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Unique Non- Food Japanese Souvenirs

  • Posted by:
  • May 23, 2016

Travelling to new places introduces us to other cultures and wondrous sights, out of which we create memories that we can look back on. Whenever visiting a new country or place, we almost always want to take back home with us souvenirs either to give as presents to family and friends or to keep for ourselves. These keepsakes remind us of the places we’ve been to, the people we’ve met along our travels, and their unique way of life. In Japan, souvenirs are called omiyage. There are many kinds of omiyage that would be great to take home.

Here are a few Japanese souvenirs:

souvenir1Hagoita – these are Japanese wooden paddles used in the traditional game hanetsuki. The game, something like badminton, is usually played during the New Year. Hagoitas have intricate designs and are usually rectangular, lacquer-painted with conventional Japanese symbols and characters from kabuki dramas, and decorated with silk collages. They continue to be a decorative item in many Japanese households.

Hagoita with box. | talina

souvenir2Daruma dolls –  one of many traditional Japanese dolls, daruma dolls are spherical in shape with red bodies, white faces, and no pupils. They typically represent Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism. Daruma dolls are supposed to bring good fortune, prosperity, and fortitude to reach goals.

Daruma dolls. | David Pursehouse

souvenir3Tenugui – a traditional plain-woven Japanese hand towel. What makes it unique are the different colorful printed patterns. Tenugui is often made of cotton but is smooth in texture, unlike Western terry cloth hand towels.  It can be used to dry your hands or body, as a dish cloth, or even as an apron. The tenugui is also a popular head covering in kendo (martial art form) where it functions as a sweatband and extra padding under the headgear.  Multipurpose—very sustainable!

Tenugui. | yoshinari

souvenir4Jubako – these lacquered lunch boxes are used for special occasions like New Year. Three to five layers of lacquer coat the beautifully decorated containers that can also be used as picnic lunchboxes.

 Jubako. | Tom Head

souvenir5Geta  – these are traditional Japanese wooden flip-flops with a cloth thong called hanao. Hanao are made with many types of materials like silk, leather, or cotton. Getas are usually worn with a yukata, the less formal traditional Japanese kimono-type clothing, or even with conventional clothes.

Geta. | jean y

souvenir6Edo Kiriko cut glass – an original Japanese art-craft founded by the Japanese artisan Kyubei Kagaya. He began exploring the technique of cutting patterns into the surface of glass during the Meiji period about 130 years ago. By combining Western glass cutting techniques with traditional Japanese style, he created original designs and patterns such as chrysanthemum flowers and hemp leaf.

Edo-Kiriko. | Don Tatsu

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KCP Spring 2016 Students Experience Chanoyu

  • Posted by:
  • May 19, 2016

Matcha, a finely ground powder of specially processed and grown green tea, is a popular flavoring in Japan for many types of food.  Matcha is also used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony that centers on the preparing, serving, and drinking of green tea.


KCP Flickr.

Chanoyu (“hot water for tea”) is the Japanese term for the traditional tea ceremony. It is essentially an elaborate ritual of serving green tea, along with some sweets. The chanoyu is a way to relieve the stress of everyday life, even for just a short while, by immersing in the Zen aesthetics of serenity and peace. Each gesture and act in the tea ceremony is deliberate. The process is simply about drinking or making tea, but about serving the best bowl of tea.

At KCP International, every student is introduced to the ancient tradition of chanoyu, a result of centuries of meditative, ritualized interaction among host and guests. For the Way of Tea, the year is divided into two main seasons: the sunken hearth (ro) season (the colder months, November to April), and the brazier (furo) season (the warmer months, May to October).  It is a wonderful way to get to know the Japanese culture and way of life.


KCP Flickr.


KCP Flickr.


For more photos of the KCP Spring 2016 tea ceremony, visit KCP Flickr.

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A Short History of Photography in Japan

  • Posted by:
  • May 16, 2016

Shimazu_by_ichikiIn the world of visual arts, photography is a relative newcomer; yet it has surpassed traditional arts such as painting and sculpture in its popularity and the numbers of people who engage in it. The digital age has greatly influenced its reach, as evidenced by the countless photos one can find in the internet.  In Japan, photography is very much a part of its culture and technology. Most of the leading camera brands come from Japan, including Canon, Nikon, Sony, Panasonic, and Olympus.

The history of photography in Japan can be traced as far back as 1848, when the first camera was imported by a Dutch ship to Nagasaki. This was the time of sakoku, when the country was closed off from the rest of the world and trade was prohibited except with just a few foreign nationals, including the Dutch. In 1849, the camera was passed to Shimazu Nariakira, a daimyō who would be the subject of the first Japanese photograph taken by Ichiki Shirō, making use of the daguerreotype process.

A daguerreotype of Shimazu Nariakira (1828 – 1903).

Samurai_with_swordWhen Japan began opening its doors to foreign countries and trades in the 1850s, more cameras, accessories, and information about photography came pouring in. Foreign photographers began visiting Japan and taking photos, including noted Italian-British photographer Felice Beato. He moved to Yokohama and shot various types of photography including portraiture, landscapes, and cityscapes. He was the first photographer who sold photo albums in Japan.

With the rising interest in photography, and around the time of transition from Edo Era to the Meiji Era, more and more Japanese photographers set up studios. Among the first professional Japanese photographers were Ueno Hikoma and Shimooka Renjo, who opened their studios in 1862.

Samura with sword and dagger, circa 1860.| Felice Beato

By the early 20th century, Japan’s camera industries started to thrive. Natives became more knowledgeable about the photographic process, cameras were being sold at cheaper prices, and camera clubs and magazines started to boom around the country.

Domon_KenWorld War II brought about a thrust in photojournalism. Notable photographers who delved in this genre included Ken Domon, Ihee Kimura, and Yōnosuke Natori. After the devastation caused by war, the photography industry recuperated and by the 1950s, Japanese cameras were known globally as having high-class standards.

In the late 1960s through the 1980s, Japan’s high economic growth moved it to the forefront of camera technology and sales, and ahead of U.S. and German makers. Top competitors of Japanese camera brands were each other.

Ken Domon looking through his camera. |朝日新聞社

17088229279_7f846e9bac_zHowever, the 1990s marked the Japanese recession and great changes in the photographic industry came about. A lot of photo book publishers went bankrupt and many photo magazines and galleries closed. Yet, it was also a time when photography in culture spiked. Fine art photography flourished and major art museums established photography departments and exhibition spaces. At the same time, compact cameras and photo stickers had become a hit among young people.

Taking a selfie by the sakura. | Núria

With the advent of the digital and internet age, the masses have become accustomed to photography as a medium of expression and documentation. The selfie generation is here, cameras are more accessible than ever, and almost everyone in Japan (and many other countries) now carries some type of camera. With constant innovation, it’s a given that the photography industry will remain strong for a very long time.

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The Ornate and Functional Japanese Rain Chain

  • Posted by:
  • May 12, 2016

rainchain1With climate change affecting all corners of the world, every little thing we can do to help lessen our carbon footprint is a great help to our planet. Water is something we all need. Collecting rain water and re-using it is just one of the many ways we can contribute to living greener lives. Japanese rain chains are a beautiful alternative to a closed gutted downspout that makes a great tool for collecting rain water. The rain chain is also a wonderful way to add a splash of beauty and character to your home.

Rain chain on a shrine. | buck82

rainchain2“Kusari-doi”  literally means chain-gutter. Both functional and decorative, they are common in Japan. Rain chains have been around for hundreds of years in Japan and adorn the roofs of Japanese homes, collecting rainwater by allowing it to move downwards and depositing it in large barrels or other types of storage container. The Japanese then use the water for household purposes. Japanese temples also make use of rain chains and incorporate a number of ornate and sometimes larger chains into the designs.Garden & Outdoors

Japanese rain chain. | Stardog Champion

Japanese rain chains are typically a series of metal cups that are chained together with a hole in the bottom of each cup. They can be as simple as ordinary chain links that span vertically. The rain water is distributed from a rooftop gutter and runs downward through the rain chain. From tiny droplets to a rush of rain water, it’s a very simple yet ingenious concept that transforms a plain gutter spout into a gorgeous water feature that contributes to a greener way of life and a more beautiful home.

Garden & Outdoors’ YouTube video shows some examples of Japanese rain chains.


Click image or here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F1_RRV1OPjQ

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Japan’s Amazing Hundred Year Old Drinking Water

  • Posted by:
  • May 9, 2016

Can water itself go bad? It’s a question that has probably run through our minds at some point or another. It seems like everything nowadays can go bad, including water.

Our mouths are riddled with microorganisms. Changes in temperature allow microorganisms to multiply at an alarming rate. Reusing the same dirty glass will greatly increase the risks of exposure to unfriendly bacteria, especially if you share your drink with someone. Even bottled water that’s stored is good for only about 12 months.  Plastic bottles are permeable and can cause some of the water to evaporate. If you leave plastic bottled water in a hot area, this can cause the plastic to release bisphenol-A or BPA along with other harmful chemicals used to manufacture the plastic. These chemicals can cause heart disease and cancer.

water2Do you sometimes notice a change in the taste of water that you leave overnight? The slightly lower levels of pH in the water as carbon dioxide in the air interacts with the H2O is what’s causing the odd taste, but it is still safe to drink. Most experts say that tap water has a shelf life of about six months; after that point the chlorine dissipates and bacteria and algae will start to grow. The good news is, adding four drops of plain, unscented bleach to a gallon of water and waiting 30 minutes should make your water safe to drink again.

Plastic water bottle. | liz west

In water1Ishikawa Prefecture in Honshū island, Noto Peninsula, lies Cape Suzu. Cape Suzu is one of Japan’s three greatest spots for the purest mineral water that stays fresh for as long as a hundred years, possibly longer. It is dubbed the “hundred-year water”. The water from Cape Suzu was recognized by a public health center in northern Noto as real water extracted in 1889, thus setting the world record as the oldest consumable water that does not spoil.  There is no exact explanation of how Cape Suzu’s water is kept from spoiling, but it is said to possess some of the rarest characteristics in the world. Cape Suzu enthusiasts plan to apply for a Guinness World Record for “the purest water in the world.”

Waterfall in Noto Peninsula. | Fumie Mizuno

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The Amazing Ryukyu Culture

  • Posted by:
  • May 5, 2016

Located at the southwest tip of Japan are the islands of Okinawa. Okinawa is made up of 160 islands and is home to the indigenous Ryukyuan or Lewchewan people. They are the largest minority group in Japan, with about 1.3 million living in Okinawa alone and another 300,000 elsewhere in or outside the country, mostly in Hawaii.


Ryukyu was first mentioned in Chinese historical writings from the Sui Dynasty of the 6th to 7th centuries. The early Ryukyuan Islands were described by the Chinese as the modern day Ryukyuan Islands and Taiwan and were inhabited at the time by migrants who were believed to have crossed into the northern Amami-Okinawa Islands from Kyushu. Over the centuries, the locals established trade relations with neighboring Korea, China, and other islands in Japan.

Five men wearing Ryukyuan attire, Meiji era. 

When China initiated its maritime prohibition policy in 1371, the Ryukyu played an important part as intermediary between Japan and China. During the reign of China’s Hongwu Emperor, the founder of the Ming dynasty, 36 Chinese families from Fujian (a province southeast coast of mainland China) were invited by the king of the Okinawa Islands to settle in the port areas and serve as interpreters, diplomats, and government officials. Many Ryukyuan officials were descendants of Chinese immigrants, either born in China or had Chinese grandfathers. Their contributions helped shape Ryukyuan technology and diplomatic ties.


The Ryukyu Kingdom was established in 1429 and continued to flourish through commerce and trade. In the early 17th century, the Okinawa Islands were invaded by the Satsuma Domain of Kyūshū. During the Meiji period, the Ryukyu Kingdom was formally abolished and became Okinawa Prefecture. In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. maintained control of Okinawa even after the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco. Some of the U.S. soldiers stationed in the islands took local brides. In 1972, Okinawa was returned to Japan, yet three quarters of U.S. service personnel stationed in Japan are assigned in Okinawa today.

Ryukyan mission in Edo. 

7710227630_a1a6759751_oThe Shuri Castle is located only 30 minutes by monorail from Naha Airport. It is nestled on top of a hill that overlooks Shuri, the ancient capital of Okinawa. Shuri Castle is a World Heritage site that best embodies the history and culture of the Ryukyu people that embraced diversity.

Shuri Castle. | stillthinking_t



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Thunderous Taiko Drums

  • Posted by:
  • May 2, 2016

Japan has a long, proud history in its unique ancient culture and heritage that span centuries. Musical instruments have been an influential part of Japanese traditions as seen in the many festivals that are celebrated yearly. Some of these traditional Japanese instruments have withstood the test of time, notably the taiko drums, which have attracted quite a number of avid players.


Taiko drums are large percussion instruments that have been a part of Japanese culture for centuries. They were originally found in shrines and temples, and they were played during religious ceremonies and festivals. The rhythmic and booming beats of taiko drums can resonate to far distances. Taiko drums come in varieties and sizes. The huge ones are called ōdaiko, which include some of the largest drums in the world. The largest, which is housed at Takanosu Road Station, measures 3.71 meters in diameter and weighs 3 tons. That’s enormous!

Taiko drums. | Jim George

Over the last four decades, taiko drumming has become a performance art and is now growing in popularity as an exercise routine. Taiko exercise is the perfect ensemble-based, full mind, and body workout with the additional playing of a musical instrument. Taiko is often taught at martial arts studios because it shares much of the same philosophies of mind/body practice common in Eastern discipline studies such as tai chi, yoga, and martial arts.

1254734424_7e0f7439e8_zTaiko offers a whole new experience even for seasoned drummers. You don’t have to be adept at playing the drums when introducing yourself to taiko exercises. The rhythms are simple enough and can be easily memorized after a few sessions by picking up the patterns and recognizing them through repetition since the rhythm does not correspond to contemporary music and there is no written music. The patterns are mostly played in a standing position, at times overhead, in a half squatting position and even running and jumping. It makes an ideal overall workout that tones most, if not all, the muscles of the body.

Taiko drummers. | Camille King

A study by neurologist Dr. Barry Bittman of the Yamaha Music and Wellness Institute on the drumming activity and its effect on increasing immune response over 10 years ago, shows that, “playing a musical instrument also helped prevent biological responses to stress that are closely associated with heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and virus activity.” This is based on the fact that drum circles have been a part of healing rituals in many cultures.

Check out this taiko workout YouTube video by taikofit:


Click image or here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnOaExLJ1zY

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The Versatility of Green Matcha

  • Posted by:
  • April 28, 2016

Matcha is finely ground powder of specially processed and grown green tea. A popular flavor in Japan, matcha is also used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony that centers on the preparing, serving, and drinking of green tea.

matcha1Matcha was discovered by a Chinese monk, from a tea plant called Camellia sinensis. The farming and processing of green tea involves two stages: harvesting and fermenting. The plant grows in shade for about three weeks before harvesting. The stems and veins are then removed. The leaves of the plant are fermented and dried to get the desired flavor and quality. This fermentation process is the key to achieving a particular type of tea. The tea leaves have polyphenols responsible for the creation of antioxidants in our bodies. The longer the fermentation process, the fewer polyphenols in the leaves.

Matcha green tea powder. | Mattie Hagedorn

Green tea fermentation involves first steaming the leaves, then fermenting them. This retains more of the polyphenols that offer so many health benefits. For example, one polyphenol is Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), which is responsible for repairing damaged cells of the body as well as fighting off harmful toxins.

matcha2Blends of matcha are given tea names or chamei by the plantation, by the store where matcha is sold, or by the grand master of a particular tea tradition. When a blend of green tea is named by a grand master, it becomes known as the master’s konomi or favored blend. Matcha is also often used to flavor and dye foods such as noodles, ice cream, and mochi. As of late, there are numerous green tea flavored products such as green tea KitKat chocolate bars, pizzas, drinks, and many more!

Matcha flavored ice cream (right). | jpellgen

11994724546_3df8899154_zUsually, all the popular products flavored with green tea start to come out during warmer months and the first tea harvests of the year. One particular store named Itohkyuemon tea store, in Kyoto’s highly regarded green tea-producing region of Uji, has been selling tea since 1832. Almost two centuries later, Itohkyuemon is introducing “vin au thé vert” (green tea wine) to the market as part of their “Yokan no Midori” (Midnight Green) range of alcoholic beverages. The versatility of matcha flavors as well as the many health benefits matcha offers are a wonderful way to enjoy the age old Japanese favorite.

Green tea KitKat. | Nestlé

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Delicious Japanese Fruits

  • Posted by:
  • April 25, 2016

Japan prides itself on its many gastronomical delights. Freshness is an unquestionable factor when it comes to the ingredients used in all Japanese cuisine. Fruits are laboriously cultivated by expert farmers and are packed with care. Here are some popular Japanese fruits to try when in Japan:

Sudachi is a small, round, green citrus fruit with a sour taste similar to an orange. The fruit is a specialty of Tokushima Prefecture and is a symbol of the area where majority of the fruit is cultivated. Sudachi has been cultivated for centuries in parts of Japan and is widely used in Japanese cooking and considered indispensable when eating matsutake mushrooms. The plant has white flowers that bloom in May and June. The fruits grow in bunches or clusters that are harvested in the fall. Though sudachi fruits turn yellow-orange when ripe, they are normally used and harvested while still green.

Sudachi. | Hideaki Inoue

Apples_FujiFuji Apple is a hybrid apple developed by the growers of the Tohoku Research Station in Fujisan, Aomori in the late 1930s and introduced to the market in 1962. The fruit is named for the town of Fujisaki where Tohoku Research Station is located. The Fuji apple is a cross between two American apple varieties, the Red delicious and old Virginia Ralls Genet apples.

Fuji apples are known for their crisper texture and dense flesh compared to other varieties as well as their sweetness, with a 9-11% sugar content by weight. They are a favorite among apple consumers worldwide and can remain fresh with refrigeration for up to a year. Fuji apples are mostly grown in the Aomori Prefecture with about 900,000 tons being produced annually.

Fuji apples. | Aomorikuma

Japan's_Kyoho_GrapesKyoho grapes or “giant mountain grapes” are a cross between Ishiharawase and Centennial grape varieties. They are large, dark purple to almost black in color, and have thick skin. They can sometimes grow as big as plums and are usually peeled before being eaten. The flesh is juicy and sweet with mild acidity. Kyoho grapes were first produced in 1937 in Shizuoka Prefecture but were only named in 1946. They are produced today mainly in the prefectures of Nagano and Yamanashi.

Kyoho grapes. | Grialte

2703254328_efce8eee43_zUme or Japanese apricots are from the Prunus mume tree prolific in Asia. The flowers of the tree are plum blossoms that blossom during late winter and early spring. Ume is regarded as a seasonal symbol in Japan. The Prunus mume tree species is related to plum and apricot trees. Ume is known for its unique sour taste and is rarely eaten straight from the tree. Ume fruit is commonly used to make umeboshi pickles and is an ingredient in many Japanese dishes.

Ume. | Austin Keys

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The Historical Ueda Castle

  • Posted by:
  • April 21, 2016

Ueda Castle (上田城 Ueda-jō) plays an important part in Japanese history that exemplifies determination and courage. The castle was built in the late 16th century by the daimyo Sanada Masayuki who later became the governor. Sanada Masayuki was known for his resourcefulness and courage. He was skilled in war tactics and strategies and led his limited forces masterfully in bravely going against larger armies.


Ueda Castle. | Tomorobi

The Sanada clan defended the castle twice from Tokugawa for it rallied against its rule, in 1585 and then again in 1600. The Sanada clan put up an impressive stance against the Tokugawa armies both times. When Sanada Masayuki refused to relinquish hold over the Numata Castle to Tokugawa Ieyasu, it led eventually to the Battle of Kami River. While some of Sanada’s forces were busily engaged in battle, Ieyasu charged into Ueda Castle with a very large army. Masayuki had already readied his available forces with an ambush party. This surprise attack threw off the Tokugawa army, causing a great loss of life.

Sanada_Masayuki2At the Battle of Sekigahara, Masayuki and his son, Sanada Yukimura, yet again faced the Tokugawa army. The Sanada forces announced their surrender as part of Masayuki’s plan to make the Tokugawa army think he was really surrendering. Instead, Masayuki was really preparing to defend Ueda Castle. When Tokugawa Hidetada was alerted of the Sanada clan’s plot, Hidetada began to move his troops. However, Masayuki was not to be outwitted and was already prepared to attack. Another ambush party was ready to attack: this time it was ordered to attack the Tokugawa’s main camp. Hidetada failed in his plan to seize Ueda Castle and was also kept from joining the field at Sekigahara.

Sanada Masayuki. | 不明。

When finally Sanada Masayuki succumbed to defeat, Ueda Castle was demolished. When the Tokugawa family established their reign over Japan, the castle was reconstructed by another daimyo. The donjon died during the reconstruction, leaving the castle mainly unfinished. Today, there are existing turrets that echo what Ueno castle once was, a place where so many lives were lost, a place that so many people fought for as a testament to their courage and beliefs.

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