Thursday, May 19, 2011

Yamaguchi Prefecture

Wow, there is just a little over two months left before Michelle and I pack up and head back to the states. Time is a weird thing - it feels like we've been here for an eternity on one hand and just a couple weeks on the other. Now that I'm in a nostalgic mood though I am trying to blog about a lot of the different things that made our time here special: where we live, the places we frequent, memorable experiences etc. First up is our prefecture!

山口県, or Yamaguchi Ken (Prefecture), is where our island Oshima is located and has been my and Michelle's home away from home for the past year. To be blunt, Yamaguchi is in the sticks. Fortunately though we have the main transportation arterial that connects all of Japan running through our ken. The Sanyo line, consisting of local, super express and shinkansen (bullet) trains, cuts right through Yamaguchi, and can take you quickly from Fukuoka in Kyushu all the way up to Tokyo in just a couple hours. The main vehicular highway crosses Yamaguchi as well. So while Yamaguchi is very rural, we can at least get out and about to Fukuoka or Hiroshima, two of Japan's major cities, pretty easily; other people in harder to reach prefectures aren't so lucky.

Yamaguchi Prefecture - the southernmost prefecture on Japan's biggest island of Honshu

The cities and districts of Yamaguchi Prefecture

The flag of Yamaguchi Prefecture - I have no idea what it means or stands for

Unfortunately (but understandably), Yamaguchi Ken is really just pass over country to tourists and to most Japanese. On the shinkansen you usually stop in Hiroshima (in Hiroshima Prefecture), and then shoot right through Yamaguchi without stopping - most people are asleep as they blow past all of the small rural farming villages and towns on their way to Fukuoka, the biggest city in Kyushu. Tyler and I went through Yamaguchi Prefecture twice on our trip to Japan back in 2006 on the shinkansen and I'm pretty sure we were asleep and didn't bat an eye as we passed both times. The prefecture has actually played a very important role in Japan's history, and a number of prime ministers and important historical figures have come from Hagi, Yamaguchi City and Shimonoseki, the prefecture's main cities. Nowadays though it's known to most Japanese as the 田舎 (inaka), or backwaters. The population of the prefecture is on constant decline, and most young people bolt immediately after high school for the cosmopolitan cities of Hiroshima and Fukuoka nearby. As for the economy, there is a lot of farming and some manufacturing in the bigger cities - Hitachi actually makes all of Japan's shinkansen bullet trains in the ken - but thats about it as far as major industries go. For tourism there isn't much either. Iwakuni's "Kintaikyo" is famous (see my prior post Hanami), but it doesn't provide a big draw for people residing outside of Yamaguchi.

One upcoming event should bring some much needed attention to the prefecture. The annual Japan National Sports Festival will be held in Yamaguchi Prefecture in 2011. This sports tournament is the most important domestic tournament in Japan. It is held each year in a different prefecture, so each prefecture only gets to host it once every 47 years. We have been inundated with advertising for the event since we arrived here. The event's mascot, Chororu (a comedic take on a famous word of Yamaguchi Prefecture's dialect - similar to a mascot for an event in Texas being named "Howdy"), has been everywhere. The character himself is supposed to represent the two kanji that make up Yamaguchi - 山 (yama), meaning mountian, is represented by his green hair, and 口 (guchi), meaning mouth, is represented by his white block face. The tournament will be held in October (the basketball tourney is only an hour or so away from us!) and this is one thing that Michelle and I are totally bummed about missing.

An advertisement for the upcoming National Japan Sports Festival and Chororu, the mascot for the games.

Tiffany, Michelle and I with Chororu after the Oshima Road Race back in February (it's a little late but Tiffany wrote a great post about the race that can be found here)
Michelle and I have made a point to try to do and see everything in the ken, and we both feel like we have succeeded. We have visited just about every city and have met and become friends with our fellow ALTs and many of the Japanese people living here. We even have hiked the 35km (21 mile) mountain pass from Hagi to Yamaguchi City (the capital of Yamaguchi ken)! So even though Yamaguchi is the Japan equivalent of rural Mississippi (no offense to Mississippians), Michelle and I have really grown to love it. It's picturesque mountains and rice farms are truly a sight to behold, and you get a much better taste of rural and traditional Japanese culture than you would in one of Japan's more populated prefectures. Life moves a little slower here in Yamaguchi, and it has been a nice break from our hectic city life back in the States.

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