Category Archive: Japanese Culture
Matcha is a finely ground powder of specially processed and grown green tea. Matcha was developed by a Chinese monk from the tea plant camellia sinensis. It is a popular flavor in Japan and is used in traditional Japanese cuisine, drinks, and snacks. Matcha is also used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony that centers on the preparing, serving, and drinking of green tea.
The Japanese tea ceremony, or chanoyu (“hot water for tea”), is an elaborate ritual of serving green tea, matcha, along with some sweets. Each gesture and act is deliberate. The whole process is not only about drinking tea; it is meant to leave a lasting impression of serving the best bowl of tea from the host. Each minute detail in the tea ceremony is given great attention to ensure that the guests, shokyaku, are pleased with the whole experience.
The chanoyu is a way to relieve the stress of everyday life, even for just a short while, by immersing in the Zen aesthetics of serenity and peace.
Our Summer term KCP students recently became acquainted with the Japanese tea ceremony. Check out our photos!
For more photos of the tea ceremony, visit our Flickr album.
Check out more KCP alumni in their own tea ceremonies!
KCP Winter 2016 Students Experience the Japanese Tea Ceremony
KCP Spring 2016 Students Experience Chanoyu
Traditional Japanese cuisine uses staple foods available in the region. For thousands of years, Japanese food has had strong influences from Korea and China. It was only in the last few hundred years that foreign trade and religion made an impact on traditional Japanese fare and developed it to what we now know it to be.
Sampling the various local dishes gives us a wonderful way to experience the unique tastes and culture of Japan. Here are some of Japan’s traditional foods to try:
Sashimi – consists of extremely fresh raw fish or meat sliced into thin pieces. The main ingredient is usually served with a garnish such as shredded daikon, white raddish, or shiso leaves (a herb from the mint family). Sashimi is served with a dipping sauce (soy sauce and wasabi paste).
Sashimi. | Jessica and Lon Binder
Sushi – usually consists of cooked rice mixed with vinegar and sweet sake, raw or cooked seafood, seaweed, and vegetables. The ingredients and presentation vary but sushi always contains rice. Raw fish or other types of meat that is sliced and served without rice is called sashimi. Sushi is often served with a daikon garnish, wasabi, soy sauce, and shredded ginger.
Kaiseki Ryori – a traditional Japanese multi-course dinner. The modern form of kaiseki is considered more traditional Japanese haute cuisine. The basic structure of kaiseki cuisine includes “One Soup and Three Dishes” (1 soup dish, 1 main dish, 2 side dishes) referred to as a setto, “set”).
Tonkatsu – breaded, deep fried pork cutlet often served with shredded cabbage. It is usually eaten with a thick sauce that tastes similar to Worcestershire sauce. Mustard (karashi) and a slice of lemon can also be used as sauce. Tonkatsu can also be served with grated daikon instead of tonkatsu sauce.
Tonkatsu set. | zezebono from Tonkatsu Wako Restaurant in Sapporo, Hokkaido
Shabu-shabu – a Japanese version of a hot pot is a delightful assortment of meats and vegetables. Meats may include beef, crab, duck, fish balls, or lobster. Vegetables may include Chinese cabbage (hakusai), nori (seaweed), chrysanthemum leaves, welsh onions, green onions, garlic, mizuna, carrots, shiitake mushrooms, bean noodles, or lotus root.
Shabu-shabu. | imissdaisydog
Udon – the thickest of Japanese noodles. White in color 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. Udon is usually topped with various ingredients like mixed tempura fritters (kakiage), deep fried tofu pockets (aburaage), tempura, or prawn.
Udon. | Toshiyuki IMAI
Japanese sculpture epitomizes the long history and culture of Japan. Many modern day artists make use of natural objects of stone, wood, bamboo, and even paper to express their art. Early Japanese sculptures started from clay figures. The craft was influenced by the Silk Road culture in the 5th century and by Chinese sculpture. Western influence on Japanese sculpture came about during the Meiji era.
Most Japanese sculptures were derived from idol worship in animalistic rites of Shinto deity or Buddhism. Sculpture in all the arts is usually centered on Buddhism. Traditional materials included metal such as bronze, but wood—brightly painted, lacquered or gilded—was more commonly used. Some notable Japanese sculptors include:
Tori Busshi – a sculptor during the 6th and early 7th century, from the Kuratsukuri (鞍作, “saddle-maker”) clan. His full title was Shiba no Kuratsukuri-be no Obito Tori Busshi (meaning “the maker of Buddhist images”). He was the favorite sculptor of Soga no Umako (a member of the powerful Soga clan) and Prince Shōtoku (a semi-legendary regent and a politician of the Asuka period). Many of the Asakusa period sculptures in gilt bronze are credited to Tori Busshi and his workshop. His works are characterized by solid geometric figures in front-oriented, characteristic poses.
Asuka dera daibutsu by Tori Busshi. | Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons
Jōchō Busshi (died in 1057 CE) – a sculptor of the Heian period. He popularized the yosegi technique of sculpting a single figure using many pieces of wood. Jōchō is also credited for redefining the canon (a rule of proportions to produce a harmoniously formed figure) to create Buddhist images. His influence spread all across Japan and defined the style of Japanese sculpting for the next 150 years. Jōchō is considered to be one of the most innovative Japanese artists and “the first of a new kind of master sculptor.”
Amida Nyorai by Jōchō Busshi.
Hidari Jingorō – a famous sculptor and carpenter of the early Edo period (1596-1644). He is believed to have created many famous deity sculptures all around Japan; many legends circulat about him, including the question of his actual existence. Jingorō was an apprentice for the chief Architect Hokyo Yoheiji Yusa of the Imperial Court in Kyoto. After losing his right hand, he taught himself to use his left hand hand and became known as Hidari Jingorou (Hidari means “left”). Among his more famous works is the nemuri-neko (“sleeping cat”) carving located above the Kuguri-mon Gate by the sacred mountain shrines and temples of Nikkō, Japan.
Nemuri-neko carving by Hidari Jingorō.
Miso is a traditional Japanese seasoning made 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 sauces and spreads for traditional Japanese culinary fare. It is a delicious Japanese staple that is fast catching the attention of the world, not just for its delicious taste but also for its amazing health benefits!
The origin of miso is not clear but it can be traced back to Japan’s Neolithical era (Jōmon period 14,000 to 300 BCE). Miso was used for grain and fish and was called “Jōmon miso.” It was similar to the early fish and soy-based sauces used throughout East Asia. Other types of fermented soy-based food was introduced to Japan at the same time as Buddhism from China. During the Muromachi era (1337 to 1573), Buddhist monks discovered that soybeans can be ground to make a paste which created the cooking methods using miso to flavor other foods.
Miso soup. | www.bluewaikiki.com
Some of the amazing health benefits of miso:
- Miso contains essential amino acids to make it a complete protein.
- Miso stimulates secretion of digestive fluids in the stomach.
- Miso restores probiotics in the intestines.
- Miso contains isoflavones that inhibit the development of breast cancer in women.
- Nutrients in miso are vitamin E, vitamin B2, Vitamin K, potassium, lecithin, choline, calcium, and iron.
- Miso contains linoleic acid, which helps keep the skin soft and supple.
- Miso is a good source of antioxidants and eliminates free radicals from the body.
Check out our photos of KCP Spring 2016 students as they learn to make miso soup in cooking class.
More photos of the cooking session here.
Udon (饂飩) is the thickest of Japanese noodles. White in color 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. Udon is usually topped with various ingredients like mixed tempura fritters (kakiage), deep fried tofu pockets (aburaage), tempura, or prawn. Some examples of udon dishes include curry udon, kitsune udon, and yakii udon. A thin slice of fish cake (kamaboko) usually completes the dish.
Flavors of the broth used for udon dishes usually vary from region to region. A type of dark brown broth made from soy sauce (koikuchi shōyu) is used usually in eastern Japan and a lighter broth made from light soy sauce (usukuchi shōyu), is used in the western areas.
Udon noodles. | Yuya Tamai
There are many tales about the origins of udon. One is that in 1241 CE, a Rinzai monk named Enni introduced the technology of flour milling to Japan. Flour was turned into many forms that can be used in Japanese cuisine. Flour products such as noodles like soba and udon as well as pancakes were popular among the locals. Flour milling techniques spread across the country, and by the Edo period, the thicker wheat noodles came to be called udon. It was served with a hot broth called nurumugi and the chilled variety was called hiyamugi.
Another story tells us that during the Nara period, a Japanese envoy was introduced to 14 different kinds of confections while he was in China. One of them was called sakube, also known as muginawa according to the ancient dictionary, the Shinsen Jikyō. Muginawa is the origin of many Japanese noodles. But the muginawa mentioned in the Shinsen Jikyō was made with both wheat and rice flour.
Making udon. | Ken FUNAKOSHI
Udon are versatile noodles. The are usually served chilled during the summer and hot in the winter. Ingredients are based on what’s available: almost anything goes great with udon. Although udon is usually prepared with broth, it can also be stir fried. The latest udon craze is from the newest product of the snack and dessert company Bourbon. Their creation is crunchy flavored udon noodles. The flavor is a concoction of seven spices known as “shichimi” and is something amazingly different for udon lovers.
Kinubiki-udon. | Hideya HAMANO
Noodles are a delicious staple in Japan and there are a variety of noodles to choose from that would surely satisfy your hankering for Japanese cuisine. Oishi!
Noh, Japan’s oldest traditional form of musical drama, has been performed since the 1300s. Noh performances can last all day. Usually they consist of five plays and a shorter comical version (kyōgen). Noh acts combine drama, dance, poetry, and music; performers are mostly males donning expressive masks called nō-men.
Noh actors with masks. | Jim Epler
Nō-men (能面) or omote (面) are noh performance masks worn by the main actor (shite) and secondary character (tsure) to represent female characters. The masks are carved from blocks of Japanese cypress and painted with natural pigments on a neutral base of crushed seashell and glue. There are about 450 kinds of nō-men based on 60 types and all are unique with distinct names. Some masks can be used repeatedly in many different plays, while others can be used in only one or two plays. Nō-men depict a character’s age, social ranking, gender, and whether the character is a human, demon, or a god. They are an important element of the performance.
Three pictures of the same nō ‘hawk mask’ showing how the expression changes with a tilting of the head. | Wmpearl
Nō-men may cover an actor’s face but their use in Noh performances does not mean the actor’s own facial expressions are completely abandoned. A nō-men is supposed to stylize and codify the facial expressions of the actors and to encourage the imagination of the audience. It enables the actors to convey different emotions in a controlled manner such as a slight tilt of the head. With lighting to show more or less expression from the nō-men, facing slightly upward can convey happiness while facing downwards can express sadness or anger.
nō-men. | ichidoru
There are nō-men in Noh schools in Japan that are centuries old and are priceless. There are also some in private collection that are not for public display. Nō-men are beautiful examples of art, part of Japan’s unique culture and history.
Viticulture is the science, production, and study of grapes. The native territories of the common grape vine are from Western Europe to the Persian shores of the Caspian Sea. But grape vines have proven to show adaptability to new environments, promoting the popularity and spread of viticulture in every continent except Antarctica.
Grape growing in Japan began as early as 718 AD in Katsunuma, Yamanashi Prefecture. The first ever documented wine consumption in the country was in the 16th century, when the Jesuit missionaries from Portugal arrived. Saint Francis Xavier brought wines as presents for the Japanese feudal lords of Kyūshū. Other missionaries continued the practice of using wine in their services, and soon locals acquired the distinct taste of wine made from grapes, importing it on a regular basis. Portuguese wine was called chintashu which combined the Portuguese word tinto (chinta in Japanese) meaning red and shu meaning liquor.
Japanese wines. | tzejen
In 1873, returning members of the Iwakura Mission brought detailed reports on European wine culture back to Japan. This enabled the Japanese to make focused attempts to promote domestic wine production using sake brewing equipment by Hironori Yamada and Norihisa Takuma in Kofu, Yamanashi. They sent Masanari Takano and Ryuken Tsuchiya to Bordeaux to learn viticulture and wine production techniques. Cultivation of early European grapes formed the core of early attempts of growing grapes. However, this was hampered by the Phylloxera (a pest of commercial grapevines) that arrived with the imported root stock in 1884.
Wine barrels at Meiji Jingū. | Wally Gobetz
After World War II, wine making became more popular. But the acidity and astringency for domestically produced wines were not readily accepted by Japanese taste. For some time, sugars like honey were added to make sweeter (amakuchi) wine. In the 1970s and 80s, skills in Japanese wine making become more refined and demand for both domestically produced and imported wines increased with the boom of the Japanese economy. Domestic wineries began to focus on producing superior wines using only domestically cultivated grapes.
The 90s saw a reduction in taxes on imported wine as well as developing tastes for the Japanese food culture, and wine consumption continued to grow. Shinya Tasaki became the first Japanese to be awarded the title of Meillieur Sommelier du Monde in 1995. This significantly raised public awareness of wine appreciation as well as all the health benefits of polyphenol (tannins) found in wine. In 2002, Yamanashi Prefecture led competitions that focused on “Japanese wine using only 100% Japanese grapes.”
Grapes at a Yamanashi winery. | Masaki Tokutomi
Japanese culture is deeply rooted in Zen, a school of Mahayana (Sanskrit for “Great Vehicle”) Buddhism, one of the main existing branches of Buddhism and a term for classification of Buddhist philosophies and practice. Zen is a practice that was passed on from master to disciple in the purest context known as “uninterrupted bloodline,” believed to have originated from the Awakening of a man named Siddhārtha Gautama, also known as Buddha, in India, some 2,500 years ago. Zazen or “seated meditation” is a meditative discipline in Zen Buddhist practice. The goal of zazen is to just sit and free oneself from all thoughts, words, images, and ideas.
Thousands of years ago in India, Buddha sought to find the solution to end human suffering. The answer came to him while practicing Zen meditation under a tree, and it was “Enlightenment.” This was the realization that while we possess all that we could ever desire in life, we still often remain unsatisfied. The reason for this is that true happiness doesn’t depend on what we have but on who we are. Buddha’s doctrine, teaching and practice helps us achieve inner peace through zazen.
A Zendo, or meditation hall. | John Gillespie
The practice of zazen meditation is the heart of the Zen Buddhist experience. It is a very simple yet precise method of meditation. Namely:
Zen monasteries and temples require the tradition where participants sit as a group in a meditation hall usually called a zendo. The practitioner sits on cushion called a zafu that is commonly placed on top of a low, flat mat called a zabuton. Before the participant is seated, he must bow to the seat and to fellow practitioners. The beginning of a period of zazen is traditionally announced by ringing a bell three times (shijosho), and the end of a round is by ringing the bell once or twice (hozensho). Long sessions of zazen are usually alternated with periods of walking meditation (kinhin).
Zafu in Sōji-ji. | geraldford
When practicing zazen, usually one sits with hands and legs folded and spine erect yet settled. The hands are folded together (mudra, a symbolic or ritual gesture) over the belly. The practitioner should breathe from the center of gravity in the belly (hara), with the eyelids half-lowered and neither to be fully opened nor closed to avoid distraction.
The legs can be folded into any of the sitting styles:
Kekkafuza – full-lotus
Burmese – ankles crossed together in front.
Seiza – a kneeling posture using a bench or zafu.
Mudra. | Richard
Mastering zazen is truly an art that, when achieved, can free the mind and body and attain peace.
Hōtō is a famous regional dish from Yamanashi Prefecture. Made with stewed, dumpling style noodles, vegetables, and miso soup, it is a delicious, hearty meal that epitomizes the unique tastes and culture of Japan.
At a time in Japan’s history when the country was experiencing shortage in rice crops, hōtō was created to address food shortage. Silk was much in demand, and lands that were traditionally reserved for rice crops were turned into silk farms. Rice farming was a daunting task. It was nearly impossible for the crop to flourish in Yamanashi’s Gunnai region with its frigid climate and the amounts of volcanic debris in the soil. Wheat farming was a more ideal crop and its popularity spread throughout the region as well as into the neighboring Saitama, Shizuoka, Nagano and Gunma prefectures. Yamanashi Prefecture focused on wheat farming and flour culture and hōtō was born.
Hōtō . | Jungle
According to other stories, hōtō was invented by Takeda Shingen, a daimyo and warlord of the latter part of the Sengoku period. After World War II, tourism became Yamanashi Prefecture’s most lucrative source of revenue. Locals thought of many ideas to promote the area’s regional products. Hōtō was promoted as the meal eaten by Takeda Shingen and his soldiers before each battle.
KCP Fall 2015 students enjoying a bowl of hōtō. | KCP Flickr
Hōtō is traditionally made by kneading dough with bare hands in a wooden bowl and stretching it out to dry. The dough is then folded over and over into large pieces with a kitchen knife. Unlike the usual udon noodles, hōtō has a tougher texture of dough due to the amount of gluten, and it is not mixed with salt. Hōtō is boiled along with the other ingredients of the dish, usually dashi (a soup base) made from niboshi (dried baby sardines) and miso soup. Vegetables are usually seasonal, during the summer negi (bunching onions), onions and potatoes are common ingredients. Winter vegetables are usually taro, carrots, and Chinese cabbage. Mushrooms such as shiitake and shimeji, pork, and chicken are common ingredients all year round.
KCP Fall 2015 make the dough. | KCP Flickr
Hōtō is a tasty dish that can satisfy the appetite of any battle ready warrior as well as any adventurous traveler who is ready to take in the sights and tastes of Japan.
Check out photos of KCP’s Fall 2015 students learning how to make hōtō during their Yamanashi trip.
Japanese traditional arts and handicrafts have been subjected to many outside influences from other cultures. It was a result of the numerous sudden invasions the island nation endured through the course of history, followed by long periods of minimal contact from the outside world during Japan’s sakoku period.
The earliest complex Japanese art form was Buddhism, from the 7th and 8th centuries. During the 9th century, the Japanese began to develop their own indigenous forms of expression as they incorporated their own styles into what they had adapted from the Chinese. The culmination and aesthetic uniqueness of traditional Japanese art is a result of assimilating the influence of foreign cultures and elements.
Many regions of Japan have their own specialties in traditional handicrafts. Here are just a few of them.
Kutani ware, Ishikawa – a style of Japanese Gotō Saijirō porcelain known for its colorful, vibrant painted designs. Kutani ware was established by Gotō Saijirō of the Maeda Clan. He was responsible for setting up a kiln in the village of Kutani, now part of the city of Kaga, under the orders of Maeda Toshiharu, head of the Kaga domain. Kutani ware is distinguished by designs mainly using five colors (red, yellow, purple, blue, and green) that are used to paint over intricate line drawings. Many different products such as vases, tea sets, and ornaments are made using this traditional technique.
Kutani incense burner. | antefixus21
Kokeshi dolls, Miyagi – traditional hand-crafted Japanese wooden dolls with origins traceablle to northern Japan. The dolls have a straight, cylindrical body with large, round heads. The faces of the kokeshi are painted with very simple lines that still convey their various expressions. Since the dolls are hand-painted, each doll is unique; no two kokeshi dolls have identical faces. Traditionally, the body is coated with wax and usually decorated with floral designs of varying colors. The bottom of the dolls should bear the signature of the artist.
Kokeshi dolls. | Hitty Evie
Matsumoto-temari, Matsumoto – these handcrafted balls are decorated with scraps of yarn woven to create beautiful designs. Initially, the balls were meant to be used as beanbags for children. But a way to make the bean bags bounce was discovered, and the toy soon became known as temari handballs. Some balls are made with bells inside. They make a unique sound when bounced around. Temari balls are commonly used today as decorative accent pieces in many Japanese homes.
Temari balls. | GrinnPidgeon