS!!”
I finished the English lyrics a month after I met the twins Jamie and Megan Thompson and we held a media event at Imazu Port in June 2006 to introduce and sing the new English version. A few newspapers like Asahi Shimbun and Yomiuri covered the event. Later that year in Nov., the twins managed to get on the NHK TV Nodo Jiman amateur singing contest and sang the song in English in front of a national TV audience live from Mitoyo, Kagawa Prefecture. That was a major thrill and highlight for all of us.
In June 2007, for the song’s 90th anniversary, we released the Lake Biwa Rowing Song CD for sale at the Biwako Shuko no Uta song museum in Imazu. Only a limited edition of this CD was produced and sold. It came with a booklet explaining the song and illustrated with photos of song monuments, etc. I donated a copy of the CD to almost all of Shiga’s public libraries and to the libraries at Shiga University, University of Shiga Prefecture, and Kyoto University. This original CD has since sold out and the Biwako Shuko no Uta song museum now sells a cheaper “slim version” of the CD minus the printed booklet. You can also hear the song by watching my music video on YouTube.
2017 will be the 100th anniversary of Biwako Shuko no Uta. A number of commemorative events are being planned by a number of organizations including the Kyoto University Rowing Club. The song was created in 1917 by Oguchi Taro who was a member of the rowing club at the forerunner of Kyoto University. Read more about the song here.
Q: How did you become fluent in Japanese?
You could say that I had a head start since I grew up with native Japanese parents who spoke Japanese at home. I also attended Japanese school after regular school up to 9th grade. However, I was never serious about learning Japanese during childhood since I had no use for it. So all that exposure didn’t really help much beyond hiragana, katakana, and some baby words. I also studied Japanese in college in Hawai’i, but never gained a high level of fluency even after taking Japanese courses for three years (still couldn’t really read a Japanese newspaper). It’s very difficult to master Japanese when you’re outside Japan because you don’t get exposed to it as much and don’t need or use it. So I understand very well why the Japanese have never really mastered English even after taking English classes for many years in school. They just don’t use or need it in Japan.
On the other hand, studying Japanese in Japan as an adult will not automatically make you fluent either. You really have to work at it and it requires much discipline and a lot of study time. It wasn’t until I got a full-time job in Japan requiring me to read Japanese almost every day when my Japanese reading ability started to really improve. It was time-consuming and tedious in the beginning when I often had to use the dictionary to look up kanji characters I didn’t know. When you look up a kanji character or compound in the dictionary at least two or three times, you will remember it. And that’s how I did it. I looked up thousands of kanji characters and compounds multiple times and they naturally entered my memory banks.
You may often hear that if you can read the 2,000 or so standard Joyo kanji characters, you will be able to read a Japanese newspaper. However, this is misleading because it’s not only a mere 2,000 kanji characters that you need to know. It’s also at least 15,000 kanji compounds or words formed by combining two or more of these kanji characters (basically equivalent to your vocabulary in your own native language). Including multiple readings of each character, people’s names and place names, dialects (Shiga’s dialect is very similar to Kyoto’s), etc.
During my early years in Japan when I still wasn’t fluent in reading kanji, I remember asking a bilingual American friend for advice on how to learn kanji. She said to “write them 10 or 20 times.” I did that and yes, I did remember how to write the kanji after writing it 10 times. However, there was no context so it wasn’t that helpful. It was also boring just writing the same kanji repeatedly so I didn’t continue doing it for long.
So you really need to see kanji in real life as positive reinforcement—on road signs, newspapers, magazines, etc., in order to remember them. Seeing them in context is very, very important. Not just on flash cards, kanji-learning apps, or in textbooks. You won’t understand what a word really means until you see it in context. You can’t pick up the nuances and the instances of when it is appropriate or used from mere dictionary definitions. It is essential to take the time and trouble to look up each and every kanji you don’t know (assuming that you already know hiragana and katakana), but the dictionary definition is only an approximation.
So repetition is the key. It’s the same as when you learned your own native language. When you see or hear something enough times, you’ll remember it. For example, when you visit a country whose language you don’t know, one word you’ll learn is the local word for “thank you.” Because you’ll keep hearing it in stores, restaurants, airports, etc., so you’ll remember it. Getting this repetition requires an enormous amount of time. This process took me three years of full-time, on-the-job, intensive self-study before I could read a Japanese newspaper with ease. I consider this one of my greatest and most rewarding achievements in life. I’m saying this to inspire more people to learn Japanese.
*If you live in Shiga, click here for a list of low-cost Japanese-language schools for foreigners.
Q: Any advice for learning Japanese?
The good news is that any normal person can become proficient in Japanese. The bad news is that it requires an enormous amount of time for most people. As I mentioned above, repetition is the key, but this repetition is inherently time-consuming. This is why so many people (including Japanese students who study English) fail to become proficient in a foreign language. They just don’t have the time or don’t make the time to study and be adequately exposed to the language. To spend all this time and effort, you need a compelling reason and strong desire to do it. It’s also true that you can survive in Japan without Japanese ability. Japan does have air, water, food, clothing, and shelter that you can survive on. But if you plan to live in Japan for a prolonged period, it’s well worth spending the time to study Japanese.
It’s very similar to mastering a sport or a musical instrument. You need to practice often (almost every day) and for many hours to get good at it. The great thing about getting good at a sport or musical instrument is that other people (friends, family, spectators, fans, etc.) will praise, appreciate, cheer, applause, and admire you for it. Your sports or musical skills can bring joy to a lot of people. Money may also follow. Dreaming of getting all this glory is a very powerful force in motivating people to practice for hours and hours. But there’s hardly any glory in becoming good at a foreign language. You will basically be the only one who can appreciate and enjoy your bilingual skills. Definitely not a glamorous skill, but it’s highly marketable so you’ll never starve in Japan. There’s always work requiring bilingual ability. But if you crave adulation and cheers for the many hours you spend practicing for something, take up a sport, art, or musical instrument instead.
Exposing yourself to the language as much as possible must be part of your practice routine. The more exposure you receive, the more times you will see and hear Japanese words and phrases repeatedly. That’s how you’ll remember them. Ideally, at least a few hours a day. Read Japanese text, watch Japanese TV programs and movies, listen to Japanese radio programs, speak Japanese to a Japanese friend, etc. With the Internet, this should be easy to do. (Assuming that you already know hiragana, katakana, and a few hundred kanji.)
Also important is that whatever you read, watch, or listen in Japanese on your own time has to be personally interesting to you. It has to be something you want to understand. It could be hobby- or work-related. If it’s not interesting to you, you won’t be motivated to read (look up kanji, etc.) and understand it. I recommend that you focus on a specific field or subject that you are interested in or have expertise. Learn the Japanese jargon in that field. If you start with that, it can maintain your interest and motivation to learn Japanese and you should naturally expand your general vocabulary as well.
If you’re in Japan, obviously you’ll have more opportunities to see and hear Japanese. But even if you’re in Japan, you still need to study and practice a lot to become proficient. Just because you’re in Japan doesn’t mean that you’ll automatically pick it up. I know many foreigner friends who have never mastered Japanese even after living in Japan for many years, because they never seriously studied it. Being illiterate is a serious deficiency or handicap in whatever country you live in. Just imagine being illiterate in your native country.
If you take Japanese lessons or classes at a school, etc., keep in mind that the bulk of your proficiency will hinge on how much you study on your own. If you take Japanese lessons without doing much studying at home on your own time, you won’t improve much and the money you spend on Japanese lessons will go to waste. Even if you do the assigned weekly homework that takes one or two hours, that’s still not enough. This is another thing the Japanese education system doesn’t seem to consider in their English curriculum. It’s not enough to just increase English classroom hours or lower the age at which kids start studying English. Students must also study and practice on their own and they need guidance and opportunities for this. They need things to motivate them to learn English. Create more opportunities to use English (or Japanese if you’re a foreigner). A common complaint among Japanese college students is that their English is still not good enough even after studying English in school for many years. It’s because they never spent much time outside the classroom to study and be exposed to English. It’s also unfortunate that Japan is rife with incorrect English everywhere. On road signs, shop signs, tourist pamphlets, advertising, T-shirts, etc., etc., that do not help anyone learn correct English. It’s one of Japan’s great ironies where the official stance is to get its students to master English, but to also allow incorrect English to be created and used almost everywhere you look in Japan.
To become fluent, it’s not absolutely necessary to start learning a foreign language from a young age. It’s possible to become fluent even by starting in your 20s. But I’ve observed that studying or being exposed to a foreign language from childhood makes your pronunciation more fluent. Even Japanese kids who study English from a young age, they can pronounce the “l” and “r” sounds quite well. People develop a better ear for it at younger ages.
If you’re in college or in your 20s, it’s your prime time to study Japanese seriously. Because once you reach your 30s and beyond, it will likely become very difficult to make the time to study Japanese when your career takes off or when you get married and start raising a family.
Mastering basic Japanese is pretty easy. Hiragana, katakana, a few hundred basic kanji, and basic conversation. But the kanji gets more difficult as you advance beyond the basic level. You may meet a high wall when trying to go beyond the intermediate level. It’s the make-or-break period. Making the time to study and being patient and disciplined enough to look up every kanji you don’t know gets tougher. But it’s much easier now with the Internet, online dictionaries, etc. Stick with it, you shall be rewarded. You’ll know when you’ve made it when you notice that you don’t have to use the kanji dictionary that often anymore. That’s when you’ll be in heaven.
You can live in, understand, and enjoy two worlds. Especially if you live in Japan. If you’re illiterate in Japan, you will always feel like foreigner or an outsider. Japan will always be a foreign land to you and there will be constant reminders that you don’t belong here. Some foreign residents can deal with this, but many cannot and eventually move back to their native country. It’s part of human nature to want to belong to the majority.
The day I became able to read a Japanese newspaper was the day I finally felt “at home” in Japan. Which was a great thing because I had planned to live here permanently. (I do have permanent resident status.) A very deep and profound happiness took hold as I read the Japanese newspaper that day. “Wow! I can read this!!!” A lofty dream came true. This most valuable and practical asset shall remain with me for the rest of my life.
My study of the Japanese language is a lifelong pursuit. I continue to look up new and unfamiliar Japanese words being written or spoken. Today, with the Internet, websites, and everything, I simply cannot imagine being monolingual and being confined to just “one world.” Sure, you can still survive in Japan without fluency in Japanese. And it’s possible to have some (but not all) things translated for you. But you will still miss out on a lot of what’s out there. So my message to foreign journalists and amateurs writing about Japan is, study Japanese if you want to get serious.
Q: How about making shiga-ken.com bilingual?
I do have a few pages written in Japanese, but this website shall never be bilingual unless someone volunteers to translate everything. Making anything bilingual, whether it’s a website, magazine, or newsletter, requires a lot of work. This is something that only a bilingual person can understand. It’s enough to write something in one language, but to also write or translate it into another requires double the time and effort. You know how irritating it is if you always have to repeat yourself. That’s how it feels when I write something in both English and Japanese.
*I do plan to write a Japanese version of this FAQ.
Q: How many hits do you get?
I have daily and monthly logs that record the number of unique website visitors and page views of each page. However, I can’t give accurate statistics for shiga-ken.com because many Shiga-related pages are also under my other website photoguide.jp. Let’s just say that for Shiga, I see a high number of hits daily. Not astronomical, of course, but it’s enough to make it worthwhile. It’s always interesting to see which blog posts are popular. They receive hundreds or thousands of views. There are blog posts that I wrote years ago that still receive a good number of views. This is what I strive to do. To put out content that can be useful, helpful, interesting, or relevant for a long time to generations of readers.
Q: What kind of equipment do you use?
Ever since I switched to digital, I’ve been using Canon camera equipment. I use mid-tier D-SLR cameras instead of top-of-the-line models which are too expensive and too bulky/heavy. For video, I use Sony camcorders. I don’t like to carry heavy equipment, so I carry only one camera and one zoom lens. Or I might just carry a high-end compact digital camera. When I shoot video, i usually shoot still photos at the same time with a compact camera.
I’m also a longtime Mac user. All my desktop and laptop computers are Macs, plus an iPad. I do have the latest Windows version installed in my desktop Macs, but I hardly use Windows. Macs are simply easier and more elegant to use. I also use Photoshop for photos and Final Cut Pro for video editing.
Q: Any advice on how to take nice pictures?
I really don’t have any advice because the definition of a “nice picture” can be different to different people. Everyone has different preferences, objectives, and tastes. Other than the technical aspects, there are really no rules or formula for taking a nice picture. A blurry or grainy photo considered to be bad to one person might look artistic to another.
If the photo looks good to you, then that’s really all that matters. It doesn’t really matter what other people think unless you’re entering a photo contest. As long as you like the picture, then it’s a nice picture.
If you’re a beginner, take many photos of your favorite subject or theme. Then go home and pick out your favorite shots. Sooner or later, you will understand or recognize what makes a picture look nice or what types of shots you like. Studying common rules and theories about composition might help, but it really depends on your objectives and preferences.
The thing about photography is that, not every photo you take will be a masterpiece. Out of 200 shots, you may find only a few that you really like. So the trick is to shoot a lot, then you can yield a higher number of great shots. That’s the great thing about digital. You can afford to take a lot of photos and just delete the bad shots.
Also think of ways to increase your chances of taking nice pictures. In my case, I like to shoot on sunny days because it brings out vivid colors, so I try to shoot on sunny days when possible. If it’s a festival, I check the exact route, location, time, and what the highlights will be. Such detailed information is usually only in Japanese. My shooting location is also important. I may need to go early to secure a prime spot for shooting. In Shiga though, this is rarely necessary. Festivals are not terribly crowded except for major fireworks events. When I’m shooting, my greatest enemy (besides foul weather) is another photographer. Photography is such a popular hobby that there will always be photographers who get in my way or spoils my clear shot. Once upon a time, amateur photographers in Japan were mostly old, retired men. Now we also often see little old women carrying one or two big D-SLR cameras at festivals. They can get quite aggressive and ill-mannered at times. And of course, most everyone has a smartphone or iPad to take pictures with while holding it above their heads.
Most of the photos I put online are presented in a series, usually in an online album (photo set). They are arranged in a logical sequence to tell a story or to document a place or event. This sequence is often chronological, especially for festivals.
Photography has been a pivotal part of my websites ever since I went online. I love photography because it’s so universal like music, sports, and art. Everybody loves photos. The Internet was made for photographers and writers. And it’s so easy and accessible. For public consumption, I’m inclined to take pictures that serve a practical purpose. My travel photos help people understand a place or event and make travel decisions. I also believe in captioning my photos to promote better understanding of the subject or scene depicted. Many photographers think that the picture speaks for itself and don’t need captions. I disagree. A caption enhances the picture’s impact and the viewer’s understanding.
Q: How do you organize and store your photos?
When you take as many photos as I do, having an easy and efficient way to organize, store, and find photos and videos becomes absolutely essential. My images are basically organized by date. First of all, the image file names contain the date with the year, month, and day (YYYYMMDD) it was taken. Then there’s a hyphen or underbar followed by a sequential number. For example, “20161011-1234.jpg”. I may also include keywords in the file name. For each event (festival, etc.), I create a separate folder for the images I shoot. The folder is also named with the date and a descriptive title. For example, “20161011-SportsDay”. These folders are then stored in a folder organized by month, named like “201610-PHOTOS” for photos taken in Oct. 2016. These month folders are then stored in a folder for the year named like “2016PHOTOS”. When I need to find a particular image, I search for the date or key words with my computer’s search function. The Japanese date format (YYYYMMDD) is much more efficient than any other date format.
I don’t use photo organizer applications like Apple’s Photos app (for amateurs and the worst there is), Adobe Lightroom, etc. They lock you into their system and make it difficult or impossible to switch to another system. Such applications can also be discontinued at the maker’s whim (like iPhotos and Aperture). After organizing my photos as above, I use Adobe Bridge for browsing through the photos and rating them or renaming them.
My images are stored locally on external hard drives. All my files are stored redundantly in different locations in Japan. So even if a disaster destroys my home, I still have the files stored elsewhere. I don’t use cloud services to store images because I have too many images to store and it takes too long to upload/download. I also don’t trust cloud services.
Q: What are your ideas or concepts behind your Shiga videos?
Video has come a very long way since I first started shooting video for shiga-ken.com. Video technologies, video quality, and video infrastructure (YouTube, editing software, etc.) have evolved and developed dramatically since the early 2000s. And it’s still ongoing with 4K and maybe 8K. So naturally, my videos have evolved accordingly in both content and quality. In the beginning, videos had to be short, no longer than 5 or 10 min. But YouTube gradually extended this limit until I could actually have videos longer than 2 hours on YouTube.
Unlike still photos, video can record movement and sound. And so my videos center on subjects that move and make sounds. I don’t shoot videos of temples and shrines because they don’t really move nor make any sound. That’s why most of my videos show festivals, the perfect subject for videos and one of my favorite subjects.
My festival videos try to make you feel like you’re there watching it. I shoot mostly from the same angle of view as the crowd watching the festival. Sometimes you may see local cable TV stations broadcasting a festival. They use their press pass to shoot at angles that give clear but artificial views of the festival. It doesn’t make you feel like you’re there.
Since 2013, I’ve been shooting videos with local residents (including kids) reporting in English on camera. I want the locals to introduce their hometown or festival instead of having a professional reporter or foreign visitor. They learn English in the process and English learners can see and hear the practical uses of English. I want to avoid making “foreigner discovers Japan” type of videos. I want viewers see the faces of Shiga and learn about Shiga. This idea has worked well and I’m making at least one such video for each city and town in Shiga. So far, I have a video for Nagahama, Hikone, Kusatsu, Moriyama, Higashi-Omi, Konan, and Otsu in this series.
You may notice that I don’t ever appear in my videos, photos, and websites. It’s because I prefer not to distract you from the subject at hand. I want all eyes on what I’m trying to show you. I’m not really into promoting myself either, but you will see my name everywhere due to copyright reasons and because credit must be given where it’s due. Credit or thanks is also given to other contributors and people who helped me out.
Q: What do you think of other websites, blogs, etc., that write about Shiga in English?
There are the official tourism websites run by tourist bureaus/associations (usually backed by the local government) and travel websites by private companies. Their intentions are good, but due to various limitations and mindsets, they are still lacking in areas they should not be lacking in. The official tourism websites are the most disappointing because they don’t provide the information they should be providing. The information provided for each attraction or festival is very superficial. Usually only one or two sentences even in Japanese. It’s supposed to be their job to keep improving and adding more detailed information. But I don’t ever see improvements in the details even in Japanese. The main body of content is largely static and not much more than a simple photo gallery and basic directory of addresses and phone numbers for hotels, restaurants, etc. You won’t find detailed information like festival event schedules, parade routes, and background info on local culture and history. With so little information, it’s hard to pique people’s interest and to help make travel decisions. They don’t provide any critical reviews, ratings, or recommendations that word-of-mouth sites do. To them, everything is “excellent” or “beautiful.” This is hardly helpful. Many tourism websites also use automated translation. It’s like this not only in Shiga, but also in many other prefectures. Even after 20 years of the Internet’s existence, they still haven’t figured out how to do it right.
Travel websites by private companies usually provide better content because contributors are being compensated or recognized for creating the content. They also have more input from people reviewing the sights, hotels, restaurants, etc. However, they tend to cover only the major sights like Enryakuji, Hikone Castle, and Koka ninja. That’s probably enough for most tourists, but if you’re from Shiga, you want to mention everything. And that’s the job of the local tourist bureaus, but they’re not doing a good job of it.
I understand that the tourist bureaus/associations focus on the commercial aspects of tourism. They want visitors to drop money on hotels, restaurants, shops, etc. They are not into explaining the local history and culture to tourists. So who’s supposed to do it? It’s actually the domain of the local boards of education (BOE) because they do the research and have the knowledge. They write those explanatory signs at castles, historic sites, etc. But they don’t contribute to tourism PR and rarely produce anything in English. The tourism bureaus and BOE should start collaborating to improve tourism information.
Besides the lack of information, the quality of the English is also a problem. The English information you see on official tourism websites and brochures in Japan are almost always a direct (and often literal) translation of the Japanese version. The quality of the English or translation is usually low. Japan has never been good at English education and English period. The widespread use of automated translation by local government and tourism websites is baffling. The people in charge of English PR don’t know what is required to produce quality English. Much of the English you see is done by automated translation or by an unqualified human translator. Seeing bad English does not leave a good impression on the visitor. It can adversely affect their image of your destination, service, facility, or product. Japan still has a long, long way to go in explaining itself effectively in foreign languages.
What also worries and bothers me is that such low-quality English gets perpetuated among children and students studying English who cannot tell whether the English they see is correct or not. They may easily assume that the incorrect English they see is correct, especially if they see it on pamphlets, signage, websites, etc., produced by an authoritative source like a local government, tourist association, company, temple, etc. Allowing and publishing poor quality English in Shiga and Japan goes against the grain for Japan’s push to have their children and students improve their English. It sets a very bad example.
If you’re translating from Japanese to English, you need a skillful human translator who is a native English speaker, not a Japanese person. The translator must also be a very good writer and knowledgeable about Shiga. Like he or she should know that “Konan” could be the name of a city or region in Shiga. The translator should also be given the liberty to make the translation as appealing and informative as possible, tailored for foreign visitors. The Japanese text is inherently written for Japanese visitors, not for foreign visitors. So for example, if you translate “Edo Period” or “Oda Nobunaga” to English, you should also add the dates of the Edo Period and briefly explain in parentheses who Nobunaga was. Most Japanese would be familiar with “Edo Period” and “Oda Nobunaga” without further explanation, but not foreign visitors. So the translator must also be conscientious of such things and go the extra mile. I hardly ever see this in tourism PR materials though. Yes, hiring a skillful translator costs money, but it is a worthwhile and long-lasting investment. A poor translation or mediocre English only gives a bad impression.
Q: What other content are you planning for shiga-ken.com?
As I mentioned, what I want to cover is pretty much endless. But that’s another thing that keeps me going, when I have such a vast and varied choice for a blog post, photo essay, article, etc. I have no shortage of ideas for content. I always have at least two or three blog posts in the pipeline being written and researched in my spare time (which I wish I had more of). I usually gravitate toward the major cultural and historical topics and traditional things that I haven’t covered yet. It could be Omi merchants, Biwa pearls, shukuba post towns, more interviews, etc. One thing I lack is reviews of restaurants, hotels, shops (especially michi-no-eki), and other businesses. Although I would like to review more local businesses, they are low priority for now considering that there are travel websites in English that have reviews of hotels, etc., written by users.
I strive to make my content informative, educational, helpful, or interesting. The Web today is very niche-oriented. I’m proud and happy to be filling the Shiga Prefecture niche in English like no one else can. Find your niche (specialty) and work at it like no one else. Like one curator-scientist at Lake Biwa Museum told me, “Don’t study the crayfish. It’s already too popular and well-documented so you won’t make new discoveries. Find something that nobody has heard of, and study that. Then you can make new discoveries fast and be publishable.”
Enjoy and visit Shiga!
Contact me (日本語でもOK)
P.S. The photo above is a statue of a Shigaraki tanuki (racoon dog) in Koka. Associated with prosperity and good business, a tanuki statue is a common site at shop entrances to welcome customers.
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“My favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been.” – Diane Arbus