Category Archive: Japanese Culture
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
Saigō Takamori was one of Japan’s most influential samurai in history and is best remembered for being the Last True Samurai. He is considered the embodiment of bushido, the samurai code, and legends paint a magnificent picture of a life well lived in the annals of history. The movie “The Last Samurai” starring Ken Watanabi and Tom Cruise was based on his life.
Tokonami Masayoshi’s painting of Saigō Takamori in uniform.
Saigō Takamori (1828 – 1877), named Takamori in adulthood, and also known as Takanaga, was born is the Satsuma Domain (modern day Kagoshima Prefecture). He started his career as a low-ranking samurai and later served the Daimyo of Satsuma, Shimazu Nariakira, in Edo during the Kōbu gattai movement which promoted reconciliation between the Tokugawa shogunate and the Imperial court. He was banished twice to remote islands when his master suddenly died but was later pardoned by the new Satsuma Daimyo, Shimazu Hisamitsu, in 1864 and was tasked to handle the domain’s interests concerning the imperial court. Though Takamori believed the Emperor should have a stronger role, he did not anticipate that the future of Japan might not include a shogun who ruled the country for about 800 years.
Saigō Takamori led a punitive expedition against the Chosu domain whose army opened fire on the Emperor’s residence. He negotiated a peaceful settlement rather than launching an attack, a decision that would allow him to gain the Choshu as his major ally in the coming Boshin War. After the Boshin War, Takamoro went into retirement but still played a pivotal role in advising for Japan’s political strategies as a counselor for the Satsuma Domain.
Battle of Shiroyama, 1880 painting.
The Japanese government continued to make drastic changes in policies when governing the country such as seizing land from the elite samurai and redistributing profits to lower ranking warriors. Samurai officials were promoted based on talent rather than rank, and the development of modern industry was encouraged by the government.
Saigō Takamori with his officers at the Satsuma Rebellion.
Saigō Takamori paved the way for Meiji reforms such as creating a conscript army and ending the daimyo rule. He went into retirement once again in Satsuma to lead a quiet life. However, he was viewed by the disgruntled samurai of Satsuma as a symbol of traditional virtues and wanted him to lead the opposition. Saigō Takamori held true to the ideals and beliefs of an ancient code at a time when Japan was entering an era of modernization.
Note: article contains graphic content.
Seppuku is the samurai’s honorable way of dying through his own hand. The samurai bushido honor code explicitly states that a samurai can perform seppuku voluntarily rather than fall into the hands of the enemy and likely be subjected to torture, or because he has brought shame to himself. It was also a form of capital punishment for a samurai who had committed a serious offense.
Seppuku (切腹), “self-disembowelment,” also known as “hara-kiri” or belly-cutting, involves plunging a short sword into the left side of the abdomen, pulling the sword all the way to the right side and then turning it upwards, making it practically impossible for the wound to close and heal. It was considered exemplary to make a followup stab below the chest and press the sword downwards to cut across the initial cut, and finally to pierce one’s throat to culminate the seppuku ritual. This ritual act of taking one’s own life was thought to be a definitive demonstration of a samurai’s courage, strong resolve, and self-control, for seppuku is an extremely painful, slow way to die. It showed a true samurai’s sincerity of purpose.
Ukiyo-e woodblock print of warrior about to perform seppuku, by Kunikazu Utagawa.
There were instances when a samurai would perform voluntary seppuku to show his loyalty to his lord by following him to his death, as a form of protest against his superior or some government policy, or to atone for failing to do his duties. Obligatory seppuku was a method of capital punishment that spared the samurai the disgrace of being beheaded by a common executioner. Seppuku was finally abolished in 1873.
During the Edo Period (1600–1867), seppuku became a more detailed ritual. Planned seppuku was usually performed in front of an audience. A samurai was bathed, clothed in white robes, and served his favorite food as his final meal. When he was finished, he readied his knife, “tantō,” or short sword, “wakizashi,” the blade partially covered with cloth so he would not cut his hand and lose his grip. The samurai would also be dressed ceremonially with his sword placed in front of him and then he would prepare to write his death poem. A samurai would usually be assisted by his chosen second, “kaishakunin,” who would be standing close by. The chosen second performed kaishaku, a cut that decapitated the samurai.
General Akashi Gidayu preparing to commit seppuku after losing a battle for his master in 1582, by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka.
Jigaki is a form of ritual suicide by wives of samurai who have committed seppuku or have brought dishonor to their name. Jigaki involves slicing the arteries of the neck with one stroke for a quick and certain death, unlike the slow and painful death of seppuku. It was also performed by women to preserve one’s honor in instances of military defeat to avoid rape. According to the bushido, it is an example of a truly determined, brave, and honorable way to die.
Seppuku knife. | Rama
Kamakura (鎌倉) in Kanagawa Prefecture is a peaceful coastal town about an hour from Tokyo. Minamoto Yorimoto (1147–1199) was the founder and first shogun of the Kamakura Shogunate. Japan’s seat of military government was based in Kamakura; rule continued for more than a century under the Minamoto shogun and then by the Hōjō regents.
On 3 July 1333, Nitta Yoshisada, a loyal supporter of the Southern Court of Emperor Go-Daigo, seized Kamakura from the Hōjō clan. Accounts of the tragic Hōjō defeat record that 900 Hōjō samurai and three Regents committed seppuku at Tōshō-ji, their family temple. Almost the entire clan vanished in one event. The city was in ruins and many of the temples were burned to the ground. Even ordinary citizens of Kamakura followed suit in a mass seppuku: an estimated 6,000 died by their own hand. Five hundred fifty-six skeletons from that period were recovered in 1953 during excavations near Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū’s Ichi no Torii in Yuigahama. Most likely, they died violent deaths from the hands of Nitta’s men.
San no Torii at Kamakura. | KCP Flickr
The fall of Kamakura marked the beginning of a violent and chaotic era known as the Muromachi period. The decline of Kamakura was slow; it was known as the capital of the Kantō region which dominated the east of Japan and lasted almost as long as the shogunate regime.
The destruction of Kamakura did not stop with wars. In 1868, during anti-Buddhist violence (haibutsu kishaku) that followed after the official policy of separation of Shinto and Buddhism (shinbutsu bunri), more temples in the city saw major damage. Many of the temples and shrines had to give away some of their treasures, affecting their cultural heritage and value.
When the railroad reached Kamakura in 1890, it allowed visitors access to see and appreciate the beauty and history of Kamakura. Many of the temples that were built centuries ago have been restored.
KCP Spring 2015 students at Kamakura. | KCP Flickr
Kamakura’s beautiful cultural assets are popular among visitors today. Kamakura’s history and heritage, once lost, have been rebuilt now and proudly stand as a testament to Japan’s history.
KCP students enjoy the beach at Kamakura. | KCP Flickr
Join KCP Spring 2015 students as they visit Kamakura. Visit our photo album at KCP Flickr.
We hear glorious samurai tales of honor, valor, and loyalty attributed to their strict adherence to the code of conduct, bushidō, or “the way of the warrior.” Samurai were the Japanese nobility of medieval and early modern Japan.
Japanese armor can be traced all the way back to the 4th century. It has developed greatly over the years since it was first used in the battlefield, evolving from the armor used in ancient China and Korea. During the 16th century when European trade was introduced to Japan, the samurai had its first look at European armor. Japanese armor was modified and incorporated with local armor and eventually produced better protection for the wearer.
Ō-yoroi. | Jason Lewis
The ō-yoroi (大鎧) or “great armor” is an early Japanese armor worn by the samurai class during Japan’s feudal era. It combines plate and scales (kozane) laced together (lamellar). Ō-yoroi can be traced to the Heian period in the 10th century. It became popular in the 12th century during the Genpei War, when armor was much in demand. It was designed primarily for cavalry archers, for it was box-shaped and did not allow much movement. In the 15th century, the ō-yoroi was not a favorite choice of armor because the samurai used more infantry tactics in battle.
The ō-yoroi is considered a rich man’s armor, as it was worn mostly by higher ranking samurai on horseback. Lower ranking samurai wore something similar only it had fewer components, was more lightweight, and lacked the decorative aspects of higher ranking samurai. The ō-yoroi’s basic components are known as “hei-no-rokugu” or “rokugu”, meaning “six articles of arms.” The six major components are sune-ate (shin armor), menpo (facial armor), kabuto (helmet), dō (chest armor), kote (armored sleeves), and the hai-date (thigh armor). The material, color, and design of the lacing identified the clan the samurai belonged to. The ō-yoroi truly remains a proud part of Japan’s unique history.
Samurai ō-yoroi. | Ian Armstrong
Shōguns were powerful military governors of Japan during the shogunate regime from 1192 to 1867. Shōgun means general; their rank and position were hereditary. Officially they were appointed by the emperor, but they were de facto rulers of the country. A shogun’s office was the “shogunate” or bafuku (tent office/government), also the term for the shōgun’s officials. The imperial court maintained minimal power compared to that of the shōgun and the bafuku.
Shōgun is the short term for Sei-i Taishōgun, a title given to the commander-in-chief who would lead an army against people resisting the rule of the Japanese imperial court. Sei-i Taishōgun meant “Commander-in-Chief of the Expeditionary Force Against the Barbarians.” This was during the Heian Period, and the very first Sei-i Taishōgun was Ōtomo no Otomaro.
During the 11th century, the daimyo dominated the country’s internal politics with the protection of samurai forces. Two powerful clans, the Taira and the Minamoto, fought to control the declining imperial court; the Taira clan seized control from 1160 to 1185 only to be defeated by the Minamoto clan at the Battle of Dan-no-ura, a major sea battle that occurred on March 24, 1185. Minamoto no Yorimoto became the founder and the first shōgun of the Kamakura shogunate. He developed a political system with a succession of shōgun at the head coming to be known as shogunate. It lasted for almost 150 years.
Alleged portrait of Minamoto no Yorimoto.
Several different shōguns made a mark in Japan’s history until Tokugawa Yoshinobu relinquished his office in 1867 to the Meiji Emperor. Here are a couple of notable shoguns:
Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616)—founder and first shōgun of the Tokugawa shogunate that ruled from 1600 until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. He had great qualities that allowed him to rise to power and fight as a warrior general in 90 battles.
Portrait of Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Ashikaga Yoshiteru (1536–1565), also known as Yoshifuji, was the 13th shōgun of the Ashikaga shogunate and reigned from 1546 to 1565. He was skilled with the katana and is remembered as being more of a samurai and warlord.
Today, a shōgun’s equivalent is a prime minister. The term “shōgun” is still used informally to describe a retired Japanese prime minister; one who still has power and influence behind the scenes is called a “shadow shōgun.”
Portrait of Ashikaga Yoshiteru.