YUtour, tour guide extraordinaire in Shiga Prefecture

Tour guide Seita Mori (right) amid terraced rice paddies in Hata, Takashima.

by Philbert Ono, photos courtesy of Seita Mori and selected by Philbert Ono

It’s about time I introduce YUtour (悠ツアー), a licensed tour guide service for foreign tourists in Shiga Prefecture run by my friend MORI Seita (森 聖太) in Otsu. YUtour is a one-man operation with Seita-san as YUtour’s one and only English-speaking guide. All indicators (such as TripAdvisor comments) show that he is doing an outstanding job. And after having a long lunch with him the other day in Otsu, I believe it.

YUtour’s guided tours in English focus on the rural areas, ecotourism and nature, and traditional crafts of Shiga. He takes guests mainly to Otsu (Mt. Hiei, Sakamoto, Ogi, and Katata), Takashima (Harie and Hata), Shigaraki (pottery and Miho Museum), and Omi-Hachiman (Okishima island and traditional boat rides). If you look at the YUtour website, you can see “Ready-made tours” with a set itinerary and pricing, and “Tailor-made tours” to other areas in Shiga upon request. Most of the tours are day trips from Kyoto, and Seita usually meets his guests at Kyoto Station at the tour’s start. He takes mostly individuals, couples, or small groups, but can also handle larger groups.

Seita (in front) in Nakajima, Harie.

Why take a guided tour instead of touring by yourself?
When touring rural areas where public transportation is limited, English information is scarce, and where people don’t speak English, a guided tour in English makes it much easier.

The guide can introduce you to local people (farmers, potters, craftsmen, etc.) so you can talk to them and ask questions. It makes your visit more enjoyable and educational. When it comes to outside visitors, rural folks always appreciate some kind of introduction. Just a simple introduction by someone they know is all it takes for them to open up their world, culture, and lifestyle to you. With the right connections, people in Shiga can be very friendly to foreigners. And Seita is that connection.

Pottery lesson in Shigaraki.

Calligraphy brush makers in Takashima.

Kabata water basin is used to wash or chill fruits and vegetables. Carp also eat food scraps from washed dishes.

YUtour’s most popular destinations are Harie (homes with “kabata” kitchen basins spewing natural spring water), Hata (farming community with terraced rice paddies), Shigaraki pottery centers, and Miho Museum. YUtour uses public transportation as much as possible so visitors can also experience what locals do. But if necessary, they will use a taxi or mini bus (for large groups). About 40 percent of YUtour customers are from the U.S., followed by Australians and Europeans. English-speaking tourists from Asia also take his tours.

Since YUtour is a small operation, Seita makes the tours a lot more personal, personable, and flexible than with large tour operators. He tells me that he never gets tired of taking people to the same places and explaining the same things over and over. It’s because his guests are all different and they all have different interests, questions, and opinions and he enjoys talking to them. Seita learns a lot from them as well. So it’s a very interactive tour and not just a one-way lecture about this and that. I asked him what was the most common comment he gets from his visitors to Shiga: “So peaceful here!” Yep, laid-back Shiga is definitely a refreshing and relaxing break from the craziness and crowds of Kyoto.

Cycling through rice paddies in Adogawa, Takashima.

Hand paddling a boat through reeds in Lake Nishinoko, Omi-Hachiman.

Old reeds around the lake are burned in early March to make way for new buds.

Seita started YUtour in 2012 as part of his noble mission to help revitalize rural communities. Bringing foreign tourists was one way to do it. The “YU” (悠) in YUtour means “leisurely” in Japanese. I believe YUtour was the first professional tour guide service to start up in Shiga exclusively for foreigners. When I first heard about it, I didn’t think it would be so viable since Shiga is so little known overseas.

Indeed, Seita did struggle to get customers during his first year in business. But he stuck with it and over the years, YUtour gradually became a very active and in-demand service. It has gained more customers as word spread, and it’s now on track for further growth. The increasing number of inbound tourists to Japan has also helped, and Seita is also seeing repeat customers. He is most busy in spring and fall when he can be booked for at least half the month. Least busy are the winter months.

He has also been spotlighted in local Japanese newspapers and NHK Otsu TV news in 2017. I’m so glad to see him come this far to establish a niche for himself in Shiga. It takes a lot of dedication and determination and he loves what he’s doing. Seita also works part-time as a research assistant at Kobe University, so he does have a side job to fall back on when YUtour is not so busy.

Seita (left) helps to clean waterways in Harie.

I met Seita-san for the first time about a year ago when I invited him to one of my events. We didn’t have time to talk then, so we finally met up again over lunch in Otsu earlier this month.

I could quickly tell that he was a dedicated, upright professional and very community-oriented and knowledgeable about Shiga. He is a licensed tour guide for foreigners (通訳案内士) which means he passed a difficult national exam for testing one’s English ability and knowledge of Japan. It’s surprising to hear that he has never studied or worked abroad, so his English was mostly self-taught. To get up to that level without living abroad (or being married to a native English speaker) is pretty amazing for a Japanese person. (Japan’s English education program in public schools has largely been a failure for decades, with the vast majority of students still unable to converse in English even at college age. Japan’s low-quality English found everywhere in tourism brochures, official websites, signs, etc., also does not help.)

He also has a Ph.D degree, so we had very intelligent conversations (in Japanese). Besides me interviewing him, we also discussed tourism issues in Shiga and Otsu.

On NHK TV in July 2017, Enryakuji spokesman commented on their English weakness.

One thing we talked about was Enryakuji Temple. Enryakuji recently admitted on NHK TV that they were not good at English PR. I told Seita that Enryakuji should just ask its overseas Tendai Buddhist temples to help produce English materials. I’m sure they would gladly help their headquarters temple produce the English for PR brochures, official website, and directional signs. They are native English speakers who know the religion and terminology, so they are very qualified to do it. When it comes to English PR, Enryakuji is way behind Koya-san in Wakayama Prefecture. Seita showed me the excellent English website for Kumano Kodo. Something that Enryakuji, Otsu, and Shiga could learn from.

Seita and I also agreed that Otsu’s push to develop Chuo-Odori road between Otsu Station and Lake Biwa for tourists is not so promising since there’s nothing at the end of the road (except for a hotel). Yes, there’s Lake Biwa, but there are other more convenient roads leading to the lake.

Otsu recently made a snazzy, eye-catching video just to promote that it’s only “9 minutes by train from Kyoto.” This should’ve been “Only 9 minutes TO Kyoto” instead. Have tourists stay in Otsu to visit Kyoto, rather than tourists staying in Kyoto to visit Otsu. People who lodge in Otsu drop more money than people who just visit Otsu, right? Otsu often serves as backup accommodations for people who can’t find hotel rooms in Kyoto anyway. So a “9 minutes TO Kyoto” campaign would have been more practical. Vice versa is a lot harder—getting tourists staying in Kyoto to visit central Otsu.

Theoretically, being so close to Kyoto might sound good, but it can also be disadvantageous. Tourists who want to get away from Kyoto may think Otsu is too close and prefer to venture further away. This may explain why Harie and Shigaraki (both taking at least an hour from Kyoto) are more popular to visit from Kyoto.

Well, I still give credit to Otsu for at least trying and coming up with ideas. But as I told Seita, I think Otsu is stuck in a hard place. It doesn’t have a trademark attraction like Hikone Castle in Hikone. Yes, there’s Enryakuji (World Heritage Site), but it’s almost part of Kyoto and most people go there from Kyoto. Otsu has other important Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, but people who want to see temples/shrines might as well stay in Kyoto. There’s Lake Biwa and lake cruises, but the lake is not unique to Otsu. Otsu has a lot of things, but nothing stands out. So it lacks a strong and unique identity attractive to tourists.

Pottery kiln in Shigaraki.

And Shigaraki (in Koka), despite its fame and popularity with foreigners, still has no official tourism website in English. (Google Translate doesn’t count.) Selling their wares to foreigners should really help (especially with the Tokyo Olympics coming up). The Shigaraki pottery association should create an English website. Shigaraki hardly has info in English except for Miho Museum and the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park.

Too many people working in Shiga tourism still don’t understand the power and worldwide reach of the Internet and how a little language can go a long way. It’s hard to believe that there are still volunteer tour guides (mostly retirees) in Shiga who do not even use the Internet. (No emailing, no messaging, and no Web browsing.)

Anyway, I had a good discussion with Seita-san and we’ll be keeping in touch. YUtour provides a very valuable and rare service in Shiga. I think Seita represents Shiga very well as a grassroots cultural ambassador spreading the word about Shiga. I find him to be very friendly and affable. He is another example of how even one person can make a big difference in Shiga. It’s not snazzy videos nor slick brochures. It’s the word of mouth that counts the most and Seita Mori is on the front line for that.

To book a tour, go directly to the YUtour website. As of this writing, YUtour is not available for booking at travel sites like Expedia.

Website: http://www.yutour.net/
For more photos of his tours, see the Facebook page: https://ja-jp.facebook.com/yutour.net/

Seita also appeared in this PR video of Kyoto and Shiga produced by KLM:

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Shiga History October-December 2014

Chronology of Shiga Prefecture’s most important and interesting news headlines for October-December 2014 (according to the year, month, day, and time posted at Japan time).

Originally posted on Twitter under Shiga Headlines by Philbert Ono. Twitter posts are limited to 140 characters including spaces and links (shortened by Twitter).

ShigarakiTanukiSanta

Shigaraki Station’s giant tanuki welcomes train line’s restart. (Photo by Jamie Thompson)

2014/10/4 15:20 Due to Typhoon No. 18 (Phanfone), heavy rain is expected in Shiga from the evening of Oct. 5 to the 6th.
2014/10/5 11:16 On Oct. 6, JR Kusatsu Line will not be running from the morning. Fewer trains will run on the JR Tokaido/Biwako and Kosei Lines.
2014/10/5 11:22 Powerful Typhoon No. 18 (Phanfone) is expected to be closest to Shiga from daybreak on Oct. 6. Avoid mountains and rivers.
2014/10/6 2:36 Tokaido Shinkansen is still not running between Tokyo and Nagoya. JR Tokaido Line is also blocked by a landslide in Shizuoka.
2014/10/6 2:45 Tokaido Shinkansen has just started running between Tokyo and Shizuoka.
2014/10/7 12:40 Scenic Sugaura in Nagahama was officially designated as Japan’s 44th Important Cultural Landscape on Oct. 6. http://t.co/jmMVO1zXSI #重要文化的景観
2014/10/8 7:15 Uploaded my new Otsu Matsuri video shot in Oct 2013. Good to watch if you plan to see the festival this weekend. http://t.co/6hAKaXPXQC #大津祭
2014/10/9 13:04 Shiga food & crafts fair “Ee-mon Umai-mon Matsuri” being held until Oct. 14 at Seibu Otsu. Funazushi, Omi beef, etc. http://t.co/gXoTT9uLoM
2014/10/9 13:54 The approaching Typhoon No. 19 (Vongfong) might or might not affect Shiga this weekend. Still too early to tell. http://t.co/KHUoAek9dZ
2014/10/10 8:36 Otsu Matsuri will go on as planned this weekend, but if there are typhoon winds, they may cancel it even after the parade starts.
2014/10/12 12:08 Typhoon No. 19 (Vongfong) expected to rain on Shiga on Oct.13, peaking late at night. Great that it didn’t ruin this weekend (Otsu Matsuri).
2014/10/12 14:33 A mama bear and two cubs were spotted in Maibara on the road near the Ibuki Kumin Grounds on Oct. 10 at 11:40 am. クマは殺さないでください!!
2014/10/12 14:34 All Ohmi Railway trains will stop running on Oct. 13 from 4 pm due to expected typhoon winds.
2014/10/12 15:06 JR and other train lines will likely stop running all trains from around 3 pm or 4 pm on Oct. 13 in the Kansai and Kinki areas.
2014/10/13 4:18 You can check the JR train lines’ current status in English here: http://t.co/utFBhq3kOw
2014/10/13 12:30 The typhoon is now covering all of Shiga. Higashi-Omi, Koka, and Konan are getting much rain. Typhoon winds expected to last until daybreak.
2014/10/16 12:55 Number of bullying cases in Shiga’s 397 public schools reached a record high of 1,288 cases last school year. BOE says 95% were resolved.
2014/10/16 13:01 Shigaraki Kogen Railway’s 14.7 km railroad was completely reconnected today after the collapsed bridge’s reconstruction. Wait till Nov. 29.
2014/10/16 13:12 The unique sumo ring (built in 1988) near JR Azuchi Station will be dismantled due to redevelopment of the area. http://t.co/OvvGewz67C
2014/10/16 13:22 Hikone’s Josei Elementary School and Rose Park Primary School in Adelaide, Australia became sister schools at a ceremony on Oct. 8. #城西小学校
2014/10/17 12:23 Rare yellow catfish on display at Lake Biwa Museum until Nov. 9. Caught last Sept. Medium size, not the big Lake Biwa Catfish. #イワトコナマズ
2014/10/28 3:22 This season’s first cold winter winds (kogarashi) blew on Oct. 27 in Kinki, 8 days sooner than last year. Kosei Line trains were delayed.
2014/10/29 14:05 A folder of papers showing the contact/personal info of all 716 students of Maibara High School vanished from the teacher’s room in Sept.
2014/10/29 14:09 Shiga BOE found that besides Maibara H.S.,10 other Shiga high schools did not keep personal info docs under lock and key. Now they do.
2014/10/30 15:49 Multiple sightings of bears in past few days in Nagahama & Maibara. Spotted on backyard persimmon trees in Nose, Yashima, & Minami-ike.
2014/10/30 15:55 48 bear sightings in Nagahama/Maibara in Oct. Beware of bears in mountains and forests at dawn and sunset. Hikers should carry noisemakers.
2014/10/30 15:59 Bears are not finding enough food in the mountains so they are invading populated areas. Don’t keep fruits on trees or any edibles outside.
2014/11/1 2:49 A 47-year-old in the Shiga Prefectural Gov’t Statistics Section got fired for drunk driving in Aug. The car overturned in a paddy in Yasu.
2014/11/1 2:51 Omi Jingu Yabusame horseback archery will be on Nov. 3 at 1 pm. Just uploaded my video of last year’s event. http://t.co/K81m39jwTQ
2014/11/2 3:41 Kusatsu’s 6th graders and 3rd-year jr high students scored higher than the national average in 6 subjects on scholastic achievement tests.
2014/11/2 4:07 Besides scholastic achievement test results, Kusatsu BOE released other stats like kids’ cell phone and study habits. http://t.co/fufpfSFY46
2014/11/4 11:09 On Yasu’s 10th anniversary, official mascot Dotaku-kun got a complete makeover with a wider body & light green color. http://t.co/sI0xFjjlKi
2014/11/4 12:21 As of Oct. 1, 2014, Shiga’s population declined year-on-year for the first time in 48 years with 452 fewer people. This trend will continue.
2014/11/10 11:17 Funazushi ice cream (with raspberry sauce) & other new local food now at Aeon supermarket, Nagahama Branch. http://t.co/lVKch8LkYL #ふなずしアイス
2014/11/13 10:11 At Minakuchi-Okayama Castle site in Koka, they found remains of not one, but two tenshu-type towers on the east and west of the Honmaru.
2014/11/14 11:54 RT @japantimes: 1922 Einstein-autographed postcard turns up at Shiga museum http://t.co/tyBjFyR8R9
2014/11/16 3:19 NHK Nodo Jiman TV program now airing from Omi-Hachiman. With Godai Natsuko and Satomi Kotaro. http://t.co/XhXccFhaCd
2014/11/20 15:24 Shiga Prefecture and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam signed pact of economic cooperation on Nov. 13 to make it mutually easier to do business.
2014/11/28 12:02 Fall foliage at Zensuiji temple (National Treasure) in Konan is at its peak now. http://t.co/doerMD6HCL #善水寺
2014/11/29 3:16 After 14 months of repairs, Shigaraki Kogen Railway started running again today from 9:30 am at Shigaraki Station amid much fanfare. #信楽高原鐵道
2014/12/1 17:28 Shiga Bank and Canadia Bank, one of Cambodia’s largest banks, have agreed to form a business partnership later his month.
2014/12/2 10:05 Inspired by the Lake Biwa Rowing Song in English, Linda Birmingham in the UK created and performed her own version: http://t.co/Y12FEMIjI0
2014/12/2 10:09 Overhead monitors on the JR Biwako/Tokaido Line tracking the train stations are great. Displays train delay info too. http://t.co/ASImDed2Ae
2014/12/2 10:11 Christmas lights at JR Moriyama Station’s west side. http://t.co/GBSXoHtVzq
2014/12/4 16:38 Heavy snowfall is expected in northern Takashima/Nagahama on Dec. 5-6.
2014/12/5 17:26 Toray’s new factory completed in Maibara will double the production of carbon fiber auto parts. The lighter carbon fiber is replacing metal.
2014/12/6 5:17 This morning, Hikone saw its first snowfall this season, a week earlier than usual. And Yogo in Nagahama got dumped with 25.5 cm of snow.
2014/12/8 13:17 Shigaraki Kogen Railway’s “Santa Train” is making 2 roundtrips daily until Dec 24. (Tanuki photo by Jamie Thompson.) http://t.co/J3CRqpS15i
2014/12/10 9:40 In Ryuo, since this afternoon, a man has been hanging from power lines after his motorized paraglider got caught. Rescuers are on the scene.
2014/12/11 6:25 Everyone in Japan has now heard of Ryuo thanks to a local 59-year-old male paraglider who got stuck 3 hr yesterday. Made national headlines.
2014/12/17 16:40 Under new ownership, Pieri Moriyama shopping mall reopened on Dec. 17 with many new shops attracting a large crowd. http://t.co/WVTzAjEMOP
2014/12/18 14:43 I welcome any English sites/blogs dedicated to Shiga if they are serious about it. They can understand how much passion+work is required.
2014/12/18 14:48 Here’s a photo blog in English about hiking. Dave has hiked on most of Shiga’s trails. A good photographer to boot. http://davegeographic.blogspot.jp/
2014/12/18 14:58 If you’re into small aquatic animals, see Dr. Robin Smith’s page about ostracods (seed shrimps) in Lake Biwa: http://www.lbm.go.jp/smith/index.html
2014/12/18 15:08 More snow is expected tonight especially in northern Shiga. Also beware of the flu going around. What a dump of snow Nagoya got today.
2014/12/19 11:08 Otsu Mayor Naomi Koshi stated that the Lower House elections on Dec. 14 were unnecessary, and they should instead focus on the economy.
2014/12/19 11:16 Shiga Prefectural police worker in his 30s nabbed using his cellphone to snap upskirt photos of a woman in a Higashi-Omi bookstore in Sept.
2014/12/19 11:28 Takashima’s incinerated refuse is still stuck in the city as their old dump in Kobe continues to reject their waste even with lower dioxins.

To Shiga history January-March 2015

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