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Category Archive: Japanese Culture

Jamming with J-pop Music and Artists

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  • November 17, 2014

Western music was introduced to Japan during the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912). The Japanese initially experienced Westernized pop music, kayōkyoku, in a dramatization of the Tolstoy classic Resurrection.  Shinpei Nakayama’s 1914 song Sumako Matsui was a best-selling record in Japan. The pre-war period saw the ryūkōka genre as a popular form of music from the 1920s through the 1960s; it developed from Western classical music.  The progression of music genres in Japan mostly follows Western influences from rock ’n’ roll in the 60s (which contributed to the Rokabirī and Wasei pop genre), folk music in the 70s, and city pop in the 80s. It was only in the 1990s that the term J-pop came to refer to all Japanese popular songs except for traditional Japanese music (enka).

J-pop (ジェイポップ jeipoppu), Japanese pop or pops, was coined by the Japanese media to differentiate foreign music from Japanese music.  The J-pop musical genre has gained such immense popularity among other neighboring regions that other countries are borrowing the style. Some popular J-pop artists include:

B’zBz_hollywoodrockwalk (ビーズ Bīzu) – one of the best-selling music artists in Japan (and the world) with  75 million or more in record sales. B’z is a rock duo with members Koshi Inaba as lyricist and vocalist and Takahiro “Tak” Matsumoto as guitarist, producer, and composer. They were the first Japanese band to have their handprints and signatures in Hollywood’s RockWalk.

B’z RockWalk. | Jmaeshawn

GlayMTV_VMAJ_2014_Glay – composed of members Teru, Takuro, Hisashi, and Jiro. The band formed in 1988, and their songs are arranged with a wide variety of genres such as punk, R&B, electronica, and ska. As of 2010, the band has sold around 37.5 million copies in Japan alone.

Glay at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards Japan. | Norio NAKAYAMA

Sekai no Owari (世界の終わり, aka “End of the World”) – band members include Satoshi Fukase, Saori Fujisaki, Shinichi “Nakajin” Nakajima, and DJ Love.  They initially performed a live concert at a club with only 15 people in the audience.  Their styles are mostly indie pop, pop rock, and alternative rock.  Their song “Dragon Night” is number 2 in the Japan Hot 100 Billboard Chart as of November 2014.

 Ayumi Hamasaki 2958995972_5aa5f439b8_o(浜崎あゆみ) – known as the “Empress of J-pop,” Ayumi Hamasaki  is popular across Asia. Her musical styles are varied and include progressive rock, classical, pop, metal, dance, and R&B. She uses her own lyrics and uses different types of instruments such as Japanese traditional string music boxes, piano, and guitar. She also incorporates techniques such as clapping and scratching into some of her songs.

Ayumi Hamasaki Asia Tour 2008. | Uma machi


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Kazoku: the Exalted Japanese Lineage

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  • November 10, 2014

Japan’s culture and traditions are greatly influenced by Shinto and Buddhist beliefs. Several gods or spirits called ”kami” are revered by many Japanese. One of them is the goddess of the sun, Amaterasu who, according to Shinto belief, is the Emperor of Japan’s direct ancestor. Japan is also known to have the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world. The Chrysanthemum Throne is the term that embodies the Japanese monarchy and the legal authority of the existence of the Japanese government. The kazoku was considered the accepted  hereditary peerage (legal system of hereditary titles) of the Empire of Japan between 1884 and 1947.

The_Emperor_of_MeijiThe Meiji Restoration of 1868 saw the restoration of practical imperial rule to Japan under Emperor Meiji. It put in place practical abilities and secured the political system of the country. This led to many changes in Japan’s political structure as well as its emergence as a modernized nation. Kazoku (華族) literally means “exalted lineage” or “magnificent.”  The ancient court nobility of Kyoto (kuge) regained its status when several of its members played crucial roles in overthrowing the Tokugawa shogunate.  The Meiji government nominated kuge to head all seven of the newly established administrative departments.

The Emperor Meiji.

The new ruling class of Japan was known as the Meiji oligarchy. One of their Westernizing reform strategies was to unite the daimyo (feudal lords) with the kuge to build an expanded aristocratic class distinct from other social classes of shizoku (former samurai) and the heimin (commoners). The kazoku peerage was intended to provide the political and social foundation for the newly restored Japanese imperial institution.  Any kazoku without any official government appointments in provinces were obligated to reside in Tokyo.


The Peerage Act as promulgated by Hirobumi Ito of 7 July 1884 expanded the awarding of kazoku status to people who had performed outstanding services for the country. The kazoku was divided into five ranks based on the British peerage system but with titles derived from ancient Chinese nobility:

Prince or Duke – Kōshaku  (公爵 )
Marquis – also Kōshaku  but written with a different Chinese character (侯爵 )
Count – Hakushaku (伯)
Viscount – Shishaku  (子爵 )
Baron – Danshaku (男爵)

The 1946 Constitution of Japan abolished the kazoku. This ended the use of all titles of nobility and rank outside the immediate Imperial Family. But many of the descendants of the kazoku families continue to hold influential positions in Japanese government and society up until today.


Related post:

Amaterasu and the Imperial Regalia of Japan

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Taiko Drums: The Symmetry of Music and Movement

  • Posted by:
  • November 6, 2014

Ensemble taiko drumming is catching on fast in the U.S. The first organized American taiko groups started in California in the 1960s. Today, there are over 300 groups across North America that incorporate influences from different types of musical genres such as hip-hop, Latin, and jazz.


Taiko (太鼓) encompasses a wide variety of Japanese percussion instruments. In Japan, the term refers to any type of drum.  But outside the country, taiko is used to describe the types of Japanese drums called wadaiko,  as well as the form of ensemble drumming officially known as kumi-daiko (drum collection).

Tokara Taiko Drummers. | Notreshuggle


According to the myth mentioned in the Nihon Shoki (the second oldest book of classical Japanese history), taiko originally came from the Shinto gods Ame no Uzume (goddess of dawn, mirth, and revelry),  Amaterasu (goddess of sunlight), and her brother Susanoo (god of the sea and storms). At one time, Susanoo was so angry he brought forth raging waters from the sea that reached the land. Amaterasu became so upset with her brother’s actions she fled to a cave, sealed it with a boulder, and refused to come out. The other gods knew that without sunlight from Amaterasu, life on earth would dwindle and eventually die. Ame no Uzume thought of turning herself to look like an old lady, emptied out a barrel of sake, and started to pound on it creating percussive and compelling rhythms that moved all the other gods to sing and dance. The sounds of the music and the revelry caused Amaterasu to come out of her cave to see what all the commotion was about. As she saw the joyous scene before her, light once again shone on earth and banished Susanoo.

 Kita no Taiko Performance. | Kurt Bauschardt

The exact origin of the taiko is unknown. However, archaeological evidence suggests that ancient Japanese during the Jōmon period used drums. The Kofun period also indicated the use of drums for rituals and as a means to communicate.

For some people, the attraction to learning taiko is the depth and breadth of what the instrument offers not just as a musical instrument but in the movement of the body as well.  There are so many different sounds and styles that can be produced from one single drum. When many drums are played together by an ensemble, in various styles, movement, and positioning, the artistic possibilities are endless. For others who are looking to combine movement and music in a form other than dance, playing the taiko offers the best of both worlds.  Taiko involves full body drumming and can be likened to a fully body workout that satisfies the physical, mental, and musical aspects. It’s no wonder taiko is fast catching on as a great way to flex your musical creativity while exercising at the same time.


Click image or here: http://youtu.be/pZO47QxV-iY

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The Craft of Japanese Swordsmithing

  • Posted by:
  • October 20, 2014

Scene-de-forge-edo-p1000665Japanese samurai, the military nobility of medieval and early-modern Japan, have long captured the interest of many. The teachings of the samurai are an important aspect of Japanese culture and way of life. It isn’t difficult to be in awe of their strict adherence to their set of rules known as bushidō, their code of conduct, their mastery of martial arts, their unique armor, and their swords.

The samurai sword is commonly called a katana. It is known for its characteristic curved, single-edged, thin blade with a rounded or square guard and long grip so it can be held with both hands. It is known for its strength and incredibly sharp blade. The katana and other traditional Japanese blades are made with legendary Japanese swordsmithing techniques that involve labor-intensive bladesmithing processes unique to Japan.

Forging a blade. Print from an Edo period book. | Rama

katanaThe 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 a tedious and rigorous. Forging the blade can take weeks and is considered a sacred art, 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. Most of the blades are decorated with designs, grooves, and file markings, usually at the hilt of the sword. This is never supposed to be cleaned because it is meant to show how well the steel ages. Some of the more notable swordsmiths include:

Samurai katana with koshirae (ornate mounting) and shirasaya (plain wooden mount.). | Samuraiantiqueworld

Shintōgo Kunimitsu (新藤五国光) 13th century – considered the founder of the Soshu-den tradition that combined the knowledge and traditional methods from Yamashiro and Bizen. The oldest dated sword he created was from 1293.

MasamuneMasamune_Portrait (正宗) 1264–1343 – also known as Gorō Nyūdō Masamune, is considered Japan’s greatest swordsmith and was a student of Shintōgo Kunimitsu.  His swords are of superior quality and  possess remarkable beauty. Masamune is thought to have brought perfection to the art of “nie” where steel becomes crystalline structure resembling stars in the evening sky.

Hikoshirō Sadamune (相模國住人貞宗 ) 1298-1349 –  learned his craft from the  Sōshū school. He was originally from Gōshū (also known as Ōmi province) and he was a student of Masamune.

Portrait of Masamune.

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The Sakoku Years of Japan

  • Posted by:
  • October 16, 2014

The 17th to the 19th century saw Japan adopting a policy that isolated the whole country from the outside world. This long period of national isolation was called sakoku.  During sakoku no Japanese could leave the country on penalty of death, and very few foreign nationals were permitted to enter and trade with Japan.  Sakoku literally meant “chained country.”

Sakoku (鎖国) was a policy enacted by the Tokugawa shogunate (the last feudal Japanese military government)  under Tokugawa Iemitsu through several policies and edicts from 1633 to 1639 and had remained effective until 1853 when the Perry Expedition forcibly opened  Japan to Western trade. The rationale of the shogunate  behind the implementation of sakoku in Japan was to remove any religious and colonial influence, primarily from Portugal and Spain, considered a threat to the shogunate. Japan strictly traded with only five entities from four gateways:


Matsumae Domain – located in Hokkaido, formerly known as Ezo, traded with the Ainu people.

Sō clan daimyo of Tsushima – had trade relations with Joseon Dynasty Korea.

Dutch East India Company – was permitted to trade in Nagasaki along with private Chinese traders.

Ryūkyū Kingdom – controlled by the Shimazu family daimyo of Satsuma Domain.

Commodore Perry’s second fleet. 

Dutch_tribute_embassy_to_EdoTrading between these entities was further divided in two: Group A included the Dutch and Chinese who fell under the jurisdiction of the Bafuku in Nagasaki, Group B included the Kingdoms of Korea and  Ryūkyū which dealt with the Satsuma (the Shimazu clan) and the  Tsushima (the Sō clan) domains.

Dutch tribute embassy to Edo. | Engelbert Kaempfer

The Convention of Kanagawa on 31 March 1854 established formal diplomatic relations between Japan  and the United States when Commodore Matthew Perry had the Shogun sign the Treaty of Peace and Amity. The United Kingdom also signed the Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty at the end of 1854, followed by treaties with other countries in the next few years.

The sakoku period is now a part of Japanese history, but the Hirado Dutch Trading House established by the Dutch East India Company dating back to 1609 is a reminder of the time when Japan closed its doors to the Westerners. It was once the only trading base that linked Japan to the West. There are a dozen buildings in this historical site. One of them is a stone warehouse considered the very first Western building in Japan, now a museum open to the public. The Hirado Dutch Trading House remains a lasting testament to the proud culture and history of the Japanese.


Hirado Dutch Trading House. | 陳 ポーハン

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Riveting October Festivals in Japan

  • Posted by:
  • October 13, 2014

For most Japanese, religion is a combination of elements from various religions known as Shinbutsu shūgō (神仏習合 amalgamation of buddhas and kami).  In 1886, the Shinto and Buddhism Separation Order officially ended the syncretic practices of religion known to Japanese, but they are still observed. Though Shinto and Japanese Buddhism are officially considered two separate faiths, they are more of a single and rather complex religion. Aside from Shinto and Buddhism, some Japanese practice other minority religions such as Islam, Christianity Sikhism, and Hinduism.

Almost every shrine in Japan is revered with a celebration (matsuri), and countless shrines are all around the country. Most festivals are celebrated every year to honor a seasonal historic event or a shrine’s deity.  There are also other festivals that are not related to any religion yet are just as exciting.  Each month holds a celebration in Japan, and October has several festivals to look forward to.

Nagasaki Kunchioctfest2 –  a 3-day autumn festival with traditional and historical roots over 350 years old, held at Suwa Shrine. The festival is celebrated each year beginning on October 7. The highlight of the festival is the Hono-Odori  where different towns around the area take turns in performing traditional dances. Floats or Chinese boats on wheels add spectacle to the already impressive dance performances.

Nagasaki Kunchi float. | Julian

Marimo Matsurioctfest3 – an event for a cause: to conserve the endangered marimo algae of Lake Akano in Hokkaido.  It takes over 100 years just for 10 centimeters of natural marimo algae to grow. Lake Akano takes pride in having the largest in the world and is designated as Special Natural Monuments. The festival is usually held in early October for three days.  Lake Akano and marimo are a great part of the culture of the indigenous Ainu people of Japan. The ceremony observed in the conservation efforts are in strict accordance with Ainu traditions.

Marimo algae. | mobile_gnome

Kurama no Hi-Matsurioctfest1 – a festival held at Yuki-jinja Shrine in Kyoto every October 22.  The celebration involves the re-enactment of the scene where the deity of Kurama is received by the shrine. When evening arrives, watch fires called kagabiri are lit in front of the houses in the area. Festival goers also light their own pine torches and parade all night announcing the start of the matsuri. There are 3-meter tall watch fires along the streets and about 250 pine torches that light the streets. It’s truly a beautiful spectacle to behold.

Pine torch for the Kurama no Hi-Matsuri. | fry_theonly

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Japanese Supernatural Creatures to Look Out for on Halloween

  • Posted by:
  • October 9, 2014

As a country that has popularized cosplay, performance art, and wearing costumes and fashion accessories to look like a particular character, Japan is a natural at celebrating Halloween with just as much pomp. Japan has its own fair share of supernatural creatures, or yōkai, from stories passed on from one generation to the next.  There are creepy monsters, ghostly ghouls, and cursed crawlies that the Japanese believe to haunt the unaware. Here are some of Japan’s spooky creatures that you just may bump into on Halloween night:

Bakenekobakenebo (化け猫) – a cat that has become supernatural. Legends of the bakeneko’s existence are all over Japan. Cats’ general characteristics have contributed to the Japanese belief that they are magical—how their fur creates sparks when petted (noticed well before the cause was attributed to static energy), their ability to walk stealthily, how the pupils of their eyes change shape, their nocturnal ways, and other things that seem out of the ordinary.


Onihitokuchi (鬼一口) –  a one-eyed supernatural creature that kills then eats humans from “The Tales of Isle.” Stories of the Onihitokuchi were common at the time, most likely because the famines and disasters of that time took so many lives.

Tōfu-kozōMasasumi_Tofu-kozo (豆腐小僧) – this particular yōkai appears as a child carrying a tray of tofu. Tōfu-kozō is a popular supernatural creature that appears in several books during the Edo and Meiji period. Supposedly, they like tofu and are depicted in the senryū (Japanese short poetry) poems.

MikaribabaEitaku_Kotoosame (箕借り婆) –  a supernatural creature whose stories originated from the Kantō region. Mikaribaba is depicted as a one-eyed old woman who would visit people’s homes each year on the 8th day of the 2nd month and the 8th day of the 12th month of the lunar calendar. It would borrow human eyes and sieves. People would avoid leaving their homes on these days. They would also practice leaving a bamboo basket (zaru) on a tip of a bamboo stick at the edge of the roof to make it appear that the stitches in the basket are eyes that would draw the Mikaribaba away from the people inside.



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Wagyu: A Slice of Red Meat Heaven

  • Posted by:
  • October 6, 2014

Any carnivore would appreciate a big, fat, juicy slice of steak, a mouthwatering cheeseburger, or a slab of barbecued ribs smoked for hours and slathered with sauce.  Early American settlers had bountiful resources for meat, including beef. The renowned English writer Charles Dickens wrote about his visit to America, mentioning “no breakfast was breakfast” without a T-bone steak. Beef has always played a large role in the American diet. According to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in the 2014 Cattle Inventory (as of July 1, 2014), the total U.S. beef consumed was 25.5 billion pounds. That’s a lot of beef!


In Japan, cattle were introduced as work animals in the second century, used in the fields when planting rice.  Japan, as an island nation, included smaller regions with an isolated breeding process. The Japanese developed and maintained distinct qualities in their meat that greatly differed from breeds of cattle in other parts of the world.

Dry aged wagyu. | Jun Selta

beef1The Shogun, one of the military governors of Japan from 1192 to 1867, closed cattle herding and banned the consumption of meat from any four legged animal from 1635 through 1838. During the late 18th century, Japanese cattle were interbred with other European breeds such as Shorthorn, Devon, and Brown Swiss. Wagyu (和牛 Wagyū) which literally means “Japanese cow” are several breeds of cattle prized for their organic unsaturated fat such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and marbling (intramuscular fat giving meat its marbled appearance). More marbling means more monounsaturated fats. There are four breeds of wagyu: Japanese Red, Japanese Shorthorn, Japanese Black, and Japanese Polled. These breeds lead to other strains of cattle. Kobe beef (神戸ビーフ Kōbe bīfu) is a cut of beef from the Tajima strain that are raised in Hyogo Prefecture.

Kobe beef. | Amy Ross

beef3The breeding of Japanese wagyu has very specific techniques in order to maintain bloodlines and quality. Apparently, massaging the cattle or adding sake to their feeds were observed. This was done not to add more flavor to its already intense essence, but rather to aid in the digestion and appetite of the cattle during humid seasons. Also, massaging may have been introduced to prevent muscle cramping for cattle that did not have enough land to walk around in smaller farms.

However you prefer your beef, whether sashimi, shabu-shabu, tepanyaki, steak, ground, sliced, roasted, fried, with rice,  fries, or on a bun, you haven’t completed your culinary experience yet if you haven’t tried wagyu beef.

Grade 6 wagyu ribeye. | Daniel Go

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Sake: Japanese Wine

  • Posted by:
  • October 2, 2014

Sake, or rice wine, is a Japanese alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice.  Japanese culture considers sake to be more than just a drink to enjoy. Sake is an important part of Japanese culture—it is a celebratory drink in almost every defining moment of a person’s life, from birth to honoring someone at death.  Sake has also influenced Japan’s culinary history, is an important Japanese heritage, and is an integral part in truly getting to know the country and its people.


The earliest reference to alcohol in Japan is recorded in the 3rd-century Chinese text The Book of Wei in the Records of the Three Kingdoms, where it speaks of Japanese drinking and dancing. Sake was also mentioned several times in Japan’s earliest known historical writings, the Kojiki, compiled in 712 CE.  The Asuka period (538 to 710) documents true sake as being the dominant alcohol of that time. True sake is made from rice, water, and kōji mold (Aspergillus oryzae) and has very low potency. During the Heian period (794 to 1185 CE), sake was used for court festivals, drinking games, and religious ceremonies. The Japanese government, monopolized the production of sake for many years but in the 10th century, shrines and temples began to brew sake and slowly began to be the center of sake production for the next 500 years. The Tamon-in-Diary, written by the abbots of the Tamon-in (temple) from 1478 to 1618, records detailed techniques in their brewing process, from pasteurization to adding the various ingredients in the stages of the fermentation process.

Sake bottles. | halfrain

sake2The 16th century saw the technique of distillation of sake in the Kyushu district from Ryukyu called “Imo-sake” which was sold at the central market in Kyoto. During the 18th century, Isaac Titsingh (a Dutch surgeon, scholar, merchant-trader, and ambassador) and Engelbert Kaempfer  (a German naturalist and physician), both spent time in Japan and published their observation in the brewing process of sake, which was widely circulated all over Europe at the time.

 Sake barrels. | coniferconifer

sake3The 20th century brought about technological advancements in the brewing techniques of sake. The Japanese government even opened a research institute on sake-brewing in 1904. Today, sake is renowned all around the world and sake breweries can be found in China, South America, Southeast Asia, North America, and Australia. Some breweries prefer using the older methods of producing sake to retain the taste and flavor of traditional sake. In Japan, the 1st of October is the official Sake Day (日本酒の日). Kampai!

Nigorizake. | Luigi Anzivino

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Remarkable Bridges of Japan

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  • September 29, 2014

As civilization advanced through the years, bridges became more and more important in connecting lands that were separated by bodies of water. The very first bridges were natural and as simple as a tree trunk that had fallen across a stream. Then, crude bridges were made by man using cut wooden logs or stones that had very little support.  Many bridges today are magnificent architectural wonders that serve more than getting you from one place to another; they are also part of a nation’s cultural heritage.


Japan has several beautiful bridges, from historical older ones to the awe-inspiring modern bridges that pay tribute to the cultural stages of Japan from its early roots to its emergence as one of the most advanced countries of the world. Here are some of Japan’s beautiful bridges:

Ikeda Bridge (池田矼 Ikeda-bashi ), a unique bridge of Ryūkyū limestone made sometime in 1711–1715 during the Shōtoku era. The existence of the bridge was documented in 1727 in the Diary of the Yousei Age, the Era of the Yongzheng Emperor. It is a 3-meter wide, 10-meter long bridge located at the mouth of Sakita River in Miyakojima, Okinawa Prefecture.  It was designated a Prefectural Historical Site in 1977.

Ikeda Bridge. | アラツク

Hōrai Bridge bridge3(蓬莱橋 Hōrai-bashi), a wooden walking bridge constructed in 1879. Located in Shimada, Shizuoka Prefecture over the Ōi River, it was registered in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s longest walking bridge in 1997, at 897 meters long.

Hōrai Bridge. | Ken Funakoshi

Tokyo Rainbow Bridgebridge1, officially known as “Tokyo Wan Renraku-kyo” (Tokyo Bay Connector Bridge), is a rainbow-shaped bridge over Tokyo Bay. It is a modern 798-meter suspension bridge that runs from Shibaura Pier to the Odaiba waterfront development in Minato Ward. The bridge is illuminated from sunset to midnight, giving off an almost ethereal beauty for anyone viewing it.

Tokyo Rainbow Bridge. | Ririkuku

Seto-ohashi Bridgebridge3 refers to actually six bridges that span five islands: Iwaguro-jima Island, Hitsuishi-jima Island, Yo-shima Island, Wasa-jima Island, and Mitsugo-jima Island in the Seto Inland Sea, connecting Kojima in Okinawa Prefecture on Honshu to Sakaide in Kagawa Prefecture on Shikoku. It actually consists of three suspension bridges, two oblique suspension bridges, and one truss bridge. The construction of the connecting bridges took 40 years to build and stretches more than 13 kilometers.

Seto-ohashi Bridge. | Sora

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