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Izu Ōshima : Paradise Island

  • Posted by:
  • October 23, 2014

Izu Ōshima is just 45 minutes away from bustling Tokyo via a high-speed jet boat from Takeshiba Pier in Minato-ku, Izu Ōshima Island. A breathtaking retreat to paradise, it is the closest and largest island to Japan’s capital.

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Sunset over Izu Ōshima. | Ignat Gorazd

The 1923 Great Kantō earthquake that caused so much devastation  in Tokyo and the surrounding areas of Yokohama, Kanagawa, Shizuoka, and Chiba, started from deep beneath Izu Ōshima Island. The island is also notorious for being featured as the location where the popular fictional creature Godzilla was entombed by the Japanese government in the movie The Return of Godzilla and then again in the sequel, Godzilla vs. Biollante.  The island is most famous for Mt. Mihara (located at the center of  Izu Ōshima) and the island itself was featured in the novel and movie Ringu (Ring) and is considered to be a pivotal location to the story.

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Crater at Mt. Mihara. | Guilhem Vellut

Izu Ōshima Island faces the Izu Peninsula and Mt. Fuji.  It takes only a little over an hour to go around the entire island by car. The abundance of fauna and flora make the small island a scenic treasure as well as an ideal place to fish, swim, and sunbathe along the five beautiful shores of the popular black beaches. Mt. Mihara at the center of Izu Ōshima Island is an active volcano that last erupted in 1990,.  There are hiking trails and natural hot springs that visitors can also enjoy. Other island attractions that present the rich natural wonders of Izu Ōshima also include the Ōshima Island Park, Umi-no-Furusat,  the Camellia Festival, and Hanabi Festival.

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Yuno-hama beach. | Guilhem Vellut

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The Craft of Japanese Swordsmithing

  • Posted by:
  • October 20, 2014

Scene-de-forge-edo-p1000665Japanese samurai, the military nobility of medieval and early-modern Japan, have long captured the interest of many. The teachings of the samurai are an important aspect of Japanese culture and way of life. It isn’t difficult to be in awe of their strict adherence to their set of rules known as bushidō, their code of conduct, their mastery of martial arts, their unique armor, and their swords.

The samurai sword is commonly called a katana. It is known for its characteristic curved, single-edged, thin blade with a rounded or square guard and long grip so it can be held with both hands. It is known for its strength and incredibly sharp blade. The katana and other traditional Japanese blades are made with legendary Japanese swordsmithing techniques that involve labor-intensive bladesmithing processes unique to Japan.

Forging a blade. Print from an Edo period book. | Rama

katanaThe steel used in creating a katana is called tamahagane or “jewel steel,” produced from ironsand (sand with heavy concentrations of iron). The smelting process of transforming ironsand to kera (steel bloom from ironsand) is a tedious and rigorous. Forging the blade can take weeks and is considered a sacred art, accompanied by Shinto religious rituals and traditional processes. It involves several other master craftsmen with their own specialties in swordmaking such as  the smith, the smith’s apprentice, a polisher, a specialist for the edge, and a horimonoshi or engraver. Most of the blades are decorated with designs, grooves, and file markings, usually at the hilt of the sword. This is never supposed to be cleaned because it is meant to show how well the steel ages. Some of the more notable swordsmiths include:

Samurai katana with koshirae (ornate mounting) and shirasaya (plain wooden mount.). | Samuraiantiqueworld

Shintōgo Kunimitsu (新藤五国光) 13th century – considered the founder of the Soshu-den tradition that combined the knowledge and traditional methods from Yamashiro and Bizen. The oldest dated sword he created was from 1293.

MasamuneMasamune_Portrait (正宗) 1264–1343 – also known as Gorō Nyūdō Masamune, is considered Japan’s greatest swordsmith and was a student of Shintōgo Kunimitsu.  His swords are of superior quality and  possess remarkable beauty. Masamune is thought to have brought perfection to the art of “nie” where steel becomes crystalline structure resembling stars in the evening sky.

Hikoshirō Sadamune (相模國住人貞宗 ) 1298-1349 –  learned his craft from the  Sōshū school. He was originally from Gōshū (also known as Ōmi province) and he was a student of Masamune.

Portrait of Masamune.

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The Sakoku Years of Japan

  • Posted by:
  • October 16, 2014

The 17th to the 19th century saw Japan adopting a policy that isolated the whole country from the outside world. This long period of national isolation was called sakoku.  During sakoku no Japanese could leave the country on penalty of death, and very few foreign nationals were permitted to enter and trade with Japan.  Sakoku literally meant “chained country.”

Sakoku (鎖国) was a policy enacted by the Tokugawa shogunate (the last feudal Japanese military government)  under Tokugawa Iemitsu through several policies and edicts from 1633 to 1639 and had remained effective until 1853 when the Perry Expedition forcibly opened  Japan to Western trade. The rationale of the shogunate  behind the implementation of sakoku in Japan was to remove any religious and colonial influence, primarily from Portugal and Spain, considered a threat to the shogunate. Japan strictly traded with only five entities from four gateways:

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Matsumae Domain – located in Hokkaido, formerly known as Ezo, traded with the Ainu people.

Sō clan daimyo of Tsushima – had trade relations with Joseon Dynasty Korea.

Dutch East India Company – was permitted to trade in Nagasaki along with private Chinese traders.

Ryūkyū Kingdom – controlled by the Shimazu family daimyo of Satsuma Domain.

Commodore Perry’s second fleet. 

Dutch_tribute_embassy_to_EdoTrading between these entities was further divided in two: Group A included the Dutch and Chinese who fell under the jurisdiction of the Bafuku in Nagasaki, Group B included the Kingdoms of Korea and  Ryūkyū which dealt with the Satsuma (the Shimazu clan) and the  Tsushima (the Sō clan) domains.

Dutch tribute embassy to Edo. | Engelbert Kaempfer

The Convention of Kanagawa on 31 March 1854 established formal diplomatic relations between Japan  and the United States when Commodore Matthew Perry had the Shogun sign the Treaty of Peace and Amity. The United Kingdom also signed the Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty at the end of 1854, followed by treaties with other countries in the next few years.

The sakoku period is now a part of Japanese history, but the Hirado Dutch Trading House established by the Dutch East India Company dating back to 1609 is a reminder of the time when Japan closed its doors to the Westerners. It was once the only trading base that linked Japan to the West. There are a dozen buildings in this historical site. One of them is a stone warehouse considered the very first Western building in Japan, now a museum open to the public. The Hirado Dutch Trading House remains a lasting testament to the proud culture and history of the Japanese.

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Hirado Dutch Trading House. | 陳 ポーハン

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Riveting October Festivals in Japan

  • Posted by:
  • October 13, 2014

For most Japanese, religion is a combination of elements from various religions known as Shinbutsu shūgō (神仏習合 amalgamation of buddhas and kami).  In 1886, the Shinto and Buddhism Separation Order officially ended the syncretic practices of religion known to Japanese, but they are still observed. Though Shinto and Japanese Buddhism are officially considered two separate faiths, they are more of a single and rather complex religion. Aside from Shinto and Buddhism, some Japanese practice other minority religions such as Islam, Christianity Sikhism, and Hinduism.

Almost every shrine in Japan is revered with a celebration (matsuri), and countless shrines are all around the country. Most festivals are celebrated every year to honor a seasonal historic event or a shrine’s deity.  There are also other festivals that are not related to any religion yet are just as exciting.  Each month holds a celebration in Japan, and October has several festivals to look forward to.

Nagasaki Kunchioctfest2 –  a 3-day autumn festival with traditional and historical roots over 350 years old, held at Suwa Shrine. The festival is celebrated each year beginning on October 7. The highlight of the festival is the Hono-Odori  where different towns around the area take turns in performing traditional dances. Floats or Chinese boats on wheels add spectacle to the already impressive dance performances.

Nagasaki Kunchi float. | Julian

Marimo Matsurioctfest3 – an event for a cause: to conserve the endangered marimo algae of Lake Akano in Hokkaido.  It takes over 100 years just for 10 centimeters of natural marimo algae to grow. Lake Akano takes pride in having the largest in the world and is designated as Special Natural Monuments. The festival is usually held in early October for three days.  Lake Akano and marimo are a great part of the culture of the indigenous Ainu people of Japan. The ceremony observed in the conservation efforts are in strict accordance with Ainu traditions.

Marimo algae. | mobile_gnome

Kurama no Hi-Matsurioctfest1 – a festival held at Yuki-jinja Shrine in Kyoto every October 22.  The celebration involves the re-enactment of the scene where the deity of Kurama is received by the shrine. When evening arrives, watch fires called kagabiri are lit in front of the houses in the area. Festival goers also light their own pine torches and parade all night announcing the start of the matsuri. There are 3-meter tall watch fires along the streets and about 250 pine torches that light the streets. It’s truly a beautiful spectacle to behold.

Pine torch for the Kurama no Hi-Matsuri. | fry_theonly

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Japanese Supernatural Creatures to Look Out for on Halloween

  • Posted by:
  • October 9, 2014

As a country that has popularized cosplay, performance art, and wearing costumes and fashion accessories to look like a particular character, Japan is a natural at celebrating Halloween with just as much pomp. Japan has its own fair share of supernatural creatures, or yōkai, from stories passed on from one generation to the next.  There are creepy monsters, ghostly ghouls, and cursed crawlies that the Japanese believe to haunt the unaware. Here are some of Japan’s spooky creatures that you just may bump into on Halloween night:

Bakenekobakenebo (化け猫) – a cat that has become supernatural. Legends of the bakeneko’s existence are all over Japan. Cats’ general characteristics have contributed to the Japanese belief that they are magical—how their fur creates sparks when petted (noticed well before the cause was attributed to static energy), their ability to walk stealthily, how the pupils of their eyes change shape, their nocturnal ways, and other things that seem out of the ordinary.

SekienOni-hito-kuchi

Onihitokuchi (鬼一口) –  a one-eyed supernatural creature that kills then eats humans from “The Tales of Isle.” Stories of the Onihitokuchi were common at the time, most likely because the famines and disasters of that time took so many lives.

Tōfu-kozōMasasumi_Tofu-kozo (豆腐小僧) – this particular yōkai appears as a child carrying a tray of tofu. Tōfu-kozō is a popular supernatural creature that appears in several books during the Edo and Meiji period. Supposedly, they like tofu and are depicted in the senryū (Japanese short poetry) poems.

MikaribabaEitaku_Kotoosame (箕借り婆) –  a supernatural creature whose stories originated from the Kantō region. Mikaribaba is depicted as a one-eyed old woman who would visit people’s homes each year on the 8th day of the 2nd month and the 8th day of the 12th month of the lunar calendar. It would borrow human eyes and sieves. People would avoid leaving their homes on these days. They would also practice leaving a bamboo basket (zaru) on a tip of a bamboo stick at the edge of the roof to make it appear that the stitches in the basket are eyes that would draw the Mikaribaba away from the people inside.

 

 

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Wagyu: A Slice of Red Meat Heaven

  • Posted by:
  • October 6, 2014

Any carnivore would appreciate a big, fat, juicy slice of steak, a mouthwatering cheeseburger, or a slab of barbecued ribs smoked for hours and slathered with sauce.  Early American settlers had bountiful resources for meat, including beef. The renowned English writer Charles Dickens wrote about his visit to America, mentioning “no breakfast was breakfast” without a T-bone steak. Beef has always played a large role in the American diet. According to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in the 2014 Cattle Inventory (as of July 1, 2014), the total U.S. beef consumed was 25.5 billion pounds. That’s a lot of beef!

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In Japan, cattle were introduced as work animals in the second century, used in the fields when planting rice.  Japan, as an island nation, included smaller regions with an isolated breeding process. The Japanese developed and maintained distinct qualities in their meat that greatly differed from breeds of cattle in other parts of the world.

Dry aged wagyu. | Jun Selta

beef1The Shogun, one of the military governors of Japan from 1192 to 1867, closed cattle herding and banned the consumption of meat from any four legged animal from 1635 through 1838. During the late 18th century, Japanese cattle were interbred with other European breeds such as Shorthorn, Devon, and Brown Swiss. Wagyu (和牛 Wagyū) which literally means “Japanese cow” are several breeds of cattle prized for their organic unsaturated fat such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and marbling (intramuscular fat giving meat its marbled appearance). More marbling means more monounsaturated fats. There are four breeds of wagyu: Japanese Red, Japanese Shorthorn, Japanese Black, and Japanese Polled. These breeds lead to other strains of cattle. Kobe beef (神戸ビーフ Kōbe bīfu) is a cut of beef from the Tajima strain that are raised in Hyogo Prefecture.

Kobe beef. | Amy Ross

beef3The breeding of Japanese wagyu has very specific techniques in order to maintain bloodlines and quality. Apparently, massaging the cattle or adding sake to their feeds were observed. This was done not to add more flavor to its already intense essence, but rather to aid in the digestion and appetite of the cattle during humid seasons. Also, massaging may have been introduced to prevent muscle cramping for cattle that did not have enough land to walk around in smaller farms.

However you prefer your beef, whether sashimi, shabu-shabu, tepanyaki, steak, ground, sliced, roasted, fried, with rice,  fries, or on a bun, you haven’t completed your culinary experience yet if you haven’t tried wagyu beef.

Grade 6 wagyu ribeye. | Daniel Go

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Sake: Japanese Wine

  • Posted by:
  • October 2, 2014

Sake, or rice wine, is a Japanese alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice.  Japanese culture considers sake to be more than just a drink to enjoy. Sake is an important part of Japanese culture—it is a celebratory drink in almost every defining moment of a person’s life, from birth to honoring someone at death.  Sake has also influenced Japan’s culinary history, is an important Japanese heritage, and is an integral part in truly getting to know the country and its people.

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The earliest reference to alcohol in Japan is recorded in the 3rd-century Chinese text The Book of Wei in the Records of the Three Kingdoms, where it speaks of Japanese drinking and dancing. Sake was also mentioned several times in Japan’s earliest known historical writings, the Kojiki, compiled in 712 CE.  The Asuka period (538 to 710) documents true sake as being the dominant alcohol of that time. True sake is made from rice, water, and kōji mold (Aspergillus oryzae) and has very low potency. During the Heian period (794 to 1185 CE), sake was used for court festivals, drinking games, and religious ceremonies. The Japanese government, monopolized the production of sake for many years but in the 10th century, shrines and temples began to brew sake and slowly began to be the center of sake production for the next 500 years. The Tamon-in-Diary, written by the abbots of the Tamon-in (temple) from 1478 to 1618, records detailed techniques in their brewing process, from pasteurization to adding the various ingredients in the stages of the fermentation process.

Sake bottles. | halfrain

sake2The 16th century saw the technique of distillation of sake in the Kyushu district from Ryukyu called “Imo-sake” which was sold at the central market in Kyoto. During the 18th century, Isaac Titsingh (a Dutch surgeon, scholar, merchant-trader, and ambassador) and Engelbert Kaempfer  (a German naturalist and physician), both spent time in Japan and published their observation in the brewing process of sake, which was widely circulated all over Europe at the time.

 Sake barrels. | coniferconifer

sake3The 20th century brought about technological advancements in the brewing techniques of sake. The Japanese government even opened a research institute on sake-brewing in 1904. Today, sake is renowned all around the world and sake breweries can be found in China, South America, Southeast Asia, North America, and Australia. Some breweries prefer using the older methods of producing sake to retain the taste and flavor of traditional sake. In Japan, the 1st of October is the official Sake Day (日本酒の日). Kampai!

Nigorizake. | Luigi Anzivino

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Remarkable Bridges of Japan

  • Posted by:
  • September 29, 2014

As civilization advanced through the years, bridges became more and more important in connecting lands that were separated by bodies of water. The very first bridges were natural and as simple as a tree trunk that had fallen across a stream. Then, crude bridges were made by man using cut wooden logs or stones that had very little support.  Many bridges today are magnificent architectural wonders that serve more than getting you from one place to another; they are also part of a nation’s cultural heritage.

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Japan has several beautiful bridges, from historical older ones to the awe-inspiring modern bridges that pay tribute to the cultural stages of Japan from its early roots to its emergence as one of the most advanced countries of the world. Here are some of Japan’s beautiful bridges:

Ikeda Bridge (池田矼 Ikeda-bashi ), a unique bridge of Ryūkyū limestone made sometime in 1711–1715 during the Shōtoku era. The existence of the bridge was documented in 1727 in the Diary of the Yousei Age, the Era of the Yongzheng Emperor. It is a 3-meter wide, 10-meter long bridge located at the mouth of Sakita River in Miyakojima, Okinawa Prefecture.  It was designated a Prefectural Historical Site in 1977.

Ikeda Bridge. | アラツク

Hōrai Bridge bridge3(蓬莱橋 Hōrai-bashi), a wooden walking bridge constructed in 1879. Located in Shimada, Shizuoka Prefecture over the Ōi River, it was registered in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s longest walking bridge in 1997, at 897 meters long.

Hōrai Bridge. | Ken Funakoshi

Tokyo Rainbow Bridgebridge1, officially known as “Tokyo Wan Renraku-kyo” (Tokyo Bay Connector Bridge), is a rainbow-shaped bridge over Tokyo Bay. It is a modern 798-meter suspension bridge that runs from Shibaura Pier to the Odaiba waterfront development in Minato Ward. The bridge is illuminated from sunset to midnight, giving off an almost ethereal beauty for anyone viewing it.

Tokyo Rainbow Bridge. | Ririkuku

Seto-ohashi Bridgebridge3 refers to actually six bridges that span five islands: Iwaguro-jima Island, Hitsuishi-jima Island, Yo-shima Island, Wasa-jima Island, and Mitsugo-jima Island in the Seto Inland Sea, connecting Kojima in Okinawa Prefecture on Honshu to Sakaide in Kagawa Prefecture on Shikoku. It actually consists of three suspension bridges, two oblique suspension bridges, and one truss bridge. The construction of the connecting bridges took 40 years to build and stretches more than 13 kilometers.

Seto-ohashi Bridge. | Sora

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Sushi 101

  • Posted by:
  • September 25, 2014

Sushi (すし, 寿司, 鮨) usually consists of cooked rice mixed with vinegar and sweet sake, raw or cooked seafood, seaweed, and vegetables. The ingredients and presentation vary but sushi always contains rice. Raw fish or other types of meat that are sliced and served without rice is called sashimi. Sushi is often served with a daikon garnish, wasabi, soy sauce, and shredded ginger.

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There are several types of sushi depending on the ingredients and how it is prepared.  Sushi should be spelled with a z when a prefix is added, a common practice in the Japanese language and morphonology known as rendaku, such as observed in the names of the types of sushi, some of which are:

Makizushi – “rolled sushi,” a cylindrical shaped sushi wrapped in seaweed (nori), formed with a bamboo mat, and cut into six or eight pieces.

 Sushi. | KCP Flickr

Chirashizushi  – “scattered sushi,”  a bowl of sushi rice topped with various ingredients such as raw fish, vegetables, and garnishes. The ingredients used depends on the chef, customer, or what’s available in the region.

OshizushihakoOshizushi – “pressed sushi” originating from the Kansai region of Osaka where a wooden mold is used to form a block-shaped compact piece of sushi which is then cut into bite-sized pieces.

Oshizushi wooden press (oshizushihako.) | Chris 73

Inarizushi  – usually made with a thin slice of fried tofu shaped like a pouch and filled with sushi rice. It is named after the Shinto god Inari who is believed to be fond of fried tofu.

Narezushi – a type of traditional fermented sushi.

There is also the proper way to enjoy eating sushi. Here are some tips on sushi etiquette:

Make sure your hands are clean. Most restaurants in Japan provide hot, moist towels for this very reason because it is acceptable to eat sushi with your fingers aside from chopsticks. But it is always best to have clean hands when eating especially if you are sharing an order of sushi with friends.

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Wasabi is not mixed with soy sauce in the dipping bowl. The sushi chef usually already adds wasabi to the sushi. For some who prefer more wasabi, the proper way would be to add it directly on the fish. Putting a lot of wasabi is said to diminish the flavor of the fish.

Dip only the fish in the soy sauce, not the rice. If you are having nigirizushi, you can tip the piece onto its side to make it easier to dip just the fish. This also ensures that the piece won’t get too soaked in soy sauce and will stay together.

 Sushi assortment. | Alpha

Eat sushi in one bite, or two at the most. Notice all the different flavors that may be mild but come together in a burst of delicious freshness.
Refresh your taste buds with ginger in between bites.  Each type of fish has its own distinct flavor. In order to best savor each individual ingredient, you can cleanse your palate to prepare your taste buds for the next delectable bite.

Learn how to eat sushi properly with this YouTube video by Munchies:

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Click image or here: http://youtu.be/auLmekEsaak

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KCP Student Colette Kinder Takes Us Around Kasai

  • Posted by:
  • September 22, 2014

One of KCP’s dormitories is in Kasai City, and KCP student Colette Kinder stayed there during her time in Japan. Here are just a few of her many photos of the dorm and the Kasai area. Check these out!

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My Kasai dorm room desk. There is lots of storage for books and supplies. However, that didn’t stop me from keeping my desk a mess.

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View from the dorm’s staircase. These roads are usually busy, but nowhere near as noisy as any city in America. Directly across the street is Mos Burger, a super delicious hamburger chain.

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The washers are at the bottom, and the dryers are on top. Even if you don’t know Japanese, they are very easy to figure out. The washers are free, and the dryers are only 100 yen ($1) per 45 minutes.

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A park near Kasai Station. A nice detour if you don’t feel like going home right away.

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View from inside Kasai Station. It’s on the Tokyo Metro Tozai Line, so you can easily get just about anywhere in the prefecture from here without too many transfers. You are also close to Chiba prefecture, home of Tokyo Disneyland!

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View from outside the station. Kasai is a great balance between rural small-town Japan, and busy Tokyo city.

 

For more of Colette’s photos, visit KCP Flickr.

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