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Category Archive: Japanese Culture

Amazing Miso

  • Posted by:
  • July 18, 2016

Miso is a traditional Japanese seasoning made by fermenting soybeans with the fungus kōjikin (Aspergillus oryzae), salt, and other ingredients like barley and rice. The outcome of the fermentation process is usually a thick paste used for sauces and spreads for traditional Japanese culinary fare. It is a delicious Japanese staple that is fast catching the attention of the world, not just for its delicious taste but also for its amazing health benefits!

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The origin of miso is not clear but it can be traced back to Japan’s Neolithical era (Jōmon period 14,000 to 300 BCE). Miso was used for grain and fish and was called “Jōmon miso.” It was similar to the early fish and soy-based sauces used throughout East Asia.  Other types of fermented soy-based food was introduced to Japan at the same time as Buddhism from China. During the Muromachi era (1337 to 1573), Buddhist monks discovered that soybeans can be ground to make a paste which created the cooking methods using miso to flavor other foods.

Miso soup. | www.bluewaikiki.com

Some of the amazing health benefits of miso:

  • Miso contains essential amino acids to make it a complete protein.
  • Miso stimulates secretion of digestive fluids in the stomach.
  • Miso restores probiotics in the intestines.
  • Miso contains isoflavones that inhibit the development of breast cancer in women.
  • Nutrients in miso are vitamin E, vitamin B2, Vitamin K, potassium, lecithin, choline, calcium, and iron.
  • Miso contains linoleic acid, which helps keep the skin soft and supple.
  • Miso is a good source of antioxidants and eliminates free radicals from the body.

Check out our photos of KCP Spring 2016 students as they learn to make miso soup in cooking class.

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KCP Flickr.

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KCP Flickr

More photos of the cooking session here.

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Scrumptious Udon

  • Posted by:
  • July 11, 2016

Udon (饂飩) is the thickest of Japanese noodles. White in color and made from wheat, they can be served either hot or chilled with dipping sauces, in broth, or in an array of other hot dishes. Udon is usually topped with various ingredients like mixed tempura fritters (kakiage), deep fried tofu pockets (aburaage), tempura, or prawn. Some examples of udon dishes include curry udon, kitsune udon, and yakii udon. A thin slice of fish cake (kamaboko) usually completes the dish.

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Flavors of the broth used for udon dishes usually vary from region to region. A type of dark brown broth made from soy sauce (koikuchi shōyu) is used usually in eastern Japan and a lighter broth made from light soy sauce (usukuchi shōyu), is used in the western areas.

Udon noodles. | Yuya Tamai

There are many tales about the origins of udon. One is that in 1241 CE, a Rinzai monk named Enni introduced the technology of flour milling to Japan. Flour was turned into many forms that can be used in Japanese cuisine. Flour products such as noodles like soba and udon as well as pancakes were popular among the locals. Flour milling techniques spread across the country, and by the Edo period, the thicker wheat noodles came to be called udon. It was served with a hot broth called nurumugi and the chilled variety was called hiyamugi.

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Another story tells us that during the Nara period, a Japanese envoy was introduced to 14 different kinds of confections while he was in China. One of them was called sakube, also known as muginawa according to the ancient dictionary, the Shinsen Jikyō. Muginawa is the origin of many Japanese noodles. But the muginawa mentioned in the Shinsen Jikyō was made with both wheat and rice flour.

Making udon. | Ken FUNAKOSHI

27013057_1dcfd33dfc_oUdon are versatile noodles. The are usually served chilled during the summer and hot in the winter. Ingredients are based on what’s available: almost anything goes great with udon. Although udon is usually prepared with broth, it can also be stir fried. The latest udon craze is from the newest product of the snack and dessert company Bourbon.  Their creation is crunchy flavored udon noodles. The flavor is a concoction of seven spices known as “shichimi” and is something amazingly different for udon lovers.

Kinubiki-udon. | Hideya HAMANO

Noodles are a delicious staple in Japan and there are a variety of noodles to choose from that would surely satisfy your hankering for Japanese cuisine. Oishi!

 

 

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The Multifaceted Nō-men

  • Posted by:
  • July 7, 2016

Noh, Japan’s oldest traditional form of musical drama, has bee performed since the 1300s. Noh performances can last all day.  Usually they consist of five plays and a shorter comical version (kyōgen).  Noh acts combine drama, dance, poetry, and music; performers are mostly males donning expressive masks called nō-men.

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  Noh actors with masks. | Jim Epler

Nō-men (能面) or omote (面) are noh performance masks worn by the main actor (shite) and secondary character (tsure) to represent female characters.  The masks are carved from blocks of Japanese cypress and painted with natural pigments on a neutral base of crushed seashell and glue. There are about 450 kinds of nō-men based on 60 types and all are unique with distinct names. Some masks can be used repeatedly in many different plays, while others can be used in only one or two plays. Nō-men depict a character’s age, social ranking, gender, and whether the character is a human, demon, or a god. They are an important element of the performance.

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Three pictures of the same nō ‘hawk mask’ showing how the expression changes with a tilting of the head. | Wmpearl

Nō-men may cover an actor’s  face but their use in Noh performances does not mean the actor’s own facial expressions are completely abandoned. A nō-men is supposed to stylize and codify the facial expressions of the actors and to encourage the imagination of the audience. It enables the actors to convey different emotions in a controlled manner such as a slight tilt of the head. With lighting to show more or less expression from the nō-men, facing slightly upward can convey happiness while facing downwards can express sadness or anger.

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nō-men. | ichidoru

There are nō-men in Noh schools in Japan that are centuries old and are priceless. There are also some in private collection that are not for public display.  Nō-men are beautiful examples of art, part of Japan’s unique culture and history.

 

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A Brief History of Japanese Wines

  • Posted by:
  • June 20, 2016

Viticulture is the science, production, and study of grapes. The native territories of the common grape vine are from Western Europe to the Persian shores of the Caspian Sea. But grape vines have proven to show adaptability to new environments, promoting the popularity and spread of viticulture in every continent except Antarctica.

wine1Grape growing in Japan began as early as 718 AD in Katsunuma, Yamanashi Prefecture. The first ever documented wine consumption in the country was in the 16th century, when the Jesuit missionaries from Portugal arrived. Saint Francis Xavier brought wines as presents for the Japanese feudal lords of Kyūshū.  Other missionaries continued the practice of using wine in their services, and soon locals acquired the distinct taste of wine made from grapes, importing it on a regular basis. Portuguese wine was called chintashu which combined the Portuguese word tinto (chinta in Japanese) meaning red and shu meaning liquor.

Japanese wines. | tzejen

wine2In 1873, returning members of the Iwakura Mission brought detailed reports on European wine culture back to Japan. This enabled the Japanese to make focused attempts to promote domestic wine production using sake brewing equipment by Hironori Yamada and Norihisa Takuma in Kofu, Yamanashi. They sent Masanari Takano and Ryuken Tsuchiya to Bordeaux to learn viticulture and wine production techniques. Cultivation of early European grapes formed the core of early attempts of growing grapes. However, this was hampered by the Phylloxera (a pest of commercial grapevines) that arrived with the imported root stock in 1884.

Wine barrels at Meiji Jingū. | Wally Gobetz

After World War II, wine making became more popular.  But the acidity and astringency for domestically produced wines were not readily accepted by Japanese taste. For some time, sugars like honey were added to make sweeter (amakuchi) wine. In the 1970s and 80s, skills in Japanese wine making become more refined and demand for both domestically produced and imported wines increased with the boom of the Japanese economy. Domestic wineries began to focus on producing superior wines using only domestically cultivated grapes.

wine3The 90s saw a reduction in taxes on imported wine as well as developing tastes for the Japanese food culture, and wine consumption continued to grow. Shinya Tasaki became the first Japanese to be awarded the title of Meillieur Sommelier du Monde in 1995. This significantly raised public awareness of wine appreciation as well as all the health benefits of polyphenol (tannins) found in wine.  In 2002, Yamanashi Prefecture led competitions that focused on “Japanese wine using only 100% Japanese grapes.”

Grapes at a Yamanashi winery. | Masaki Tokutomi

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The Art of Zazen

  • Posted by:
  • June 9, 2016

Japanese culture is deeply rooted in Zen, a school of Mahayana (Sanskrit for “Great Vehicle”) Buddhism, one of the main existing branches of Buddhism and a term for classification of Buddhist philosophies and practice. Zen is a practice that was passed on from master to disciple in the purest context known as “uninterrupted bloodline,”  believed to have originated from the Awakening of a man named Siddhārtha Gautama, also known as Buddha, in India, some 2,500 years ago. Zazen or “seated meditation” is a meditative discipline in Zen Buddhist practice. The goal of zazen is to just sit and free oneself from all thoughts, words, images, and ideas.

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Thousands of years ago in India, Buddha sought to find the solution to end human suffering. The answer came to him while practicing Zen meditation under a tree, and it was “Enlightenment.” This was the realization that while we possess all that we could ever desire in life, we still often remain unsatisfied. The reason for this is that true happiness doesn’t depend on what we have but on who we are. Buddha’s doctrine, teaching and practice helps us achieve inner peace through zazen.

A Zendo, or meditation hall.  | John Gillespie

The practice of zazen meditation is the heart of the Zen Buddhist experience. It is a very simple yet precise method of meditation.  Namely:

Sitting

zazen3Zen monasteries and  temples require the tradition where participants sit as a group in a meditation hall usually called a zendo. The practitioner sits on cushion called a zafu that is commonly placed on top of a low, flat mat called a zabuton. Before the participant is seated, he must bow to the seat and to fellow practitioners. The beginning of a period of zazen  is traditionally announced by ringing a bell three times (shijosho), and  the end of a round is by ringing the bell once or twice (hozensho). Long sessions of zazen are usually alternated with periods of walking meditation (kinhin).

Zafu in Sōji-ji. | geraldford

Posture

When practicing zazen, usually one sits with hands and legs folded and spine erect yet settled. The hands are folded together (mudra, a symbolic or ritual gesture) over the belly. The practitioner should breathe from the center of gravity in the belly (hara), with the eyelids half-lowered and neither to be fully opened nor closed to avoid distraction.

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The legs can be folded into any of the sitting styles:

Kekkafuza – full-lotus
Hankafuza -half-lotus
Burmese – ankles crossed together in front.
Seiza – a kneeling posture using a bench or zafu.

Mudra. | Richard

Mastering zazen is truly an art that, when achieved, can free the mind and body and attain peace.

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Get a Taste of Hōtō

  • Posted by:
  • June 6, 2016

Hōtō is a famous regional dish from Yamanashi Prefecture. Made with stewed, dumpling style noodles, vegetables, and miso soup, it is a delicious, hearty meal that epitomizes the unique tastes and culture of Japan.

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At a time in Japan’s history when the country was experiencing shortage in rice crops, hōtō was created to address food shortage. Silk was much in demand, and lands that were traditionally reserved for rice crops were turned into silk farms. Rice farming was a daunting task. It was nearly impossible for the crop to flourish in Yamanashi’s Gunnai region with its frigid climate and the amounts of volcanic debris in the soil. Wheat farming was a more ideal crop and its popularity spread throughout the region as well as into the neighboring Saitama, Shizuoka, Nagano and Gunma prefectures. Yamanashi Prefecture focused on wheat farming and flour culture and hōtō was born.

Hōtō . | Jungle

According to other stories, hōtō was invented by Takeda Shingen, a daimyo and warlord of the latter part of the Sengoku period. After World War II, tourism became Yamanashi Prefecture’s most lucrative source of revenue. Locals thought of many ideas to promote the area’s regional products. Hōtō was promoted as the meal eaten by Takeda Shingen and his soldiers before each battle.

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KCP Fall 2015 students enjoying a bowl of hōtō. | KCP Flickr

Hōtō is traditionally made by kneading dough with bare hands in a wooden bowl and stretching it out to dry. The dough is then folded over and over into large pieces with a kitchen knife. Unlike the usual udon noodles, hōtō has a tougher texture of dough due to the amount of gluten, and it is not mixed with salt. Hōtō is boiled along with the other ingredients of the dish, usually dashi (a soup base) made from niboshi (dried baby sardines) and miso soup. Vegetables are usually seasonal, during the summer negi (bunching onions), onions and potatoes are common ingredients. Winter vegetables are usually taro, carrots, and Chinese cabbage. Mushrooms such as shiitake and shimeji, pork, and chicken are common ingredients all year round.

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KCP Fall 2015 make the dough. | KCP Flickr

Hōtō is a tasty dish that can satisfy the appetite of any battle ready warrior as well as any adventurous traveler who is ready to take in the sights and tastes of Japan.

Check out photos of KCP’s Fall 2015 students learning how to make hōtō during their Yamanashi trip.

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Traditional Japanese Arts

  • Posted by:
  • May 26, 2016

Japanese traditional arts and handicrafts have been subjected to many outside influences from other cultures. It was a result of the numerous sudden invasions the island nation endured through the course of history, followed by long periods of minimal contact from the outside world during Japan’s sakoku period.

The earliest complex Japanese art form was Buddhism, from the 7th and 8th centuries. During the 9th century, the Japanese began to develop their own indigenous forms of expression as they incorporated their own styles into what they had adapted from the Chinese. The culmination and aesthetic uniqueness of traditional Japanese art is a result of assimilating the influence of foreign cultures and elements.

Many regions of Japan have their own specialties in traditional handicrafts. Here are just a few of them.

kutaniKutani ware, Ishikawa – a style of Japanese Gotō Saijirō porcelain known for its colorful, vibrant painted designs.  Kutani ware was established by Gotō Saijirō of the Maeda Clan.  He was responsible for setting up a kiln in the village of Kutani, now part of the city of Kaga, under the orders of Maeda Toshiharu, head of the Kaga domain. Kutani ware is distinguished by designs mainly using five colors (red, yellow, purple, blue, and green) that are used to paint over intricate line drawings. Many different products such as vases, tea sets, and ornaments are made using this traditional technique.

Kutani incense burner. | antefixus21

kokeshiKokeshi dolls, Miyagi – traditional hand-crafted Japanese wooden dolls with origins traceablle to northern Japan. The dolls have a straight, cylindrical body with large, round heads. The faces of the kokeshi are painted with very simple lines that still convey their various expressions. Since the dolls are hand-painted, each doll is unique; no two kokeshi dolls have identical faces. Traditionally, the body is coated with wax and usually decorated with floral designs of varying colors. The bottom of the dolls should bear the signature of the artist.

Kokeshi dolls. | Hitty Evie

temariMatsumoto-temari, Matsumoto  – these handcrafted balls are decorated with scraps of yarn woven to create beautiful designs.  Initially, the balls were meant to be used as beanbags for children. But a way to make the bean bags bounce was discovered, and the toy soon became known as temari handballs.  Some balls are made with bells inside. They make a unique sound when bounced around. Temari balls are commonly used today as decorative accent pieces in many Japanese homes.

Temari balls. | GrinnPidgeon

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Thunderous Taiko Drums

  • Posted by:
  • May 2, 2016

Japan has a long, proud history in its unique ancient culture and heritage that span centuries. Musical instruments have been an influential part of Japanese traditions as seen in the many festivals that are celebrated yearly. Some of these traditional Japanese instruments have withstood the test of time, notably the taiko drums, which have attracted quite a number of avid players.

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Taiko drums are large percussion instruments that have been a part of Japanese culture for centuries. They were originally found in shrines and temples, and they were played during religious ceremonies and festivals. The rhythmic and booming beats of taiko drums can resonate to far distances. Taiko drums come in varieties and sizes. The huge ones are called ōdaiko, which include some of the largest drums in the world. The largest, which is housed at Takanosu Road Station, measures 3.71 meters in diameter and weighs 3 tons. That’s enormous!

Taiko drums. | Jim George

Over the last four decades, taiko drumming has become a performance art and is now growing in popularity as an exercise routine. Taiko exercise is the perfect ensemble-based, full mind, and body workout with the additional playing of a musical instrument. Taiko is often taught at martial arts studios because it shares much of the same philosophies of mind/body practice common in Eastern discipline studies such as tai chi, yoga, and martial arts.

1254734424_7e0f7439e8_zTaiko offers a whole new experience even for seasoned drummers. You don’t have to be adept at playing the drums when introducing yourself to taiko exercises. The rhythms are simple enough and can be easily memorized after a few sessions by picking up the patterns and recognizing them through repetition since the rhythm does not correspond to contemporary music and there is no written music. The patterns are mostly played in a standing position, at times overhead, in a half squatting position and even running and jumping. It makes an ideal overall workout that tones most, if not all, the muscles of the body.

Taiko drummers. | Camille King

A study by neurologist Dr. Barry Bittman of the Yamaha Music and Wellness Institute on the drumming activity and its effect on increasing immune response over 10 years ago, shows that, “playing a musical instrument also helped prevent biological responses to stress that are closely associated with heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and virus activity.” This is based on the fact that drum circles have been a part of healing rituals in many cultures.

Check out this taiko workout YouTube video by taikofit:

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Click image or here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnOaExLJ1zY

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The Versatility of Green Matcha

  • Posted by:
  • April 28, 2016

Matcha is finely ground powder of specially processed and grown green tea. A popular flavor in Japan, matcha is also used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony that centers on the preparing, serving, and drinking of green tea.

matcha1Matcha was discovered by a Chinese monk, from a tea plant called Camellia sinensis. The farming and processing of green tea involves two stages: harvesting and fermenting. The plant grows in shade for about three weeks before harvesting. The stems and veins are then removed. The leaves of the plant are fermented and dried to get the desired flavor and quality. This fermentation process is the key to achieving a particular type of tea. The tea leaves have polyphenols responsible for the creation of antioxidants in our bodies. The longer the fermentation process, the fewer polyphenols in the leaves.

Matcha green tea powder. | Mattie Hagedorn

Green tea fermentation involves first steaming the leaves, then fermenting them. This retains more of the polyphenols that offer so many health benefits. For example, one polyphenol is Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), which is responsible for repairing damaged cells of the body as well as fighting off harmful toxins.

matcha2Blends of matcha are given tea names or chamei by the plantation, by the store where matcha is sold, or by the grand master of a particular tea tradition. When a blend of green tea is named by a grand master, it becomes known as the master’s konomi or favored blend. Matcha is also often used to flavor and dye foods such as noodles, ice cream, and mochi. As of late, there are numerous green tea flavored products such as green tea KitKat chocolate bars, pizzas, drinks, and many more!

Matcha flavored ice cream (right). | jpellgen

11994724546_3df8899154_zUsually, all the popular products flavored with green tea start to come out during warmer months and the first tea harvests of the year. One particular store named Itohkyuemon tea store, in Kyoto’s highly regarded green tea-producing region of Uji, has been selling tea since 1832. Almost two centuries later, Itohkyuemon is introducing “vin au thé vert” (green tea wine) to the market as part of their “Yokan no Midori” (Midnight Green) range of alcoholic beverages. The versatility of matcha flavors as well as the many health benefits matcha offers are a wonderful way to enjoy the age old Japanese favorite.

Green tea KitKat. | Nestlé

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The Historical Ueda Castle

  • Posted by:
  • April 21, 2016

Ueda Castle (上田城 Ueda-jō) plays an important part in Japanese history that exemplifies determination and courage. The castle was built in the late 16th century by the daimyo Sanada Masayuki who later became the governor. Sanada Masayuki was known for his resourcefulness and courage. He was skilled in war tactics and strategies and led his limited forces masterfully in bravely going against larger armies.

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Ueda Castle. | Tomorobi

The Sanada clan defended the castle twice from Tokugawa for it rallied against its rule, in 1585 and then again in 1600. The Sanada clan put up an impressive stance against the Tokugawa armies both times. When Sanada Masayuki refused to relinquish hold over the Numata Castle to Tokugawa Ieyasu, it led eventually to the Battle of Kami River. While some of Sanada’s forces were busily engaged in battle, Ieyasu charged into Ueda Castle with a very large army. Masayuki had already readied his available forces with an ambush party. This surprise attack threw off the Tokugawa army, causing a great loss of life.

Sanada_Masayuki2At the Battle of Sekigahara, Masayuki and his son, Sanada Yukimura, yet again faced the Tokugawa army. The Sanada forces announced their surrender as part of Masayuki’s plan to make the Tokugawa army think he was really surrendering. Instead, Masayuki was really preparing to defend Ueda Castle. When Tokugawa Hidetada was alerted of the Sanada clan’s plot, Hidetada began to move his troops. However, Masayuki was not to be outwitted and was already prepared to attack. Another ambush party was ready to attack: this time it was ordered to attack the Tokugawa’s main camp. Hidetada failed in his plan to seize Ueda Castle and was also kept from joining the field at Sekigahara.

Sanada Masayuki. | 不明。

When finally Sanada Masayuki succumbed to defeat, Ueda Castle was demolished. When the Tokugawa family established their reign over Japan, the castle was reconstructed by another daimyo. The donjon died during the reconstruction, leaving the castle mainly unfinished. Today, there are existing turrets that echo what Ueno castle once was, a place where so many lives were lost, a place that so many people fought for as a testament to their courage and beliefs.

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