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Category Archive: Japanese Culture

Japanese Superstition and Pets in Japan

  • Posted by:
  • 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

  • Posted by:
  • 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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Osechi Ryori: The Story Behind Traditional Japanese New Year Food

  • Posted by:
  • January 12, 2017

It’s 2017! In Japan, the New Year is one of the most anticipated holidays. Many Japanese mark the arrival of the New Year with age old traditions such as kadomatsu (a bamboo-pine arrangement placed at the entrance of the home), otoshidama (giving money to children), hatsumōde (first trip to a shrine or temple in the New Year) and celebrating with oseochi-ryōri (traditional Japanese New Year food).

The tradition of having osechi-ryōri (御節料理 or お節料理) on New Year in Japan began during the Heian Period (794-1185). Osechi are similar to bento meals, only they are in more elaborate special boxes called jūbako (重箱). The term osechi was derived from o-sechi, meaning a season or significant period. In Japan, New Year’s Day was considered one of the five seasonal festivals in the Imperial Court in Kyoto. In olden times, during the first three days of the New Year, it was unthinkable to use a hearth and cook meals. Osechi was prepared days ahead of the New Year as women were not allowed to cook.

Datemaki. | tokyofoodcast.com

The traditional osechi-ryōri  dishes, served in elegant three- or four-layered laquer jubako boxes, are placed at the center of the table on New Year’s Eve and remain there until the 1st of January. The food is shared with family and friends. Each item of osechi-ryōri represents a particular wish for the next year.

Here are some example of osechi-ryōri and their meanings:

Kuri-kinton = Wealth

Kuri-kinton (sweet chestnuts), literally means “golden dango (sweet dumpling) made of chestnuts.”  Its color, a yellowish-gold, signifies a wish for wealth and a prosperous New Year.

Ise ebi. | midorisyu

Datemaki = Scholarship

Datemaki is similar to tamago yaki (Japanese rolled omelette), only it’s sweet. It’s mixed with hanpen, a traditional fish cake ingredient that makes the omelette fluffier than the tamago yaki. History tells us that important documents and paintings were usually rolled, and because datemaki resembles scrolls, the dish aptly represents a wish for learning.

Kobu-maki = Happiness

A kelp or kobu covering signifies different things. “Kobu” is also referred to as “yorokobu,” which means joy and happiness. Kobu  can also mean many offspring when written as “子生,” a kanji character that represents childbirth.

Ebi = Longevity

The shrimp’s bent back and antennae, resembling a long beard, symbolizes old age. This symbolizes a wish for a long life. The tinge of red is also said to drive evil spirits away.

Kobu maki. | cava_cavien

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Akemashite Omedetou 2017!

  • Posted by:
  • December 31, 2016

Like most countries, Shōgatsu or the Japanese New Year, is celebrated on January 1. Before the Meiji period, the Japanese New Year was based on the Chinese lunar calendar which was observed in Korea, China, and Vietnam. New Year is probably the most anticipated celebration in the country. Most Japanese mark the arrival of the New Year with traditional Japanese New Year food such as osechi and customs such as kadomatsu (bamboo-pine arrangement placed at the entrance of the home), otoshidama (giving money to children), and hatsumōde (first trip to a shrine or temple in the New Year).

Japanese New Year is observed in many other ways such as having a bōnenkai (忘年会 literally ” ‘forget the year’ gathering”), a Japanese drinking party held at the end of the year among close friends or groups of co-workers. Its main purpose is to forget the troubles and woes of the past year and to look forward to starting fresh for the new year. Shinnenkai (新年会, literally “new year gathering”) is the Japanese tradition of welcoming the New Year by also drinking alcohol. It is also usually celebrated among the company of co-workers and friends in January.

Cleansing during hatsumode at Fushimi Inari. | Aaron G.

Lucky charms are a huge part of Japanese religion and culture. Engimono are lucky charms often given out at New Year events at temples and shrines all around Japan. There are also wonderful selections of dishes to hype up the New Year celebrations. Osechi-ryōri are traditional Japanese New Year foods that began during the Heian Period (794-1185). They are packed in special boxes called jūbako and resemble bento boxes.

Osechi. | nAok0

The Dezome-shiki (New Year’s Parade of Firemen), organized by the Tokyo Fire Department and held in early January, is also something to look forward to. The parade is held to pray for a safe year, and begins with a stunning display of daredevil feats that rival the famous acrobatic acts of Cirque du Soleil.

Whatever way you spend New Year in Japan, there is always something for everyone to enjoy!

Dezome-shiki. | lasta29

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Delectable Dashi

  • Posted by:
  • December 13, 2016

Japan is known for all kinds of delicious soups and stews. The soup stock is an important part of what makes any soup or stew dish exceptionally delicious and dashi is what forms the base.

Dashi is a class of cooking stock and soup. It’s most common form is a simple fish stock or broth that is made from heating water with edible kelp (kombu) and shavings of fermented skipjack tuna (katsuobushi). The few ingredients are brought to near-boiling, then the liquid is strained. The result is a unique element of umami, considered to be one of the five basic tastes in Japan. In 1908, Kikunae Ikeda identified the unique, strong flavor of kelp dashi and he attributed this as the umami flavour. This is introduced into dashi from using katsuobushi which is especially high in sodium inosinate, considered to be the source of umami.

Some of the more popular stews and soups are:

Ramen  – a Japanese noodle soup made with Chinese-style wheat noodles, a tasty broth, and toppings. Depending on the type of ramen, it is topped with sliced pork, green onions, or dried seaweed.  Originally from China, it was brought to Japan during the Meiji Period.

Miso soup – created by fermenting soybeans with the fungus kōjikin (Aspergillus oryzae), salt, and other ingredients like barley and rice. The outcome of the fermentation process is usually a thick paste used for preparing many traditional Japanese dishes. One Japanese staple is miso soup, rich in vitamins, minerals, and protein.

Katsuobushi. | Julia Frost

Hōtō – a famous regional dish from Yamanashi Prefecture. Made with stewed, dumpling style noodles, vegetables, and miso soup. It 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.

Chankonabe – a type of Japanese hot-pot stew or one-pot dish (nabemono) that is eaten in large amounts by sumo wrestlers as part of a weight-gain diet. The dish consists of chicken broth or dashi soup base with mirin or sake for flavour.

Shabu-shabu – has a special broth made by boiling (for around 30 minutes) at least three inches of sea kelp (kombu). The broth may also have some saki and salt mixed in. Shabu-shabu comes with two types of sauce. Commonly, one sauce is made with sesame paste, soy sauce, fish sauce, vinegar, sugar, water, and fine garlic pieces, while the other sauce is a combination of lime juice, soy sauce, and chopped long green onions.

Ramen. | Fox Wu

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