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Category Archive: Japanese Culture

A Brief History of Japanese Wines

  • Posted by:
  • June 20, 2016

Viticulture is the science, production, and study of grapes. The native territories of the common grape vine are from Western Europe to the Persian shores of the Caspian Sea. But grape vines have proven to show adaptability to new environments, promoting the popularity and spread of viticulture in every continent except Antarctica.

wine1Grape growing in Japan began as early as 718 AD in Katsunuma, Yamanashi Prefecture. The first ever documented wine consumption in the country was in the 16th century, when the Jesuit missionaries from Portugal arrived. Saint Francis Xavier brought wines as presents for the Japanese feudal lords of Kyūshū.  Other missionaries continued the practice of using wine in their services, and soon locals acquired the distinct taste of wine made from grapes, importing it on a regular basis. Portuguese wine was called chintashu which combined the Portuguese word tinto (chinta in Japanese) meaning red and shu meaning liquor.

Japanese wines. | tzejen

wine2In 1873, returning members of the Iwakura Mission brought detailed reports on European wine culture back to Japan. This enabled the Japanese to make focused attempts to promote domestic wine production using sake brewing equipment by Hironori Yamada and Norihisa Takuma in Kofu, Yamanashi. They sent Masanari Takano and Ryuken Tsuchiya to Bordeaux to learn viticulture and wine production techniques. Cultivation of early European grapes formed the core of early attempts of growing grapes. However, this was hampered by the Phylloxera (a pest of commercial grapevines) that arrived with the imported root stock in 1884.

Wine barrels at Meiji Jingū. | Wally Gobetz

After World War II, wine making became more popular.  But the acidity and astringency for domestically produced wines were not readily accepted by Japanese taste. For some time, sugars like honey were added to make sweeter (amakuchi) wine. In the 1970s and 80s, skills in Japanese wine making become more refined and demand for both domestically produced and imported wines increased with the boom of the Japanese economy. Domestic wineries began to focus on producing superior wines using only domestically cultivated grapes.

wine3The 90s saw a reduction in taxes on imported wine as well as developing tastes for the Japanese food culture, and wine consumption continued to grow. Shinya Tasaki became the first Japanese to be awarded the title of Meillieur Sommelier du Monde in 1995. This significantly raised public awareness of wine appreciation as well as all the health benefits of polyphenol (tannins) found in wine.  In 2002, Yamanashi Prefecture led competitions that focused on “Japanese wine using only 100% Japanese grapes.”

Grapes at a Yamanashi winery. | Masaki Tokutomi

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The Art of Zazen

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  • June 9, 2016

Japanese culture is deeply rooted in Zen, a school of Mahayana (Sanskrit for “Great Vehicle”) Buddhism, one of the main existing branches of Buddhism and a term for classification of Buddhist philosophies and practice. Zen is a practice that was passed on from master to disciple in the purest context known as “uninterrupted bloodline,”  believed to have originated from the Awakening of a man named Siddhārtha Gautama, also known as Buddha, in India, some 2,500 years ago. Zazen or “seated meditation” is a meditative discipline in Zen Buddhist practice. The goal of zazen is to just sit and free oneself from all thoughts, words, images, and ideas.


Thousands of years ago in India, Buddha sought to find the solution to end human suffering. The answer came to him while practicing Zen meditation under a tree, and it was “Enlightenment.” This was the realization that while we possess all that we could ever desire in life, we still often remain unsatisfied. The reason for this is that true happiness doesn’t depend on what we have but on who we are. Buddha’s doctrine, teaching and practice helps us achieve inner peace through zazen.

A Zendo, or meditation hall.  | John Gillespie

The practice of zazen meditation is the heart of the Zen Buddhist experience. It is a very simple yet precise method of meditation.  Namely:


zazen3Zen monasteries and  temples require the tradition where participants sit as a group in a meditation hall usually called a zendo. The practitioner sits on cushion called a zafu that is commonly placed on top of a low, flat mat called a zabuton. Before the participant is seated, he must bow to the seat and to fellow practitioners. The beginning of a period of zazen  is traditionally announced by ringing a bell three times (shijosho), and  the end of a round is by ringing the bell once or twice (hozensho). Long sessions of zazen are usually alternated with periods of walking meditation (kinhin).

Zafu in Sōji-ji. | geraldford


When practicing zazen, usually one sits with hands and legs folded and spine erect yet settled. The hands are folded together (mudra, a symbolic or ritual gesture) over the belly. The practitioner should breathe from the center of gravity in the belly (hara), with the eyelids half-lowered and neither to be fully opened nor closed to avoid distraction.


The legs can be folded into any of the sitting styles:

Kekkafuza – full-lotus
Hankafuza -half-lotus
Burmese – ankles crossed together in front.
Seiza – a kneeling posture using a bench or zafu.

Mudra. | Richard

Mastering zazen is truly an art that, when achieved, can free the mind and body and attain peace.

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Get a Taste of Hōtō

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  • June 6, 2016

Hōtō is a famous regional dish from Yamanashi Prefecture. Made with stewed, dumpling style noodles, vegetables, and miso soup, it is a delicious, hearty meal that epitomizes the unique tastes and culture of Japan.


At a time in Japan’s history when the country was experiencing shortage in rice crops, hōtō was created to address food shortage. Silk was much in demand, and lands that were traditionally reserved for rice crops were turned into silk farms. Rice farming was a daunting task. It was nearly impossible for the crop to flourish in Yamanashi’s Gunnai region with its frigid climate and the amounts of volcanic debris in the soil. Wheat farming was a more ideal crop and its popularity spread throughout the region as well as into the neighboring Saitama, Shizuoka, Nagano and Gunma prefectures. Yamanashi Prefecture focused on wheat farming and flour culture and hōtō was born.

Hōtō . | Jungle

According to other stories, hōtō was invented by Takeda Shingen, a daimyo and warlord of the latter part of the Sengoku period. After World War II, tourism became Yamanashi Prefecture’s most lucrative source of revenue. Locals thought of many ideas to promote the area’s regional products. Hōtō was promoted as the meal eaten by Takeda Shingen and his soldiers before each battle.


KCP Fall 2015 students enjoying a bowl of hōtō. | KCP Flickr

Hōtō is traditionally made by kneading dough with bare hands in a wooden bowl and stretching it out to dry. The dough is then folded over and over into large pieces with a kitchen knife. Unlike the usual udon noodles, hōtō has a tougher texture of dough due to the amount of gluten, and it is not mixed with salt. Hōtō is boiled along with the other ingredients of the dish, usually dashi (a soup base) made from niboshi (dried baby sardines) and miso soup. Vegetables are usually seasonal, during the summer negi (bunching onions), onions and potatoes are common ingredients. Winter vegetables are usually taro, carrots, and Chinese cabbage. Mushrooms such as shiitake and shimeji, pork, and chicken are common ingredients all year round.


KCP Fall 2015 make the dough. | KCP Flickr

Hōtō is a tasty dish that can satisfy the appetite of any battle ready warrior as well as any adventurous traveler who is ready to take in the sights and tastes of Japan.

Check out photos of KCP’s Fall 2015 students learning how to make hōtō during their Yamanashi trip.

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Traditional Japanese Arts

  • Posted by:
  • May 26, 2016

Japanese traditional arts and handicrafts have been subjected to many outside influences from other cultures. It was a result of the numerous sudden invasions the island nation endured through the course of history, followed by long periods of minimal contact from the outside world during Japan’s sakoku period.

The earliest complex Japanese art form was Buddhism, from the 7th and 8th centuries. During the 9th century, the Japanese began to develop their own indigenous forms of expression as they incorporated their own styles into what they had adapted from the Chinese. The culmination and aesthetic uniqueness of traditional Japanese art is a result of assimilating the influence of foreign cultures and elements.

Many regions of Japan have their own specialties in traditional handicrafts. Here are just a few of them.

kutaniKutani ware, Ishikawa – a style of Japanese Gotō Saijirō porcelain known for its colorful, vibrant painted designs.  Kutani ware was established by Gotō Saijirō of the Maeda Clan.  He was responsible for setting up a kiln in the village of Kutani, now part of the city of Kaga, under the orders of Maeda Toshiharu, head of the Kaga domain. Kutani ware is distinguished by designs mainly using five colors (red, yellow, purple, blue, and green) that are used to paint over intricate line drawings. Many different products such as vases, tea sets, and ornaments are made using this traditional technique.

Kutani incense burner. | antefixus21

kokeshiKokeshi dolls, Miyagi – traditional hand-crafted Japanese wooden dolls with origins traceablle to northern Japan. The dolls have a straight, cylindrical body with large, round heads. The faces of the kokeshi are painted with very simple lines that still convey their various expressions. Since the dolls are hand-painted, each doll is unique; no two kokeshi dolls have identical faces. Traditionally, the body is coated with wax and usually decorated with floral designs of varying colors. The bottom of the dolls should bear the signature of the artist.

Kokeshi dolls. | Hitty Evie

temariMatsumoto-temari, Matsumoto  – these handcrafted balls are decorated with scraps of yarn woven to create beautiful designs.  Initially, the balls were meant to be used as beanbags for children. But a way to make the bean bags bounce was discovered, and the toy soon became known as temari handballs.  Some balls are made with bells inside. They make a unique sound when bounced around. Temari balls are commonly used today as decorative accent pieces in many Japanese homes.

Temari balls. | GrinnPidgeon

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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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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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KCP Winter 2016 Students Explore Kamakura

  • Posted by:
  • April 18, 2016

Kamakura, one of Japan’s most popular destinations, has many historical Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, some of which are over a thousand years old. The Great Buddha of Kamakura located in Kōtoku-in (a Buddhist temple of the Jōdo-shū sect), Kamakura City, is one of the famous attractions that draws visitors every year. The Great Buddha of Kamakura is a bronze statue of Amida Buddha, said to date back to 1252. It measures a hefty 121 tonnes (267,000 pounds) with a height of 43.8 ft.


KCP Winter 2016 students by the Great Buddha. | KCP Flickr

Kamakura is also the home of the Five Great Zen Temples or the Kamakura Gozan. The architectural and historical heritage of Kamakura is a wonderful way to experience the Japanese culture. Although the city was heavily damaged during the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, the damaged centuries-old shrines and temples have since then been carefully restored.

Join KCP Winter 2016 students as they visit and explore Kamakura as part of their culture trip.


KCP Flickr.


KCP Flickr.


KCP Flickr.

For more photos of the Kamakura excursion, visit KCP Flickr.

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Ukai: A Traditional Japanese Way of Fishing

  • Posted by:
  • April 14, 2016

Ukai or cormorant fishing is a traditional fishing method using trained cormorants (from the family of Phalacrocoracidae consisting of about 40 kinds of species of aquatic birds) to fish in rivers. Fishermen tie a snare by the base of the bird’s throat, preventing them from swallowing the bigger fish they catch. The smaller fish can still be swallowed and eaten by the cormorants. Once a bird catches a fish, the fisherman brings it back to the boat and has it spit out the fish. Ukai was once a thriving industry. Though it is not as popular today, it is still being practiced and is a part of the unique Japanese culture and tradition.


Ukai has been around for about 1,300 years in Japan, predominantly along the Nagarawa River in Gifu City where master fishermen have official patronage from the emperor of Japan himself. History tells us that cormorant fishing has been practiced in China and Japan since 960 CE and even as far back as 636 CE according to the Book of Sui, the official history of the Sui Dynasty of China where it states that ukai was the fishing method used by ancient Japanese.

Cormorants catching fish. | Frans Schouwenburg

14942068790_4c01f4a33e_zCormorant fishing in Japan is practiced by master fishermen in long wooden boats with each fisherman leading about a dozen birds on leashes. The cormorants swim alongside the boat and dive underwater to catch fish by swallowing them whole. Cormorants have special pouches in their throats that can store the fish which can be easily retrieved by the fishermen. For night fishing, each boat has a large fire that is suspended from its bow to enable the fishermen and birds to see better.

Fishermen with cormorants. | Kentaro Ohno


Today, ukai takes place in the summer months in about a dozen rivers across Japan. The type of cormorants used in fishing depends on where the fishermen intend to fish. In China, Chinese fishermen often use great cormorants or black shag, Phalacrocorax carbo. And in Gifu, Japan, fishermen use the Japanese cormorant or Temminck’s cormorant, Phalacrocorax capillatus.

Some of the more popular locations include:

  • Nagaragawa River, Gifu City, May 11 to October 15
  • Hozu River, Arashiyama, Kyoto City, July to mid September (2015: 7/1 to 9/15)
  • Uji River, Uji City, mid June to late September (2015: 6/13 to 9/23)

Cormorants. | Alexander Savin

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Delectable Karaage

  • Posted by:
  • April 7, 2016

Karaage chicken is popularly known as Japan’s version of fried chicken. What makes it different from other types of fried chicken is its size and seasoning. Chicken karaage is often served in boneless bite-sized pieces and is specially seasoned with a mouth-watering mix of popular Asian flavors such as ginger and sesame.


Karaage is a Japanese cooking technique used for many other types of food, not just chicken. Other types of meat and fish can also be used. The karaage cooking technique involves marinating the small pieces of meat in a sauce, then lightly coating it with seasoned flour or potato starch mixture and finally frying it in oil.

Chicken karaage. | Kirk K

Karaage is much loved in Japan; there is even a travelling Karaage Festival specifically dedicated to it. The next event is set to open at the start of April 2016 in Fukuoka City, at the southern island of Kyushu. Representatives from more than 24 karaage restaurants from all around the country come to the festival, all ready to cook up a storm with their own take on karaage.


For those with adventurous tastebuds, there are other things made with karaage that you can try at the karaage festival, like karaage ramen and even karaage ice cream! Karaage is a delicious addition to a recipe repertoire that anyone can enjoy again and again.

Octopus karaage. | june29

Here is a simple karaage recipe you can try.

karaage34 pcs boneless chicken breast with or without skin
2 Tbsp sake
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1/4 tsp salt
1-2 tsp garlic, grated
1-2 tsp ginger, grated
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup corn starch
salt and pepper to taste
oil for deep frying

Karaage. | Lucas Richarz

Cut chicken breasts into bite-sized pieces. Mix sake, soy sauce, salt, garlic, and ginger with chicken in a bowl, cover the bowl with cling wrap. Let the chicken pieces sit in the marinade for 1/2-1 hour in the fridge. Mix flour, corn starch, and some salt and pepper in another bowl. Coat marinated chicken pieces with flour mixture. Heat oil at medium high heat ( about 350F). Deep fry chicken until cooked.

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