About shiga-ken.com

song monument
Lake Biwa Rowing Song monument, Kyoto University. Click image to enlarge.

Updated: Jan. 21, 2021, by Philbert Ono

Welcome to shiga-ken.com!

A personal website introducing Shiga Prefecture, Japan with thousands of photos, videos, sightseeing information, news, and articles all in English. “Shiga-ken” (滋賀県) means “Shiga Prefecture” in Japanese.

Shiga-ken.com has a large number of photos for the subjects covered. Official travel guide sites and travel blogs do not include as many photos of Shiga as we do. More photos mean better understanding, and better understanding means you can make better travel and planning decisions.

This website is for foreign tourists and residents. An ongoing project as I constantly add and improve the content. Shiga-ken.com is the most comprehensive website about Shiga Prefecture you’ll ever find in English created by an individual. Unless indicated otherwise, all the content was created by me, Philbert Ono. This is how it’s organized:

The home page has three main menus: “What’s New,” “Trending,” and “Popular.” “What’s New” lists the latest content added to shiga-ken.com. “Trending” lists content for the current season or upcoming events, and “Popular” lists popular posts.

The top menu bar links to the major sections and pages.

About has links to pages giving an overview of this website, Shiga Prefecture, and other basic information.

Cities & Towns are overview pages for all 19 cities and towns in Shiga.

Photos is an ever-increasing collection of photos (17,800+ as of Nov. 2021) for each city and town in Shiga. The photos are in albums (photo sets) showing festivals, temples, shrines, historic sites, gardens, townscapes, flowers, etc. They are part of my online collection of 68,000+ images (as of Feb. 2022) of Japan at sister site PHOTOGUIDE.JP.

Blog has blog posts covering Shiga Prefecture’s history, culture, sights, festival and event information, etc. Updated irregularly.

News (Shiga Headlines) uses Twitter to present Shiga’s major news headlines carefully curated from local Japanese news sources. I also tweet about website updates and my travels in Shiga. Some of the tweets are also categorized for the major cities in Shiga. Twitter is a microblogging service for short posts (called tweets) that are limited to only 280 characters in English. (140 character limit for Japanese.)

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 also 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.

Videos is an index to my YouTube videos (mainly festivals) of Shiga. 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 photo albums and articles.

Maps show individual maps of each city and town in Shiga. The maps pinpoints the city/town’s major sights.

Articles is an index to my in-depth, text-heavy articles about Shiga and Japan. The major articles are listed under the side menu on the home page, such as “About Shiga” and “Cities & Towns.”

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.)

*Much of shiga-ken.com‘s content is presented under sister website PHOTOGUIDE.JP which also covers all the other prefectures in Japan.



Q1: Who is behind shiga-ken.com?

Q2: Who sponsors shiga-ken.com?

Q3: What made you decide to start shiga-ken.com?

Q4: How are you able to maintain shiga-ken.com?

Q5: You really got a lot of stuff about Shiga in English. How did you amass all this content?

Q6: Who contributes the content at shiga-ken.com?

Q7: What about Facebook and other social media for shiga-ken.com?

Q9: So where do you recommend to visit in Shiga?

Q10: Do you offer sightseeing tours in Shiga?

Q11: Do you work with the Shiga Prefectural government, visitors bureau, tourist associations, etc?

Q12: What’s your connection with the Lake Biwa Rowing Song (Biwako Shuko no Uta)?

Q13: How did you become fluent in Japanese?

Q14: Any advice for learning Japanese?

Q15: How about making shiga-ken.com bilingual?

Q16: How many hits do you get?

Q18: Any advice on how to take nice pictures?

Q19: How do you organize and store your photos?

Q20: What are your ideas or concepts behind your Shiga videos?

Q21: What do you think of other websites, blogs, etc., that write about Shiga in English?

Q22: What other content are you planning for shiga-ken.com?

Q1: Who is behind shiga-ken.com?
Hello, I’m Philbert Ono, a Japanese American born and raised in this most beautiful and unique US state 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), although not as good as a native Japanese since I’m not a native Japanese.

Professionally, I do a number of things. I take travel photos, shoot/edit videos, do translations, write travel articles, and other things. I’m a content creator, not a content aggregator like too many people. I take pictures and also write.

Although I live and work in Tokyo, I visit Shiga a few times a year and stay at my parents’ home. Each time, I go out and see a place, festival, eatery, or attraction I’ve never seen before in Shiga or a neighboring prefecture. I’m especially interested in traditional Japanese things such as National Treasures (temples, shrines, etc.), festivals, historic sites, traditional arts and crafts, performing arts, seasonal scenes (flowers, etc.), and anything else that is beautiful or interesting.

Whatever I learn, I also try to share with others. So this website is geared for you to learn something new. My websites are therefore good for me, good for you, and good for all.

Q2: 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.

Q3: What made you decide to start shiga-ken.com?
I just wanted more people to know more about Shiga since it’s a rather obscure prefecture outside the Kansai/Kinki Region and internationally. There’s also too little quality information in English about Shiga.

Most of the foreigners writing about Shiga or Japan do not read Japanese. So they can never really go deep into whatever they are writing about. And most Japanese who write about Shiga cannot do it in English or in good enough English.

Q5: You really got a lot of stuff about Shiga in English. How did you amass all this content?
Well, I started shiga-ken.com in 2005. (Amazing how fast the years go by.) So that’s how long I’ve been doing it and with each passing year, the content naturally and gradually grows while I visit more places and upload more photos and articles. I don’t think there’s any foreigner who has been doing something like this for this long.

I like to create content that can remain relevant in the long term. It has to have a “legacy” potential where it can be useful even 10 or more years from now. Even if some photos or text become outdated, it still serves as a historical record and reflects that time in Shiga’s history.

I also build on previous content by expanding or updating it with more photos, information, etc.

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 Japanese people of interest 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 Japanese well, you would have very little to work with and your content would be very limited in both scope and depth.

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 or flesh it out, which usually does not happen. This phenomenon is rampant at Wikipedia with so many stub pages. I call them the instant-ramen generation who demand instant results 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.

Q7: 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 and tidbits). 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 a few hundred or even several thousand “impressions” (hits) depending on the subject matter or keywords.

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 also very annoying. For shiga-ken.com, I don’t use any 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 existing 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, I already have my hands full with websites.
  • 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 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., effective for a few days or weeks. 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 except ads. So it’s really for disposable or single-use content. Show it once, then no one sees it again.
  • The quality of content on FB is inherently low, designed to last for only a short period. I relegate FB for personal use only, mainly to stay in touch with close friends and messaging people.
  • I don’t receive any money or recognition from the original content I post on Facebook. Facebook makes all the money from the content I post on FB. This bothers me.
  • I’ve had previous experiences with social media such as mixi. Social media really is disposable, unpredictable, unstable, and uncontrollable for the long-term. FB keeps changing its system without notice, so it’s really annoying.
  • 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. It’s a platform where people love to post, but not really to read.

Q9: 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, NagahamaAzuchi 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.

Q10: Do you offer sightseeing tours in Shiga?
I don’t do it professionally, but I can be hired for certain groups and people who are personal friends, etc. 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 search online, you may find one or two tour agencies in Shiga that offer guided tours in English for a fee. One is called YuTour, run by Seita Mori, a bilingual and a licensed guide in Otsu. I’ve met him and found him to be very nice.

Q11: 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. Most of them are not proficient in English and don’t understand what foreign tourists need. This happens not only in Shiga, but all over Japan.

Shiga (and many other prefectures) is still quite primitive when it comes to the English-language level, international tourism, and PR for foreigners. Many tourism and local government websites in Shiga still use automated translation, English tourist pamphlets have low-quality English, there are few or no volunteer tour guides who can speak English.

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 travel alerts and warnings for tourists in times of natural disasters. Even when a major typhoon hits Shiga, none of the local government and tourist websites in Shiga provided any news or updates about railway and flooded road conditions, hazardous hiking trails (blocked by landslides), closed attractions, etc.

Twin sisters Jamie and Megan Thompson debut the Lake Biwa Rowing Song at Imazu Port on June 3, 2006.

Q12: 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 Shiga place names 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 old Shiga Kaikan hall 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 a true 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, Takashima. 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.

The song’s 100th anniversary was celebrated in 2017 in Shiga with a rowing tour around the lake and music festival at Biwako Hall in Otsu in June. Kyoto University also held a celebration on November 25, 2017 with the unveiling of a new song monument (with both Japanese and English lyrics) on campus and a concert. 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.

Q13: 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. Many of my classmates in Hawai’i were Japanese Americans and we all knew basic Japanese words (mostly food and swear words). 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.

It’s very difficult to master Japanese when you’re outside Japan because you’re not 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, living in Japan as an adult will not automatically make you fluent in Japanese 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 that 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 context 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 in multiple ways. You can’t pick up the nuances and the instances of when it is appropriate 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), and 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. I consider Japanese fluency (especially reading) to be one of my greatest and most rewarding achievements in life.

*If you live in Shiga, click here for a list of low-cost Japanese-language schools for foreigners.

Q14: 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 at 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 praise and glory is a very powerful force in motivating people to practice for hours on end.

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 get, the more times you will see and hear Japanese words and phrases repeatedly. That’s how you’ll remember them. Ideally, spend 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 your general vocabulary should naturally expand 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, 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, menus, 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 proliferate 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 (but not impossible) 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. 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 still a lifelong pursuit. I continue to look up unfamiliar Japanese kanji and words. Today, especially with the Internet, websites, and apps, 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 or well-qualified.

Q18: 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 spoil 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.

The Internet was made for photographers and writers. 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.

Q20: 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.

Sometimes I shoot 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.

Q21: 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. 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.

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. Many tourism websites also use automated translation. It’s like this not only in Shiga, but also in many other prefectures. Even after 25+ 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 widespread use of automated translation by local government and tourism websites is baffling. 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.

Q22: What other content are you planning for shiga-ken.com?

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.

Enjoy Shiga!

Philbert Ono
Contact me (日本語でもOK)


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“My favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been.” – Diane Arbus

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