Thursday, November 15, 2007

Niigata Mayor to Tokyo Diet-men: "Stop arguing and vote citizens relief 's laws!"

"Many bills on relief measures to our region [some places devastated by earthquakes] are delayed at Japanese Parliament and these laws would be very useful to local municipalities but Tokyo discussions on grand coalition or international issues delay everything"! Mayor Akira Shinoda is angry and he knows how to be straight! He does not hesitate to criticize Tokyo Representatives and party leaders of the Diet for their never ending political games that are painful for local citizens.

Economy, environment, international standard of Japan, Mr. Shinoda also points at the lack of serious investigations made after the nuclear power plant accident or Kashiwazaki after the July deadly earthquake which caused a fire and a small radioactive leak at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa. No one was injured at the plant, UN inspectors said there were no major safety risks. But its operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., plans to keep the facility closed at least until the end of the year for checks. Locally, people do not hesitate to say that there were nuclear leaks indeed, caused by the violence of the earthquake built at short distance of a geological fault. Where is the help, locals claim?

Akira Shinoda, Niigata mayor, was a journalist of Niigata Nippo and describes the City as a "port city, opened to comments and criticisms". So is the impression of "grandeur d'ame" (generous soul) when one looks at the City from the top of its convention center Toki Messe which will welcome the G8 Labour ministers meeting next spring. A gorgeous sharp razor alike skyscraper, where offices and exhibitions and a Nikko hotel stand, shining with glass walls reflecting on the sea of Japan, near by.

On April 1, 2007, Niigata City was reborn as the first government ordinance-designated city on the Japan Sea side of Honshu, the main island of Japan. Earlier, it completed the merger of 13 neighboring cities, towns and villages and became the largest city on the Japan Sea coast with a population of 810,000. A new responsibility for his mayor Akira Shinoda:

From the top of the building one can see the Sado island at a few nautical miles from the Niigata harbor, and the whole 720 square km of the new municipality, including in the south east, the factories and industrials compounds.

Mayor Shinoda san never gives up criticisms if needed; his comments to the bureaucracy of Tokyo are sharp too: "Far from the local challenges, one of our problems, Mayor Shinoda says, is to attract more people and wealth to revitalize the city economical activity. Also the tax and fiscal policies do not fit realities. For instance it would be good for local cities like Niigata if big corporations whose plants and headquarters are located in the rural municipalities would pay the taxes here and not in Tokyo where they have a building". Here too the issue of subsidies attracts lots of attention. "Redistribution is necessary to fight disparity, Deputy Mayor Hiroo Wada said at a dinner held on a "bateau mouche" cruising on the Niigata river. "Tokyo needs to to review tax system of major corporations which settled in Niigata."

May 2008 will be the G-8 Labor meetings held at Niigata and an excellent opportunity was given to offer me a myriad of curiosity, economical, touristic, cultural. Here are w few spots I enjoyed. Background now thanks to FPCJ: "Niigata and Yokohama jointly bid to host the G8 Summit in 2008, which they named “Old port cities Summit”, and in May this year Niigata was appointed to host the G8 Labor Ministers’ Meeting. “I wished we could have hosted the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting here in Niigata. On the shores of the Japan Sea, they could have discussed on the policies for the emerging East Asian countries as well as the plan to make the Japan Sea a symbol of peace” Niigata Mayor Akira Shinoda said frankly.

However, he shows his strong commitment to make the Labor Ministers’ Meeting fruitful as he is keen to study such national issues as designing policies for more employment, NEETs, and pay raises as a result of the economic revival. He also proposes to give the Meeting a special something particular from Niigata, by stressing, for example, the roles played by the local construction firms in terms of the recovery from the Chuetsu Earthquake. The G8 Labor Ministers’ Meeting will be the first major international event since Niigata became a government designated city with a population of 810,000. Here are some of the most impressive people and places I discovered with the help of the Foreign Press Center in Japan (FPCJ) and of the public relations division head, Keiko Shiiya san, Enomoto san and Yamaguchi san.

Toki convention center (Toki Messe)

The G8 Labor Ministers’ Meeting is scheduled to take place from May 11 to 13, 2008 at Toki Messe, Niigata International Convention Center, as its main venue. This meeting is the curtain raiser of a series of the ministerial meetings that will be held in provincial cities and is expected to play a role to boost the G8 Summit. Through the Summit, Niigata City intends to publicize its strengths, such as the industry, tourism resources, and food culture

Port of Niigata (East District)

As one of the five old ports of Japan (Hakodate, Yokohama, Kobe, Nagasaki, Niigata) that opened between the late 1850s and 1860s, the Port of Niigata opened in 1869 and commemorates its 140-year anniversary in 2009. In fact, it is one single international port on the Japan Sea side and in 2005 handled approx. 31.7 million tons of incoming and outgoing ocean freight. Having reached approx. 157, 484 TEU, it was also listed among Japan’s top ten ports in terms of the volume of containerized freight in 2005. Thanks to the emerging economies of East Asia, it increased by an average of 16.7% a year between 1997 and 2005. The well-serviced ocean shipping routes include China, South Korea, and Southeast Asia, in total eleven shipping routes are in use at present. In particular, there are seven voyages a week between Niigata and Pusan, a hub port in East Asia, and this “Pusan transship” has a potential to change the flow of Japan’s physical distribution. The Port of Niigata East District functions not only as an international container terminal but also as an energy, crude oil and LNG supply base. One recent problem is that many container ships are forced to anchor offshore as the volume of containerized freight continues to grow. It is necessary to develop additional facilities as soon as possible to cope with this growth. The tour will cover the Port of Niigata East District from the sea and feel the wave of future on the Japan Sea.

Niigata Central Wholesale Market "Eco-Market":

This reborn Central Wholesale Market, launched May 2007, is a collective market of vegetables, fish, and flowers with an area of approx. 270,000 square meters, the second largest in Japan in terms of site area.

In the fishery wing, there is a low temperature area, which is part of the “cold chain” to keep fish fresh, from the landing the catch through to the consumers’ table. Here in this storage the temperature is minus 55 degrees!

The market is equipped with two recycling facilities: a great number of white styrolfoam called “gyobako”, or fish boxes, used and disposed of in the market every day are collected, melted and recycled.

Imayo-tsukasa Shuzo Sake Brewery:

Founded in 1897, Imayo-tsukasa, meaning “governor of this age”, Shuzo is proud of its 110-year-long history of sake brewing using the local rice and water. It stubbornly produces sake from genuine rice with no alcohol added in the whole process of production.

The best rice suited to sake making is “Yamada-nishiki”, the well-known brand from Kansai region. However, Mr. Yoshitaro Yamamoto, the fourth generation kuramoto, or sake master, prefers the brewer’s rice produced in Niigata and is currently anticipating the emergence of “Koshi-tanrei”, which could be better than “Yamada-nishiki”.

Recently the local sake breweries and rice farmers are collaborating to develop a new brand of the best rice suited to sake making, and the “Koshi-tanrei” is not one of these. At the same time Mr. Yamamoto is worried about contamination of the local spring water and the decrease of snowfall in winter caused by global warming. I had a chance to visit an old sake brewery that was built in the time when much of sake produced in Niigata was sent to Hokkaido by trading vessels called Kitamae-sen in the pioneer days of the Edo period.

Geisha at the Ryotei Nabedyaya:

For every foreigner and Japanese alike, the world of the Geisha is entrancing. The costumes, the make up, the grace of their movements bewitch each of us. We had a wonderful opportunity to stay at the Ryotei of Mrs. Sumi Takahashi. Graduated from Kyoto Women University and daughter of well known Kyoto Tomiyo teahouse, she is the 6th generation of the Nabedyaya Ryotei, a "tres chic" restaurant. Mrs Takahashi also is member of the Niigata Chamber of Commerce & Industry and vice chair of the Women Association. Her establishment I heard is highly praised by exclusive and fortunate business executives, politicians and celebrities. I know why when I saw the dance and I decided to interview Aoi san and Ayame san about the secret world of Geisha...

Founded in 1846, at the end of the Edo period, the Nabedyaya, a time-honored old establishment in Niigata, has carried on the traditional cuisine and art, together with its elegance, started by its founder 160 years ago. With the Furumachi geisha, it gathered many admirers from the fields of literature and art. The three-story wooden building was listed for preservation as cultural asset by the Cultural Agency in 2000 and reflects the prosperous atmosphere from old “Minato machi, or seaport, culture. Furumachi is a noted geisha quarter in Niigata. In the past Furumachi was the one of the most prestigious geisha quarters, including Gion, Akasaka, and Shimbashi.

There were about 400 Furumachi geisha at the peak time, but there are only 30 these days. However, they have a variety of generations and the all, from young to old, belonging to the Japanese traditional dance school “Ichiyama-ryu”. The Ichiyama-ryu school, listed at the top of the intangible cultural assets by Niigata City, is an unusual school in that it was established in a provincial city and developed by itself in the same place for 120 years or more. With its highly appreciated artistic quality, it has contributed to the development of the Furumachi geisha quarter as well as the traditional dance world in Japanese culture.

Running the art of Geisha as well as the business of this delightful house requires energy and talents, silk and stick is the rules among Ryotei and Geisha school owners in Japan, I was impressed! As my working journey to Niigata ended, I could see the frank, direct attitude and generosity of the people of Niigata.

Not a surprise they welcomed a lot of people after the nightmares and miseries of world war II and Korean war, for instance, Koreans from the North and the South. I guess I have to come back to Niigata to hear more about these fascinating secrets between Japan and North and South Korea, and dramatic too, as in the Japanese abducted to Pyongyang. I shall tell you more later on...