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.
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
You 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
Kyaraben 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!
Click image or here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6c44NmyGYJM
Click image or here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mtDGlTHe8zc
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tatami 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
The 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).
Tatami mats in temple. | IwateBuddy
Itsukushima Shrine, 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
The iconic Sumida River (隅田川 ) is a beacon of Tokyo, Japan. The Sumida River stems from the Arakawa River and flows into Tokyo Bay, passing through several wards of Tokyo: Kita, Adachi, Arakawa, Sumida, Taito, Kōtō, and Chūō. One of Japan’s most anticipated fireworks displays is held there on the last Saturday of July each year. Thousands of fireworks light up the Tokyo sky in a spectacular event that surely must not be missed when visiting Japan during the summer.
The Sumida River was the original route for the trade and commerce industry, and it played a major part in the success of Tokyo. The best way to experience the allure and history of the Sumida River is on a river cruise, of which there are several options. The ride gives you a glimpse of Japan’s rich history and diverse culture, and how Japanese commerce and industry developed because of the river, making the city the center of a thriving trading port.
Sumida River. | Hideya HAMANO
Sumida River Fireworks Festival
The Sumida River Fireworks Festival is one of the oldest fireworks displays in Japan. The origins of the annual summer event can be traced back to the Edo period when the common folk were said to enjoy viewing fireworks on a cool summer evening. It is associated with the Suijin Festival that is dedicated to the water deity in order to help appease the poor souls who have passed away from the plague or starvation, and to drive away pestilence during the reign of the eighth Tokugawa Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684-1751).
Sumida River Fireworks Festival. | Peter Zuco
During the late Edo period, the Sumida River Fireworks Festival was known as Ryogoku Kawarabiraki. The festival was held annually all throughout the Meiji Restoration and the late 19th century during the Meiji–Taisho–early Showa eras. The fireworks display was briefly suspended when Tokyo went through a major economic boom, and traffic congestion and too many buildings under construction all at once were a concern. In 1978, the festival was revived and renamed to Sumidagawa Hanabi Taikai (Sumida River Fireworks Display). It is now one of festivals that visitors look forward to when in Tokyo during the summer season.
Saigō Takamori is best remembered as the “Last True Samurai.” He led a life according to the strict samurai code, bushido, and played a key role in the abolition of the han system as well as in establishing a conscript army. He opposed the modernization of Japan and the opening of commerce with the West and pushed for military modernization. When Korea refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Meiji Emperor as head of the state of the Empire of Japan, Saigō offered to visit Korea, but his idea was opposed by Japanese leaders. Saigō resigned from all his positions in protest and returned to his hometown in Kagoshima.
Saigō Takamori’s retirement project was the Shigakko, a private school for young Satsuma samurai. He funded the school but was not directly involved, so he was not aware that the students were becoming radical against the Meiji government. The opposition reached a boiling point when the government banned samurai from carrying swords and halted their stipends.
Woodblock print of the Satsuma Rebellion.
The ending of the samurai privileges was viewed as essentially ending the samurai identity. This led to an all-out rebellion and the discovery of spies planted by the central government to spy on Satsuma, with the leader confessing that he was supposed to assassinate Saigō Takamori. Saigō was roused from his initial detachment and felt betrayed by the imperial government, but he still did not want to rebel as he felt loyal to the Meiji Emperor. Instead he announced that he would go to Tokyo to question the central government. Satsuma students carrying rifles, swords, pistols, and other artillery accompanied him; this was the Satsuma Rebellion.
Saigō Takamori (with tall hat) inspecting Choshu troops at the battle of Fushimi.
Greatly outnumbered by the imperial forces, Saigō Takamori knew his rebellion was doomed. He was shot in the femur, and as part of the samurai honor code, one of his companions cut off his head and hid it from the imperial troops, since Saigō Takamori was unable to commit seppuku due to his injuries. All the rebels were killed, and the imperial troops managed to locate Saigō’s head.
Saigō Takamori’s last stand was not in a battlefield fighting for his daimyo but rather a battle between preserving old beliefs and a fast changing world. His legacy helped usher in Japan’s modern era. He was one of Japan’s most influential and powerful officials of the early Meiji government. Saigō Takamori is best remembered as the perfect example of someone who exemplified samurai traditions.
The world’s oldest noodles, found at the Lajia archeological site along the Yellow River in China, were believed to be about 4,000 years old. The noodles were well-preserved and resembled the traditional noodles from the area. The oldest written record of noodles is found in a book that dates back to the Eastern Han period of China (25–220 CE). In Japan, wheat noodles or udon were adapted from a Chinese recipe by a Buddhist monk as early as the 9th century, while ramen noodles, also based on Chinese noodles, became popular in Japan by the 1900s.
Noodles are a staple of Japanese cuisine, almost as important as rice. They are served in a variety of ways—hot or cold, in soups or dishes. Here are some of the delicious varieties of Japanese noodles:
Sōmen—thin white noodles made from wheat flour. They are usually served cold in summertime with dipping sauces but they can also be used in soups and other types of hot dishes.
Nagashi sōmen. | jmurawski
Ramen—thin noodles made from wheat flour, water, salt, and kansui (a form of alkaline water). Ramen noodles have a firm texture and are usually pale yellow in color with varying width, length, and shape. They are served in broth. Ramen dishes include tonkotsu ramen, miso ramen, shio ramen, and shoyu ramen.
Ramen noodles. | Kropsoq
Hiyamugi—similar to sōmen and udon noodles with its size being somewhere in between. They are mostly white in color but there are some noodles with hues of brown and pink sometimes mixed in with the bundles of white. Hiyamugi noodles are also served in ways similar to udon and sōmen.
Hiyamugi. | yoppy
Shirataki—clear noodles made from konnyaku (yam cake) fro a plant of the genus Amorphophallus. The noodles are rubbery or chewy and used in Japanese dishes like oden and sukiyaki to add texture.
Shirataki. | I Believe I Can Fry
Udon—the thickest type of Japanese noodles. Colored white and made from wheat, they can be served either hot or chilled with dipping sauces, in broth, or in an array of other hot dishes. Some examples of udon dishes include curry udon, kitsune udon, and yakii udon.
Udon. | Hiroyuki Takeda
Soba—made from buckwheat and wheat flour, soba noodles are available dried or fresh and can either be served cold with dipping sauce or with hot broth. Some examples of soba dishes are tempura soba, kitsune soba, and zaru soba (chilled).
Making soba noodles. | peter-rabbit
Tsumago-juku (妻籠宿) in Nagiso, Kiso District, Nagano Prefecture in Japan, is seemingly untouched by time. The quiet town has been restored to its original appearance since the Edo Period, some 300 years ago. Walking along Tsumago-juku’s quiet streets takes you back to a time long gone and allows you to experience the rich traditions and culture of Japan.
Tsumago-juku. | Josh
Tsumago-juku was further immortalized by the famous words penned by Toson Shimazaki, one of Japan’s leading modern literature writers, with the phrase “The entire Kisoji is in the mountains,” referring to the picturesque Tomago and Magome post stations along the Nakasendō route.
Tsumago on the Kisokaido, ukiyo-e prints by Hiroshige.
Post stations or rest post towns were conveniently located along the trade routes and were sanctioned by the Japanese government for amenities like horse stables and places for food and lodging. Tsumago-juku was 42nd out of the 69 post towns that connected Edo (present-day Tokyo) with Kyoto along the Nakasendō, an alternate trade route from the Tōkaidō road. Before being part of the Nakasendō, it had already been one of the eleven stations along the minor trade route Kisoji that ran through the Kiso Valley. This made Tsumago-juku a relatively prosperous and urbane town. However, after the completion of the Chūō Main Line, the town fell into poverty and obscurity, as the Main Line bypassed Tsumago-juku.
Tsumago. | Inefekt69
In 1968, through the efforts of local residents, the restoration of historical sites and structures began. By 1971, there were already about 20 houses restored and a charter by the Japanese government that stipulated that no place in Tsumago should be “sold, hired out, or destroyed.” In 1976,Tsumago-juku was designated as a Nationally-designated Architectural Preservation Site.
Also, check out KCP Summer Short Term 2012 in their Nagano excursion.
Saigō Takamori was one of Japan’s most influential samurai in history and is best remembered for being the Last True Samurai. He is considered the embodiment of bushido, the samurai code, and legends paint a magnificent picture of a life well lived in the annals of history. The movie “The Last Samurai” starring Ken Watanabi and Tom Cruise was based on his life.
Tokonami Masayoshi’s painting of Saigō Takamori in uniform.
Saigō Takamori (1828 – 1877), named Takamori in adulthood, and also known as Takanaga, was born is the Satsuma Domain (modern day Kagoshima Prefecture). He started his career as a low-ranking samurai and later served the Daimyo of Satsuma, Shimazu Nariakira, in Edo during the Kōbu gattai movement which promoted reconciliation between the Tokugawa shogunate and the Imperial court. He was banished twice to remote islands when his master suddenly died but was later pardoned by the new Satsuma Daimyo, Shimazu Hisamitsu, in 1864 and was tasked to handle the domain’s interests concerning the imperial court. Though Takamori believed the Emperor should have a stronger role, he did not anticipate that the future of Japan might not include a shogun who ruled the country for about 800 years.
Saigō Takamori led a punitive expedition against the Chosu domain whose army opened fire on the Emperor’s residence. He negotiated a peaceful settlement rather than launching an attack, a decision that would allow him to gain the Choshu as his major ally in the coming Boshin War. After the Boshin War, Takamoro went into retirement but still played a pivotal role in advising for Japan’s political strategies as a counselor for the Satsuma Domain.
Battle of Shiroyama, 1880 painting.
The Japanese government continued to make drastic changes in policies when governing the country such as seizing land from the elite samurai and redistributing profits to lower ranking warriors. Samurai officials were promoted based on talent rather than rank, and the development of modern industry was encouraged by the government.
Saigō Takamori with his officers at the Satsuma Rebellion.
Saigō Takamori paved the way for Meiji reforms such as creating a conscript army and ending the daimyo rule. He went into retirement once again in Satsuma to lead a quiet life. However, he was viewed by the disgruntled samurai of Satsuma as a symbol of traditional virtues and wanted him to lead the opposition. Saigō Takamori held true to the ideals and beliefs of an ancient code at a time when Japan was entering an era of modernization.
KCP Winter 2015 alumna Thu Nguyen shares her thoughts of Japan in this series of photos.
What comes to your mind when you think of Japan? For me, it’s not only the great Fuji…
or the beautiful kimono…
or the most delicious mochi in the world.
It’s also the quiet people who give all in the smallest tasks they do…
and this kid in her playground…
and these students on their way home…
and the patience on train rides.
Those silent pieces are what come to my mind when I think of my time there. They put together a place as exotic as you would imagine it is.
For more photos of Japan and KCP, visit KCP Flickr.
Note: article contains graphic content.
Seppuku is the samurai’s honorable way of dying through his own hand. The samurai bushido honor code explicitly states that a samurai can perform seppuku voluntarily rather than fall into the hands of the enemy and likely be subjected to torture, or because he has brought shame to himself. It was also a form of capital punishment for a samurai who had committed a serious offense.
Seppuku (切腹), “self-disembowelment,” also known as “hara-kiri” or belly-cutting, involves plunging a short sword into the left side of the abdomen, pulling the sword all the way to the right side and then turning it upwards, making it practically impossible for the wound to close and heal. It was considered exemplary to make a followup stab below the chest and press the sword downwards to cut across the initial cut, and finally to pierce one’s throat to culminate the seppuku ritual. This ritual act of taking one’s own life was thought to be a definitive demonstration of a samurai’s courage, strong resolve, and self-control, for seppuku is an extremely painful, slow way to die. It showed a true samurai’s sincerity of purpose.
Ukiyo-e woodblock print of warrior about to perform seppuku, by Kunikazu Utagawa.
There were instances when a samurai would perform voluntary seppuku to show his loyalty to his lord by following him to his death, as a form of protest against his superior or some government policy, or to atone for failing to do his duties. Obligatory seppuku was a method of capital punishment that spared the samurai the disgrace of being beheaded by a common executioner. Seppuku was finally abolished in 1873.
During the Edo Period (1600–1867), seppuku became a more detailed ritual. Planned seppuku was usually performed in front of an audience. A samurai was bathed, clothed in white robes, and served his favorite food as his final meal. When he was finished, he readied his knife, “tantō,” or short sword, “wakizashi,” the blade partially covered with cloth so he would not cut his hand and lose his grip. The samurai would also be dressed ceremonially with his sword placed in front of him and then he would prepare to write his death poem. A samurai would usually be assisted by his chosen second, “kaishakunin,” who would be standing close by. The chosen second performed kaishaku, a cut that decapitated the samurai.
General Akashi Gidayu preparing to commit seppuku after losing a battle for his master in 1582, by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka.
Jigaki is a form of ritual suicide by wives of samurai who have committed seppuku or have brought dishonor to their name. Jigaki involves slicing the arteries of the neck with one stroke for a quick and certain death, unlike the slow and painful death of seppuku. It was also performed by women to preserve one’s honor in instances of military defeat to avoid rape. According to the bushido, it is an example of a truly determined, brave, and honorable way to die.
Seppuku knife. | Rama