By Graham Shelby

“When I tell people in Japan that I live in Kentucky,” says Kozo Saito, “they usually ask me about three things: bourbon, fried chicken and horse racing.”

Saito laughs at how widespread a few of Kentucky’s signature items have become, though he knows they only tell a small part of Kentucky’s story. (Imagine if the only things foreigners knew of life in Japan were sake, sushi and sumo.)  Saito is a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Kentucky (UK) and one of about 4,300 Japanese citizens who live in Kentucky. Some have come to study, others to work for Toyota, Hitachi, or one of more than 150 Japanese-owned businesses operating here. Many have discovered that Kentucky is filled with stories as well as places and events that offer visitors plenty of opportunities to make their own stories a little more interesting. Here are a few examples:

Mammoth Cave National ParkMammoth Cave

Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave is actually the longest known cave system on earth. More than 640 kilometers have been explored. Local legend says that the cave was discovered in the late 1700s by a hunter who chased a wounded bear into the cave’s opening near the Green River. In truth, Native Americans started using the cave about 4,000 years ago.

Today, visitors have a variety of ways to explore Mammoth Cave, including the Frozen Niagara Tour, a short (under 1 km) introduction to the natural, yet spectacular cave sculptures produced by the combination of water, stone, and time. The heartier explorers can lace up their hiking boots for the 6-hour, 8 km Wild Cave Tour, described on the park’s website as “extremely strenuous” and aimed at those who want to “feel the thrill of exploration (in) the starkly beautiful ‘wild’ areas” of Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave.


Horse racing may be the sport Kentucky is known for, but for many Kentuckians, basketball is their first sporting love. Mitsuyasu Hoshino works for the auditing firm KPMG and has lived in Kentucky since 1996. Of his Kentucky friends’ devotion to the game, he says, “Basketball is almost like a religion for them,” Drive down city streets or country roads and you’ll see countless hoops hanging in driveways, from lampposts and in public parks.

The state has no NBA team, so the UK and the University of Louisville teams play in sold-out arenas to more than 20,000 screaming fans, some of whom paint their faces in team colors (blue and white for Kentucky, red and black for Louisville). The two teams are rivals and regularly contend for the national college championship in an intense tournament held in the spring and nicknamed “March Madness.” When UK and Louisville play for the title, fans flood Kentucky’s sports bars, cheering the teams on, their collective spirits rising and falling with every bounce of the ball.

Bourbon Festival, Barrel Roll horizontalBourbon

The high concentration of limestone found in the water here is considered part of what makes Kentucky bourbon distinct. Kentucky produces 95 percent of the world’s bourbon, in some cases with help from Japan. Kirin owns Four Roses Distillery. Suntory recently acquired Maker’s Mark and Jim Beam. The small city of Bardstown is home to several distilleries and calls itself the Bourbon Capital of the World. In September, Bardstown hosts the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival, which is a popular event with Japanese who live in the area. The festival celebrates the drink that is so important to Kentucky’s culture and economy that it’s estimated there are more barrels of aging bourbon in the state (4.9 million) than people (4.3 million). 

Chicken Festival worlds largest fry pan

Fried Chicken

“Colonel” Harland Sanders actually grew up in Indiana but started his chicken business in a gas station in Southeast Kentucky in the 1930s. Every year, the small town of London celebrates the worldwide success of Kentucky Fried Chicken with a festival that boasts the “World’s Largest Skillet” (3.2 meters in diameter) as well as contests for eating, hunting for eggs, and crowing like a rooster.

The Kentucky Derby

Thunder Louisville Fireworks 01The actual Kentucky Derby only lasts about two minutes, but the festivities that surround the race last for two weeks – at least. The Kentucky Derby Festival begins with “Thunder Over Louisville,” one of the biggest fireworks shows in the U.S., grander and more colorful than many cities’ Fourth of July celebrations. The festival also includes a parade, an air show, a hot air balloon race, and parties galore.

More than 160,000 people gather at legendary Churchill Downs racetrack on the first Saturday in May to watch what’s known as the Run for the Roses. The day before Derby, known as Oaks Day, is a popular (and much cheaper) option for locals who want to enjoy the track. So many Louisvillians come to Churchill Downs on Oaks Day, in fact, that local school systems declared the day an annual school holiday and many businesses have found it’s best to put off important meetings until the following week.

There’s more to Kentucky, of course. The state song, “My Old Kentucky Home,” is known worldwide and often played, along with the U.S. national anthem, before basketball games and horse races. Kentucky’s most famous sons and daughters include world-renowned figures from Abraham Lincoln and Muhammad Ali to George Clooney and Jennifer Lawrence. The state is rich with rivers and lakes, wide open spaces and rolling hills. Mitsuyasu Hoshino says, “I like driving through the horse farms in the Versailles and Lexington area. They are just absolutely beautiful.”

And then, there are the people.

“Kentuckians are very open to Japanese,” says Noriko Okura, who attended a Shinnenkai celebration earlier this year at the Kentucky Governor’s Mansion. A doctoral student in education at Eastern Kentucky University, Noriko is originally from Osaka and she’s also spent time in New York City and Washington, DC. She says it took her a little time to make connections when she moved to Kentucky in 2009, but now, “The people here are like my family,” she says. “The friendships are very strong. I love Kentucky.”

Graham ShelbyGraham Shelby is a writer and speaker based in Kentucky. He spent three years teaching English in Fukushima Prefecture in the 1990s with the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. Since then, he’s written numerous essays about his experience in Japan, taught Japanese, led corporate workshops on cross-cultural communication, and performed English versions of mukashi banashi (folk tales) and kaidan (ghost stories) for thousands of students in schools across the U.S. His website is