• Explaining the essentials of Buddhist teachings to tourists in English would seem to be a new calling for monks at a famous pilgrimage center in western Japan. One of those rising to the challenge is Nobuhiro Tamura. He is among the monks who attend the burgeoning number of foreign visitors to Mt. Koya, a World Heritage Site with a history of over 1,200 years, where he leads them on night treks through a sacred forest and offers meditation classes in English. One of the main attractions for the visitors are overnight stays at "shukubo," temple lodgings originally built for monks and worshippers at the Japanese headquarters of the Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism founded by monk Kukai. Not all monks appreciate the influx of foreign visitors, citing language difficulties, while others who are more welcoming feel the need to spell out the dos and don'ts of temple life to their guests. Tamura, who works at Ekoin temple in the central area of the mountain, saw the need to enlighten visitors in English after seeing a surge in foreign guests. Mt. Koya, along with other temples and pilgrimage routes of the Kii mountain range in western Japan, was listed as a World Heritage Site in 2004. "There was a sharp increase in the number of foreign visitors. Those I talked to were looking forward to stepping into Buddhist culture and tradition," he said in a recent interview. Tamura, who studied at a language school in Britain, started producing English translations of meditation programs held daily at the temple's shukubo. Sitting in front of foreign lodgers, he teaches them how to calm their minds and breathe rhythmically. The secluded temple complex on Mt. Koya in Wakayama Prefecture was established by Kukai, who is also known as Kobo Daishi. It forms the start and end point of the Shikoku Pilgrimage -- a multi-site pilgrimage of 88 temples associated with the famous monk. Mt. Koya, known in Japanese as Koya-san, was given three stars in 2009 by the Michelin Green Guide, which evaluates tourist sites. The National Geographic Traveler also selected it in its list of 20 destinations to visit in 2015-- the only destination chosen from Japan. The number of foreign visitors to Mt. Koya's 52 temples that accept lodgers has nearly tripled in the three years since 2013, according to the Koyasan Shukubo Association, which offers suggestions to visitors on where to stay. Some temples, however, find it difficult to accept visitors from overseas due to the language barrier, leading them to think that they cannot meet the requests by the lodgers, said the association. But with increasing media exposure and recommendations on social media, the tourist rush isn't going to die down any time soon. Including Tamura, Ekoin has three monks who speak English. In addition, the temple has placed an English booklet in each room explaining temple etiquette as well as the history and teachings of the faith. "There were times when foreign visitors walked inside the temple with their shoes on, not knowing it's against Japanese custom," says Tamura. "But after we made the booklet, we haven't had these problems." At night, he often leads a tour to the Okuno-in, the site of the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. Some 200,000 tombstones line the trail to his resting place, where followers of the faith believe the sage continues his meditations to this day. "Do you know Kobo Daishi? He is a Japanese monk and the founder of (this school of) Buddhism. We believe that he is not dead and he is still there in eternal meditation, as he has been for more than a thousand years. We're going to see him tonight," Tamura says as he leads dozens of people along the trail. He makes several stops en route to explain various Buddhist precepts and to answer questions. When the group arrives at the mausoleum, Tamura asks the hikers to close their eyes and come up with one wish, while he chants a Buddhist sutra. "Many people (from abroad) ask me about my life as a monk because they have never spoken to one before." The questions range from how to become a monk, to whether monks can get married. "I am grateful that people are interested, and it is my job to answer their questions," Tamura says. "I always try to explain to foreign visitors as thoroughly as possible so they can gain an understanding of and a familiarity with Buddhist teachings, here on Mt. Koya." Alison Weber, a 54-year-old visitor from Melbourne, Australia, travels to Mt. Koya several times a year as part of a group walk she organizes. "Koyasan is not just a tourist attraction -- we can experience many things here like meditation and the morning services. Nobu (Tamura) explains everything well and it's easy to understand," Weber said. ==Kyodo
    2017.05.26 | Wakayama
  • Japan's long-selling popular dress-up doll Licca-chan has proved to be a strong tourist magnet supporting reconstruction of Fukushima Prefecture from the 2011 nuclear and earthquake-tsunami disasters. The beloved doll in the form of an 11-year-old schoolgirl, which first went on sale in 1967, is featured in a theme park in the rural town of Ono that the doll's maker Tomy Co. opened in 1993. During Japan's Golden Week holidays in early May, Licca-chan Castle was packed with families and fans of what is often touted as the Japanese version of the Barbie doll. The theme park is the embodiment of a dream by Yasuta Sato, Tomy founder and a native of neighboring Iwaki city, to "show children the process of manufacturing." The castle not only showcases dolls from the original to the current fourth-generation versions but also allows visitors to observe how craftsman implant hair and color the doll. After passing through a newly built garden commemorating the 50th anniversary of the doll, visitors are welcomed by a life-size Licca-chan. Costumes are available for both adult and child visitors and some parents and children even wear matching dresses. Chieko Aizawa, a 58-year-old woman who came to the castle with her granddaughter from Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, said she looked out for a Licca-chan doll of her "own generation." The walls on the second floor of the building are filled with visitors' messages encouraging people to overcome the 2011 disasters such as "Stay strong, Fukushima," and "Our hearts are with you." "At the time of the disaster, we were very worried about what would happen next," said Yoshino Hakata, a 48-year-old staffer at the theme park.  After the nuclear crisis, the castle, located around 40 kilometers from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant, was not designated by the government as belonging to an evacuation zone. It therefore resumed operation about 50 days after the accident, but the number of visitors drastically fell to around 30,000 from some 100,000 a year, with many inquiring about radiation effects from the disaster. To make visitors feel safe, the theme park set up an indoor play area and posted radioactive levels around the facility every day on a blog. Thanks to such efforts, the number of annual visitors has recovered to about 80,000. "I am helped by children's smiles. I feel rewarded for doing this," said Hakata. The castle had been strongly tied to the town even before the earthquake and nuclear disaster. In 1993, Licca-chan was appointed as the "princess ambassador" for revitalizing the town with its ageing population. In front of the facility, illumination events have been held every year on a road named after the doll. Following the nuclear crisis, the park opened its facility free of charge so that local children who were deprived of safe places to play could come to the site. Licca-chan and her "family members" were also given special residence certificates by the town. Those making donations to the town under the "furusato nozei" hometown tax scheme can now select gifts including a Licca-chan doll in a pink dress. The gifts have proved popular, with only 45 dolls left as of Monday out of up to 500 gifts prepared since May 3. The national tax scheme allows people to make tax-deductible contributions to a prefectural or municipal government of their choice, usually for a gift in return. "Licca-chan is an indispensable icon for the town. We want her to play active roles in various places," said Yasuhide Akasaka, deputy head of the town's industrial promotion. The petite doll is named Licca Kayama but has become better known as Licca-chan, with a suffix attached in Japanese denoting endearment, usually to a baby or young girl. ==Kyodo
    2017.05.25 | Fukushima
  • Matsumoto Castle in central Japan is more vulnerable to earthquake than previously thought and requires work to strengthen its resistance, officials of the city where the national treasure is located said Thursday. A recent earthquake resistance test has found that the castle's main tower could fall in the event of a quake measuring upper 6 or stronger on the Japanese seismic scale of 7, according to the officials of Matsumoto city's education board. The test results showed the resistance levels at some parts of the main tower, or tenshu, are insufficient if the castle is hit by a quake of this scale -- nearly as powerful as the one that triggered a catastrophic tsunami in northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011. The city in Nagano Prefecture will begin working shortly on enhancing quake-resistance structures of the castle and improving evacuation plans involving the major sightseeing spot. Matsumoto Castle, which is believed to have been built more than 400 years ago, drew about 990,000 visitors in fiscal 2016 through last March. The last large-scale repair and maintenance work on the castle was conducted in 1950-1955. ==Kyodo
    2017.05.19 | Nagano
  • The new Nemo & Friends SeaRider attraction at Tokyo DisneySea in Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture, is shown to reporters on May 8, 2017, ahead of its opening to the public on May 12. Oriental Land Co. invested about 5 billion yen for the new attraction that allows visitors to explore the marine world of the animation film "Finding Nemo" and its sequel "Finding Dory." (Kyodo) ==Kyodo
    2017.05.09 | Chiba
  • A theme park in Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido is in desperate need of ninja to satisfy a growing number of foreign visitors. The Noboribetsu Date Jidaimura, located near the famous Noboribetsu hot spring resort, holds ninja action shows that have proved so popular among tourists from abroad that it needs more actors to play the feudal mercenaries. The park, featuring houses styled after the Edo period (1603-1868), hopes to double the number of ninja shows it puts on from the current four a day, but it is difficult to do so with just eight actors and the physical nature of the job. "I wake up in the morning and my back and knees hurt," said 42-year-old Toshiyuki Jimbo. In a show held inside the Ninja House in mid-April, four "ninjas" showed off their combat skills, fighting with swords while rolling on the ground to dodge attacks. Inside the 300-seat auditorium it was standing room only and the audience, including many Chinese, threw coins to the stage in satisfaction after the 20-minute show. The park, which attracted some 780,000 visitors in its opening year in 1992, saw the number drop to roughly 75,000 in fiscal 2005. But the number has since bounced back and hit 315,000 in fiscal 2015 thanks to a surge in visitors from other Asian countries. In the face of the growing demand for ninja shows, the park has taken various approaches to recruit actors, including holding bus tours targeting drama students and releasing online video clips showing ninja actors talking about the joy of their work. The efforts have paid off to some extent, with the park succeeding in recruiting three women in the fiscal 2017 round of recruitment, although they still need to be trained for three years or longer to be considered fully fledged. The park plans to bring in freelance actors during busy seasons, but hopes to recruit more actors to resolve the shortage. "We welcome those who love ninjas and have experience in sports," said Keiji Yamada, 60, who is in charge of the shows at the park. "You do not have to be able to do a backflip." ==Kyodo
    2017.05.04 | 
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