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Bonsai: An Elevated Art Form

  • Posted by:
  • July 21, 2014

bonsaihouse3The art form of bonsai (盆栽) has been a Japanese tradition for centuries. It originated from the Chinese tradition known as penjing (miniature landscapes of trees and rocks). The word bonsai was derived from the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese term for the art, penzai. Bon is a tray-like pot typically used for bonsai culture and sai means to plant. The art of bonsai focuses on the long-term practice of cultivating and shaping miniature trees that are grown in a container. The purpose of the art is to give the grower the opportunity to practice patience, effort, and ingenuity, and to give the viewer a chance to contemplate the artwork.

Azalea bonsai. | Grufnik

Bonsai displays should present certain aesthetics when displayed. For example, the viewer should be able to see all the important features of the tree from the most advantageous line of sight, the focal position should emphasize the bonsai’s defined front, and the bonsai should be placed at a height that allows the viewer to picture it as a full-sized tree when seen from a distance.

bonsaihouse1Bonsai trees are a wonderful way to spruce up any indoor space. However, Japanese artist Takanori Aiba has elevated the bonsai art form to another level. He not only cultivates and trims the miniature trees, but he also carves fantastic architectural wonders that add a whole new depth and dimension. Takanori Aiba began his career in 1978 as a freelance maze illustrator . He founded his own company, Graphics and Designing, Inc., in 1981. He talks about how he loved playing with model trains while growing up and how his interests shifted to bonsai. His idea to create intricate miniature tree houses began with putting soil, moss, and a tree branch inside a beer bottle and observing it from all angles in the palm of his hand. He imagined himself looking up at the bonsai branch standing on the moss. This gave him a clear, realistic vision of what he wanted to create.

Takanori Aiba. | Screengrab from YouTube video by ZeSSIV

Aiba’s miniature village bonsai creations show the depth of his artistic imagination and experience. The Lighthouse Series displays as much detail as can be seen in the two versions of suseiki, which are  small, naturally occurring rocks that have unique shapes resembling islands, waterfalls, or mountains. They perfectly reflect nature. They are standalone pieces but were incorporated into the bonsai Lighthouse Series. Aiba’s bonsai designs play on the relationship between man and nature. His art can be seen at Tokyo’s famous ninja restaurant and at the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum.


Click image or here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0M-Tsxd64Mg

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The Story Behind the Tanabata Festival

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  • July 18, 2014

Tanabatatanabata1 (七夕), Evening of the Seventh, also known as the star festival, is traditionally held on the 7th day of the 7th month of the year. The festival celebrates the meeting of the Japanese deities Orihime and Hikoboshi. Based on the lunar calendar, the 7th month of the year is August, while the Gregorian calendar has July as the 7th month.  Tanabata is then celebrated either on July 7 or August 7 depending on the regions of Japan.  Empress Kōken introduced Tanabata to Japan in 755. Adapted from the Festival to Plead for Skills (Qixi festival) from China, Tanabata became popular among the Japanese during the Edo period when it was incorporated into various Bon or Obon traditions and later evolved into the modern Tanabata festival.

Tanabata festival. | Jeremy Eades

Tanabata festivaltanabata2 was inspired by the Chinese folktale, “The Weaver Girl and the Cowherd.” As the story goes, there was once a princess named Orihime (Weaving Princess) who was the daughter of Tentei (Sky King). Orihime knew that her father loved the cloth she weaved which was used to make beautiful clothes for her father. She spent most of her time weaving by the banks of the Amanogawa River (Milky Way). Tentei was saddened by the amount of time Orihime spent weaving, for she could never find the time to meet anyone and fall in love. So Tentei arranged for Orihime to meet Hikoboshi  (Cow Herder) who lived on the other side of Amanogawa. When the two met, they immediately fell in love with each other and married soon after. Once married, Orihime no longer weaved cloth for her father, and Hikoboshi allowed his cows to stray all over the heavens. This angered Tentei so much that he separated the couple using the Amanogawa River and forbade them to meet. Orihime cried and begged her father to allow her to meet Hikoboshi again. Tentei softened upon seeing his daughter’s tears and he allowed the couple to meet once a year on the 7th day of the 7th month if she finished her weaving duties, hence the tradition of celebrating Tanabata.

Tanabata decor. | Toshihiro Oimatsu

Tanabata traditions include hanging pieces of paper and other decorations on bamboo. The bamboo decorations are usually set afloat on a river and burned after the festival.

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Dissecting Godzilla

  • Posted by:
  • July 15, 2014

The 1954 Japanese monster classic Godzilla, created by the renowned Ishirō Honda, never fails to be a worldwide box office hit with each remake. The latest one, by Warner Bros., is a $160 million big budget movie dubbed “King of Monsters” and is scheduled to open in Japan next month.


Godzilla (ゴジラ )  is a popular tokusatsu (live action film or television drama full of special effects) character. Since its debut, Godzilla has become a pop culture icon worldwide with 28 films produced by Toho Co., Ltd. in Japan alone. The famous tokusatsu character is also popular in novels, comic books, television series, and video games. In ateji (kanji used phonetically) Godzilla is written as Gojira, a combination of the Japanese words gorira (gorilla) and kujira (whale). The giant monster was initially befittingly described as a cross between a gorilla and a whale as seen in its power, size, and origins from the ocean.

Godzilla (1956 American release) lobby card. | Tom

godzilla2Godzilla’s appearance has slightly varied over the years since 1954 but the overall impact has remained the same. Godzilla was inspired by the fictional character called Rhedosaurus, created by the animator Ray Harryhausen, from the 1953 giant monster science-fiction  film ‘The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.”  The initial Godzilla character was an amphibious reptilian monster loosely based on the concept of a dinosaur that stands erect, has muscular arms, and an anthropomorphic torso, scaly skin, a furrowed brow, and spikes on its back running all the way to the tail. The art director working on the project,  Akira Watanabe, combined some aspects of the alligator, Iguanodon, Stegosaurus, and Tyrannosaurus and turned it into a monstrous fire-breathing creature that mutated from the atomic bombs dropped in Japan to end World War II. To show the effects of the bombing, the appearance of Godzilla also showed visible signs of scarring in the texture of its skin having keloid scars as seen in many of the Hiroshima survivors. Thus, Gojira began as something of a metaphor for the pain, rage, and devastation visited on the Japanese people.

Godzilla statue, Tokyo. | Wikiodaiba

The famous Godzilla roar was created by the Japanese composer Akira Ifukube by rubbing a resin-coated glove along the string of a contrabass and then slowing down the previously recorded playback. In the early Godzilla films, an actor was made to wear an uncomfortable latex costume, and later, the monster was an animatronic stop-motion creation. The techniques were a far cry from the more realistic computer-generated images of today. Imagine the possibilities decades from now.

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The Story of Kasajizo

  • Posted by:
  • July 11, 2014

One of Japan’s many enchanting folktales is the story of Kasajizo (kasa: straw hat; jizo/jizou: bodhisattva), which goes like this.

kasajizo1Once upon a time in a tiny village in Japan, there was a poor old couple who wove sedge hats for a living. One cold winter day close to the New Year, the old woman noticed that they had very little rice left to last them until the New Year’s celebration. To add to the couple’s dismay, the snow was so deep they could not venture out to gather leaves to weave hats to sell so they could buy food. With nothing else to do, the old woman cooked what was left of the rice for their supper.

Kasajizo figurines made of shells. | photoantenna

As the old couple sat down to eat, from a tiny hole in the wall a baby mouse appeared exclaiming, “Oh, I am so hungry.” The parents of the baby mouse explained that the old couple was so poor there were hardly any scraps left to eat. The old man, seeing the family of mice, took pity on them and shared with the mice the last of their rice as they all dined together.

The next morning, the old couple yet again shared some pickles and tea with the mice for breakfast. The mice were so grateful they gathered sedge from the forest and brought it back to the old couple so they could make hats. As the old man made his way to town to sell his wares, he passed by the stone statues of Jizo-sama.  He noticed that their heads were covered with snow so he gently wiped it away.

kasajizo2When the old man reached town, all the people were busy preparing for the coming New Year.  He called out, “sedge hats, sedge hats!” But no one paid any attention to him. As evening approached, the old man had not sold a single hat. He shouldered his wares and made his way home. Along the way he again passed the Jizo-sama statues and saw that their heads were covered with snow. He had nothing left to offer but the unsold hats. He wiped off the snow on each head and placed a hat on each statue. There were six statues in all but the old man had only five hats so he placed his towel on the head of the sixth statue instead. After making his offering, the old man continued on his way home.

Kasajizo statue in Shinjuku. | tokoro koko

When the old man got home, he explained to his wife and the mice what he had done. They all agreed that the old man had done a kind deed. The old woman quietly prepared hot water and pickles to welcome the New Year. A short while later, they all heard loud voices calling out, “New Year’s Delivery for the old hat seller!” The old couple and the mice were all surprised to see the Jizo-sama statues with a sleigh loaded with miso, rice, and much more. The Jizo-sima statues gave all this food in thanks for the kindness the old man had shown them. The old couple thanked the statues and prepared a hearty New Year’s feast for themselves and their animal friends.

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Exciting Japanese Festivals in July

  • Posted by:
  • July 7, 2014

Festivals in Japan have deep cultural ties and a long history. Witnessing the revelry and excitement of each gives us a deeper understanding of the country and its traditions. Here are just a few of the many festivities in the month of July.

Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festivaljulyfest1, Fukuoka –  celebrated from the 1st to the 15th of July, festivities center in Kushida Jinja. The festival is known for its spectacular float races,  a 750-year-old tradition attracting over a million spectators each year. Men carry elaborately decorated floats called kazariyama. The floats weigh over a ton, and the men have to carry it while racing through the streets of Hakata as fast as they can. The other type of float, kakiyama, are carried for the festival parade.

Hakata Gion float. | Pontafon

Soma-Nomaoijulyfest2, Fukushima –  a three-day festival celebrated on the last weekend and Monday of July (for 2014, these are July 26-28)  in the Soma District of Fukushima, an area famous for horse breeding.  Sonoma-Nomaoi celebrates the 1,000-year-old  tradition that introduces the code of the samurai of the Warring States Period to younger generations. The festival is organized by Fukushima Prefecture—Ota Shrine and Odaka Shrine in Minami-Soma City, and Nakamura-Shrine in Soma City. The highlight of the festivities is the Koshiki Kacchu Keiba, where 12 samurai horsemen in the traditional samurai armor and helmet, wielding katana swords, race a distance of over 1,000 meters.  The Shinki Sodatsusen is also not to miss, where several hundred samurai horsemen compete for 40 shrine flags that are shot into the air with fireworks.

Soma-Nomaoi. | Hajime NAKANO

Sumidagawa Fireworks Festivaljulyfest3 (Sumidagawa Hanabi Taikai), Tokyo – held every last Saturday in July in Sumidagawa, the fireworks festival channels the Edo period celebration, only on a much grander scale. Different pyrotechnic groups compete to best the others. The history of the Sumidagawa fireworks festival goes all the way back to 1732, at a time when Japan was in the midst of an economic crisis and people suffered from famine and disease. Fireworks were used in rituals and celebrations as a way to mourn the dead, celebrate their life, and to uplift the spirits of the people who were suffering from poverty.



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The Mystery of the Takamatsuzuka Tomb

  • Posted by:
  • July 3, 2014

Several ancient burial mounds exist in and near Asuka Historical National Government Park in Japan. The Takamatsuzuka Tomb (高松塚古墳), also known as the “Tall Pine Tree Ancient Burial Mound”, is one of the kofuns (tombs) in Akusa village, Nara prefecture.

tomb1A farmer rediscovered the Takamatsuzuka Kofun in the early 1970s, and it wasn’t long before the Kashihara Archeologigal Institute did further excavations and unearthed a crypt. The mound of the tomb was built with layers of sand and clay, 16 meters in diameter and 5 meters high. What makes the kofun a rarity and counted as one of Japan’s national treasures, are the colored murals painted on the walls of the burial chamber. The paintings were done in full color of courtiers dressed in Goguryeo-style (37 BCE – 668 CE), a common garb worn in one of the Ancient Three Kingdoms of Korea. The murals bore the colors of red, gold, silver and blue foil said to represent male and female figures as well as the constellations known as the White Tiger, Vermillion Bird, Azure Dragon, and Black Tortoise.

Takamatsuzuka Tomb. | Katie

tomb2The burial ground and stone chamber is at the center of a mound. It holds a sarcophagus that opens to the south. The walls, floor, and ceiling inside the tomb are coated with plaster, and the murals are painted on the east, west, and north walls and the ceiling. A three-meter wide passage from the center of the burial mound leads to the outside. Five meters from the stone walls and passageway is a square stone altar that initially inspired the entire excavation.

Takamatsuzuka Tomb mural.

tomb3The enormous work and artistry that went into the building and creation of the Takamatsuzuka Tomb indicate that it was built for the Japanese royal family or a high-ranking nobleman. But still today, for whom it was built is still unknown for it lies empty and remains a mystery except for the beautiful murals that decorate its walls and ceiling. Some say the tomb may have been built for some popular historical Japanese figures such as Prince Osakabe or Prince Takechi, sons of Emperor Temmu, Isonokami Ason Maro, the head of the Fujiwara-kyo and descendant of the Mononobe clan (clan opposed to the spread of Buddhism in Japan) or Kudara no Konikishi Zenko, the son of the last king of Baekje (one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea).

Detail of Takamatsuzuka mural image.

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The Intricate and Practical Inrō and Netsuke

  • Posted by:
  • June 30, 2014

Traditional Japanese clothing, like the kimono and kosode, did not have any pockets for  personal belongings. So a sagemono, or hanging object attached to the obi (sash) of traditional Japanese clothing, was a useful way to carry things like money, pipes, tobacco, or a writing brush and ink. An inrō case, popular for holding small objects, and a netsuke were a useful and convenient way to carry things for many Japanese.

Netsukenetsuke1 (根付) –this was invented in the 17th century to serve as a fastener that secured the beautifully crafted boxes such as an inrō. Netsuke (ne means “root” and tsuke means “to attach”) are miniature sculptures that prevent the weight of the inrō from slipping from the obi. Traditionally, a cord was passed around the back of the sash and the netsuke was hooked over the edge, securing the carrying case. The tiny sculptures were usually made from wood or ivory but some are made from nuts. The materials used and the designs made were smoothed out so as not to catch on the kimono. The miniature pieces had a variety of subjects crafted with exquisite detail such as  those from Japanese myths and legends.

Netsuke of a rat in a basket, Meiji period. | Hiart

 Inrōinro1 (印籠, seal-basket), was in use towards the end of the 16th century and was an essential part of men’s fashion to carry small personal items. It was thought to be a great way to keep the contents such as tobacco and various herbs for medicines sealed and fresh. The 18th century saw the inrō as a decorative accessory that was commissioned by the merchant class, samurai, provincial rulers, and anyone who could afford them. They are usually made from leather paper or wood decorated with lacquer.  Inrō are made of several separate sections stacked on top of each other and bound together by a loop or a cord that goes through a channel from each side from the bottom. The sections are sealed when the cord is tightened by pulling it through a bead called an ojime and prevented from falling off the cord by the netsuke at the end. The cord passes behind an obi, allowing the inrō to hang loosely from the waist.

Inrō. | va_va_val

It goes to show that practicality and attention to detail make the traditional Japanese clothing ensemble an ideal way to dress even in today’s modern times.

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Majestic Japanese Castles

  • Posted by:
  • June 26, 2014

Japanese castles served as military defenses and were strategically placed in trading routes, rivers, and roads. They were also the center of governance in Japanese states. When the central government’s authority began to weaken sometime in the 15th century, Japan entered the chaotic regime of the warring states. These independent states fought each other continuously. The ruling lord (daimyo) of each independent state built his own castle that stood on grounds with a vantage point, such as on top of mountains, in case they were suddenly attacked.

When a central authority was established to govern the whole of Japan by Oda Nobunaga in the mid-16th century (later completed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi), several other larger castles rose around Japan. But this time they were built in plains and hilltops, where they served as military headquarters and a symbol of authority. By 1868, when the feudal age ended, and more so during WWII, many castles were destroyed.  Very few castles that date from the feudal era still stand today, and those that do are build from concrete rather than traditional building materials. But the majestic beauty of Japanese castles, such as Kōchi Castle and Marugame Castle, still gives us a glimpse of the rich culture and history of the Japan of the past.


Kōchi Castle (高知城) – after the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Kōchi Castle  was built in the province of Tosa by Yamanouchi Kazutoyo, who ruled the area. Construction took 10 years. It burned down in 1727 and was reconstructed in 1729–53.  The castle underwent major restoration yet again, in 1948–59. Kōchi Castle  is the only castle still in its original location, depending on its original structure. The innermost ring of defense (honmaru)  still stands.

Kōchi Castle. | Reggaeman

Marugame Castle marugame(丸亀城 ) – built by the Nara clan sometime in 1587 in the Sanuki Province during the Muromachi Period. At first, the castle was the residence of Ikoma Chikamasa. Chikamasa later constructed another castle and gave Marugame castle to his son, Ikoma Kazumasa. In 1615, a shogunal decree stated that there should only be one castle per province. This resulted in the dismantling of Marugame Castle. In 1641, Yamazaki Ieharu was granted fiefdom of a part of western Sanuki for his bravery in the 1638 Shimabara Rebellion. He reconstructed Marugame Castle from its ruins, on its original site. The castle was then turned over to the Kyōgoku clan in 1658 and, during the Meiji Restoration, the Imperial Government took control of it.

Marugame Castle. | 663highland


Related post:

Japanese Castles: Symbols of Power and Honor

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The Legend of Ryūjin

  • Posted by:
  • June 23, 2014

Gion-MatsuriIn Japanese folklore, Ryūgū-jō (竜宮城, 龍宮城, Dragon palace castle) is the underwater palace of the dragon god of the sea, Ryūjin. According to variations of the legend, the castle is made of solid crystal or red and white corals. Ryūjin’s family and loyal servants lived in the famous castle. Supposedly, its four corners have different seasons and a single day within, spanning a century in the outside world.

An iconic story recounts how Empress Jingū succeeded in her attack into Korea with the help of Ryūjin’s tide jewels. When Jingū had to deal with the powerful Korean navy, she threw one of the jewels,the kanju (干珠, tide-ebbing jewel) into the sea, making the tides recede. This left the Korean fleet stranded and the men were forced to get out of their ships. Once they were out, Jingū then threw down the manju (満珠, tide-flowing jewel), releasing a torrent of water that drowned her enemies. The annual festival, Gion Matsuri at Yasaka Shrine, celebrates this memorable victory.

Gion Matsuri. | Patricia.fidi

RyūjinRyujin1, who embodies the enormous strength of the ocean,controlled the tides with magical tide jewels from his castle, Ryūgū-jō. They say he has a large mouth and can transform into human shape. Ryūjin was the father of the goddess Otohime who married the hunter prince, Hoori. Emperor Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan, was the grandson of Otohime and Hoori. Thus, the Japanese imperial dynasty’s ancestors have roots that can be traced to Ryūjin.

Watatsumi is another name for Ryūjin. The Kojiki, written around 712 CE, is the earliest known written source that mentions the dragon god. The Nihongi, written sometime 720 CE, also mentions the sea god. Ryūjin shinkō (竜神信仰, dragon god faith) is a religious Shinto belief that worships dragons, a water kami possibly associated with agricultural rituals, rain, and fishermens’ luck.

Wood carving of Ryūjin. | LACMA

Japan has several Shinto shrines dedicated to the sea god Watatsumi—the Watatsumi jinja in Kobe and Kitakyūshū and the Daikai jinja in Osaka. The Katase-Enoshima station in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture was also designed with Ryūgū-jō in mind.  These beautiful architectural designs pay tribute to the unique culture, customs, and traditions of Japan.

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The Wonders of Seaweed

  • Posted by:
  • June 19, 2014

On occasional trips to the beach, we sometimes notice seaweed along the shore or floating in the water.  Seaweed is algae (a type of organism), and edible types of seaweed are used in preparing some of our favorite foods (like sushi). Most marine forms of algae are edible, while fresh-water types are often toxic. Edible seaweed is  a rich source of fiber and all nine of the essential amino acids necessary for our dietary needs.

seaweed3In Japan, kaiso (seaweed) has been an important element of the Japanese diet for centuries. It is used extensively in Japanese cuisine to add extra flavor depth in seasonings, soup stocks, as sushi wrappers, and even as a garnish.  Seaweed is cultivated for the purpose of extracting alginate, carrageenan, and agar.

Wakame. | Ron Dollette

seaweed1Some common types of edible seaweed appear in Japanese dishes such as wakame, used in salads and miso soup. It is usually dry and is soaked in water before use. Kombu is a large seaweed used often used in soup stock for nabe (hot pot) dishes. Nori (海苔) are dried sheets of seaweed. Nori today is a term the Japanese use for edible seaweed. It usually comes from red algae from the genus Porphyra and is known as laver in English-speaking countries.

Kombu. | Alice Wiegand

seaweed2The nori making process is similar to making paper, where the necessary raw materials needed to produce the end product are initially shredded and rack-dried. The oldest description of nori can be traced back to the 8th century, in the Taihō Code (an administrative reorganization) that was enacted in Japan in 701 when nori was included as a form of taxation. Fudoki locals were described as drying nori in Hitachi Province, and nori was harvested in Izumo Province. In Japan’s oldest full-length narrative, the Utsubo Monogatari (written around 987), nori was already recognized as a common type of food. At first, Nori came in paste form and it was only during the Edo period when Japanese started to practice the paper making method, that nori was dried and formed into sheets.

Nori. | Alice Wiegand

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