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The Hidden Fortress: The Japanese Film that Influenced Star Wars

  • Posted by:
  • January 16, 2017

In the next few years, December won’t only mean Christmas. It will also bring Star Wars! It began with 2015’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” followed by “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” in 2016. A series of upcoming movies from the same franchise is set to be released on December for the next few years. For all Star Wars fans, the 12th month of the year sure got more exciting!

The creator of Star Wars, George Lucas, credits one of Japan’s and the world’s most renowned and influential filmmakers, Akira Kurosawa (1910–1998) for enhancing his creative juices while working on Star Wars. Kurosawa directed 30 films in his career that spanned 57 years, including the film that influenced Star Wars, The Hidden Fortress. Techniques from this film were used in Star Wars, such as narrating the story from the perspective of minor characters like R2-D2 and C-3PO. The plot and outline for Star Wars also showed strong resemblance to the plot of The Hidden Fortress, which was also reused for The Phantom Menace.

The Hidden Fortress poster.

The Hidden Fortress was told from the perspective of two lowly peasants who find themselves to be in the service of a princess and her general (similar to Princess Leia and Han Solo). The film is all about storming a large enemy fortress and coming to the aid of a princess.

Luke Skywalker and R2-D2. | Manoel Lemos

Certain elements in Star Wars also bear a strong resemblance to Japanese traditions and history. The popular Jedi knights seem quite similar to samurai warriors, the sōhei (僧兵) in particular. They were Japanese Buddhist warrior monks during Japan’s feudal years. This strikes a familiar chord to the Jedi’s iconic light saber, long flowing robes, and religious dedication to their craft. Darth Vader’s mask is also said to resemble the masks worn by samurai warriors.

Whether a Jedi or a samurai, may the Force be with you!

R.I.P. Carrie Fisher a.k.a. Princess Leia. | Tom Simpson

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Osechi Ryori: The Story Behind Traditional Japanese New Year Food

  • Posted by:
  • January 12, 2017

It’s 2017! In Japan, the New Year is one of the most anticipated holidays. Many Japanese mark the arrival of the New Year with age old traditions such as kadomatsu (a bamboo-pine arrangement placed at the entrance of the home), otoshidama (giving money to children), hatsumōde (first trip to a shrine or temple in the New Year) and celebrating with oseochi-ryōri (traditional Japanese New Year food).

The tradition of having osechi-ryōri (御節料理 or お節料理) on New Year in Japan began during the Heian Period (794-1185). Osechi are similar to bento meals, only they are in more elaborate special boxes called jūbako (重箱). The term osechi was derived from o-sechi, meaning a season or significant period. In Japan, New Year’s Day was considered one of the five seasonal festivals in the Imperial Court in Kyoto. In olden times, during the first three days of the New Year, it was unthinkable to use a hearth and cook meals. Osechi was prepared days ahead of the New Year as women were not allowed to cook.

Datemaki. | tokyofoodcast.com

The traditional osechi-ryōri  dishes, served in elegant three- or four-layered laquer jubako boxes, are placed at the center of the table on New Year’s Eve and remain there until the 1st of January. The food is shared with family and friends. Each item of osechi-ryōri represents a particular wish for the next year.

Here are some example of osechi-ryōri and their meanings:

Kuri-kinton = Wealth

Kuri-kinton (sweet chestnuts), literally means “golden dango (sweet dumpling) made of chestnuts.”  Its color, a yellowish-gold, signifies a wish for wealth and a prosperous New Year.

Ise ebi. | midorisyu

Datemaki = Scholarship

Datemaki is similar to tamago yaki (Japanese rolled omelette), only it’s sweet. It’s mixed with hanpen, a traditional fish cake ingredient that makes the omelette fluffier than the tamago yaki. History tells us that important documents and paintings were usually rolled, and because datemaki resembles scrolls, the dish aptly represents a wish for learning.

Kobu-maki = Happiness

A kelp or kobu covering signifies different things. “Kobu” is also referred to as “yorokobu,” which means joy and happiness. Kobu  can also mean many offspring when written as “子生,” a kanji character that represents childbirth.

Ebi = Longevity

The shrimp’s bent back and antennae, resembling a long beard, symbolizes old age. This symbolizes a wish for a long life. The tinge of red is also said to drive evil spirits away.

Kobu maki. | cava_cavien

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Natural Cold Remedies and Japanese Medication for Colds and Flu

  • Posted by:
  • January 9, 2017

Winter is upon us! Winters in Japan are generally dry but, as everywhere in the northern Hemisphere, the days are shorter. Some attractions close for the season, but skiing is very much the anticipated activity this time of the year. For some countries that experience winter, it can be quite a challenge to avoid getting colds and the flu. Japan is very stringent on the types of medicines you can bring in, whether it be over the counter medication or prescription drugs.

When you feel a cold or flu coming, you can try a few of these simple home remedies to chase the bug away:

Hot soup is good for the soul, colds and flu. Chicken soup is a well known remedy to make you feel better when you’re sick. It’s actually a scientific fact; a study published in the journal CHEST showed that chicken soup may help with symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections like the flu. Actually, most hot soups will do the trick. As you inhale the warm vapors of soup, it makes you feel better. Japan is known for having some of the world’s best soup. A perfect reason to indulge in ramen!

Ramen. | toyohara

Stay hydrated. Some flu symptoms can cause dehydration. Be sure to get plenty of healthy fluids in your system. Water, fruit juices, and electrolyte drinks are good sources to stay hydrated. Avoid caffeine because it is a diuretic and will make you lose the fluids you’ve been taking. A cup of herbal tea with honey can soothe a sore throat.

Gargle with salt and water. This helps in getting rid of the thick mucus that collects at the back of your throat, especially after lying in bed. It also helps ease the stuffiness you feel in your ears.

Orange juice. | U.S. Department of Agriculture

If you feel the need for some over-the-counter medicine, here are some of the known Japanese medications you can try:

Esutakku Eve Fine – one of the most popular cold and flu medicines. It’s good for fever, sneezing, pain, and a runny nose.

LuluAttack EX – for sore throat and congestion.

Eve A – one of the most popular pain medications in Japan. It can ease mild headaches to a severe cold.

These Japanese medications are readily available in Japan.

Pills. | Taiyo FUJII

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Countdown to KCP’s Spring 2017 Application Deadline

  • Posted by:
  • January 6, 2017

Cherry blossoms in full bloom, hanami parties left and right, and an array of festivals to take part in. Spring is the perfect time to visit Japan. There is no better place to admire and experience the beauty of the season than with all the lush foliage Japan has to offer, as well as the many events that welcome spring. KCP Spring 2017 application deadline is January 10, only a few days away! Don’t miss out on your chance to experience the beauty of Japan’s unique culture, history, sights, the people, and everything else it has to offer.

Here’s what our students have to say about KCP and Japan:

“I felt that class in general was very productive and that everything I learned I could apply outside of class. I found the conversation practice to be particularly interesting since I got to speak with other students from different countries and hear different perspective on topics.” –  Terry Chan, Spring 2015

“These courses were incredibly informative. Each professor was more interesting than the last and gave an in-depth look at many of the multi-faceted aspects of Japanese culture. This is exactly the kind of thing students need. More exploration of this beautiful country, its people and its culture.”  – William Gomez, Spring 2016

KCP students during hanami season. | KCP Flickr

“I particularly enjoyed the culture classes and the BBQ. The culture classes I found very interesting as I have never really learned about traditional Japanese customs. My favorites were the Kamakura trip, the Asakusa Sanja matsuri, and the kabuki. The BBQ was just a fun day and a really good chance to bond with classmates.” – Yuna Murayama, Spring 2013

“Not only did I have a great time at KCP, but the improvement I’ve witnessed in my Japanese proficiency is astounding. I still can’t quite believe I’ve learned so much in such a short time.” – Suhaib Sarmad – Spring 2014

KCP attends Sanja Masuri. | KCP Flickr

“Without a doubt, your Japanese will improve while attending KCP, but the extent to which it will depends on you. Those who choose homestay invariably will improve speaking and listening comprehension as living with Japanese speakers is a sure way to improve. Balancing schoolwork and exploring Tokyo can be difficult as you’ll want to hang out with friends and discover cool places but also maintain your grades and study for tests. Take advantage of KCP’s resources such as the English support class and be sure to confirm things with your teachers after class. Making friends with the other international students is one of the funnest part of KCP as you’ll not only practice more Japanese, but learn about other cultures and have friends worldwide once you return home.” – Sophia Warren, Spring 2016

KCP chatting event, Spring 2013. | KCP Flickr

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Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine: The Magical Forest of Princess Mononoke

  • Posted by:
  • January 5, 2017

Princess Mononoke, or “Spirit/Monster Princess” is an epic anime historical fantasy from 1997. It was written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. It was produced by Toshio Suzuki and Studio Ghibli was responsible for bringing the film to life. Released in the U.S. in 1999, the film was a critical and commercial hit and was the highest-grossing film in Japan of 1997, and the highest-grossing in Japan of all time until the film Titanic was released later that same year.

The setting of “Princess Mononoke” was during the late Muromachi period (about 1336 to 1573) of Japan combined with some elements of fantasy. The story follows the adventures of the young Emishi  prince Ashitaka as he gets entangled in the struggle between the gods of a forest and humans who squander its resources.

Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine. | JoshBerglund19

The Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine (白谷雲水峡, Shiratani Unsuikyō) was the inspiration for the magical forest of “Princess Mononoke.” The  forest is in Yakushima (one of the Ōsumi Islands in Kagoshima Prefecture), a green, lush nature park with a number of islands growing with ancient cedar trees like Kugurisugi, Yayoisugi, and Nidaiosugi.

At the ravine. | JoshBerglund19

A network of hiking trails runs along the forest’s ravine. Several recommended paths vary in length, from a short one hour to a five-hour trek. You can also wander off  and explore on your own, choosing your own trail. There are different trekking trails for everyone to try, from beginners to avid trekkers. There is a historic footpath from the Edo Period; English signs are also posted all throughout the paths.

The Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine is a wonderful place to explore, not just for Princess Mononoke fans, but for all who wish to enter a magical forest. This is just one of the many wonders to experience when in Japan!

Trail at the ravine. | JoshBerglund19

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Cheap Eats in Tokyo for Students on a Budget

  • Posted by:
  • January 2, 2017

For a student trying to get by on a budget, every cent counts. Food is one of the necessary expenses that can eat up your budget. There are many options for saving on food such as cooking but with the limited time of stay in Japan, cooking may not always be an option. Tokyo can be expensive if you don’t know where to get good, affordable meals.

Here are some suggestions on eating on a budget in Tokyo:

124972831_44e2c59b30_zSupermarket suppers

Supermarkets and convenience stores offer prepared meals that come in a wide variety of options. They are fast, delicious, healthy, and affordable. You can head straight to the ‘to go’ or the obento aisles to choose from rice balls, noodles, rice meals, and sushi.

Supermarket bento. | Julia Julia

Stand-and-eat noodle shops or curry houses

These food stalls have no chairs. People just basically eat and run. Deciding on a meal is pretty straightforward. You can choose a dish from the almost-real plastic replicas on display. The food comes out in a few minutes and you can immediately enjoy a hot meal. The shops are usually found in busy places like train stations.

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Delicious depachika meals

Depachika is a term for department store basements. Basements of department stores in Japan were places where you could usually find seasonal and ceremonial gift items. But during the 1930s, department stores began selling food in their basements as a convenient and quick way to get a ready meal. You can find a variety of affordable food in depachikas. All the food is carefully prepared and beautifully laid out, ready to be eaten or as take-out. The food could rival the creations prepared by the best chefs and food artisans.

odakyu depachika. | mamichan

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Yatai yumminess

Japanese street food is also known as yatai (屋台), the word for a small, mobile food stall.  Japanese street food is filling, inexpensive, and delicious. Some Japanese street food favorites include okonomiyaki, yakitori, gyoza, and takoyaki. Just keep in mind it is considered impolite to walk while eating when in Japan.

Street food stall. | Keith Miller

Vending machine madness

Vending machines are all over Japan. The popularity of vending machines in Japan compared to other countries is largely because of the low petty-crime and vandalism rates. The machines have become a convenient and affordable means to purchase almost anything, minus the cost of live employees to do the labor.

Wherever you decide to have a meal in Japan, whether cooking or trying any of the suggested places to grab a meal, you will never be left wanting for a satisfying and delicious meal.

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Akemashite Omedetou 2017!

  • Posted by:
  • December 31, 2016

Like most countries, Shōgatsu or the Japanese New Year, is celebrated on January 1. Before the Meiji period, the Japanese New Year was based on the Chinese lunar calendar which was observed in Korea, China, and Vietnam. New Year is probably the most anticipated celebration in the country. Most Japanese mark the arrival of the New Year with traditional Japanese New Year food such as osechi and customs such as kadomatsu (bamboo-pine arrangement placed at the entrance of the home), otoshidama (giving money to children), and hatsumōde (first trip to a shrine or temple in the New Year).

Japanese New Year is observed in many other ways such as having a bōnenkai (忘年会 literally ” ‘forget the year’ gathering”), a Japanese drinking party held at the end of the year among close friends or groups of co-workers. Its main purpose is to forget the troubles and woes of the past year and to look forward to starting fresh for the new year. Shinnenkai (新年会, literally “new year gathering”) is the Japanese tradition of welcoming the New Year by also drinking alcohol. It is also usually celebrated among the company of co-workers and friends in January.

Cleansing during hatsumode at Fushimi Inari. | Aaron G.

Lucky charms are a huge part of Japanese religion and culture. Engimono are lucky charms often given out at New Year events at temples and shrines all around Japan. There are also wonderful selections of dishes to hype up the New Year celebrations. Osechi-ryōri are traditional Japanese New Year foods that began during the Heian Period (794-1185). They are packed in special boxes called jūbako and resemble bento boxes.

Osechi. | nAok0

The Dezome-shiki (New Year’s Parade of Firemen), organized by the Tokyo Fire Department and held in early January, is also something to look forward to. The parade is held to pray for a safe year, and begins with a stunning display of daredevil feats that rival the famous acrobatic acts of Cirque du Soleil.

Whatever way you spend New Year in Japan, there is always something for everyone to enjoy!

Dezome-shiki. | lasta29

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Getting around Tokyo on a Student’s Budget

  • Posted by:
  • December 26, 2016

The allure of exploring a new place in a different country is one of the best perks of studying abroad. Discovering exotic locations, culture, language, tradition, and of course, bargain shopping! Tokyo is one of the most expensive cities in the world, and for any foreign student, it may be quite a challenge to stay on budget. One of the main concerns  is budgeting for transportation costs.

Some tips to save on transportation:

Trains & Subways

Tokyo’s train and subway system is a series of reliable, convenient, and comfortable network of state of the art carriages that can get you around the city and even out of it in hardly any time at all. There are two separate subway operators (Tokyo Metro and Toei) as well as one major rail company (JR) and a multitude of private line operators. Usually it costs less to change between the different operators on a single journey.

Train railway. | tokyoform

If you plan on staying for more than 24 hours in one destination, it would be advisable to get a Suica travel pass. These are cards that you can charge up with credit and use on all lines. They work all across Japan. This will save you time on thinking of what kind of ticket to purchase. You can also use the cards to pay for items from vending machines and at shops. You can get these cards  at the JR ticket office at a station, or at Narita or Haneda Airport as soon as you arrive. You can even hand in the card back when you don’t need it anymore to receive the 500 yen deposit.

Bullet train. | NJ Moore

Go for a walk

Another way to save on transportation costs is to walk. If the distance is close enough for a walk, why not take advantage of the exercise? Tokyo is a beautiful and vibrant city with so many things to experience and see. By walking around the city to get to your destination, you’ll be able to experience more of the culture, meet more people, and perhaps even discover some off the beaten path finds worth remembering.

Walking in Shinjuku. | Kageaki Smith at KCP Flickr

Take a bus

Japan’s bus system can be useful to get to some areas the train or subway can’t get to. Bus fares are cheap and you can even use Pasmo/Suica contact-less payment cards. Just remember to study the bus routes and consider asking a local to help you out in telling the driver where to let you out. Highway buses are also one of the cheapest options when travelling out of the city.

Hello Kitty-themed bus. | Jody McIntyre

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Breathtaking Winter Landscapes in Japan

  • Posted by:
  • December 23, 2016

Winter in Japan can be as equally exciting as any other time of the year. Each season brings something new and beautiful to the landscape and surroundings that makes your visit fun and memorable.

Winter in different parts of Japan presents varied experiences. It’s such a north-south country, there’s a great difference in climate. Big cities such as Osaka and Tokyo have shorter, temperate winters, while the Northern parts as well as the mountainous regions of Japan experience long winters, extremely cold temperatures, with a lot of snowfall for long months at a time.  The thick snow makes it ideal for winter sports like skiing and snowboarding as well as the much anticipated Sapporo Snow Festival in Hokkaido.

All around Japan there are some amazing places to discover in wintertime. Here are some of the most loved places to visit:

Jigokudani Onsen, Nagano

Jigokudani Monkey Park, a part of Joshinetsu Kogen National Park (locally known as Shigakogen), is located at the northern area of the Yokoyu-River.  Jigokudani, or Hell’s Valley, is aptly named for the boiling water that spumes from the crevices of the frozen ground.

Jigokudani is not only famous for its picturesque winter wonderland but for the many wild Japanese macaques or snow monkeys that inhabit the area during the winter. They climb down from the steep cliffs and forests to enjoy the warm waters of the hot springs (onsen).

Jigokudani Monkey Park. | Douglas Sprott

Snow Monsters in Zao, Miyagi

Mt. Zao is located between the border of Yamagata and Miyagi prefectures.  Winter in Mt. Zao brings winds that blow from Siberia and as they pass through the Sea of Japan, they pick up moisture. After the wind crosses the Asahi Mountain Range to the west of Mt. Zao, the moisture forms clouds of supercooled droplets.  The mountain is surrounded  by coniferous trees such as the Aomori Fir. The trees cover the slopes that are between an altitude of about 4,265 and 5,249 feet. The clouds frost the conifers on the slopes of Mt. Zao over and over until an icy crust forms and the trees are completely covered in ice and form weird kinds of shapes. It makes an eerily majestic sight.

Mt. Zao. | alala_p

Diamond Dust, Hokkaido

Diamond dust is a gound-level cloud that is made up of tiny ice crystals. It is a meteorological phenomenon similar to fog since the cloud is on the surface. However, fog is composed of liquid water while diamond dust forms directly as ice. Diamond dust is formed when the skies are clear, making the effect more dramatic and magical.

Hokkaido is in the northernmost region of Japan and diamond dust forms during midwinter in Nayoro, Asahikawa, Tokachi, and Kawayu Onsen. As diamond dust kisses the area, the sight is just too beautiful for words.

Diamond dust. | halfrain

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The Deserted Hashima Island

  • Posted by:
  • December 20, 2016

Hashima island, also known as Gunkanjima (or ‘Battleship Island’) and Ghost Island, is one of the 505 uninhabited islands of Nagasaki Prefecture in Japan. Nearly a century ago (from 1887 to 1974), it was a bustling coal mining facility and home to thousands of workers. When the demand for coal began to shift to petrol, the once thriving island was abandoned and left to the elements. Its concrete buildings now lie as decrepit ruins, a reminder of a past long gone.

Hashima Island. | OZinOH

Hashima island was known for its undersea coal mines when coal was discovered on the area sometime in 1810. The coal mining industry operated during the industrialization of Japan. When Mitsubishi Goshi Kaisha obtained the island, it began extracting coal from undersea mines and sea walls, and land reclamation tripled the actual size of the island. When the island was still a flourishing coal mining community, Mitsubishi Goshi Kaisha bought it in 1890 and built a large nine story concrete building. More buildings were built over the years to accommodate the growing number of workers. Concrete was the choice material used for structures on the island to allow them to withstand typhoons. Buildings such as  apartment blocks, a community center, schools, a hospital, and a town hall were all maintained for the workers and their families. There were even structures for entertainment such a cinema, swimming pool, rooftop gardens, shops, communal bath, and a pachinko parlor.

Ruins of the island. | Roger Walch

Battleship island is also notorious for its dark history as the site of forced labour before and after World War II. In the 1930’s until the end of WWII, Korean conscripted civilians and Chinese prisoners-of-war were forced to work under very harsh conditions on the island. About 1,300 labourers were said to have perished under these harsh conditions, accidents, malnutrition, and exhaustion.

Google Street View of the island. | Kevin Dooley

By 1959, the 6.3 hectare island had a population of 5,259. It was considered the most densely populated place per square meter in the entire world.In 1974, as the coal reserves of the island were nearing depletion, the mine was closed and all of the residents left the island. Between 1891 to 1974, about 15.7 million tons of coal were excavated in mines with high temperatures and humidity.

Ghost Island began to pique the interest of people because of the undisturbed historical ruins. The island gradually became a popular attraction and was re-opened for visitors on the 22nd of April, 2009. The increased interest on the island prompted initiatives to protect it. On July of 2015, Hashima Island was formally recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site as part of Japan’s Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining.

Check out this fascinating virtual tour of Hashima Island with Google Street Views:

http://hashima-island.co.uk/#

 

 

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