Category Archive: Japanese Culture
Japanese 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
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 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.
Masamune (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.
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.
Trading 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
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 Kunchi – 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 Matsuri – 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-Matsuri – 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
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:
Bakeneko (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-kozō (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.
Mikaribaba (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.
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
The 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
The 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
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
The 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
The 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
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 (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 Bridge, 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 Bridge 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
Sushi (すし, 寿司, 鮨) 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 are sliced and served without rice is called sashimi. Sushi is often served with a daikon garnish, wasabi, soy sauce, and shredded ginger.
There are several types of sushi depending on the ingredients and how it is prepared. Sushi should be spelled with a z when a prefix is added, a common practice in the Japanese language and morphonology known as rendaku, such as observed in the names of the types of sushi, some of which are:
Makizushi – “rolled sushi,” a cylindrical shaped sushi wrapped in seaweed (nori), formed with a bamboo mat, and cut into six or eight pieces.
Sushi. | KCP Flickr
Chirashizushi – “scattered sushi,” a bowl of sushi rice topped with various ingredients such as raw fish, vegetables, and garnishes. The ingredients used depends on the chef, customer, or what’s available in the region.
Oshizushi – “pressed sushi” originating from the Kansai region of Osaka where a wooden mold is used to form a block-shaped compact piece of sushi which is then cut into bite-sized pieces.
Oshizushi wooden press (oshizushihako.) | Chris 73
Inarizushi – usually made with a thin slice of fried tofu shaped like a pouch and filled with sushi rice. It is named after the Shinto god Inari who is believed to be fond of fried tofu.
Narezushi – a type of traditional fermented sushi.
There is also the proper way to enjoy eating sushi. Here are some tips on sushi etiquette:
Make sure your hands are clean. Most restaurants in Japan provide hot, moist towels for this very reason because it is acceptable to eat sushi with your fingers aside from chopsticks. But it is always best to have clean hands when eating especially if you are sharing an order of sushi with friends.
Wasabi is not mixed with soy sauce in the dipping bowl. The sushi chef usually already adds wasabi to the sushi. For some who prefer more wasabi, the proper way would be to add it directly on the fish. Putting a lot of wasabi is said to diminish the flavor of the fish.
Dip only the fish in the soy sauce, not the rice. If you are having nigirizushi, you can tip the piece onto its side to make it easier to dip just the fish. This also ensures that the piece won’t get too soaked in soy sauce and will stay together.
Sushi assortment. | Alpha
Eat sushi in one bite, or two at the most. Notice all the different flavors that may be mild but come together in a burst of delicious freshness.
Refresh your taste buds with ginger in between bites. Each type of fish has its own distinct flavor. In order to best savor each individual ingredient, you can cleanse your palate to prepare your taste buds for the next delectable bite.
Learn how to eat sushi properly with this YouTube video by Munchies:
Click image or here: http://youtu.be/auLmekEsaak
The komusō (虚無僧) were a popular group of monks who relied mainly on charity or begging to survive during the Edo period (1603–1868). They were from the Fuke school of Zen Buddhism. Fuke Zen arrived in Japan in the 13th century and was derived from the teachings of Linji Yixuan, a Zen preacher from China during the 9th century. However, Fuke was a name for one of Linji Yixuang’s peers, Puhua, who co-founded the sect.
What made the komusō monks stand out among others was how they wore a straw basket (a reed hood called a tengai or sedge) on their heads so that their faces were not visible. The tengai is usually woven from bamboo, rattan, reed, or grass. The unique hat resembles a basket and has a headband secured with a string that allows the hat to move freely as the wearer moves while he plays the shakuhachi.
Daikokuji-Sasayama Komusō with shakuhachi. | 松岡明芳
Komusō monks were also known for playing solo original musical pieces (honkyoku) on a type of traditional Japanese bamboo flute (shakuhachi). Honkyoku renditions were typically played during meditative practices known as suizen. The practice is intended to be a healing modality for the monks, a method to attain enlightenment as well as gather alms from passersby. The komusō belief is that the tengai basket that completely covers the head of a monk suppresses the ego and helps people to listen to the music being played on the shakuhachi rather than be concerned about looks or identity of the person. It is also said that the tengai hides the unique technique of how the monks play the shakuhachi.
The Komusō monks were given the rare privilege of being allowed to cross borders freely during Japan’s feudal era. This enabled them to reach other far-off temples, which led to the development of other regional musical pieces. The komusou Kurosawa Kinko I (1710–1771) is the first known piece that incorporated styles from all around Japan. After the Edo period, the Japanese government introduced reforms that led to the abolishment of the Fuke sect, though records of the musical repertoire survived and are being revived today. The Komusō monks and their original musical pieces remain an indelible part of Japan’s culture and history.
Komusō monks. | National Museum of Denmark
In 1992, Aomori Prefecture began surveying a site for a possible location for a baseball stadium. Unbeknownst to the people involved, they were to discover the ancient remains of a settlement dating back to Japan’s Neolithic period. The site is now known as the Sannai-Maruyama site.
The Sannai-Maruyama site (三内丸山遺跡) is located southwest of Aomori City. The historical ruins can be traced to the Jōmon period (about 12,000 BCE) when Japan was inhabited by a nomadic culture that later evolved into a degree of sedentism and cultural complexity. Further excavations on the Sannai-Maruyama site revealed ruins of a large village that existed over 1,500 years ago. This gave archeologists further clues on understanding the transition of ancient Jōmon people, from nomadism to sedentism. Uncovered at the site were long houses, storage pits, and above-ground storage areas. They were perfect examples that showed the various stages in the structural change of the architecture, organizational behaviors of the inhabitants, and the community.
At the site. | 小池 隆
The first settlers of Sannai Maruyama are thought to have lived in pit houses sometime around 3,900 BCE. Over 500 pit dwellings were found at the site, each typically about three to four meters in diameter. Underground pits were used to store food. This allowed wandering settlers to keep their food safe when they left the site. Evidence in the ruins indicated the change in how these ancient people began to evolve into a more sedentary lifestyle in how they lived and stored their food above ground in buildings and long-house dwellings. Also excavated in the site were long-houses, oval-shaped and larger than pit dwellings. One of the more prominent structures uncovered in the Sannai Maruyama site was a large six-pillared building built sometime near 2,600 BCE. It was believed to have held platforms that functioned as a watchtower or a monument.
Site structures. | Perezoso
Several buildings have been restored in the Sannai Maruyama site, providing a glimpse of the advanced construction techniques of the Jōmon people. There is also an exhibit that showcases other items discovered at the site such as earthenware, flat clay figures, knitted baskets, and other personal ornaments. The Sannai Maruyama site was designated a Special National Historical Site of Japan in 2000.