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Category Archive: Japanese Culture

The Mongol Invasion of Japan

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  • April 13, 2015

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

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

Kublai Khan painting by Anige.

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

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


Depiction of defensive wall at Hakata, 1293.

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

The Mongol Invasion, tapestry by Kawasaki Jimbei II.

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

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

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  • April 9, 2015

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

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

Hōkoku-ji Temple. | Kageaki Smith

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

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

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


Photo courtesy of Kageaki Smith.

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

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Senbazuru: Thousand Origami Cranes

  • Posted by:
  • April 6, 2015

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


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

Orizuru. | Michael Day

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

Origami crane. | Landahlauts

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

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


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

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April Showers Bring Exciting Festivals in Japan

  • Posted by:
  • April 2, 2015

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

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

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

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

Yabusame. | navisan

149359833_8802d63a7a_zTakayama Festival, Gifu (April 14 and 15)

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

Sanno Matsuri. | Robert Young

13936141414_6f18c445ef_zYayoi Festival, Tochigi (April 16 and 17)

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

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

Yayoi Festival. | Hetarllen Mumriken

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The Historic Hirosaki Castle

  • Posted by:
  • March 23, 2015

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

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

Hirosaki Castle. | Si-take

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

Tsugaru Tamenobu. | jpellgen


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

Hirosaki Castle.

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

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Emperor Jimmu: The First Emperor of Japan

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  • March 19, 2015

The sun goddess Amaterasu is said to have brought order to Japan after its creation through a cosmic union of male and female great spirits, or kami. According to Shinto belief, the universe constantly strives towards order, not chaos, and the establishment of the imperial system can then be directly related to the concept of order.


In Shinto belief, Jimmu is a direct descendant of the sun goddess, Amaterasu.  She had a son named Ame no Oshihomimi no Mikoto who in turn had a son named Nigini-no-Mikoto. Amaterasu sent her grandson Nigini to the Japanese islands where he met and married Princess Konohana-Sakuya.  Their union produced three sons, one of whom was Hikohohodemi no Mikoto (Yamasachi-hiko) who married Princess Toyotama, the daughter of the Japanese sea god and brother of Amaterasu. The marriage of Hikohohodemi no Mikoto and Princess Toyotama produced one son named  Hikonagisa Takeugaya Fukiaezu no Mikoto. He was abandoned by his parents and raised by his mother’s younger sister, Princess Tamayori, who he later married. They had four sons; the youngest was Jimmu. From him, the lineage of all the past and present emperors of Japan can be traced.

Woodblock print of Emperor Jimmu by Ginko Adachi.

According to the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, Emperor Jimmu  was born on  February 13, 711 BCE and died on March 11, 585 BCE. As the legend goes, Jimmu and his older brothers were born in Takachiho, the southern part of Kyūshū (modern day Miyazaki prefecture). His brother, Itsuse no Mikoto,  initially led the migration and brought the clan to the east. During his travels, Itsuse no Mikoto was killed in a battle at the hands of a local chieftain, Nagasunehiko. Jimmu took over and with the guidance of a three legged crow, Yatagarasu, reached Yamato where they again battled Nagasunehiko but won this time.

Kashihara-jingū,_Ge-haiden_01Jimmu’s legacy is the special bond among ruler, land, and people that made governing the land more stable. During the Tokugawa bafuku, as the military ruled Japan and the Shoguns exercised power, the Emperor was still revered and remained the unquestionable sovereign until only at the end of World War II when his divinity was renounced. In 1889, Kashihara Shrine was established in Nara Prefecture, in the spot where Emperor Jimmu acceded to the throne. It is dedicated to him.

Kashihara Shrine. | Masayuki (Yuki) Kawagishi


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Harajuku Haven

  • Posted by:
  • March 9, 2015

HarajukuIMG_20150117_142639 (原宿), the Kawaii capital of Japan, is the center of Japanese fashion and youth culture where you can get unique shopping finds and have a great dining experience. Harajuku, in Tokyo, is the best place to see extreme Japanese pop culture come alive, as well as to appreciate some of the country’s historic sights, all in one place.

Harajuku encompasses from Harajuku Station to Omotesando, including smaller backstreets like Takeshita Street and Cat Street, to Sendagaya to the north and Shibuya to the south. You can join in the popular cosplay culture, and shop at thrift boutiques and even at some of the world-famous high-end fashion chains.  Harajuku is also very close to other local attractions such as the Meiji Shrine, Yoyogi Park, and Yoyogi National Gymnasium.

Winter 2015 KCP Students at Meiji Shrine, Harajuku. | KCP Flickr

DSCN1383During the pre-Edo period, the Harajuku area was a small town where Minamoto no Yoshiie gathered his loyal followers during the Gosannen War (Later the Three-Year War, fought in the late 1080s as part of a long struggle for power within the warrior clan). They came together at the Seizoroi-saka, now known as Jingūmae 2 chōme. As a reward for safely delivering Ieyasu Tokugawa from Sakai to Mikawa during the Honno-ji Incident of 1582, the towns of Onden-mura and Harajuku-mura were given to Iga Ninja in 1590. The Iga clan residence was built in Harajuku to defend Edo because of its strategic location along Koshu Road. The main source of income in the Harajuku area during the Edo period was flour milling and rice cleaning directly sourced from the Shibuya river.

Fall 2014 KCP students at Harajuku. | KCP Flickr

Tōgō_HeihachirōAt the beginning of the Meiji period in 1868, the towns and villages of Shibuya Ward, including Harajuku Village, merged with Tokyo Prefecture. In 1906, Harajuku Station opened as a part of the expansion project of Yamanote Line. In 1940, Togo Shrine was built in honor of Imperial Japanese Navy Marshal-Admiral Marquis Tōgō Heihachirō, one of Japan’s greatest naval heroes.

So much of Japanese culture and history can be experienced in Harajuku—sampling some of the freshest sushi, window shopping, people watching, or visiting a temple. There’s always something for everyone at Harajuku.

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Akō vendetta : Revenge of the 47 Ronin

  • Posted by:
  • February 23, 2015

The bushidō, “the way of the warrior,” was the samurai’s code of conduct. It exemplified a warrior’s moral values in mastery of martial arts, frugality, loyalty, and honor unto death. A rōnin was a samurai with no lord or master. A samurai could lose his master from death or even from falling out of his master’s favor. The story of the Akō vendetta, or the Revenge of the 47 Ronin, during the Genroku Akō incident is a perfect example of a samurai living up to their code of honor.

The story of  the Revenge of the 47 Ronin goes like this…

ronin3In 1701, there were two daimyo (powerful lords)—Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori, the young daimyo of a small fiefdom in western Honshū known as the Akō Domain,  and Lord Kamei of the Tsuwano Domain. Both were ordered to organize a reception for the Emperor’s envoys in Edo sankin kōtai service (a daimyo’s alternate-year residence in Edo) to the Shogun. The Edo official, Kira Kozuke-no-Suke Yoshinaka, was not satisfied with the offerings because they lacked the bribes that he wanted. Anticipating the disaster that could ensue, Kamei’s counselors offered Kira a large bribe without Kamei knowing. This prompted Kira to treat Kamei better but continued to insult Asano, who lost his patience, attacked Kira with a dagger, and wounded the official’s face. Asano was ordered to kill himself by committing seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment). All his lands were taken, his family was ruined, and his samurai retainers were to be made ronin after his death.

Print depicting the ronin, on their way back to Sengakuji after the attack on Kira.

Ōishi Yoshio, the head chamberlain of the Asano estate and the leader of the 47 ronin, moved the Asano family away and refused to let his master’s death go unavenged. Revenge was prohibited, but the 47 ronin swore a secret oath to eventually avenge Asano by killing Kira.

Ōishi_YoshioKira was heavily guarded at all times. To stave off any doubt from Kira that any loyal envoys of Asano plotted revenge, Ōishi moved to Kyoto and even divorced his wife of 20 years to keep her safe once they had killed Kira. Ōishi frequented geisha houses, acted like a drunk, and was thought to be a disgrace. The other ronin spread around Japan and became monks or tradesmen. All this was reposted to Kira who gradually let his guard down. It took two years for Ōishi to be totally convinced that Kira had completely let down his guard. On the 4th day of the 12th month of the 15th year of  Genroku (January 30, 1703), the 47 ronin sought to avenge their master. They followed the bushidō to the letter, allowing Kira to commit seppuku, but he stayed quiet and shaking in fear. Ōishi had to ask other ronin to pin Kira down as he cut his head off with a dagger.  The 47 ronin washed and offered Kira’s head on the tomb of their master and said prayers. Then they gave themselves up for sentencing.

 Ōishi Yoshio.

ronin1The death of Kira was no loss, for he was not well-liked. The 47 ronin were just following their code of honor, yet they also defied the shogunate’s authority. 46 ronin were sentenced to take their own lives by seppuku rather than being executed. They each performed the ritual that took their lives on the 4th day of the 2nd month in 16th year of Genroku (March  20, 1703).  The 47th ronin was Terasaka Kichiemon, who was deemed too young to commit seppuku. He was pardoned by the Shogun and lived to be 87 years old. All 47 ronin are now interred in front of the tomb of their master in the grounds of Sengaku-ji Temple, Tokyo.

47 Ronin graveyard at Sengaku-ji Temple.

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The Miraculous Daikon

  • Posted by:
  • February 16, 2015

Traditional winter dishes in Japan usually include daikon. Daikon (大根) is a winter radish popular in Japanese cuisine. Its mild flavor makes it a versatile ingredient; it is usually characterized by its long and white root. The origins of daikon can be traced to the Mediterranean. It spreadquickly to the east and is now grown all across Asia and some parts of the world.


In Japanese cuisine, daikon is used often in the many pickling variations of traditional Japanese cuisine such as bettarazuke and takuan-zuke. Grated daikon is also used in making the popular Japanese condiment ponzu, a soy sauce and citrus juice blend. Japanese hot pots such as oden are especially popular during winter, and a delicious bowl of warm broth wouldn’t be complete without slices of daikon. The drying process is a common way of preserving food in Japan. Shredded and dried daikon called kiriboshi-daikon, and daikon sprouts kaiware-daikon make a beautiful garnish. Daikon leaves don’t go to waste, either. They can be fried or pickled and are delectable either way.

Daikon. | Franco Folini

daikon1Aside from being a favorite ingredient in many Japanese dishes, daikon also has numerous health benefits.

Helps prevent cancer – daikon contains antioxidants that fight off free radical damage known to cause cancer. Research studies indicate that daikon juice prevent the proliferationsfc of harmful chemicals and carcinogens in the body.


Rich in vitamin C – vitamin C is an essential antioxidant that strengthens the body’s immune system. 100 grams of daikon are said to supply the body with 34% of the daily value our bodies need. Daikon leaves have a higher concentration of vitamin C levels than daikon roots.

Migraine relief – migraines are caused by constricting blood vessels in the brain. Daikon helps dilate the blood vessels and can be taken as a preventative measure or even at the first sign of a migraine.

14680773562_9ea2148113_zHelps in organ functions – daikon is an effective diuretic. It also helps cleanse the blood and gets rid of toxins through the liver, kidneys, digestive tract, and sweat glands.

Anti-inflammatory – high levels of vitamin C and B found in daikon aid in preventing chronic inflammation that lead to arthritis and heart disease.

Pickled daikon and carrot coins. | iris

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Sentō: Japanese Communal Bath House

  • Posted by:
  • February 9, 2015

Japan consists of almost 7,000 islands. Over 70% of the country is mountainous; there are over 200 volcanoes in the Japanese jurisdiction. As a volcanically active nation, Japan has many bathing facilities and literally thousands of hot spring resorts scattered all over the country.

Sentō796px-Kiyonaga_bathhouse_women-2 (銭湯) is a Japanese communal bath house that charges a fee for entrance and use of the facilities.  Though over the years there has been a rapid decline in the need for sentō because modern Japanese residences now have their own baths, many Japanese still find that going to a public bath house is an important social ritual: a longstanding Japanese custom that “physical proximity brings emotional intimacy.” A sentō varies from an onsen, which uses hot water from a natural hot spring. At an onsen, the bathing facility has at least one bath filled with natural hot spring water.

Woodcut print by Kiyonaga of a Japanese communal bath house. 

800px-Modern_sento_at_TakayamaThe origins of the Japanese bathing culture and the sentō in general can be traced back to Buddhist temples in India. The practice then spread to China and finally to Japan during the Nara period (710–784).  The Nara period and the Kamakura period (1185–1333) were known for their religious bathing rituals because of the predominant religious influence. Baths were commonly found at temples during these periods and were called yūya (hot water shop). The baths were steam baths commonly used by priests and the sick.  Members of the upper class and wealthy merchants soon included baths in their residences. By the end of the Edo period (1603–1867), the Tokugawa shogunate segregated baths by gender to uphold public moral standards.

Modern sentō at Takayama. | sanmai

Tradition is important in Japan, and bathing in an onsen or sentō is a big part of the Japanese culture. The Japanese experience would not be complete without treating yourself to a relaxing dip in a hot spring or a warm bath to create a stronger kinship among friends or, as it is loosely termed, skinship.


Related post:

Check out LaQua resort, a natural spring, a hidden gem right in the middle of the bustling city of Tokyo.

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