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The Mongol Invasion of Japan

  • Posted by:
  • April 13, 2015

The Mongol invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281 were significant events in Japanese history and are prime examples of the concept of divine intervention. These events are also believed to be the earliest reference for the word kamikaze or “divine winds” that ended any further attempts by the Mongols to invade Japan.

KhublaiThe Mongol Empire used to rule over lands that stretched from China to the Pacific coast of Siberia in the east. Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, ruled over much of China when he defeated the Song Dynasty and declared himself the first emperor of China’s Yuan Dynasty in 1271. He also ruled over Mongolia and Korea while his uncles and cousins controlled lands that stretched from Hungary in the west all the way to Siberia.

Kublai Khan painting by Anige.

The Battle of Bun’ei (文永の役) , the First Battle of Hakata Bay

As early as 1266, Kublai Khan had been sending emissaries to Japan demanding tributes. He continued to send messengers for the next six years with his demands being ignored. The Japanese shogun would not even allow the emissaries’ ships to land on Honshu, the main island. The Mongols commissioned construction of about 600 vessels from China and Korea and gathered an army of 40,000 men, many of whom were Chinese and Koreans. On the other hand, Japan could only come up with 10,000 samurai warriors.


Depiction of defensive wall at Hakata, 1293.

divinewindIn the autumn of 1274, the Yuan army departed from the port of Masan in southern Korea. An estimated 900 vessels set out for the Sea of Japan. The first invaders seized the islands of Tsushima and Iki and slaughtered about 300 island residents. From there they moved on to the east. On the 18th of November, the Mongol army reached Hakata Bay (near present day Fukuoka). According to the scroll commissioned by Takezaki Suenaga who had fought in both the battles of Mongol invasions, the samurai warriors initially set out to battle according to their code of bushido where a lone samurai warrior would step out, announce his name and lineage, and prepare for one-on-one combat with an opponent. Unfortunately, the Mongols were unfamiliar with the samurai code and attacked the lone samurai all together. In addition, strategic weaponry and coordinated attacks of the Mongols were all new and fatal for the Japanese.

The Mongol Invasion, tapestry by Kawasaki Jimbei II.

On the evening of the battle, strong rain and winds, said to be kamikaze (divinely conjured wind), began to hit the coast and threatened the Mongol ships. Chinese and Korean sailors on board Kublai Khan’s ships advised the Mongol generals to set anchor farther out to sea lest the winds drive the vessels to shore in Hakata Bay. When the storm subsided, a third of the Mongols ships were destroyed by the storm and around 13,000 of Kublai Khan’s army perished while the rest of the Mongol army retreated back to Korea.

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Get Lost in Hōkoku-ji Temple and its Majestic Bamboo Grove

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  • April 9, 2015

Hōkoku-ji Temple, also known as “Take-dera” (Bamboo Temple) is located in the Kenchō-ji school of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism in Kamakura, Japan. The temple is famous for its bamboo garden with about 2000 moso bamboo plants growing way up high to the sky, truly an awe-inspiring sight to behold for visitors.

Hōkoku-ji Temple12086593115_2804da3246_z was founded by the priest Tengan Eko in 1334 to commemorate Ashikaga Ietoki, the grandfather of Ashikaga Takauji, first shogun of the Ashikaga shogunate. Hōkoku-ji was also the temple of the Uesugi clans. Tengan Eko, also known by his Buddhist name “Butsujo Zenji,” was a member of the Five Mountains Zen literary schools (the body of poetry and prose in Chinese produced by Japanese monks during the 14th and 15th centuries).

Hōkoku-ji Temple. | Kageaki Smith

bamboo1Copies of Buddhist teachings by Tengan Eko and carved wooden seals bearing his name are part of the collection of “Important Cultural Properties” of Japan, kept in the Kamakura Museum in the grounds of the Shinto shrine Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū. Other historic treasures of the temple include a silk painting by Zaichū Kōen dating back to 1388, a painting of Arhats (a “perfected person” or one who has attained nirvana) and other such works that are considered Prefectural Cultural Properties.

KCP students visit Hōkoku-ji’s bamboo grove.  | Kageaki Smith

The main hall of Hōkoku-ji Temple originally had a straw roof that was destroyed by the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. The bell tower still has its straw roof intact and gives us a sneak peek into what the area looked like centuries ago. Behind the main hall of Hōkoku-ji Temple where a training area used to be (where Butsujo Zenji was said to have written his poetry) now lies the majestic bamboo grove.  Visitors can sit, relax, and enjoy a cup of tea in the teahouse by the bamboo grove, and revel in the towering bamboo as they reach for the heavens.


Photo courtesy of Kageaki Smith.

For more photos of Kamakura by KCP alumnus Kageaki Smith, visit KCP Flickr.

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Senbazuru: Thousand Origami Cranes

  • Posted by:
  • April 6, 2015

The crane is symbolic in Japan — it is considered to be a mystical or holy creature like dragons and tortoises. The crane is said to live for a thousand years, which is why people make a thousand origami cranes, one for each year of its life.


Senbazuru (千羽鶴), or the thousand origami cranes, are commonly seen at temples in Japan. Senbazuru, when grouped and held together by a string, are called orizuru. According to some stories, the thousand origami cranes must be made within the span of one year and only by one person, and anyone who completes this daunting task shall be rewarded with a wish. Some people also believe that they are granted eternal good luck instead of just one wish. Once the maker of the thousand cranes makes his wish, he can give the cranes as a present to someone else.  This makes the senbazuru a popular gift to family and friends. It is also given as a traditional wedding gift by the father for a thousand years of happiness and prosperity for the couple. A senbazuru in your home is considered a powerful charm.

Orizuru. | Michael Day

5565089105_4cf686db8c_zSeveral temples in Japan have eternal flames dedicated to prayer for world peace. Many people offer senbazuru at these temples to add to the prayers for peace. The origami cranes are left exposed to the elements until they become tattered and wither away, releasing the wish. This practice is said to be related to the prayer flags of Tibet and India.

Origami crane. | Landahlauts

The materials to make senbazuru, such as origami paper, are easily available in Japan. Origami paper for senbazuru is usually of solid colors and  6×6 inches in dimension. There are sets that include 1000 sheets of paper or even more to allow for mistakes, beads to keep the origami cranes from slipping off, and string to hold them together. There are usually 25 strings with 40 cranes each in a senbazuru charm. Learn how to make a paper macaw as practice and possibly complete all 1000 cranes to make your wish come true.

Want to learn how to make a traditional Japanese origami crane? Check out this how-to video by LEARN and TEACH with FUN:


Click image or here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7qB1VaUSiBU

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April Showers Bring Exciting Festivals in Japan

  • Posted by:
  • April 2, 2015

With the highly anticipated spring flowers in full bloom, April is always exciting  in Japan. Here are just some of the festivities in April to cap off the first quarter of the year.

Kamakura Festival, Kanagawa (Second Sunday to Third Sunday of April)

12th century Japan saw Kamakura rivaling Kyoto as it developed into the center of politics and culture. The festival is held at the historic shrine of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu. The whole town comes alive with people carrying mikoshi (portable shrines), and street performers play traditional Japanese instruments.

2505369060_45a796717e_zThe main events of the Kamakura Festival are the shizuka no mai dance and the yabusame.  The shizuka no mai dance, performed on the second Sunday, reenacts  the scene of the master dancer Princess Shizuka  as she dances to express her love for the warlord Minamoto-no-Yoshitsune before their enemies. Princess Shizuka is popularly known as a tragic heroine who was held captive by Yoshitsune’s enemy, Minamoto-no-Yoritomo. Her dance angered Yorimoto which led to the imprisonment of Shizuka and the death of her children. The yabusame, an exhibition of traditional samurai skills such as archery on horseback, is held on the third Sunday.

Yabusame. | navisan

149359833_8802d63a7a_zTakayama Festival, Gifu (April 14 and 15)

Takayama Festival is the name for the combined festivals of Sanno Matsuri of spring and the Hachiman Matsuri held at Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine in October. Around a thousand people parade through the streets dressed in traditional Japanese attire from the 15th century, with dancers accompanied by musical performers. It makes you feel like you’ve travelled back in time.

Sanno Matsuri. | Robert Young

13936141414_6f18c445ef_zYayoi Festival, Tochigi (April 16 and 17)

Yayoi Festival signals the arrival of spring in Nikko, a city rich with temples and shrines registered as World Heritage sites. The main attraction of the festival takes place on the 17th of April with a parade of floats that go all over town. The festival dates all the way back to the 8th century, and current revelers still observe carefully the traditions and rituals of a time long gone.

There are more festivals for the month of April in Tokyo that are equally amazing. It is truly an enriching way to take in the beauty and culture of Japan.

Yayoi Festival. | Hetarllen Mumriken

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The Historic Hirosaki Castle

  • Posted by:
  • March 23, 2015

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

Hirosaki1After the  1590 Battle of Odawara, during the Sengoku period,  Ōura Tamenobu fought valiantly for Toyotomi Hideyoshi against one of the most powerful warrior clans in Japan, the Hojo clan.  For his efforts, he was awarded 45,000 koku(Koku was originally defined as a quantity of rice and was historically defined as enough rice to feed one person for one year: a koku of rice weighed about 150 kilograms.) Ōura Tamenobu then took the name of Tsugaru. During the Battle of Sekigahara, Tsugaru fought for Tokugawa Ieyasu and was subsequently formally named as the lord of Hirosaki Domain with his koku increasing to 47,000.

Hirosaki Castle. | Si-take

5424400976_ab9682fa83_zTsugaru began work on Hirosaki Castle in 1603, but construction came to a standstill upon his death the year after. His successor Tsugaru Nobuhira resumed building the castle in 1609 and completed it in 1611. In 1627, the 6-story, 5-roof main keep was struck by lightning, and as the fire reached the place that stored gunpowder the whole area exploded. It was only in 1810 that the main keep was rebuilt by the 9th daimyō Tsugaru Yasuchika into the more modest yet equally magnificent 3-story structure.

Tsugaru Tamenobu. | jpellgen


When the Han system was abolished, the Tsugaru clan surrendered Hirosaki Castle to the new Meiji government. Hirosaki Castle became a garrison for the Imperial Japanese Army in 1871 and a martial arts school in 1873. The properties surrounding Hirosaki Castle were donated by the Tsugaru clan to the government to turn into a park that was opened to the public in 1898. Much of the bronze in the castle such as the roof tiles and other decorations was stripped away during World War II, but in 1950 under the cultural properties protections system, all except for 2 surviving structures in the castle were named National Important Cultural Properties.  After its restoration in 1953, the East Gate of the 3rd Bailey was also designated as a historic site.

Hirosaki Castle.

There are numerous cherry trees planted all around the Hirosaki Castle. The spectacular sight draws numerous visitors each year during the cherry blossom season.

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Emperor Jimmu: The First Emperor of Japan

  • Posted by:
  • 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.


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.


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.


 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.


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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