Every culture has its own artistic style that expresses the proud tradition and history of the forever evolving nature of mankind and gives us a glimpse of the treasured past.
Japan has a continued philosophical and cultural belief in the preservation of arts that is quite different from contemporary preservation techniques. Japanese art preservationists give importance to the terms kufū , a practice of creating art using innovation, and kaihen, the transformation of other objects.
Japanese painting, highly regarded as one of Japan’s highly refined forms of visual arts, encompasses many different styles and genres. Throughout its early history, Japanese painting was mostly adapted from the Chinese style and it displays the contrasting nature of Japanese aesthetics. Western influence on Japanese paintings was introduced later in the 16th century onwards.
Wind God and Thunder God folding screens by Tawaraya Sōtatsu.
Ink wash painting, also known as literati painting, was a common technique used around East Asia in early history. It is a type of brush painting that makes use of black calligraphy ink. Chinese influence is apparent in the repeated use of the technique in earlier works that depict Buddhist religious paintings and used the style similar to the landscape scenes in Chinese literati paintings, paintings of flowers and animals, and calligraphy of ideographs.
As Japanese painting developed its own distinct style and traditions, the most consistent characteristics of many of the earlier historical paintings are the narrative scenes full of detail and the depiction of images from everyday life. Nihonga, coined during the Meiji period and literally meaning Japanese-style paintings, is a term for Japanese paintings that use the traditional Japanese artistic technique and conventions that are more than a thousand years old. The term was used to differentiate Japanese works from the Western-style paintings known as Yōga. Nihonga paintings were typically drawn on silk or washi paper.
Pond and Insects from the Colorful Realm of Living Beings by Itō Jakuchū.
Some notable Japanese painters include:
Tawaraya Sōtatsu (1643) – the co-founder of the Rimpa school of Japanese painting. He began his career as a fan-painter and later moved on to producing fine decorative paper for calligraphy for the imperial court.
Itō Jakuchū (1716–1800) – his works consisted mainly of traditional Japanese subjects. With Japan closed to the outside world, he experimented with perspective and other modern stylistic elements.
Suzuki Harunobu (1725 – 7 July 1770) – a woodblock print artist in the Ukiyo-e style and a pioneer in producing full-color prints. He used several special techniques and depicted a wide variety of subjects.
The Water Vendor by Suzuki Harunobu.
KCP alumna Gwen Taylor describes how studying at KCP and experiencing Japan have touched her life. She also offers valuable insights about the program. Thanks, Gwen!
I had always felt held back by the speed of language courses at my university. And I thought Japanese culture was something easily understood through textbooks. I wanted to learn so much and was so motivated, but there was often nothing for me to do. In my second year studying Japanese, I got the opportunity to spend three months at KCP. It was everything I dreamed of and more.
Gwen. | KCP Flickr
Not only are the courses magnificently challenging and the staff extremely supportive, but the school is in the heart of Tokyo. I have never been in a place where there was so much to explore, so much to do. One afternoon, I decided to go to the trendy shopping district of Harajuku, and after a great day shopping in a huge population center, I discovered a temple almost totally hidden by a forest. The ease of train travel meant I could go anywhere, from peaceful rural farms to historical monuments, castles, and hot spring resorts; from frantic urban centers to glorious beaches in a single day. It is true that you are only young once, and I believe every young person should get to spend time in Tokyo.
The culture classes taught me more than I ever learned in university. Every class was devoted to exploring some aspect of Japanese culture that had never occurred to me. Because the teachers were Japanese living in Japan, their perspective was totally new to me and opened my eyes in so many ways. The tours we had of Ginza and the Edo-Tokyo Museum will remain in my memory forever. Our teachers were not only knowledgeable but also seemed to genuinely share in our wonder and joy at discovering so many new things. One of the best experiences was seeing Kabuki, Noh, and Bunraku performances, which should not be missed even by those who don’t know what they are.
At Edo-Tokyo Museum. | KCP Flickr
We were also obliged to participate in a sports day event. As an American, I found this incomprehensible at first, since even elementary schools in America do not have a culture of students putting on events. But like everything else at KCP, the idea was immersion. I suggest embracing everything that seems weird, including strange community events. Although I dragged my feet at the beginning, by the end of that effort I enjoyed a sense of community and family that I have never felt in an academic environment. I also highly recommend trying extracurricular activities such as the Anime Club, through which I was able to visit the magical Ghibli Museum. Every child should get to go there.
One of my most memorable experiences was our day trip to Aizu near the end of our term. By that time, I thought I was getting a good idea what Japanese life was like. How wrong I was. We stopped at several historical sites, at each place seeing beautiful clothing, rooms, and structures plucked from periods in Japanese history. Because Aizu is somewhat colder and we started our day so early, each place we visited had an air of stillness, a slight hint of fog tipping from the mountains as we drove further into them. Our final destination was Tsuruga Castle, from whose top tower we could see what felt like all of Northern Japan. As snow started falling in big flakes, we visited a rural village that, even though it had people living in it normally, really felt like stepping back in time. The blissful feelings carried us all the way home through winding mountain roads and Japanese children’s songs.
Aizu. | KCP Flickr
Even if there were no language classes at all, KCP would be a worthwhile experience for anyone. But on top of this wealth of cultural experiences, every day is dedicated to learning Japanese. It feels like a heavy load at first, but after a couple of weeks it becomes thrilling to get to learn so much every day. Each level and class had three different teachers, each one fascinating, kind, and funny, and always willing to help with any problem or answer any question. Because most of the students’ native languages were other than English, there is little temptation for switching to one’s native tongue during classes. Soon, without really realizing it, speaking Japanese every day becomes natural.
The system of levels and the way the school is designed seem perfect for language learning. No matter what one’s Japanese proficiency is at the start, there is a class ideally suited to helping each student learn as much as they can. Because KCP has so much experience teaching Japanese, they understood my own psychology and ability even better than I did. As each hurdle approached, my teachers helped me to overcome it. I have never had a learning experience like it, and I wish it for anyone.
KCP students at dinner during an overnight trip. | KCP Flickr
Each of my classmates experienced KCP differently. Some were old hat at this and simply concentrated on studying; others took every opportunity to make new friends in the strangest places. For some, it was their first time in Japan and first time ever learning Japanese. I would have worried about them, but the staff was so supportive and friendships so strong, none of my friends ever complained about feeling left behind or lost. I have never felt so close to other human beings as I did to those I met during my time at KCP.
In summary, even for a total novice in Japanese language and culture, KCP is a perfect experience. Everyone deserves the accelerated learning and day-to-day experience of Japanese life, and no human being should go without spending some time in Tokyo. Even years later, I think often of my time there and wish to return. There is no need to hesitate. Japan is waiting for you.
For more of Gwen’s photos, visit her KCP Flickr set.
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.
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.
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.
Yuno-hama beach. | Guilhem Vellut
Japanese 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
The 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.
Masamune (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.
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:
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.
Trading 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.
Hirado Dutch Trading House. | 陳 ポーハン
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 Kunchi – 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 Matsuri – 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-Matsuri – 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
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:
Bakeneko (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.
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-kozō (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.
Mikaribaba (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.
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!
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
The 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
The 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
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.
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
The 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
The 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
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.
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 (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 Bridge, 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 Bridge 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