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Category Archive: Japanese Culture

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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The Exciting Tendo Sakura Matsuri Festival and Ningen Shogi

  • Posted by:
  • November 10, 2016

Shogi, or the “General’s Game, a two-player strategy board game, is the most popular native variant of chess in Japan. From the Song Dynasty through the Ming Dynasty in China, there are stories that numerous trade convoys travelled along the southern islands and all around the Indian Ocean. The Chinese traded with the  Japanese and other Southern Asian countries. This could have influenced the development of shogi. The oldest documents mentioning the existence of shogi are found in the seven-volume writings of Fujiwara Yukinari (972 – 1027), the Kirinshō.


Human Shogi at Mt. Maizuru in Tendo, Yamagata. | foooomio

The Japanese city of Tendo in Yamagata Prefecture is known since the Edo period for the traditional craft of producing shogi pieces. Tendo Sakura Matsuri Festival is an event, usually in April of each year, that celebrates the arrival of spring. The festival is a fun-filled event that hosts a variety of attractions such as traditional dances, a parade with people joining in carrying portable shrines—one of the most anticipated events, the Ningen Shogi.


Red Army in Human Shogi. | foooomio


Blue Army in Human Shogi. | foooomio

The Ningen Shogi or human shogi is a popular spring event where armored or kimono-clad people act as shogi pieces. The game is much like chess. Players (called Kishi) battle by moving pieces of different roles in order to capture the king. The Ningen Shogi is set in a time 400 years ago during the warring states period. The human shogi has people dressed up as warriors in full armor who represent the game pieces. The game of professional Kishi is recreated on a 16m-long (52ft), 14m-wide (46ft) gigantic board. With the crown cheering them on, the game brings a lively atmosphere and is a sight to behold.

Watch the Ningon Shogi in action in this YouTube video by yamagata tabibito:


Click image or here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihREJp91pOI

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Halloween in Japan

  • Posted by:
  • October 24, 2016

Halloween is just around the corner and Japan has caught up with the spooky craze! Over the years, Halloween has become the second favorite foreign holiday after Christmas. The country is no stranger to playing dress-up, as it popularized cosplay, performance art, and wearing costumes and fashion accessories to look like a particular character. Japan is a natural at celebrating Halloween with plenty of pomp and pageantry.


Japan has its own fair share of local ghoulish monsters, creepy legends, and ghost stories throughout history, but mainstream Japan only began celebrating Halloween at the start of the 21st century. The golden age of Japan’s bubble economy, an unprecedented era of affluence and internationalism in the 1980s, popularized a few Western holidays such as Valentine’s Day, Christmas, and of course, Halloween.

Kawasaki Halloween Parade. | Danny Choo

5072155098_7107aa889d_zHalloween didn’t take off as quickly as the other two holidays, because it was initially perceived to have a dark side to it. To add more controversy to the darkness of Halloween, there was an incident involving the teenage Japanese exchange student Yoshihiro Hattori, who in 1992 was killed on his way to a Halloween party.  All throughout the 1990s until the early 2000s, Hattori’s death was the first thing that entered the minds of many Japanese when Halloween came around.

Halloween candy in Japan. | Hideya HAMANO

1394137566_03f2cae1eb_zOver time, Hattori’s unfortunate death was not considered a direct result of Halloween. In 1999, Tokyo Disneyland played a major role in creating a different mindset about Halloween and at the same time testing the general reception of the occasion by holding a one-day Halloween event. It proved an instant success that eventually grew to become a two-month series of parades and shows held throughout September and October at the theme park. In line with the warm acceptance of Halloween in Japan, the city of Kawasaki in the Tokyo area held its first Halloween costume parade. The parade is a major event today and draws in a number of attendees garbed in elaborate costumes.

Halloween decor at Tokyo Disneyland. | Hideya HAMANO

Halloween in Japan is probably one of the best ways to spend the much anticipated event via the Japanese kawaii culture and cosplay. Truly, it may just be one of the scariest and cutest Halloweens ever!


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Popular Fall 2016 Anime Adaptations

  • Posted by:
  • October 20, 2016

The anime industry in Japan is fueled by more than 400 production studios in the country alone, and it has continued to gain significant international success over the years.

Here’s what’s happening with the Fall 2016 anime lineup.

Bungo Stray Dogs – Season 2
bungoBungo Stray Dogs (文豪ストレイドッグス Bungō Sutorei Doggusu), is a Japanese manga series written by Kafka Asagiri and illustrated by Sango Harukawa. A television anime adaptation by Bones recently came out last April of this year and the second part premiered in October.

The story mainly follows the members of the Armed Detective Agency and their everyday lives. The plot of Bungo Stray Dogs centers on characters that are gifted with supernatural powers. The main characters use their powers to solve mysteries and carry out missions that are assigned to them by the mafia as well as for their everyday needs.

Bungo Stray Dogs. | Screengrab from YouTube video by Crunchyroll


Keijo!!!!!!!! (競女!!!!!!!!,  Competitive Girl) , also known as Hip Whip Girl,  is a Japanese sports manga series by Daichi Sorayomi with an anime television series produced by Xebec which aired October 6.

The anime series is set in an alternate reality where a new, women-only, gambling sport known as Keijo has risen in popularity since its introduction in the dawn of the 21st century. Keijo matches are held atop floating platforms in large water-filled stadiums where bikini-clad players fight to incapacitate their opponents or push them out to the water, but they can only hit each other using particular body parts.


Drifters (ドリフターズ Dorifutazu) is an alternate history Japanese manga by Kouta Hirano. The story of the popular manga series centers on various historical figures summoned to an unknown world where their skills and techniques are needed by magicians in order to save their world from total destruction. A television anime version started airing October 7.

 Drifters. | Screengrab from YouTube video by Crunchyroll

Shūmatsu no Izetta

witchIzetta: The Last Witch (終末のイゼッタ Shūmatsu no Izetta) is an anime series that aired early October. The anime is produced by Ajia-do Animation Works and directed by Masaya Fujimori. The story is set in an alternate universe on the eve of World War II. The main character, Izetta, is the last surviving member of a clan of witches who possess the ability to manipulate any object they touch using magic. Izetta promises to devote her gift to protect Princess Fine and the tiny Alpine Kingdom of Eylstadt from invasion by the imperialistic forces of Germania.

Shūmatsu no Izetta. | Screengrab from YouTube video by Harem King

Aside from all the latest anime this fall, there are also some all time favorite anime characters. Which one is your favorite?

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