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Yatsuhashi: The Eight–Planked Bridge of Japanese Gardens

  • Posted by:
  • August 24, 2015

Some Japanese gardens have an intriguing type of bridge made from eight narrow wooden planks forming a zigzag pattern. These unique bridges are called yatsuhashi, meaning “eight bridges.” They are commonly used to cross shallow marshes or ponds with beautiful iris flowers. The yatsuhashi bridge’s name comes from the Heian period collection of poems and narratives, or an Uta monogatari (literally “poem-tale”), The Tales of Ise.

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The Tales of Ise is a collection of 125 sections combining poems and prose mostly totaling 209 poems. The exact date it was written is not clear. The main character is suggested to be Ariwara no Narihira (825-880).  Some 30 poems from The Tales of Ise are featured in the Kokin Wakashū (Collection of Japanese Poems of Ancient and Modern Times).

A yatsuhashi bridge. | Rosa Say

A part in The Tales of Ise speaks of a young aristocrat who chances upon a place called Yatsuhashi (Eight Bridges) where a river divides into eight different channels, each spanned by a bridge. The central character of the Tales of Ise, Ariwara no Narihira, is deeply enthralled by the beautiful irises close to the bridge. He then composes a simple poem of five lines, each line beginning with the Japanese word for iris. This immortalized the association of irises with yatsuhashi bridges.

The melancholy poem echoes his deep longing for his wife whom he has left behind in the capital:

から衣 きつゝなれにし つましあれば はるばるきぬる たびをしぞ思

Karagoromo / kitsutsu narenishi / tsuma shi areba / harubaru kinuru / tabi o shi zo omou

I have a beloved wife / familiar as the skirt / of a well-worn robe / and so this distant journeying / fills my heart with grief.

byobu

Japanese folding screen depicting yatsuhashi. | Kōrin Ogata

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More Japanese Street Foods to Enjoy!

  • Posted by:
  • August 20, 2015

Many countries boast of their unique kinds of street food. Sampling various street food from a particular place will give you a taste of their authentic traditional cuisine.

Street food is usually ready to eat food sold in a street or public area by a hawker or a vendor from a booth or food cart that can be packed up easily at closing time.  In Japan, street food is commonly found at the many festivals that take place all year round and at other busy spots. The types of food sold are often times regional and are easy to eat on the go.

We previously wrote about delicious Japanese street food. Here are some more mouthwatering street foods to look out for when visiting Japan:

Yakisoba4629100342_0867e02c2e_z –  it first made its debut in food stalls in Japan in the early 20th century and probably originated from Chinese fried noodles. Yakisoba noodles are made from wheat flour and may include ingredients pork, cabbage, carrots, onions, and oyster sauce. The array of condiments like seaweed powder (aonori), fish flakes (katsuobushi), Japanese mayonnaise, and pickled ginger (beni shoga), adds to the distinct flavor of yakisoba.

Yakisoba. | Richard Lee

4334350864_93f92623f3_zShioyaki –  the term shioyaki means salt-grilled in Japanese. It is a traditional method of grilling fish, beef, or poultry in Japan. Salt is rubbed all over the surface of the fish or meat and left to flavor before being cooked over hot coals.

Shioyaki. | David Z

Rice burger2203106611_b9f7f3dfd8_z –  it is a variation of your typical hamburger only instead of bread for a bun, a rice burger uses compressed rice cakes. It was first introduced by the Japanese fast food chain MOS Burger in 1987 and has quickly spread to other Asian countries. It has become a familiar sight at festivals and where Japanese street food stalls are found.

Rice burger. | LWYang

Onigiri4275496724_10b21d2cee_z –  a popular Japanese snack made from white rice and molded into triangular or oval shapes. It is filled with anything salty or pickled.

Onigiri. | Janine

Taiyaki3230386143_3466213b45_z – a pancake shaped like a fish, with a sweet red bean paste filling commonly made with adzuki beans.  Other types of filling are custard, cheese, chocolate, and sweet potato.

Taiyaki. | bass_nroll

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Motonosumi Inari shrine and its magnificent 123 torii

  • Posted by:
  • August 17, 2015

Nagato City in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Japan, was only founded on 31 March 1954. It includes the smaller towns of Fukawa, Misumi, Yuya, Heki, Senzaki, and Kayoi, as well as Omijima island. Nagato City has an estimated population of 37,998.  Nagato remains peaceful and quaint as if it exists in an era long gone. Within this picturesque city lies one of the country’s most beautiful shrines, Motonosumi Inari Shrine.

Perhaps Motonosumi Inari Shrine’s most distinct feature that draws so many visitors all year round is its unique 123 vermillion shrine gates (torii) that stretch over 328 feet along a beautiful hilly landscape overlooking the Japan Sea. The contrasting colors of the greenery and the gates create a magnificent view.

This YouTube video by Prepare for Travel offers a visual tour of Motonosumi Inari Shrine:

motonosumi

Click image or here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Y5G5Xl1X9w

Motonosumi Inari Shrine is home to the sacred spirits that originally came from Taikodani Inari Shrine in the neighboring Shimane Prefecture and was shared with Motonosumi Inari Shrine. As the story goes, there was a deity that came in the form of a white fox and appeared in a dream of a local fisherman. The deity told the fisherman to build him a shrine in the area. It was believed that praying to the deity could result in all kinds of favors being granted such as a bountiful catch, finding a soul mate, having a baby, success in business, a safe journey, and so on.

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Screengrab from Prepare for Travel’s video.

From inside them, the 123 shrine gates of Motonosumi Inari Shrine resemble a tunnel. Aside from the numerous torii that make Motonosumi Inari unique, there is also the shrine’s offertory box. Most shrines have their offertory boxes easily located on the ground. At Motonosumi Inari Shrine, the offertory box is located at the top of the tall shrine gate at the entrance of the path to Motonosumi Inari. To make an offering, you have to have good aim by throwing your offering and making sure it goes in the offertory box. Once you get your offering in, it is believed your wish will come true.

You can also try catching the “Ryugu no Shiofuki” (dragon palace geyser) if you walk towards the ocean past the torii. It’s a unique phenomenon where waves break against a hole in the cliff, creating compressed air that makes the water shoot up into the air reaching as high as almost 99 feet from autumn to winter. The seawater shooting at these enormous heights are said to resemble a dragon soaring in the skies.

Check out this YouTube video of Ryugu no Shiofuki by JBJAPON:

dragon

Click image or here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4hEQtQDZ6Wc

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Amazing Japanese Toilets

  • Posted by:
  • August 13, 2015

Ytoilet1our derriere will sure know pampering with the elaborate toilets found in Japan. The bidet toilet installed in at least 72% of Japanese households is the current state of the art Western-style toilet. Bidets are often called washlets (a brand name of Toto Ltd.), and common features include bidet and anus washing, seat warming, and deodorizing. Japanese toilets are amazingly more advanced than toilets in other countries.

Modern Japanese toilet by Toto Ltd. | Geoff Leeming

3220769409_0fc453097e_zThe traditional Japanese-style toilet (washiki) is a squat toilet. It is common all over Asia and differs a great deal from a Western toilet in construction and use. A squat toilet is a type of toilet used in a squat position rather than sitting. It resembles a miniature urinal that is set horizontally into the floor. Most are made of porcelain and in some instances, stainless steel. Using squat toilets are believed to have several health benefits including aiding in the prevention of colorectal cancer.

Squat toilet. | Matt Perreault

toiletslippersWestern-type standard flush toilets (yōshiki) became common in Japan after World War II. Western-style and washlet toilets are becoming more and more common in Japan nowadays though some older establishments such as temples, schools, and train stations are still equipped with squat toilets. They usually have stickers illustrating how to use the facilities. Cleanliness is important in Japanese culture. Some public toilets even provide toilet slippers in front of the toilet door for people to use.

Toilet slippers. | Photocapy

Recently, more advanced features include breakthrough medical advances such as measuring blood sugar based on urine, pulse, body fat content, and blood pressure of the user. The results can be sent automatically to a doctor through a built-in internet-capable cellular telephone. More types of measurements are currently being researched. Toilets have surely come a long way compared to the older, more primitive ones. Imagine the possibilities years from now.

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Nengō: The Japanese Era Name

  • Posted by:
  • August 10, 2015

The Japanese calendar scheme is identified by two elements: the first is nengō or gengō (the Japanese era name) and the second is a number that indicates the number of years since an era began.

The nengō system was derived from the Chinese Imperial practice that dates back to 140 B.C.E. and was also common practice in East Asia. It was adopted by Japan in 645 C.E. during the reign of Emperor Kōtoku. The very first era name that was assigned was “Taika” which celebrated the political organizational changes from the great Taika Reform Edicts (set of doctrines established by Emperor Kōtoku). The regular practice of proclaiming era names was interrupted in the late 7th century but was reinstated in 701 during Emperor Mommu’s reign (697–707). Since then, era names have been used continuously: Japanese government offices usually require era names and years on official papers.

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Timeline of Japanese era names. (click images to enlarge)

Before the Meiji period, era names were chosen by court officials and were subjected to frequent change: a new era name might change within a year or so after the ascension of a new emperor. A new era name was often designated as well on the first (kakurei), fifth (kakuun), and 58th (kakumei) years of the sexagenary cycle (a cycle of 60 terms used for recording days or years) because they are believed to be inauspicious years in Onmyōdō (a traditional Japanese esoteric cosmology). They are collectively known as sankaku.

In historical practice (pre-Meiji period), the first day  of nengō  begins whenever the emperor wishes it to start, with the first year continuing on until the next lunar new year which marks  the beginning of nengō’s second year. In modern times, the first year of nengō starts as soon as the Emperor ascends the throne and end on December 31. The succeeding years follow the Gregorian calendar.

Emperor Akihito

The current era in Japan is Heisei. It began on the 8th of January 1989, the very first day after the death of the then reigning Emperor, Hirohito. He was succeeded by his son Akihito and in accordance with Japanese customs, Hirohito was posthumously renamed “Emperor Shōwa” on the 31st of January 1989. The four era names used since the end of the Edo period in 1868 can be abbreviated by taking the first letter of the Romanized names. (For example, Shōwa 55, S55, is 1980 C.E. or Heisei 22, H22 is 2010 C.E.) To covert a Western year after 1989 to Heisei era, simply subtract 1988 to any year after it (i.e. for 2015, 2015-1988= Heisei 27).

Emperor Akihito.

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Washi: traditional Japanese paper

  • Posted by:
  • August 6, 2015

Washi, a type of paper unique to Japan and one of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage objects, is made of fibers from the barks of mulberry (kozo) and gampi  trees and the mitsumata shrub. Hemp, bamboo, rice, and wheat are also used to make washi. There are some areas in Japan where you can see how washi is made. All sorts of things can be made from this unique Japanese paper that make wonderful presents or souvenirs to bring back home after a visit from Japan.

washi1

Washi paper feels thicker and is more durable than conventional paper made of wood pulp. The word washi is the combination of two words: wa, meaning “Japanese” and shi, meaning “paper.” The term is used to describe paper made by hand with each sheet of washi painstakingly created. Each one comes out different from another.

Washi papers. | Tomomarusan

2435714653_6e42703687_zThe process in making washi involves dissolving plant fibers in water and pouring them onto a suketa (screen). The suketa is shaken to remove the excess water and the fibers are then flattened on the screen to create an even thickness. It is an intricate process that is oftentimes done during the cold months because cold running water is essential in the production process. The cold also helps prevent  the plant fibers from rotting and allows the fibers to contract, giving the paper a crisper feel. It is traditionally winter work for farmers to supplement their income during the lean months. Washi paper is used in making a variety of traditional Japanese everyday objects such as clothes, lamps, and toys, as well as ritual objects used by Shinto priests and for statues of Buddha.

Making washi. | Hideyuki KAMON

Three types of washi:

Mitsumatagami – usually ivory in color, it has a fine surface and is often used for printing and Japanese calligraphy (shodo). During the Meiji era, mitsumatagami was used to print paper money.

Kozogami – made from mulberry trees, it is the most common type of washi paper. It is almost as tough as cloth and can be treated to be water resistant, making it an ideal material to make traditional Japanese everyday things.

Ganpishi – has a smooth and shiny surface and is mostly used for books and crafts.

Check out this YouTube video by cae12810 on making washi:

washivid

Click image or here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_E-atPin7pQ

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Learn More About the Wonders of Hokkaido

  • Posted by:
  • August 3, 2015

Hokkaidohokkaido2, which means “Northern Sea Circuit,” is Japan’s second largest island and the northernmost of all the 47 prefectures. The island of Hokkaido is separated from Honshu by the Tsugaru Strait, but the underwater railway, Seikan Tunnel, connects the two.

Hokkaido was initially the home of indigenous ethnic groups such as the Nivkh, Orok, and Ainu around 20,000 years ago. The Nihon Shoki, the second oldest book of classical Japanese history, first mentions Hokkaido. It describes how Abe no Hirafu, a governor of Koshi Province, led a large army and navy fleet to the northern areas of Japan in 658 to 660. They came into contact with the native inhabitants—Mishihase and Emishi—whom many believe to be ancestors of the Ainu.

Ainu man.

The Nara and Heian periods (710–1185) saw the Hokkaido locals trading with the outpost of the Japanese central government, Dewa Province. At the time, Hokkaido was an island abundant for fishing and hunting but relied on trade for rice and iron. During he Muromachi period (1336–1573), the Japanese built a settlement to the south of Oshima Peninsula to avoid ensuing battles and disputes that arose between the Japanese and the Ainu. These battles later became a full blown war that led to the defeat of the Ainu leader Koshamain by Takeda Nobuhiro and eventually defeated the opposition in 1457. Nobuhiro’s descendants became the rulers of the Matsumae-han and were given exclusive rights to trade with the Ainu during the Azuchi-Momoyama and Edo periods (1568–1868).

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Hokkaido greeenery. | Bong Grit

The island of Hokkaido has beautiful coastlines on the Sea of Japan, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Pacific Ocean. Mountains, volcanic plateaus, and coastal plains stretch in all directions on the island. Hokkaido’s major cities include the port of Hakode, Ashikawa, and Sapporo.

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Hokkaido at dusk. | ZEROZLIN

Hokkaido’s winters offer a high quality of powder snow which makes it perfect for snow sports. In contrast, summers are not humid and offer comfortably warm days. Hokkaido remains a haven for people who love to explore the outdoors.

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Kyaraben: Cute and Delicious Character Bento Boxes

  • Posted by:
  • July 30, 2015

Bentos (Japanese boxed lunch) are popular among Japanese for a fast and easy way to grab a meal. They are single portion meals that can either be prepared at home, as takeout from restaurants, or pre-packed at convenience stores. It’s an economical, healthful, and delicious meal-in-one that is readily available almost anywhere around Japan.

Kyaraben_panda

The word bento (弁当) is southern Song Dynasty slang, from the word “convenience,” in the Kamakura period (1185–1333) when cooked and dried rice, or hoshi-ii, was developed. During the Azuchi-Momoyama period, from 1568-1600, intricate wooden lacquer boxes held bento at hanami (tea parties). Bento culture rose during the Edo Period (1603–1867) and flourished until after WWII, when standardized food was supplied for school lunch boxes.

Kyaraben pandas. | lucky sundae

9628114837_65136fbf46_zYou can unleash your creative instincts in creating delicious bentos not with just with your cooking prowess, but also with your imagination and creativity. You can create cute characters using the ingredients for your bento. It would surely make for an interesting meal.

Pig and sun kyaraben. | Todd Lappin

Kyarabenkyaraben3 or “character bento” (キャラ弁) are elaborately created using edible ingredients to look like popular characters in Japanese anime, manga, or video games. But you can also use your creative instincts and imagination and make anything you fancy. Let the mind and hands get to work, and the tummy will reap its rewards. Kyaraben was originally intended to whet children’s appetites and make vegetables and other ingredients more interesting for them to try.

Tamagochi chicks kyaraben. | megan

Kyaraben has become so popular that national competitions are held where enthusiasts compete for the most aesthetically pleasing arrangements.

Check out these YouTube videos by 0kaeri Recipe Channel on how to make kyaraben!

LEGO kyaraben:

kyarabenvid1

Click image or here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6c44NmyGYJM

Totoro kyaraben:

kyaraben-totoro-vid

Click image or here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mtDGlTHe8zc

 

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The Great Kantō Earthquake

  • Posted by:
  • July 27, 2015

The Great Kantō earthquake was one of the worst natural disasters in Japanese history. It caused widespread damage in Tokyo, Yokohama, the surrounding prefectures of Chiba, Kanagawa, and Shizuoka, and throughout the Kantō region. The estimated deaths brought about by the Great Kantō earthquake tragedy reached about 142,800.

kanto1

Destruction caused by the Great Kantō earthquake.

On a busy Saturday, September 1, 1923, at 11:58am, the initial shock of an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.9 Mw (moment magnitude scale, a successor to the Richter Scale that measures earthquake size by energy released), struck Japan. It is now known throughout history as the Great Kantō earthquake. It was caused by a rupture of part of the convergent boundary of an actively deforming region, where two (or more) tectonic plates collided: the Philippine Sea Plate moved under the Okhotsk Plate along the Sagami Trough. Based on accounts, the earthquake was said to have lasted anywhere between four and ten minutes and within minutes of the initial shock caused a tsunami with waves that were as high as 40 feet. The series of towering waves swept away thousands of people into the ocean.

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Marunouchi district after the Great Kanto Earthquake.

The Great Kantō earthquake struck midday when many people were busily going about preparing lunch over the fire. As a result, fires broke out and developed into firestorms that swept across the cities. The fires were so extreme that they melted the tarmac and caused the feet of fleeing people to get stuck. The catastrophic event’s single greatest loss of life was a fire tornado that engulfed the former Army Clothing Depot, Rikugun Honjo Hifukusho, in downtown Tokyo. It took nearly two whole days for the fires to be put out. To make things worse, a typhoon struck Tokyo Bay at the same time. The strong winds of the typhoon caused the fires to spread rapidly off the coast of Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture.

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View from Kotobuki Junior School in Yokohama.

To commemorate the tragic event, September 1 is designated as Disaster Prevention Day to remind people to always be prepared, especially during the months of typhoon season. Memorials are located in Yokoamicho Park in Sumida ward where thousands of people were killed during the fire tornado.

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Traditional Japanese Tatami Mats

  • Posted by:
  • July 23, 2015

Tatami (畳) is a type of flooring used for traditional Japanese rooms. Tatami, or mats, were originally made using rice straw to form the core. More modern versions of tatami are made from either polystyrene foam or compressed wood chips, and they come in standard sizes with or without cloth edging.

tatami1Tatami was derived from the word tatamu which means to pile or to fold. The earlier forms of tatami were made thin and could be piled in layers or folded when not in use. During the Heian period, when the architectural style used by Japanese nobility was at its peak, huge rooms were mainly made of wood.  Tatami was used as seating for the highest ranking aristocrats and was considered a luxury item.

Tatami mat up close. | Gardiner Allen

tatami2The shoin-zukuri architectural style became popular during the Kamakura period for residences of priests and samurai with their rise to power. It reached its peak of popularity during the Muromachi period when tatami eventually covered an entire room and “tatami” came to be known as zashiki (room spread out for sitting).

Men Making Tatami Mats, 1860 – ca. 1900.

Rules for etiquette and seating were soon dictated by the arrangement of the tatami. By the 16th century, Japanese nobility and samurai slept on tatami mats known as goza while the common folk used straw mats or even loose straw for bedding. By the end of the 17th century, tatami mats were also used by commoners. Today, most Japanese homes still often have tatami-floored rooms called nihonma or washitsu (Japanese-style rooms).

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Tatami mats in temple. | IwateBuddy

Itsukushima Shrinetatami3, on the island of Miyajima, is dedicated to the three daughters of Susano-o no Mikoto, the Shinto God of seas and storms, and Amaterasu, the sun goddess who is also the deity of the Imperial household. It is known for its floating torii and the five story pagoda, Senjokaku, The Hall of One Thousand Tatami Mats. It was built in 1587 at the request of one of Japan’s great unifiers, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. It was meant to be a place for the faithful to chant Buddhist sutras to console souls lost in the war.  The hall is sprawling with posts and beams holding up the ceiling. Senjokaku is an architectural wonder that is truly awe inspiring. It takes about one thousand mats to completely cover the entire hall. Senjokaku is just one of the amazing places to visit when in Japan.

Senjokaku at Itsukushima Shrine. | Peter Broster

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