Category Archive: Japanese Culture
Silk has been a much coveted commodity since it was first developed in ancient China. The Silk Road is a 6,ooo-kilometer trading route that stretched through regions of the Asian continent, connecting the West and the East. The ancient trading route was named after the lucrative silk trade during the Chinese Han dynasty (206BCE- 220 CE). Merchants travelled this ancient route while multiple cultures mingled through pilgrims, monks, soldiers and even nomads through the centuries.
Silk obi. | Cynthia M
Silk fabric was initially developed in ancient China with the earliest examples dating back to 3630 BCE, when it was used to wrap the body of a child at the Yangshao site at Xingyang, Henan. Silk was made for the use of Chinese emperors and given out as gifts to others. Gradually its popularity spread as many coveted the intricate beauty, softness, and sheen of the fabric. Silk became a luxury fabric and was much in demand.
The practice of harvesting silk was introduced in Japan in 199 CE when a Chinese man came to the country bringing with him a cluster of silkworm eggs. Japanese silk making techniques were further refined. It wasn’t long before Japanese silk became widely distinguished for being of the finest quality. In 600 CE, Japanese had to pay taxes in silk. In 701 CE, there was a decree ordering every family to plant a certain number of mulberry trees (their leaves are the primary food of silkworms) based on their socio-economic standing.
Silkworm cocoons. | TANAKA Juuyoh
During the rule of the Tokugawa Bafuku, Japan was largely isolated from foreign trade. Silk in Japan was mainly produced for domestic use. Japanese society was divided into castes, and only men and women from the imperial family, noblemen, priests, and military families were allowed to wear silk. The kimono, long an iconic symbol for Japan, is often made with woven silk. Silk also had other uses such as for fans and parasols.
The Japanese silk making industry has a long history and is deeply ingrained in the country’s culture. One such example is ushikubi tsumugi (pongee, home-spun silk), designated as an Intangible Cultural Property of Ishikawa Prefecture. The technique was brought to the area of Mt. Hakusan in 1159 CE by members of the Minamoto/Genji Clan who were on the losing side of the Heiji Rebellion (1180-1185). The Tomioka Silk Mill in Gumma Prefecture was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in June 2014. Considered a factory, it was established in 600 CE to mass-produce and export high-quality silk. Tomioka played a key role in the start of Japan’s modernization.
Tomioka Silk Mill. | PROTANAKA Juuyoh
Religion is an important cultural aspect and way of life for many Japanese. Numerous Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples are scattered all around, as well as several “giant Buddhas” (Daibutsu). Thousands of visitors flock to pay homage to these historical monuments. Here are just a few of the most popular great buddhas of Japan.
Great Buddha of Gifu – located in Shōhō-ji (a Buddhist temple of the Ōbaku school of Buddhism) in Gifu City, the statue was envisioned by Ichyuue, the 11th head priest of Kinpouzan Shōhō temple in 1790. The 45-ft. statue took 38 years to build and was meant to avert large earthquakes and famines. The Great Buddha of Gifu is uniquely constructed with a central pillar measuring 1.8 meters in circumference formed from gingko tree wood. The Buddha’s shape was then formed using bamboo lattices covered in clay to add shape with many of the Buddhist scriptures inlaid on the clay. The scriptures were then covered in lacquer and gold leaf that still appear today.
Great Buddha of Gifu. | Douggers
Great Buddha of Nara – located at Tōdai-ji (Japanese headquarters of the Kegon school of Buddhism) is the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha. The Great Buddha of Nara measures 52 ft. in height. Construction began in Shigaraki but after several fires and earthquakes was resumed and completed in Nara in 751. The building of the Nara Daibutsu nearly bankrupted Japan’s economy using up most of Japan’s available bronze at the time.
Great Buddha of Nara.
Great Buddha of Kamakura – located in Kōtoku-in (a Buddhist temple of the Jōdo-shū sect), Kamakura City, the great Buddha of Kamakura is made from bronze and said to date back to 1252. It measures a hefty 121 tonnes (267,000 pounds) with a height of 43.8 ft.
Great Buddha of Kamakura. | KCP Flickr
Great Buddha of Takaoka – located in Toyama Prefecture, it measures 52 ft. tall and is made from locally-mined copper. Completed in 1933, it was moved to its present site in 1980 after the ground beneath it sank about 11 meters.
Great Buddha of Takaoka. | Izu navi
Ishigawa Goemon (石川 五右衛門; 1558 – 1594) was a legendary Japanese outlaw. He was looked upon as a hero who stole gold and other valuables and gave them to the poor. His story lives on in contemporary Japanese pop culture; he is considered a a folk hero by many.
The 16th century saw sengoku daimyos constantly fighting each other. This resulted in fewer daimyos emerging from local wars and others expanding their lands. This prompted Oda Nobunaga, one of the major daimyos, to initiate the unification of Japan under the shogunate that had a decisive military conquest. His vision was continued by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and ended with Tokugawa Ieyasu. This era saw daimyos and their territories organized into domains (han) and were rated based on how much rice they produced and their ties to the ruling Tokugawa family.
Poster of kabuki actor Hinasuke Arashi as Goemon Ishikawa.
It is believed that in 1558, Ishikawa Goemon was born as Sanada Kuranoshin to a samurai family in the service of the powerful Miyoshi clan of Iga Province. Supposedly, Ishikawa Goemon’s father, Ishikawa Akashi, was killed by the men of the Ashikaga shogunate. Goemon, then 15 years old, swore to avenge his father’s death and began training in the arts of Iga ninjutsu under the tutelage of Momochi Sandayu (Momochi Tamba). When Goemon’s master found out that Goemon was having an affair with one of his mistresses, Goemon moved to neighboring Kansai region where he formed and led a band of bandits and thieves. Eventually he took the name Ishikawa Goemon, started robbing rich feudal lords, clerics, and merchants, and gave his spoils to the poor.
There is not much historical information on the life of Ishikawa Goemon and very little facts are recorded, but many believe accounts that have been passed on through the years.The earliest mention of Ishikawa Goemon appears in the 1642 biography of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. In Hideyoshi’s biography, Goemon is referred to as a thief. As the legend of Goemon became more popular, he was credited with the more notable anti-authoritarian exploits in Japan’s history. Some of these include the assassination attempts against the Oda clan, Oda Nobunaga, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi himself.
Ishikawa Goemon was later captured by Japanese authorities, and his death resounds in the annals of history by its gruesomeness. He was boiled alive along with his son in public after his botched attempt to assassinate the civil war-era warlord, Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
Poster of actor Bandō Mitsugorō III playing the role of Ishikawa Goemon.
Japan is known for its kawaii culture. Kawaii means cute or adorable in Japanese, and the phenomenon has influenced Japanese entertainment, pop culture, toys, clothing, and of course, even food!
Imagawa-yaki (今川焼き) is a popular Japanese dessert that is a staple at Japanese festivals. It is made with a batter like pancake or waffle batter and typically with sweet azuki (red bean paste) filling. Other types of filling such as vanilla custard, chocolate, and even savory fillings are increasingly popular. The batter is placed in an iron mold followed by the filling then again topped with batter.
Imagawa-yaki. | Gregg Tavares
Imagawa-yaki was first sold at a shop near Imagawa Bridge in Tokyo in 1772, hence its name. It is a disk-shaped sweet snack usually 3 centimeters thick. Imagawa-yaki is also know by other names such as oban-yaki, kaiten-yaki, nijū-yaki, and koban-yaki.
Ningyo-yaki and taiyaki are also made from the same ingredients as Imagawa-yaki but are shaped differently. Taiyaki, which means “baked sea bream,” is shaped like a fish and is considered to bring good luck in Japan.
Taiyaki. | takahito
Ningyo-yaki, named after the Nihonbashi-ningyocho area of Chuo City, are favorite Tokyo souvenirs. They are usually in the traditional shape of the Asakusa Kaminarimon gate, the shichifukujin (seven gods of good luck) or a miniature edible version of a giant chochin (lantern). Ningyo-yaki in the shapes of popular animated TV shows and other kawaii characters such as Pokemon, Hello Kitty, and Doraemon are also a favorite among many people with a sweet tooth.
Ningyo-yaki. | Charlotte Marillet
Sampling delicious, cute snacks such as ningyo-yaki is a great way to get full while experiencing the catchy kawaii culture when visiting Japan.
Gautama Buddha , Siddhārtha Gautama, Shakyamuni, or Buddha, was a sage whose teachings are the foundation of Buddhism. Regarded as the central figure in Buddhism (obviously), he taught mostly in Northeast India sometime between the sixth and fourth centuries. Buddha means “awakened one” or “enlightened one.” The accounts of Gautama Buddha’s life, monastic rules, and discourses were memorized and passed down by oral tradition . They were not committed to writing until 400 years later.
Buddhism spread from the Indian Subcontinent to China and most of Central Asia via the Silk Road and reached Japan eventually. Buddhism in Japan has been thought to have been practiced since sometime near 550 CE or even as early as the Kofun period, 250-538 CE. In modern times, the most popular schools of Buddhism in Japan are Pure Land Buddhism, Shingon Buddhism, Nichiren Buddhism, and Zen. Buddhism has had a major influence in the development of Japanese society and culture even now.
Great Buddha of Kamakura. | KCP Flickr
Buddhism and Buddhist institutions had great influence on the Japanese people throughout history; they peaked during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods. Buddhist institutions were used by the shogunate to control the country and its people. Buddhist temples also played a major administrative role during the Edo period via the Danka system (where families provide financial support for a Buddhist temple in exchange for their spiritual needs). This type of system required Japanese citizens to register at their local Buddhist temple in order to obtain a certification (uke) that was necessary for an individual to function in society.
Buddhist priest c. 1897.
The whole of Japan converted to Buddhism in 548 CE. The period following the conversion saw Buddhist influences in Japanese art beginning with classical Greco-Buddhist art (a combination of Classical Greek culture and Buddhism). Many of these elements still remain to be an inspiration today, as seen in some Nio guardian deities in Japanese Buddhist temples.
Byōdō-in, a Buddhist temple in Kyoto. | 663highland
Many countries boast of their unique kinds of street food. Sampling various street food from a particular place will give you a taste of their authentic traditional cuisine.
Street food is usually ready to eat food sold in a street or public area by a hawker or a vendor from a booth or food cart that can be packed up easily at closing time. In Japan, street food is commonly found at the many festivals that take place all year round and at other busy spots. The types of food sold are often times regional and are easy to eat on the go.
We previously wrote about delicious Japanese street food. Here are some more mouthwatering street foods to look out for when visiting Japan:
Yakisoba – it first made its debut in food stalls in Japan in the early 20th century and probably originated from Chinese fried noodles. Yakisoba noodles are made from wheat flour and may include ingredients pork, cabbage, carrots, onions, and oyster sauce. The array of condiments like seaweed powder (aonori), fish flakes (katsuobushi), Japanese mayonnaise, and pickled ginger (beni shoga), adds to the distinct flavor of yakisoba.
Yakisoba. | Richard Lee
Shioyaki – the term shioyaki means salt-grilled in Japanese. It is a traditional method of grilling fish, beef, or poultry in Japan. Salt is rubbed all over the surface of the fish or meat and left to flavor before being cooked over hot coals.
Shioyaki. | David Z
Rice burger – it is a variation of your typical hamburger only instead of bread for a bun, a rice burger uses compressed rice cakes. It was first introduced by the Japanese fast food chain MOS Burger in 1987 and has quickly spread to other Asian countries. It has become a familiar sight at festivals and where Japanese street food stalls are found.
Rice burger. | LWYang
Onigiri – a popular Japanese snack made from white rice and molded into triangular or oval shapes. It is filled with anything salty or pickled.
Onigiri. | Janine
Taiyaki – a pancake shaped like a fish, with a sweet red bean paste filling commonly made with adzuki beans. Other types of filling are custard, cheese, chocolate, and sweet potato.
Taiyaki. | bass_nroll
Your derriere will sure know pampering with the elaborate toilets found in Japan. The bidet toilet installed in at least 72% of Japanese households is the current state of the art Western-style toilet. Bidets are often called washlets (a brand name of Toto Ltd.), and common features include bidet and anus washing, seat warming, and deodorizing. Japanese toilets are amazingly more advanced than toilets in other countries.
Modern Japanese toilet by Toto Ltd. | Geoff Leeming
The traditional Japanese-style toilet (washiki) is a squat toilet. It is common all over Asia and differs a great deal from a Western toilet in construction and use. A squat toilet is a type of toilet used in a squat position rather than sitting. It resembles a miniature urinal that is set horizontally into the floor. Most are made of porcelain and in some instances, stainless steel. Using squat toilets are believed to have several health benefits including aiding in the prevention of colorectal cancer.
Squat toilet. | Matt Perreault
Western-type standard flush toilets (yōshiki) became common in Japan after World War II. Western-style and washlet toilets are becoming more and more common in Japan nowadays though some older establishments such as temples, schools, and train stations are still equipped with squat toilets. They usually have stickers illustrating how to use the facilities. Cleanliness is important in Japanese culture. Some public toilets even provide toilet slippers in front of the toilet door for people to use.
Toilet slippers. | Photocapy
Recently, more advanced features include breakthrough medical advances such as measuring blood sugar based on urine, pulse, body fat content, and blood pressure of the user. The results can be sent automatically to a doctor through a built-in internet-capable cellular telephone. More types of measurements are currently being researched. Toilets have surely come a long way compared to the older, more primitive ones. Imagine the possibilities years from now.
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
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