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Emperor Jimmu: The First Emperor of Japan

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  • March 19, 2015

The sun goddess Amaterasu is said to have brought order to Japan after its creation through a cosmic union of male and female great spirits, or kami. According to Shinto belief, the universe constantly strives towards order, not chaos, and the establishment of the imperial system can then be directly related to the concept of order.

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In Shinto belief, Jimmu is a direct descendant of the sun goddess, Amaterasu.  She had a son named Ame no Oshihomimi no Mikoto who in turn had a son named Nigini-no-Mikoto. Amaterasu sent her grandson Nigini to the Japanese islands where he met and married Princess Konohana-Sakuya.  Their union produced three sons, one of whom was Hikohohodemi no Mikoto (Yamasachi-hiko) who married Princess Toyotama, the daughter of the Japanese sea god and brother of Amaterasu. The marriage of Hikohohodemi no Mikoto and Princess Toyotama produced one son named  Hikonagisa Takeugaya Fukiaezu no Mikoto. He was abandoned by his parents and raised by his mother’s younger sister, Princess Tamayori, who he later married. They had four sons; the youngest was Jimmu. From him, the lineage of all the past and present emperors of Japan can be traced.

Woodblock print of Emperor Jimmu by Ginko Adachi.

According to the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, Emperor Jimmu  was born on  February 13, 711 BCE and died on March 11, 585 BCE. As the legend goes, Jimmu and his older brothers were born in Takachiho, the southern part of Kyūshū (modern day Miyazaki prefecture). His brother, Itsuse no Mikoto,  initially led the migration and brought the clan to the east. During his travels, Itsuse no Mikoto was killed in a battle at the hands of a local chieftain, Nagasunehiko. Jimmu took over and with the guidance of a three legged crow, Yatagarasu, reached Yamato where they again battled Nagasunehiko but won this time.

Kashihara-jingū,_Ge-haiden_01Jimmu’s legacy is the special bond among ruler, land, and people that made governing the land more stable. During the Tokugawa bafuku, as the military ruled Japan and the Shoguns exercised power, the Emperor was still revered and remained the unquestionable sovereign until only at the end of World War II when his divinity was renounced. In 1889, Kashihara Shrine was established in Nara Prefecture, in the spot where Emperor Jimmu acceded to the throne. It is dedicated to him.

Kashihara Shrine. | Masayuki (Yuki) Kawagishi

 

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Japan’s Breathtaking Sakura Season

  • Posted by:
  • March 16, 2015

Cherry blossoms (sakura) are deeply ingrained in the history and culture of Japan, and they have come to identify the country. They are full of symbolism, such as their state of impermanence (blooms only last up to a week or two) which resonates with the samurai culture and the Japanese aesthetics of wabi-sabi (view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection). These gorgeous blossoms play a role in numerous Japanese artworks, in the ancient and the modern eras.

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Hanami at Shinjuku Gyoen.

 Cherry blossoms also symbolize clouds because of how they abundantly bloom each spring. The beautiful flowers are often associated with Buddhist influence with the concept of mono no aware (awareness of transience and a sense of sadness that it is a reality of life), dating back to the 18th-century scholar Motoori Norinaga. The extreme beauty and quick death of the cherry blossoms are associated with mortality.

Sakura were initially used as offerings for the year’s harvest and marked the beginning of the rice-planting season. Early Japanese believed there was a kami (divine being) inside the trees and made offerings, including sake. The Japanese also have an old practice called hanami that involves picnicking under blooming sakura. This ancient custom dates back to the Nara Period (710-794) when Ume or plum blossoms were the main attraction; by the Heian Period (794-1185), cherry blossoms attracted more attention and became synonymous with hanami. The custom of hanami was originally limited to the Imperial Court. Emperor Saga, the 52nd Emperor of Japan, adopted this practice. He held flower-viewing parties underneath sakura trees in the Imperial court in Kyoto. By the Edo Period, common people enjoyed hanami, and so more flowering cherry trees were planted.

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 Sakura flowers. | KCP Flickr

The Japanese Meteorological Agency tracks the cherry blossom front (sakura zensen) as the both the Japanese and the tourists anticipate the next bloom. It usually begins in Okinawa in the first months of the year, moving to Kyoto and Tokyo, then onto areas with higher altitude and finally culminating in Hokkaidō. This year’s Cherry blooming forecast began on the 15th of January in Naha, Okinawa until the 5th of May in Sapporo, Hokkaidō.

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In Japan, Spring is in the Air

  • Posted by:
  • March 12, 2015

The month of March heralds the arrival of spring in 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.

Spring season events for 2015

Midtown Blossom, Tokyo (March 20 – April 15)

midtown1Japan’s bustling capital is not only the business hub of the country; it also boasts of some the most beautiful spring foliage, which makes a beautiful contrast to the towering skyscrapers. The huge urban district, Tokyo Midtown, has beautiful gardens featuring eight different kinds of cherry trees, and numbering about 150 trees in all. Many blossoming cherry trees are lit up in the evening during the course of the Midtown Blossom event. There are lounge areas where spectators can relax and enjoy the breathtaking view.

Tokyo Midtown. | Guilhem Vellut

Shonan Enoshima Spring Festival, Kanagawa (March 14 – 15)

2336625203_a06f38bf37_zEnoshima island, part of mainland Fujisawa, is home to fantastic sandy beaches. The arrival of spring there brings on the camellia blossoms. The beautiful flowers and the parade of children in a ceremonial service for having bountiful shellfish for the year draw crowds of visitors to witness the festivities. There is live music, street performances, traditional tea ceremony, and haiku writing. The festival is a unique cultural experience for all visitors.

Children tossing clams into the waters. | navisan

Huis Ten Bosch Kingdom of Flowers and Light Tulip Festival, Nagasaki (March 21 – April 13)

Huis Ten Bosch14038840023_90609ea3d4_z, or “House in the Forest,” located in in Sasebo, Nagasaki, is a theme park that recreates the Netherlands, complete with replicas of old Dutch buildings. Huis Ten Bosch was named after one of the three official residences of the Dutch Royal Family.  During spring, it celebrates the Kingdom of Flowers and Light Tulip Festival. You can get lost wandering through the tulip fields or just relax at al fresco at any of the cafés. Evening brings spectacular lights that are surely something to remember.

Tulips at Huis Ten Bosch. | KUMI

Higashi Village Azalea Festival, Okinawa (March 1 – March 22)

azalea1Higashi Village is in the eastern coast of northern Okinawa. Each spring, about 50,000 azaleas bloom in all their glory. It is truly a spectacular sight to behold. The Higashi Village Azalea Festival is one of Okinawa’s much anticipated flower festivals. An estimated 60,000 visitors come to witness the yearly event at Higashi Village People’s Forest’s Azalea Garden.

Azaleas at Higashi Village. | Screengrab from Okinawa Travel Info website

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Harajuku Haven

  • Posted by:
  • March 9, 2015

HarajukuIMG_20150117_142639 (原宿), the Kawaii capital of Japan, is the center of Japanese fashion and youth culture where you can get unique shopping finds and have a great dining experience. Harajuku, in Tokyo, is the best place to see extreme Japanese pop culture come alive, as well as to appreciate some of the country’s historic sights, all in one place.

Harajuku encompasses from Harajuku Station to Omotesando, including smaller backstreets like Takeshita Street and Cat Street, to Sendagaya to the north and Shibuya to the south. You can join in the popular cosplay culture, and shop at thrift boutiques and even at some of the world-famous high-end fashion chains.  Harajuku is also very close to other local attractions such as the Meiji Shrine, Yoyogi Park, and Yoyogi National Gymnasium.

Winter 2015 KCP Students at Meiji Shrine, Harajuku. | KCP Flickr

DSCN1383During the pre-Edo period, the Harajuku area was a small town where Minamoto no Yoshiie gathered his loyal followers during the Gosannen War (Later the Three-Year War, fought in the late 1080s as part of a long struggle for power within the warrior clan). They came together at the Seizoroi-saka, now known as Jingūmae 2 chōme. As a reward for safely delivering Ieyasu Tokugawa from Sakai to Mikawa during the Honno-ji Incident of 1582, the towns of Onden-mura and Harajuku-mura were given to Iga Ninja in 1590. The Iga clan residence was built in Harajuku to defend Edo because of its strategic location along Koshu Road. The main source of income in the Harajuku area during the Edo period was flour milling and rice cleaning directly sourced from the Shibuya river.

Fall 2014 KCP students at Harajuku. | KCP Flickr

Tōgō_HeihachirōAt the beginning of the Meiji period in 1868, the towns and villages of Shibuya Ward, including Harajuku Village, merged with Tokyo Prefecture. In 1906, Harajuku Station opened as a part of the expansion project of Yamanote Line. In 1940, Togo Shrine was built in honor of Imperial Japanese Navy Marshal-Admiral Marquis Tōgō Heihachirō, one of Japan’s greatest naval heroes.

So much of Japanese culture and history can be experienced in Harajuku—sampling some of the freshest sushi, window shopping, people watching, or visiting a temple. There’s always something for everyone at Harajuku.

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Itsukushima Shrine and Its “Floating” Torii

  • Posted by:
  • March 5, 2015

A torii is a traditional Japanese gate that marks the entrance to a sacred space. In Japan, it is common for roads leading to a Shinto shrine to be marked with one or more torii gates. This is one of the easiest ways to distinguish a Shinto shrine from a Buddhist temple.

torii1If the entrance of a Shinto shrine has several torii gates, the outer ones are known as ichi no torii (first torii), followed by ni no torii (second torii) and san no torii (third torii) as it gets closer in proximity to the shrine.  Other torii gates found further in the shrine represent increasing levels of holiness as you approach the inner sanctuary, the center of the shrine.

Floating torii of Itsukushima Shrine.

Japanese Shinto beliefs include several gods or spirits known as “kami.” Many Japanese myths are based on ancient texts l the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki. Japanese deities are mainly from Shinto (indigenous spirituality of Japan) and Buddhism beliefs that were integrated into Japanese folk tales. Amaterasu is the goddess of the sun in popular Shinto belief, and the Emperor of Japan is considered her direct descendant. Because of this, a torii stands in front of the tombs of deceased members of the Japanese Imperial family.

Torii2One of Japan’s more prominent torii is the one on the entrance of Itsukushima Shrine. Standing solitary and majestic during high tide, it is known as the floating torii. The floating torii and Itsukushima Shrine are located in the island of Itsukushima, more popularly known as Miyajima, in the city of  Hatsukaichi in Hiroshima Prefecture.

Itsukushima Shrine’s torii during low tide. | Dariusz Jemielniak

Itsukushima Shrine 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. The island of Itsukushima was considered sacred: to preserve its purity, commoners were not allowed to set foot in it. A pier was built over the water to allow pilgrims to visit. During high tide, the pier also seemed lto be floating on water, giving Itsukushima Shrine an ethereal beauty.

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The first shrine building is said to have been erected as early as the 6th centurym and the present shrine dates back to the mid-16th century. There is a noh stage close to the main shrine from 1590. Noh theater performances were a means to pay homage to the gods through ritual acting based on notable events from Shinto myths. The shrine complex is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Japanese government has designated several buildings and possessions as National Treasures.

  The shrine’s Noh theater. | Nemo’s great uncle

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Bonseki: The Ancient Japanese Art of Miniature Sand Sculpting

  • Posted by:
  • March 2, 2015

Bonsai is a familiar Japanese art form of growing miniature trees in pots or trays. Bonseki is another ancient Japanese art of creating miniature landscapes on a black lacquer tray out of various sizes of pebbles, small rocks, and white sand using delicate tools such as small flax brooms, feathers, wood wedges, sifters, and spoons. The black lacquer trays can either be low-rimmed ovals or rectangular and flat.

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Bonseki (盆石) or tray rocks, often depict scenes of gardens, mountains, and seashores with miniature structures. Rocks can represent mountains, rocky islands, or shore lines. Fine sand resembles waves from the ocean as they break water against the rocks. The miniature structures of bridges, temples, or houses are usually painted copper. Bonseki scenes are meant to be temporary but can sometimes be preserved using special methods. The preserved bonseki scene is called bonga (tray picture) or suna-e (sand picture).

Print of Japanese women’s creating bonseki.

History of Bonseki

Supposedly, Emperor Tenmu (631 – 686), the 40th emperor of Japan, used Bonseki techniques to describe landscapes and natural objects. Several gardens in Kyoto are also believed to have been designed using bonseki. The 1300 essay by the Japanese Zen monk Kokan Shiren,  “Rhymeprose on a Miniature Landscape Garden,” talks about the principles of bonseki and garden architecture.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABonseki became a popular art form of the Japanese aristocracy during the reign of Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1443-1490). The historical figure with the most profound influence on “the Japanese “Way of Tea,” Sen no Rikyū (1522 – 1591), practiced bonseki. One of his students, Hosokawa Sansai, put up a school dedicated to the art of bonseki. The Edo period saw the art form flourish even more with more schools forh ladies of the Shogunate court in old Tokyo who showed a keen interest in bnseki.

Mt. Fuji bonseki. | Crossfire

The influx of Western influence brought about a noticeable decline in interest in bonseki. But recently, bonseki is seeing a revival among some groups such as the Tokyo Kuyo-Kai composed of some of the former students of the headmasters of the Hosokawa School, who are striving to  improve  on the Hosokawa techniques while at the same time maintaining the traditional trademark elegance of the craft.  Bonseki is truly a wonderful way to experience and appreciate the unique and beautiful culture of Japan.

This YouTube video by HosokawaryuBonseki shows us how a gorgeous bonseki landscape is created.

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Click image or here: http://youtu.be/iWmzHVJG4FY.

 

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Intricacies and Uses of Kumihimo Braids

  • Posted by:
  • February 27, 2015

Kumihimo_5_b

Kumihimo is a traditional Japanese form of braiding. Kumi himo can be translated as “gathering of threads.” The earliest form of kumihimo is believed to date back to the Nara Period  (710 to 794 CE) when braids were used to secure clothing as well as in some religious ceremonies. The Heian Period (794 to1185 CE) saw braids becoming more elaborate and complex with the growing interest in the Buddhist religion. Braids were still used for clothing but more importantly in decorating temples with most of the braiding done by monks.

Kumihimo cords.

Other uses for kumihimo braids increased with the rise of the Samurai Warrior class during the Kamakura Period (1185 to1333 CE)  through the Muromachi Period (1336 to1573 CE) when samurai armor was made of lacquered iron plates joined together with kumihimo. A single samurai suit of armor required as much as 250 to 300 meters of kumihimo braids. In addition to holding the armor together, kumihimo braids were also used in harnessing horses and binding swords. Kumihimo braids were produced in a wide array of widths and sophisticated designs.

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KCP Winter 2015 students watch a kumihimo craftsman at work in Asakusa. | KCP Flickr

During the Azuchi–Monoyama  (1568 to1603 CE), kumihimo was used  when wearing a kimono. With the introduction of the wide obi sash, a braid  called obijime was needed to hold it in place and is still used up until today. The Edo Period (1603 to1868 CE) saw the development of most of the widely known traditional patterns with the earliest known published patterns dating back to this period.

You can learn the craft of kumihimo, and even create your own designs to make unique and wonderful bracelets, necklaces, and other pieces.

Check out these videos on kumihimo:

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Kumihimo workshop with Midori Suzuki Sensei by KotaDerkater

 

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Kumihimo Braid, An Easy Tutorial by RubberStampRosie

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KCP Winter 2015 Students Go on an Exciting Excursion to Asakusa

  • Posted by:
  • February 25, 2015

This mid-February, the Winter 2015 students had fun visiting the sights in Asakusa district in Taitō, Tokyo. Asakusa is known for Sensō-ji Temple, a Buddhist temple dedicated to the bodhitsattva Kannon, and for Nakamise-dōri, one of the oldest shopping streets in Japan. The shops along Nakamise-dōri sell a range of items—traditional Japanese wooden dolls, hair accessories, post cards, and other ideal souvenirs to remind you of your adventures in Japan. And if you get hungry, you can always munch on delicious Japanese street food. The famous street has all the signs of old world Japan: strolling down it is a great way to experience the Japanese culture and way of life.

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 KCP students beside food stalls in Asakusa. | KCP Flickr

The National Diet is Japan’s bicameral legislature: the House of Representatives (lower house) and the House of Councillors (upper house). Japan’s first modern legislature convened for the first time in 1189, established by the Meiji Constitution.  It took its current form in 1947. The National Diet is responsible for passing laws and selecting the Prime Minister.  The National Diet Building is where both houses meet.

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KCP students in front of the National Diet Building. | KCP Flickr

During the trip, KCP students had the opportunity to observe the fine techniques of a Kumihimo craftsman. Kumihimo, a traditional Japanese braiding craft, can be translated as “gathering of threads.” The intricate braids with their patterns and colors make beautiful jewelry pieces that can be worn or given as gifts to family and friends.

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KCP students watch as a craftsman creates kumihimo pieces. | KCP Flickr

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Akō vendetta : Revenge of the 47 Ronin

  • Posted by:
  • February 23, 2015

The bushidō, “the way of the warrior,” was the samurai’s code of conduct. It exemplified a warrior’s moral values in mastery of martial arts, frugality, loyalty, and honor unto death. A rōnin was a samurai with no lord or master. A samurai could lose his master from death or even from falling out of his master’s favor. The story of the Akō vendetta, or the Revenge of the 47 Ronin, during the Genroku Akō incident is a perfect example of a samurai living up to their code of honor.

The story of  the Revenge of the 47 Ronin goes like this…

ronin3In 1701, there were two daimyo (powerful lords)—Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori, the young daimyo of a small fiefdom in western Honshū known as the Akō Domain,  and Lord Kamei of the Tsuwano Domain. Both were ordered to organize a reception for the Emperor’s envoys in Edo sankin kōtai service (a daimyo’s alternate-year residence in Edo) to the Shogun. The Edo official, Kira Kozuke-no-Suke Yoshinaka, was not satisfied with the offerings because they lacked the bribes that he wanted. Anticipating the disaster that could ensue, Kamei’s counselors offered Kira a large bribe without Kamei knowing. This prompted Kira to treat Kamei better but continued to insult Asano, who lost his patience, attacked Kira with a dagger, and wounded the official’s face. Asano was ordered to kill himself by committing seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment). All his lands were taken, his family was ruined, and his samurai retainers were to be made ronin after his death.

Print depicting the ronin, on their way back to Sengakuji after the attack on Kira.

Ōishi Yoshio, the head chamberlain of the Asano estate and the leader of the 47 ronin, moved the Asano family away and refused to let his master’s death go unavenged. Revenge was prohibited, but the 47 ronin swore a secret oath to eventually avenge Asano by killing Kira.

Ōishi_YoshioKira was heavily guarded at all times. To stave off any doubt from Kira that any loyal envoys of Asano plotted revenge, Ōishi moved to Kyoto and even divorced his wife of 20 years to keep her safe once they had killed Kira. Ōishi frequented geisha houses, acted like a drunk, and was thought to be a disgrace. The other ronin spread around Japan and became monks or tradesmen. All this was reposted to Kira who gradually let his guard down. It took two years for Ōishi to be totally convinced that Kira had completely let down his guard. On the 4th day of the 12th month of the 15th year of  Genroku (January 30, 1703), the 47 ronin sought to avenge their master. They followed the bushidō to the letter, allowing Kira to commit seppuku, but he stayed quiet and shaking in fear. Ōishi had to ask other ronin to pin Kira down as he cut his head off with a dagger.  The 47 ronin washed and offered Kira’s head on the tomb of their master and said prayers. Then they gave themselves up for sentencing.

 Ōishi Yoshio.

ronin1The death of Kira was no loss, for he was not well-liked. The 47 ronin were just following their code of honor, yet they also defied the shogunate’s authority. 46 ronin were sentenced to take their own lives by seppuku rather than being executed. They each performed the ritual that took their lives on the 4th day of the 2nd month in 16th year of Genroku (March  20, 1703).  The 47th ronin was Terasaka Kichiemon, who was deemed too young to commit seppuku. He was pardoned by the Shogun and lived to be 87 years old. All 47 ronin are now interred in front of the tomb of their master in the grounds of Sengaku-ji Temple, Tokyo.

47 Ronin graveyard at Sengaku-ji Temple.

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Discovering Shinjuku

  • Posted by:
  • February 19, 2015

Shinjuku (新宿区 ), literally meaning “New Lodge,”  is a district in Japan’s capital and bustling metropolis, Tokyo. The KCP campus is located there, and Shinjuku is conveniently the business, entertainment, and shopping center of Tokyo. There’s always something that catches the eye, whether it’s the bright store lights by the streets or the spectacular foliage in Shinjuku Park.

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 Shinjuku at night.

When Edo Castle underwent a major expansion in 1634, many temples and shrines were relocated to the western part of Shinjuku. Then, in 1698, one of Japan’s major highways during that time was built in the town of Naitō-Shinjuku district.  In 1920, Naitō-Shinjuku and parts of Kabukichō and Nishi-Shinjuku became present-day Tokyo. Naitō was the daimyo of the Naitō-Shinjuku area, whose mansion once stood in the public park now known as Shinjuku Gyoen.

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Shinjuku Gyoen during hanami.

A large portion of the Shinjuku area was spared from the devastation of the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923.  Many skyscrapers of Tokyo’s business district are located in west Shinjuku. World War II saw Shinjuku buckle with most of the buildings destroyed. The roads and railways that were spared formed the heart of rebuilding post-war Shinjuku.

Related posts:

Join KCP Fall 2012 student Emily Cole as she leads us around the KCP neighborhood through her photos. Enjoy a day with KCP students as they explore Shinjuku Imperial Garden (Shinjuku Gyoen), which is just a short distance from the KCP campus. They played games, chatted, and had a general good time surrounded by the beauty of the pastel colored sakura.

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