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Category Archive: Japanese Culture

Kaiseki: A Set Menu to Tickle Your Tastebuds

  • Posted by:
  • November 26, 2015

The Japanese take careful measures in almost everything they make — in clothes, cars, fine timepieces, electronics, and of course, in food.

kaiseki1Kaiseki (懐石) or kaiseki-ryōri, is a traditional Japanese multi-course dinner. The term can also refer to the many skills and techniques involved in the preparation of the meal. There are essentially two types of kaiseki: a set menu of select foods served on an individual tray, or a simple meal that a host serves his guests at a chanoyu  (Japanese tea ceremony) gathering before a ceremonial tea.

A casual kaiseki of Fuyoen. | 663highland

The kanji characters of the word kaiseki literally mean “bosom-pocket stone,” said to be coined by Sen no Rikyū (1522 – 1591), or Rikyū, who is thought to have influenced the Japanese chanoyu, “Way of Tea.”  Kaiseki is the frugal meal served in the austere style of chanoyu that came about from the practice of Zen monks warding off hunger by putting warm stones in the front fold of their robes by their stomach.

kaiseki2The more modern form of kaiseki is considered more traditional Japanese haute cuisine that uses mainly four traditions in food preparation: imperial court cuisine, derived from the 9th century during the Heian period; Buddhist cuisine of temples, from the 12th century during the Kamakura period; samurai cuisine of warrior households), from the 14th century during the Muromachi period; and the tea ceremony cuisine, from the 15th century during  the Higashiyama period of the Muromachi period.

Kaiseki  at KAI Tsugaru. | 663highland

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”). More modern versions include tastes of rich dishes elaborately prepared by well-trained chefs. Kaiseki cuisine makes a point of incorporating seasonal ingredients with the main components of the dishes: vegetables, fish, and various grains and beans. Seasoning is kept to a minimum to highlight the natural flavors of the main ingredient; rather than overpowering it, elevating the inherent flavors.

Kaiseki are usually small artistically arranged dishes that come in sequence:


Sakizuke – appetizer
Hassun – seasonal sushi and several smaller side dishes
Mukōzuke – a sliced dish of seasonal sashimi
Takiawase – vegetables served with meat, fish, or tofu
Futamono – a “lidded dish” such as soup
Yakimono – flamed grilled food
Su-zakana – pickled vegetables to clean the palate

Hassun. | 663highland

Hiyashi-bachi – chilled, lightly cooked vegetable, served only during summer
Naka-choko – another palate cleanser such as light acidic soup
Shiizakana – a substantial dish such as hot pot
Gohan – rice
Kō no mono – seasonal pickled vegetables
Tome-wan -miso-based or vegetable soup served with rice
Mizumono  – a seasonal dessert

The dishes arrive at the table to showcase the brilliant techniques and diversity of the cuisine. It takes extensive effort and skill to master the art of preparing a kaiseki meal.

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Distinctive Kumano Brushes

  • Posted by:
  • November 23, 2015

Kumano brushes are known for their quality and are recognized by Japan as a traditional industrial art. The craftsmanship put into the creation of fine handmade Kumano brushes is revered worldwide.


Kumano (熊野町), or Kumano-chō, is a town in Aki District, Hiroshima Prefecture, in Japan. The quiet town of Kumano is adjacent to Kure, Hiroshima, and Higashihiroshima, and is considered one of the commuter towns (towns whose residents work elsewhere) of those cities. Kumano-chō is considered the capital of brushes, as it is responsible for the production of 80% of the brushes made in Japan for writing, painting, and cosmetics.

Kumano brushes. | GetHiroshima.com

Kumano’s brush making industry can be traced back to a time when farmers used to buy brushes and ink from the town of Nara and sell them to locals for extra income when rice harvesting was not in season. The Hiroshima  local government encouraged this practice among residents until the people of Kumano began making their own brushes. When Japanese calligraphy became part of the school curriculum, a sudden increase in demand for writing brushes brought further stability to the industry in Kumano.


Kumano-fude” (Kumano-brush) are handmade. Materials used are usually natural: hairs of sheep, itachi wolf, raccoon, or horse. The making of Kumano-fude involves a tedious process involving 70 steps to make just a single brush. It is said that it usually takes 10 years to master the craft of being able to handle animal hairs in the exact way to make the perfect brush. The tips of the hand-made  Kumano brushes are naturally uneven. This produces just the right touch when the brush comes into contact with paper or, in the case of cosmetic brushes, the face. This creates a finish that matches no other. Kumano cosmetic brushes are famous among make-up artists.

Brush Dance. | GetHiroshima.com

There are traditional events held in Kumano that date back to 1926 such as the Fudematsuri (Brush Pen Festival), usually held during the Autumn Equinox in September. The Calligraphic Works and Art Competition and exhibition is a nationwide event whose goal is to support children’s expression and develop a rich appreciation for the art of calligraphy. This event showcases the use of Kumano brushes.  The Brush Pen Studio (FUDE no SATO KOBO) which opened in 1994, also  proudly exhibits the rich history and local culture of Kumano and the brush making industry. There is also “The Brush Pen Day” held during the Spring Equinox which seeks to revive the brush pen culture of Japan.

Learn more about Fudoki Kumano brushes in this video by Eyimabo Iyagoy:


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

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Chankonabe: The Sumo Wrestler’s Meal

  • Posted by:
  • November 19, 2015

Sumo, considered Japan’s national sport, is centuries old and  thought to have entertained the Shinto gods. Sumo is a full body contact sport that involves two male wrestlers known as rikishi, who try to push each other outside a ring with the goal of getting any part of the other’s body to touch the ground aside from the soles of the feet. The ring, known as a dohyo, is elevated and is made of sand and clay. Wrestling bouts usually last a few seconds to several minutes. Many traditional ritualistic elements are still observed today in sumo matches.


Sumo wrestlers follow disciplined training. They live in a communal training complex also known as a “sumo training stable” (heya) where sumo discipline is followed in all aspects of their daily life, from how they dress to the food they eat.

Weight is an integral part of being a professional sumo wrestler. Sumo wrestling rules does not include weight restrictions or classes. A wrestler who weighs less can be matched with another wrestler who can be as much as double his weight. This poses a disadvantage for a wrestler in a sport where heft matters. Sumo wrestling is one of the sports that actually encourages weight gain for leverage. Sumo wrestlers are encouraged to eat hearty meals. The traditional sumo wrestlers’ feast is known as chakonabe.

Sumo ceremony.


Chankonabe (ちゃんこ鍋)  is 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 flavor. There is no precise recipe for chankonabe. The ingredients of the dish are often seasonal and whatever is available in the kitchen. The bulk component of chankonabe is protein, which can be chicken with the skin on, fried fish balls, beef, tofu, and vegetables. The dish is actually reasonably healthy though protein rich. It’s just the gigantic portions that make the dish ideal for sumo wrestlers to gain weight. To make sure that the wrestlers really bulk up, rice and beer cap off their meals to add to the calorie count. The leftover broth can be used for udon or somen noodles.

Chankonabe. | ThisParticularGreg


Chankonabe is popular in many restaurants in Japan operated by retired sumo wrestlers who specialize in making the dish. Why not forget your diet for the day and enjoy some chankonabe? It’s a great way to experience the unique culture of Japan.

Chankonabe, in detail. | Lara604

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Utsuri: “Shadow of the Hamon”

  • Posted by:
  • November 16, 2015

Japanese swordsmithing is a labor intensive process of forging traditional Japanese bladed weapons often used by the samurai such as the katana (samurai’s sword), tantō (short blade), wakizashi (sideiinserted sword in between the length of a katana and tantō), ōdachi (a type of Japanese long sword), nodachi ( large sword), tachi (a type of sword that preceded the katana), and other such weapons.


Forging a katana sword takes many years of learning and practice and is truly an art.The steel used in creating a katana is called tamahagane or “jewel steel,” produced from ironsand (sand with heavy concentrations of iron). The smelting process of transforming ironsand to kera (steel bloom from ironsand) is both tedious and rigorous. Forging the blade can take weeks and is considered sacred, accompanied by Shinto religious rituals and traditional processes. It involves several other master craftsmen with their own specialties in swordmaking such as the smith, the smith’s apprentice, a polisher, a specialist for the edge, and a horimonoshi or engraver.

Traditional Japanese blades were forged according to different blade thickness, amounts of grind, varying profiles, and a dyeing technique known as utsuri or “shadow of the hamon.”  When a blade is placed under good lighting, a distinct shadow appears above the hamon or blade pattern resembling a swerving line running down the center of the sword. There are several type of patterns of utsuri that result from the hardening of steel which should have dense particles and deep color between the hamon and utsuri.

Tantō. | Sano Art properties

Utsuri is the natural appearance that occurs between the sensitive steel and tempering that can result in the proper hardening of steel. Bizen steel, often used for making Japanese swords, is known to be quite soft and prone to bend. Swords made from Bizen steel benefit from the use of the utsuri technique. This additional treatment in the steel produces hard (yet not too hard) parts of steel along the hamon as well as providing torsional rigidity and the beautiful visual magical effect on the steel’s appearance. The utsuri method produces a softer area in the blade’s surface which improves the flexibility of the swords, making them more difficult to break when used.


Antique Japanese swords. | Samuraiantiqueworld

In modern day Japan, Shimpei Kawachi’s father spent 40 years mastering the utsuri technique. Half a lifetime spent learning the method that would have been gone, faded into history, had it not been for the younger Kawachi’s determination to keep the art form alive. Shimpei Kawachi himself represents the 16th generation of a famous Japanese sword artisan family, and it is his family’s continuing mission to keep utsuri alive through regular organized exhibitions.

Kawachi says:

“My father was working really hard and now he is the only person in Japan able to create this very special pattern.  My goal is to protect the technique and protect the artwork and spread it around the world through an artistic point of view.”

With Kawachi and his four brothers, they continue to keep the utsuri technique alive.

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A Never-ending Feast with Wanko Soba

  • Posted by:
  • November 12, 2015

Wanko Soba (わんこそば) is a popular variation on Japanese soba noodles originating from Morioka and Hanamaki in Iwate Prefecture, Japan. What makes Wanko Soba interesting is the way it is served: in small individual servings, one at a time, with your own personal server.


The word Wanko can be traced from Iwate Prefecture’s regional dialect which means “bowl”—specifically, a traditional small wooden Japanese soup bowl.

There are several stories and theories as to how Wanko Soba came about (although some dispute them since the term “wanko” only appeared after World War II).

Wanko soba. | shrk

One such story goes like this:

wanko2There was once a landowner who was celebrating a festival in his land. Over 100 villagers and other guests had to be fed soba, as was the custom. As it turned out, there were so many people while the pots the soba noodles were to be prepared in were very small. The quick solution was to spread the soba noodles around in smaller portions to ensure that there would be enough to go around for everyone.

Wanko. | Justin Doub

According to another story:

One day, Nanbu Toshinao (1576–1632), a Japanese daimyo who ruled the Morioka Domain, stopped by a house in Hanamaki requesting a meal. His retainers prepared for him a local variety of soba noodles in a small soup bowl. Nanbu Toshinao thought that the food he was served was delicious and asked for more. This was said to have been the beginning of the Japanese tradition of hosts continuing to serve small individual portions of soba until the guests were satisfied.

Are you brave enough for a Wanko Soba challenge? Hanamaki and Morioka cities in Iwate offer annual Wanko Soba competitions when eating contests are also held. Check out this video by Iwate Tourism Association:


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More of Japan’s Major Deities

  • Posted by:
  • November 9, 2015

The Emperor of Japan is considered the direct descendant of Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun. Many Japanese myths are based on ancient texts such as the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki. Japan has several gods or spirits, “kami” in Japanese. Japanese mythology embodies Shinto and Buddhist traditions and local folk religion that are deeply ingrained in the culture of the Japanese people.

Fox_goddessHere are more of the major deities in the Japanese religion:

Inari Ōkami – the goddess of fertility. She is considered to be the Japanese kami of foxes, of rice, tea, and sake, of general prosperity and worldly success, and of agriculture and industry. The initial worship of Inari Ōkami can be traced to the founding of the shrine at Inari Mountain in 711 CE, but some scholars believe it goes as far back as the 5th century.  Inari Ōkami is also the patron of swordsmiths and merchants. She is a popular figure in both Buddhist and Shinto beliefs.

Depiction of an apparition of Inari Ōkami.

Kobayashi_Izanami_and_izanagiIzanagi  –  “male-who-invites.” According to the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, Izanagi is a deity born of the seven divine generations in Japanese mythology and Shinto. He is known as the forefather of the gods. He is the very first male and the god of creation and life. He and his wife Izanami gave birth to the islands of Japan and several other kamis. Izanami died in childbirth and Izanagi failed to take her from the underworld. He is said to have fathered Amaterasu (goddess of the sun), Susanoo (god of storms), and Tsukuyomi (god of the moon).

Izanami-no-Mikoto –  “she who invites.” She is the first female, and the goddess of both creation and death. She is the sister as well as the wife of Izanagi.  A marital spat between herself and Izanagi is said to have been the cause of the cycle of life and death for all living beings.

Depiction of Izanagi and Izanami.

– “dragon god.” He is the tutelary deity of the sea. Ryūjin was the father of the goddess Otohime who married the hunter prince Hoori. Emperor Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan, was the grandson of Otohime and Hoori. The Japanese imperial dynasty’s ancestors can be traced to Ryūjin.

Tenjin –  “ god of scholarship.” His name before he became a deity was Sugawara no Michizane (845 – 903). He was a scholar, poet, and politician during the Heian Period.  He was elevated to a deity after dying in exile; subsequent disasters ensued in Heian-kyō (now called Kyoto) whose causes are attributed to his angry spirit.

Depiction of Tenjin.


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Major Deities of Japan

  • Posted by:
  • November 2, 2015

Many divinities native to Japanese beliefs and religious traditions are from the Shinto religion, while some are from Buddhism or Taoism. These deities are integrated into Japanese mythology and folklore. Japanese deities are an important aspect in the culture and history of Japan and its people.

Here are just a few of the major deities in Japanese mythology:


Depiction of Amaterasu emerging from a cave.

Sōgyō_HachimanAmaterasu-ōmikami – the goddess of the sun, she is believed to be the ancestress of the Imperial Household of Japan. Her name means “Great Goddess” or “Great Spirit Who Shines in the Heavens.” Her story can be traced all the way to the oldest known records of Japan’s history, in the Kojiki (680 AD) and the Nihon Shoki (720 AD). According to legend, Amaterasu birthed descendants to whom she bequeathed some of her magical items.  Among those were Ninigi, who received the sacred mirror; Yata-no- Kagami, the jewel; and Kusanagi-noTsurugi, the sword of Susanoo.  All three sacred items collectively became the Imperial Regalia of Japan.

Hachiman – the god of war and the divine protector of Japan and its people. He was originally an agricultural deity but later became the guardian of the Minamoto clan. Most samurai worshipped him and he is considered the tutelary god of warriors. His name means the “God of Eight Banners,” referring to the eight heavenly banners that signaled the birth of the divine Emperor Ōjin. His symbolic animal and messenger is the dove.

A scroll depicting kami Hachiman dressed as a Buddhist monk.

FujinFūjin –  the god of wind and one of the oldest Shinto gods. He is portrayed as a brown skinned wizard-like demon wearing  a leopard skin. He also carries a large bag of wind on his shoulders. The Kojiki (“An Account of Ancient Matters”) is the oldest extant chronicle in Japan describing that Fūjin was born of Izanami-no-Mikoto, the goddess of both creation and death.

Depiction of Fūjin.

UzumeAme-no-Uzume-no-mikoto  – the goddess of dawn, mirth, and revelry. She is the wife of the god Sarutahiko Ōkami. Uzume is popular for “the tale of the missing sun deity” in which she was able to draw out Amaterasu from hiding and restore light on earth. Ame-no-Uzume-no-mikoto is also known as “The Great Persuader” and The Heavenly Alarming Female.”

Sculpture of Uzume.

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Wadōkaichin : Japanese Currency

  • Posted by:
  • October 8, 2015

Money has become an essential part of everyday existence.  Money developed as a means to carry out transactions that involve a physical medium in exchange for acquiring goods or services. Before the advent of money, other things such as grains, livestock, or fabrics were used in markets for exchange for whatever was needed. Anatolian obsidian, an igneous volcanic rock, also used for stone-age tools, was a form of currency as early as 12,000 BCE. Obsidian was replaced with copper and silver sometime in the third millennium BCE.


Japan commodity money before the 8th century. | PHGCOM

In Japan, commodity money before the 8th century took the form of arrowheads, gold powder, and rice grains. Japanese coinage was inspired by the Chinese Tang coinage, Kaigentsūhō (Kai Yuan Tong Bao in Chinese). The first Japanese formal currency system was Kōchōsen (“Imperial currency”). The Wadōkaichin, or Wadō-kaihō, is the oldest official Japanese coinage minted as early as 708 CE on the orders of Empress Gemmei.  Wadōkaichin are the four characters printed on the coin. Its name is derived from the era name Wadō (“Japanese copper”) and could also alternately mean “happiness” and “Kaichin,” which is thought to be related to “Currency.” Wadōkaichin coins were round with a square hole at the center of each coin to make it easier to hold the coins on a string. The coins were 2.4 cm in diameter and weighed about 3.75 grams. They remained in circulation until 958 CE.


Wadōkaichin. | PHGCOM

The Wadōkaichin’s value depreciated  as the Japanese government issued coins with lesser metallic content and local imitations proliferated.  A reform was promulgated in 760 CE where a new copper coin called Mannentsūhō  was issued. It was worth 10 times more than the value of the Wadōkaichin. Other coins were also issued like the Taiheigenbō , which was valued equal to ten copper coins and the Kaikishōhō which was valued equivalent to ten silver coins. Silver minting was soon replaced by copper minting in the Nara period. There were twelve types of coins minted throughout Japan’s history including one minted in gold.

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Comparing Shinto and Buddhism

  • Posted by:
  • October 1, 2015

It can be confusing to tell the differences between the religious affiliations of a temple or shrine if you are not familiar with religious practices in Japan. Shinto is the predominant religion practiced by almost 80% of the population. Numerous temples and shrines in Japan give visitors a glimpse of the unique culture and rich history of the country and its people. There are also so many religious festivals  celebrated in Japan with traditional pomp and it’s simply a must to catch at least one whenever going for a visit.

ShintoKandaMyojin (神道 Shintō, “way of the gods”) is the ethnic religion of Japan focusing on ritual practices carried out diligently to establish a connection between the ancient past and modern times. Shinto practices can be traced all the way back to the Kojiki (the oldest extant chronicle in Japan from the early 8th century) and Nihon Shoki (the second oldest book of classical Japanese history). These ancient Japanese writings are historical records of a collection of Japanese mythology and native beliefs. Modern Shinto focuses on public shrines devoted to the worship of the thousands of Shinto gods (kami), each one having a specific purpose.

Kanda Myojin, a Shinto shrine.

BuddhismBishamonten_(Zenkokuji)_Kagurazaka 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 northeastern Afghanistan) who travelled to Japan during the Kofun period (250 to 538). Through the years, Buddhism  has had a major influence in Japan’s history and culture. Buddhism soon became the Japanese state religion according to national policies; Buddha was made into a Japanese deity and coexisted with other Shinto gods. This Syncretism of Buddhism lasted until the Shinto-Buddhism separation decree of the Meiji government in (1868).

Entrance to the Zenkokuji Buddhist temple. | Kabacchi

Certain differences between Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples will help you distinguish between the two:
Shinto shrine:


  • Shinto shrines make use of the suffix jingu after the shrine name.
  • The entrance of a Shinto shrine is marked by a torii gate.
  • Shinto shrines have statues of a pair of guardian lions or dogs (shisa or komainu) that often greet you at the entrance.
  • Purification fountains are found near the entrance of a Shinto shrine where you can cleanse your mouth and hands before praying.

Purification basin at Itsukushima Shrine.

Buddhist temple:

  • Buddhist temples use the suffix ji after the temple name.
  • An image or statue of Buddha is always found in a temple.
  • A large incense burner is usually located at the front of the temple where smoke from the incense is believed to possess healing powers.
  • A pagoda is usually found in the grounds of the temple.

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Intricate Japanese Silk

  • Posted by:
  • September 28, 2015

silk3Silk has been a much coveted commodity since it was first developed in ancient China. The Silk Road is a 6,ooo-kilometer trading route that stretched through regions of the Asian continent, connecting the West and the East. The ancient trading route was named after the lucrative silk trade during the Chinese Han dynasty (206BCE- 220 CE). Merchants travelled this ancient route while multiple cultures mingled through pilgrims, monks, soldiers and even nomads through the centuries.

Silk obi. | Cynthia M

Silk fabric was initially developed in ancient China with the earliest examples dating back to 3630 BCE, when it was used to wrap the body of a child at the Yangshao site at Xingyang, Henan. Silk was made for the use of Chinese emperors and given out as gifts to others. Gradually its popularity spread as many coveted the intricate beauty, softness, and sheen of the fabric. Silk became a luxury fabric and was much in demand.

silk1The practice of harvesting silk was introduced in Japan in 199 CE when a Chinese man came to the country bringing with him a cluster of silkworm eggs. Japanese silk making techniques were further refined. It wasn’t long before Japanese silk became widely distinguished for being of the finest quality. In 600 CE, Japanese had to pay taxes in silk. In 701 CE, there was a decree ordering every family to plant a certain number of mulberry trees (their leaves are the primary food of silkworms) based on their socio-economic standing.

Silkworm cocoons. | TANAKA Juuyoh

During the rule of the Tokugawa Bafuku, Japan was largely isolated from foreign trade. Silk in Japan was mainly produced for domestic use.  Japanese society was divided into castes, and only men and women from the imperial family, noblemen, priests, and military families were allowed to wear silk. The kimono, long an iconic symbol for Japan, is often made with woven silk. Silk also had other uses such as for fans and parasols.


The Japanese silk making industry has a long history and is deeply ingrained in the country’s culture. One such example is ushikubi tsumugi (pongee, home-spun silk), designated as an Intangible Cultural Property of Ishikawa Prefecture. The technique was brought to the area of Mt. Hakusan in 1159 CE by members of the Minamoto/Genji Clan who were on the losing side of the Heiji Rebellion (1180-1185). The Tomioka Silk Mill in Gumma Prefecture was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in June 2014. Considered a factory, it was established in 600 CE to mass-produce and export high-quality silk. Tomioka played a key role in the start of Japan’s modernization.

Tomioka Silk Mill. | PROTANAKA Juuyoh


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