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Category Archive: Japanese Culture

The Intriguing Hongan-ji Temple and its Ropes of Hair

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  • May 24, 2017

Hongan-ji (本願寺 ), or Temple of the Primal Vow, is the main school of Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism. Also on the site lies the Otani Mausoleum, where Shinran, the founder of Jōdo Shinshū, was buried. It is one of the places that shows us the culture and history of Japan. Hongan-ji Temple also has an intriguing gem of an oddity on display that attracts visitors from all around the world. Ropes made of hair encased in glass!

Hongan-ji complex. | Yann

Jōdo Shinshū  is also known as The True Essence of the Pure Land Teaching and  Shin Buddhism is a  school of Pure Land Buddhism. It was founded by the former Tendai Japanese monk Shinran and is considered the most widely practiced branch of Buddhism in Japan. ‘Hongan-ji’ refers to any one of several temple buildings associated with the tradition.

The Hongan-ji was established as a temple is 1321 and is dedicated to the worship of  Amitābha (Amida),  a celestial buddha according to the scriptures of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Shinran’s great grandson was the first chief priest of the temple and was the third spiritual leader (monshu).

The Hongan-ji began to gain power and importance in the 15th century under the eighth monshu, Rennyo. Since the Tendai based on Mount Hiei saw the growing Hongan-ji as a threat, it was attacked thrice by Sōhei’s army. Rennyo fled and established a new temple compound. Oda Nobunaga during the Sengoku period also feared the power of the monks of the Hongan-ji and tried to destroy the temple. In 1602 under the reign of Tokugawa Ieyasu, he ordered  Hongan-ji to be split in two: Higashi Honganji and Nishi Honganji.

Higashi Hongan-ji. | Kzaral

Higashi Hongan-ji’s original temple complex was burned down a number of times. Its main temple in Kyoto was last rebuilt in 1895. The temple complex of today is one of the world’s largest wooden structures. The two main halls of the temple complex, Founder’s Hall and Amida Hall, required hoisting and moving massive wooden beams.

This required rope strong enough to be able to do the job, nearly an impossible feat at the time. The women devotees thought of an ingenious solution to solve the problem. They agreed to band together and cut their long hair, and braided it together to create thick and strong rope that was able to support the heavy beams.

Some of the hairy rope is on display at the temple under glass. That’s what you call true devotion!


Rope made from hair. | Erin Stevenson O’Connor

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Unravelling the Takenouchi Documents

  • Posted by:
  • May 15, 2017

Japanese people follow predominantly the Shinto and Buddism religions. Shinto is the ethnic religion of Japan, focusing on traditional ritual practices and multiple gods. Buddhism on the other hand, was introduced to Japan by five Chinese monks from Gandhara (an ancient kingdom extending to the Swat valley and Potohar plateau regions of Pakistan and the Jalalabad district of north eastern Afghanistan).

Jesus. | Waiting For The Word

The monks traveled to Japan during the Kofun period (250 to 538) and spread Buddhism around the country. A small percentage of the Japanese population are members of other religious sects or movements.

Mahikari, or shinshūkyō,nis one such Japanese new religious movement founded in 1963 by Yoshikazu Okada. Many of Okada’s ideas were taken from the Takenouchi Documents.  The Takenouchi Documents are the works of cosmo archeologist Wado Kosaka, who gained fame by attempting to contact aliens on live television. The documents were found in 1936 and destroyed during World War II, but reproductions are on display at the Jesus Museum.

According to the Takenouchi Documents, it was not Jesus Christ who was crucified at Golgotha, but his younger brother Isukiri. It is said that upon being captured by the Romans, Jesus escaped by switching places with his brother.

Tomb of Christ, Shingō. | thor hestnes

Jesus took with him a lock of the Virgin Mary’s hair and one of his brother’s ears and fled to Japan. He then settled down in the village of Shingō, located in Sannohe District of south-central Aomori Prefecture in the Tōhoku region of Japan.

Jesus is said to have had three children with a local woman before passing away of natural causes at the age of 106. It is believed that many of the village’s current inhabitants are descendants of Jesus.

The Tomb of Jesus Christ rests on top of a hill and is an actual burial mound with a large cross on top of it. Beside it is another, almost identical mound where the ear of Isukiri and the Virgin Mary’s lock of hair are buried. The story may seem so outlandish, but many believers point to signs that indicate that the story is true such as the variations in customs, in speech, and in the eye color of many of the villagers at Shingō as evidence of the Anglo-Christian influence of Jesus in the area. Believe it, or not.

Graves at Shingō.

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Fun Filled Summer in Japan!

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  • May 4, 2017

Summer in Japan is steaming hot with fun and excitement. The summer months are filled with festivals (matsuri) and it’s not difficult to get caught up in the revelry.  Cities and towns all across the country have some form of summer festival to look forward to. The streets come alive with extravagant floats, fireworks, food stalls, and music. There’s never a dull moment in a Japanese summer!

Jidai Matsuri. | KCP Flickr


Some of the highlights of the Japanese summer include:

Gion Matsuri, Kyoto

Gion Matsuri is the most popular summer festival. The festival is held at Yakasa-Jinja Shrine in Kyoto for most of the month of July. Festivities called Yoiyama are held in the evenings July 14–16, right before the main event on the 17th, when a spectacular procession of floats wind through the streets amid countless revelers.

Throughout the month-long celebration, around 30 events occur, including the Kencha Matsuri (tea ceremony festival) and the Hagasa Junko (flower umbrella procession), when umbrella floats and dancers parade in the streets. During the main festivities of Gion Matsuri, the streets are closed in the evenings and clusters of stalls appear to sell food, drinks, and various memorabilia.

Sendai Tanabata Matsuri, Tōhoku Region

Tanabata, or Evening of the Seventh, is also known as the Star Festival.  It originated from the Chinese Qixi Festival. It is celebrated on the 7th day of the 7th month of the year depending on either the solar or lunar calendar and the area in Japan.

Street food. | KCP Flickr

 It commemorates the meeting of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi who, according to legend, were lovers separated by the Milky Way and were allowed to meet only once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month of the lunisolar calendar.

Awa Dance Festival , Tokushima

The Awa Dance Festival (or Awa Odori), the largest dance festival in Japan, is celebrated August 12–15 in Tokushima, Tokushima Prefecture. Awa is the old feudal administration name for Tokushima Prefecture, and odori means dance. The festival attracts over a million tourists every year with its carefully choreographed dancers and musicians known as ren.

Traditional masks. | KCP Flickr

Participants adorn bon odori costumes and dance through the streets along with traditional taiko drums, shamisen lute, kane bell, and shinobue flute.

With summer in Japan bringing in the heat and excitement, there are a number of places that visitors can go to when in Japan. Don’t miss out on some of the spots to enjoy in the Tokyo region to relax and cool off away from the crowds.

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Japanese Superstition and Pets in Japan

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  • April 24, 2017

Dogs and cats are wonderful, faithful, and loyal companions. As the saying goes, “pets and dogs repay the love you give them ten-fold.” The unconditional love we receive from our canine or feline companions is irreplaceable. Pets are considered valued members of the family all around the world, including Japan.

Japanese superstitions are deeply rooted in the history and culture of Japan. Its roots can be traced all the way back to Japan’s ancient pagan beliefs, the regard for certain natural things as  kami (spirits or phenomena that are worshiped in the religion of Shinto), and the animist culture. An offshoot of this is that many Japanese superstitions involve belief about animals and depictions of animals bringing about good or bad fortune. This concept makes cats and dogs even more important in the Japanese culture.

Hachikō. | KCP Flickr

Take, for example, the timeless tale of friendship and loyalty of the dog Hachikō. In 1924, Hachikō became the pet of a man named Hidesaburo Oeno, a professor of agriculture at the Tokyo University. Hachikō was an Akita with golden brown fur and cream markings on his face. He would regularly greet Hidesaburo at the Shibuya Station. When the professor suddenly passed away, Hachikō was given away, but he escaped and each day he would be at the station at 4 pm waiting for his old friend for the remainder of his life.

Animals used to be predominantly thought of as indispensable help in working farm lands but over the years many Japanese have considered them as part of the family. Dogs and cats are capable of giving so much unconditional love, and will always be faithful companions in the best and worst of times.

Japanese kami. | thaths

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The Over 100 Year Old Kamihinokinai’s Paper Balloon Festival

  • Posted by:
  • April 3, 2017

The Paper Balloon Festival of Kamihinokinai in Akita Prefecture is a spectacular annual event that’s been celebrated for over a hundred years. About 100 gigantic paper balloons lit with candles are released and shine magically like stars in the winter evening sky. The balloons are painted with Ukiyo-e styled women and samurai warriors. It truly is something to behold!

Paper balloon. | Chris Lewis

Kamihinokinai Paper Balloon Festival is held each year on February 10. It is a traditional event whose origins can be traced back to the Edo Period scientist Hiraga Gennai (1728–1780). He was a Japanese pharmacologist, student of Rangaku, physician, author, painter, and inventor who supposedly taught the Japanese the principles behind hot air balloons.

The paper balloons are about eight meters tall and are able to float up in the sky from the air inside, heated by candles. The designs painted on the paper balloons are usually from traditional Japanese wood-block prints, and some of the balloons have people’s wishes people written on them. The purpose of the event is to make a wish, and it used to be for a good harvest and good health. Nowadays people have come to wish for more varied things such as success in life, passing exams, and safe travels.

Hiraga Gennai

To witness the event from Tokyo, get off the Shinkansen at Kakunodate Station (about 3 hours from Tokyo), change trains to Akita Nairiku Jukan Railway, and you will arrive at Kamihinokinai Station. Travel time is about 40 minutes.  You can also join a scheduled tour around the area northwest of Kamihinokinai where Lake Tazawa is located. It is the deepest lake in Japan, and is close to several hot spring resorts. Another reason to visit the many wonders of Japan!

Winter paper balloon festival. | Syuzo Tsushima

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The Unique Nakagin Capsule Tower

  • Posted by:
  • March 27, 2017

Traditional Japanese architecture predominantly made use  of wood because of the abundance of timber in the country. Timber is particularly resistant to natural disasters such as earthquakes. Wood is also an ideal type of material for Japan’s humid climate. Modern Japanese architecture is a far cry from the traditional style: the mid-20th century was a time of great experimentation in Japanese architecture. Many architects sought to break boundaries and create original designs. One such example is the Nakagin Tower.

Nakagin Tower. | d’s2nd

The Nakagin Capsule Tower is a product of the Metabolism (shinchintaisha) architectural style, a post-war Japanese architectural movement that fused ideas about architectural megastructures with those of organic biological growth, spearheaded by Kisho Kurokawa. A capsule hotel, kapuseru hoteru, is a popular type of affordable accommodation in Japan for the weary traveler who may have had a bit too much to drink, missed the last train home, or needs a place to sleep for the night that has basic amenities without the services offered by other regular hotels.

A typical capsule is made of fiberglass a little over 6 ft. long and 4 ft. wide. It has enough room for you to sleep comfortably in (provided you’re not over 6 ft. tall), and some capsules are big enough for you to sit upright. Most pods are equipped with a small television, wireless internet connection, small console, dimmable lighting, and wall-mounted alarm clock. To ensure your privacy, the capsules have curtains and a door at one end.

Nacagin Capsule Tower. |d’n’c

The Nakagin Capsule Tower consists of two separate towers that serve as support for the 140 prefabricated capsules. Each capsule is a tiny apartment that has many amenities such as a refrigerator, a television set, even a reel-to-reel tape deck. The original idea of the concept of the tower is that each capsule can be eventually replaced by newer models. This ensures that the living standards in the building will be constantly up to date.

Inside the Nakagin Capsule. | 準建築人手札網站 Forgemind ArchiMedia

As elegant and one of a kind the building may seem, the tiny apartments were considered to be cramped, with a gigantic concrete shell considered as ugly and dehumanizing. The maintenance cost started to pile up and the real-estate value in the center of the Ginza district began to collapse. The building was slated to be demolished in 2007, but an uproar arose among the architectural community, who consider the building a masterpiece. Kurokawa led the campaign for its preservation until the end of his life. As of April 2014, the Save Nakagin Capsule Tower Project has begun crowd-sourcing funds to buy the tower’s capsules and secure voting rights against the Tower’s demolition.

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Japanese Superstitions and O-mikuji

  • Posted by:
  • March 9, 2017

Japanese superstitions are deeply rooted in the history and culture of the people. These beliefs are meant to serve as lessons and practical advice for everyday life.

Some common superstitions in Japan have been adapted for Japanese culture from other countries. Japan shares many superstitious beliefs with other Asian countries, especially the Chinese, with whom they share close historical ties. Common superstitions are related to numbers and objects that may hold various symbolic meanings. Pagan and animist culture is also a large part of Japan’s ancient superstitious beliefs: animals are depicted as bringers of good or bad fortunes.

6821619159_24da69f42a_zThe Japanese are also religious, and many lucky charms (engimono) represent wishes for good luck in harvest, business, health, love, and the like. Many engimono have been passed down over the years. Engimono make popular souvenirs or gift items from a particular area of Japan. One such lucky charm is O-mikuji.

O-mikuji  are paper fortunes sold at most Japanese temples and shrines. About half of the o-mikuji predict bad fortune. It is customary to leave the fortune behind by tying it at a designated spot at the temple or shrine. If you receive a good luck paper fortune, you should keep it.

O-mikuji tied up.  | Laura Tomàs Avellana

O-mikuji has nearly a thousand-year-old history. It began in ancient times when people drew lots to receive divine messages about everyday concerns such as predicting a particular political outcome. O-mukuji has evolved into a means for predicting the fortunes of people and their love life, education, travel, business, work, and health.

18276351736_a37a58cf96_zO-mikuji costs about 100 to 200 yen and is available in several languages. To receive o-mikuji, you use a cylindrical or square pillar box plus long thin sticks (Mikuji-bo) to shake and draw the paper fortunes. Vending machines that dispense o-mikuji are fast becoming very popular as well.

O-mikuji. | Gaëtan Tessier

Whatever fortune awaits you, o-mikuji is a wonderful way to experience Japanese culture and traditions.

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Wrapping with Fukusa

  • Posted by:
  • February 16, 2017

Giving gifts is a common Japanese custom.  Different types of gifts are given depending on the occasion. A lot of attention is also given to the wrapping of presents. Fukusa is a Japanese textile used for gift-wrapping and also used in Japanese tea ceremony.

Fukusa in a Japanese tea ceremony can refer to several types of silk cloth such as tsukai fukusa which are usually squares of silk used to ritually purify tea utensils during tea-making, ko-bukusa which are small squares of brocaded silk used by hosts and guests to handle tea bowls, and dashi fukusa which are larger squares of silk also used for handling tea bowls.

Fukusa cloth. |Christian Kaden

In Japan, gifts were traditionally placed in a wooden box or lacquer tray, and a fukusa was draped over it. The design of the fukusa was chosen depending on the occasion. This was an important part of the Japanese gift-giving ritual. Using a fukusa became a widespread practice during the Edo or Tokugawa period (1615-1867).

The motif or scene depicted on a fukusa indicates the occasion, and the more elaborate the design the wealthier the giver. After the wrappings are admired by the recipient, the fukusa along with the box and tray, are returned to the giver. When the gift is presented to a high official, the fukusa is not always returned. This was a means to subtly control the wealth of lords and samurai.

During the 18th century, the art of the fukusa reflected the aristocratic minority of Japan such as the daimyo and samurai. The designs of the cloth held very subtle cultural references that were recognized only by the educated members of society. The members of these classes usually resided within the cities of Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto as well as the surrounding areas.

Fukusa. |Christian Kaden

During the 19th century, the merchant class moved up the social ladder and began following the same customs of the aristocracy, including the use of fukusa. Family crests were added to the lining of the gift covers and tassels were placed at each corner so the gift cover can be picked up without touching the fabric.

Artists were commissioned to design textiles for fukusa and each work was an original creation. Satin silk was the fabric preferred for embroidery with gold-and-silver-wrapped thread as well as yuzen (dyed cloth), chirimen (crepe silk), and Tsuzure-ori (nail weaving).

Nowadays, fukusa are rarely used, and when they are, it is mostly within Tokyo and Kyoto for presents for couples getting married.

Take a look at this YouTube video by usagiicecream on how to fold the fukusa in a tea ceremony:

Click image or here: https://youtu.be/Yyj_brd3OgA

*Furoshiki is another type of cloth used for gift giving in Japan. It comes in all kinds of sizes, fabrics, and designs.

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Elegant Japanese Craftsmanship

  • Posted by:
  • January 26, 2017

Japanese craft (工芸 kōgei) has a long and proud tradition and  includes hand crafts made by an individual or a group. The Ministry of Education, Science and Culture of Japan has stated that crafts (工芸技術 Kōgei Gijutsu), are divided into eight categories: papermaking, woodworking, dollmaking, metalworking, lacquerware, textiles, pottery, and other. The categories are further subdivided into more specific subcategories.

Kokeshi Dolls. | Alex Watson

Many other variations are officially recognized and protected by the government. Craftsmen are eligible for recognition either as an individual (Individual Certification) or as part of a group (Preservation Group Certification), into the list of Living National Treasures of Japan (crafts).

Some crafts are awarded the status of meibutsu, or regional specialties. Each type of Japanese craft takes time to learn. It demands a set of specialized skills that have been passed on for many generations.  Japanese craft works are designed to serve a specific functional or utilitarian purpose, making them beautiful and useful at the same time.

History tells us that Japanese craft dates back to the time humans settled on the Japanese islands. Handcrafting had roots in the rural crafts (traditional crafts production that is carried on, simply for everyday practical use, in the agricultural countryside). Traditionally, handcrafters made use of natural, indigenous materials, even today. Traditional Japanese craft distinguishes itself from decorative arts and fine arts, as being created to be used. Crafts were needed by all levels of Japanese society. The execution and design of each type became increasingly sophisticated over time.

Japanese crafts were developed and taught to succeeding generations. This was known as dentō (伝 統), where systems of Japanese traditions were passed down within a teacher-student relationship (shitei 師弟). It included a strict system of rules to enable learning and teaching of a way (dō 道). It was a common tradition that mastery of certain crafts was passed down within the family for many generations, establishing dynasties. The established master’s name was then assumed instead of the personal one. If there is no male heir, a relative or a student could be adopted to continue the line.

Sake bottle. | Ashley Van Haeften

Some Japanese handicrafts include Kutani ware, from 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. Another popular craft is Kokeshi dolls, from Miyagi. They are traditional hand-crafted Japanese wooden dolls with origins traceable to northern Japan. And a final example is Bizen ware. It is characteristically reddish-brown in color. It is known for being hard as iron, and it isn’t glazed like other types of pottery. It has distinct markings from the wood-burning kiln (an insulated chamber or oven with controlled temperature used for hardening or drying earthenware) firing.

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The Hidden Fortress: The Japanese Film that Influenced Star Wars

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  • January 16, 2017

In the next few years, December won’t only mean Christmas. It will also bring Star Wars! It began with 2015’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” followed by “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” in 2016. A series of upcoming movies from the same franchise is set to be released on December for the next few years. For all Star Wars fans, the 12th month of the year sure got more exciting!

The creator of Star Wars, George Lucas, credits one of Japan’s and the world’s most renowned and influential filmmakers, Akira Kurosawa (1910–1998) for enhancing his creative juices while working on Star Wars. Kurosawa directed 30 films in his career that spanned 57 years, including the film that influenced Star Wars, The Hidden Fortress. Techniques from this film were used in Star Wars, such as narrating the story from the perspective of minor characters like R2-D2 and C-3PO. The plot and outline for Star Wars also showed strong resemblance to the plot of The Hidden Fortress, which was also reused for The Phantom Menace.

The Hidden Fortress poster.

The Hidden Fortress was told from the perspective of two lowly peasants who find themselves to be in the service of a princess and her general (similar to Princess Leia and Han Solo). The film is all about storming a large enemy fortress and coming to the aid of a princess.

Luke Skywalker and R2-D2. | Manoel Lemos

Certain elements in Star Wars also bear a strong resemblance to Japanese traditions and history. The popular Jedi knights seem quite similar to samurai warriors, the sōhei (僧兵) in particular. They were Japanese Buddhist warrior monks during Japan’s feudal years. This strikes a familiar chord to the Jedi’s iconic light saber, long flowing robes, and religious dedication to their craft. Darth Vader’s mask is also said to resemble the masks worn by samurai warriors.

Whether a Jedi or a samurai, may the Force be with you!

R.I.P. Carrie Fisher a.k.a. Princess Leia. | Tom Simpson

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