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Category Archive: Japan Context

Japanese Superstition and Pets in Japan

  • Posted by:
  • April 24, 2017

Dogs and cats are wonderful, faithful, and loyal companions. As the saying goes, “pets and dogs repay the love you give them ten-fold.” The unconditional love we receive from our canine or feline companions is irreplaceable. Pets are considered valued members of the family all around the world, including Japan.

Japanese superstitions are deeply rooted in the history and culture of Japan. Its roots can be traced all the way back to Japan’s ancient pagan beliefs, the regard for certain natural things as  kami (spirits or phenomena that are worshiped in the religion of Shinto), and the animist culture. An offshoot of this is that many Japanese superstitions involve belief about animals and depictions of animals bringing about good or bad fortune. This concept makes cats and dogs even more important in the Japanese culture.

Hachikō. | KCP Flickr

Take, for example, the timeless tale of friendship and loyalty of the dog Hachikō. In 1924, Hachikō became the pet of a man named Hidesaburo Oeno, a professor of agriculture at the Tokyo University. Hachikō was an Akita with golden brown fur and cream markings on his face. He would regularly greet Hidesaburo at the Shibuya Station. When the professor suddenly passed away, Hachikō was given away, but he escaped and each day he would be at the station at 4 pm waiting for his old friend for the remainder of his life.

Animals used to be predominantly thought of as indispensable help in working farm lands but over the years many Japanese have considered them as part of the family. Dogs and cats are capable of giving so much unconditional love, and will always be faithful companions in the best and worst of times.

Japanese kami. | thaths

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Sessue Hayakawa: The First Japanese Hollywood Heartthrob

  • Posted by:
  • April 17, 2017

When you think of silent films, Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, and Gloria Swanson might come to mind. But did you know that there was also a debonair Japanese silent film actor who made women swoon at the mere sight of him?

Sessue Hayakawa (1889–1973), also known as Hayakawa Sesshū, was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood during the silent film era of the 1910s and 1920s. He is considered the first actor of Asian descent to find stardom as one of Hollywood’s leading men. Sessue Hayakawa not only conquered the hearts of women in the United States but in Europe as well. His broodingly handsome good looks were perfect to play the role of the sexually dominant villain, a role in which he was typecasted.

Sessue (pronounced Sesshū) Hayakawa was born Kintarō Hayakawa to a family of means in the village of Nanaura, now part of Chikura Town in the city of Minamibosō in Chiba Prefecture, Japan.  He was the second eldest son of the prominent provincial governor.

Sessue Hayakawa

From an early age, Sessue was expected to become an officer in the navy, but while a student at the Naval Academy in Etajima, he swam to the bottom of a lagoon on a dare and ruptured his eardrum. The injury caused him to fail the navy physical. This brought his father shame and embarrassment and caused a wedge in their relationship. Young Hayakawa attempted seppuku by stabbing himself more than 30 times in his abdomen in a shed in their property. The family dog’s barking alerted Hayakawa’s parents to the scene and his father used an axe to break down the shed’s door, saving his life. After he recovered, he was sent to study political economics at the University of Chicago to become a banker.

Hayakawa decided to quit his studies at the university and return to Japan after his second year. He first traveled to Los Angeles and waited for a transpacific steamship. During his stay in L.A., he discovered the Japanese Theatre in Little Tokyo and fell in love with acting and performing in plays.  Here Hayakawa met the influential film producer Thomas H. Ince and the Japanese actress, Tsuru Aoki. Ince cast both Aoki and Hayakawa in his Japan-themed films, and in 1914 the two young actors married and became one of Hollywood’s golden couples.

Cecil B. DeMille’s blockbuster film, The Cheat, made Hayakawa an international star. The 1915 film was a huge success most likely because it touched on interracial intimacy. During those years, Hayakawa was as well-known and popular as Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, although today his name is largely unknown to the public.

Though many of his films are lost, most of his later works such as The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Geisha Boy, The Swiss Family Robinson, Tokyo Joe and Three Came Home are available on DVD. For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Sessue Hayakawa was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

The Cheat 1915 movie poster

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Sengakuji: The Final Resting Place of the 47 Rōnin

  • Posted by:
  • April 13, 2017

The story of the 47 Rōnin is a perfect example of honoring the bushidō, the way of the warrior code. It is a code of conduct that exemplifies a warrior’s moral values in mastery of martial arts, frugality, loyalty, and honor unto death. The tale of the 47 Rōnin, also historically known as “The Ako Vendetta,” and in fiction as the Chushingura, is an example of the Bushido honor code associated not just with samurai, but also with the Japanese national identity.

Gravestones of the 47 Rōnin. | David Marcos Moreno

A rōnin was a samurai with no lord or master.  A samurai could lose his master in death or even from falling out of his master’s favor. As the story goes, a feudal lord from the 18th century, Asano Naganori was forced to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) after he attacked a high-ranking master of ceremonies, Kira Yoshinaka.  Naganori’s death left the samurai under his patronage without a master, and left them honour-bound to take revenge.

Sengakuji Temple. | sophietica

The 47 Rōnin warriors disappeared for over a year and according to legend, they became drunkards as part of a plan. In December of 1703, the 47 Rōnin banded together to launch a surprise attack on Yoshinaka’s castle. They successfully killed Yoshinaka, finally avenging their master. True to their code, they turned themselves in to the authorities, who sentenced them to commit seppuku. One of the 47  Rōnin, Terasaka Kichiemon, was deemed too young to commit seppuku. He was pardoned by the Shogun and lived to be 87 years old.

All 47 Rōnin are now interred in front of the tomb of their master in the grounds of Sengaku-ji Temple, Tokyo. Sengakuji  (泉岳寺) is a small temple located in Shinagawa Station. Each year on the 14th of December, a festival is held to honor the 47 Rōnin’s revenge. Thousands of visitors flock to the tiny graveyard to pay tribute to the exemplary faithfulness and courage of the 47 brave souls.

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Magical Kochia Hill in Hitachinaka

  • Posted by:
  • April 10, 2017

Hitachinaka (ひたちなか市 Hitachinaka-shi) city is located in Ibaraki Prefecture, in the northern Kantō region of Japan. It is a hiragana city, a place whose name is written with hiragana syllabary as opposed to other cities that are written in the traditional kanji.

Kochia. | Border. garaku

The towns of Minato and Hiraiso and the village of Katsuta are within the Naka District. The  municipalities system was established on April 1, 1889. Minato was renamed Nakaminato in 1938 while Katsuta was made into a town in 1940. During World War II, the area experienced heavy air raids and shelling by Allied warships because of the many factories nearby that produced war-related materials. On March 31, 1954, the towns of Hiraiso and nakaminato merged to form the city of Nakaminato and Katsuta became a city that same year. On November 1, 1994, Nakaminato and Katsuta yet again merged to form the city of Hitachinaka.

One of the unique places to visit in Hitachinaka is Hitachi Seaside Park. The park is right next to Ajigaura Beach, a popular tourist destination for nature lovers. The park spans an area of eight acres with flowers that bloom with bursts of color all year round.

Green kochia. | kobaken++

During autumn each year, the park becomes extra special when the thousands of Kochia bushes turn crimson red on Miharashi no oka (Lookout Hill). Kochia are a type of large herb that grow in bushes about 90 centimeters tall. The rest of the year the bushes are green; in late September they begin to change color to deep red.

The beautiful display of color is such a spectacle that many visitors flock to see Kochia Hill in September and October. The Kochia Carnival highlights the colors of fall.  People can frolic amongst the 36,000 red Kochia bushes and millions of cosmos flowers that also bloom around the same time the Kochia turns red.

Kochia in Hatachi Seaside Park. | Border. garaku

The cosmos flowers come in several colors ,which makes the sight even more breathtaking. For visitors coming from the Tokyo area, there are also direct buses from Asakusa and Ueno Stations that go to the entrance at Kaihin Kouen Iriguchi (海浜公園入口) bus stop.

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The Folklore of Japanese Mermaids

  • Posted by:
  • April 6, 2017

Mermaids are usually depicted as beautiful women who bewitch sailors into the watery depths. In Japan, mermaids are often translated as “human fish” or ningyo. They are fish-like creatures from Japanese folklore. Supposedly, a ningyo has shiny golden scales, a monkey’s mouth with small teeth similar to a fish’s, and a voice that resembles a skylark or a flute. Its flesh when eaten is delicious, and anyone who eats it will live longer than usual. The Japanese believe that if a ningyo is caught, it will bring misfortune and storms. Because of this, many fishermen who find these creatures caught in their nets throw them back into the ocean. It is also believed that if a ningyo washes ashore, it is an omen of war or calamity.


Japanese folktales tell us the mermaid first appeared to Prince Shotoku at Lake Biwa. When the prince was on the brink of death, it was able to tell him its sad story. The creature had once been a fisherman who entered prohibited waters. As punishment, he turned into a hideous animal. The ningyo, wanting to atone for his transgression, asked the prince to build a temple to display his remains as an example on the sacredness of life.

Mermaid mummy. |Mary-chan

The temple is now known as Tenshou-Kyousha Shrine and houses the mummified remains of the mermaid. The mermaid mummy is cared for by the Shinto order at Fujinomiya, near Mount Fuji.

Another story tells us about a ningyo named Yao Bikuni, an 800-year-old Buddhist priestess.  A fisherman from Wakasa Province caught an unusual fish, so he invited his friends to partake of his catch. One of his guests snuck a peek into the kitchen and was astounded to see that the fish had a head of a human. He warned the other visitors about what he saw and to avoid eating the fish. When the host finished cooking and offered his guests the fish, they secretly wrapped it in paper ready to be thrown away when they got home.

However, one guest had too much sake and forgot to throw away his piece of the strange fish. This man had a young daughter who demanded a present when her father arrived home. The man, without thinking, gave her the fish. When he realized what he had done, he tried to stop his daughter from eating it but he was too late. Nothing out of the ordinary happened to his daughter at first and he forgot about it after awhile.

Ryuguji  mermaid temple. |  NelC

Years passed and the young girl grew up and got married. The daughter after marriage never seemed to age while her husband grew old and died. After many years of not growing a day older and being widowed yet again, the woman became a nun and wandered around the world. Finally, she came back home to Wakasa where she finally passed away at 800 years old.

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National Museum of Western Art Makes UNESCO World Heritage List

  • Posted by:
  • March 13, 2017
On July 17, 2016, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) committee recognized buildings in seven countries for their innovation and influence in laying the foundation for modern architecture. The National Museum of Western Art in Ueno Park, Tokyo, and 16 other buildings designed by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier have been added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

National Museum of Western Art. | 663highland

The National Museum of Western Art in Japan (NMWA) is the only structure in the country designed by the renowned architect. The museum is the premier public art gallery in the country specializing in art from Western traditions. The museum also houses the core art collection of Matsukata Kojiro (a Japanese businessman who devoted his life and fortune to amassing a collection of Western art). The NMWA was completed in 1959 and dedicated as a symbol of the resumed diplomatic ties between japan and France after World War II.

Le Corbusier or more formally known as Charles-Édouard  Jeanneret (October 6, 1887 – August 27, 1965), was an architect, writer, painter, designer, and urban planner, and is considered one of the pioneers of modern architecture. He was born in Switzerland and became a French citizen in 1930. During his five-decade-long career, he constructed buildings in Europe, India, North and South America, and Japan.

Le Corbusier was an avid urban planner whose vision was dedicated to providing better living conditions for residents of crowded cities. He was a founding member of Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), a series of events and congresses arranged across Europe by the most prominent architects of the time. Its objective was to spread the principles of the Modern Movement focusing in all the main domains of architecture (such as landscape, urbanism, industrial design, and many others).

Le Corbusier.

Le Corbusier described the city of the future as consisting of large apartment buildings isolated in a park-like setting on piers, “Cities in the Sky.” His theories were adopted by the builders of public housing in Europe and the United States. In Great Britain, Le Corbusier’s ideas were thought of as a cheaper method of providing public housing from the late 1950s.

The National Museum of Western Art will be the 20th World Heritage site in Japan and the first in central Tokyo.

Open Interior of the “Maison Blanche” (1912).| Eveline Perroud

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The Holy Trail of Kumano Kodō

  • Posted by:
  • March 6, 2017

The sacred trails of Kumano Kodō (熊野古道) are a series of ancient trails used for the pilgrimage to the sacred site Kumano Sanzan, the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano. The Kumano Kodō and Kumano Sanzan, along with Koyasan and Yoshino and Omine, are part of UNESCO’s designated World Heritage Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range of Japan.

The Kodo (“old ways”), have been used by people who go on pilgrimage for more than a thousand years. The Kumano Kodō  and the Camino de Santiago are the only pilgrimage routes to be designated world heritage sites.

Kumano Kodo Trail. |David Gallagher

The pilgrimage routes were developed as a means for people to move between the sacred areas on the Kii Peninsula. By the 12 century, the popularity of the Kumano Sanzan  made the trails more than just a path to the Three Grand Shrines; they also became a religious experience with the pathways being difficult and quite dangerous mountain terrains.

The Kumano Kodō pilgrimage trails leading to Kumano are Kiji, Kohechi and Iseji. The Kiji  route runs along the city of Tanabe, by way of the west coast of the peninsula where it divides into a fork, Nakahechi and Ohechi.

Kumano Kodō mountans. | rurinoshima

The Nakahechi route progresses into the rugged depths of the mountains leading to Kumano Hongū Taisha while Ohechi moves southwards along the coast. The Nakahechi route is the most popular for pilrimages from Kyoto, the former ancient capital of Japan. The Kohechi route links Koyasan to the Kumano Sanzan. While the Iseji” route links Ise Jingū (Ise Grand Shrine) with the Kumano Sanzan.

Kumano Kodo trail. | rurinoshima

The earliest records of the routes can be traced back to the early 10th century. Many pilgrims with many different beliefs use the trails. This has led to mixed symbolism for many when going through the stages of the pilgrimage. Anyone can enjoy the beauty and solemnity of walking the course. Who knows what you may find along the way, you may even discover yourself.

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Oishi Hambagu!

  • Posted by:
  • February 13, 2017

Hambagu (ハンバーグ), or Japanese hamburger steak, is a popular dish in Japan. It is a fusion food of Japanese and Western cooking techniques. Hambagu is similar to a Western burger, although it is most often served with rice. Ingredients are also different, making the hambagu unique with its own Asian twist.  The usual ingredients include a mixture of ground pork and beef which adds flavor, richness, and soft texture. It is a healthy, quick, easy recipe that the whole family will enjoy. Typical sauce for hambagu is tonkatsu sauce which makes it a Japanese staple.

Hambagu by KCP Fall 2015 students. | KCP Flickr

Differences between hambagu and a typical Western burger are  pretty obvious. It isn’t served on a bun. While Western burgers are commonly eaten with bread, hambagu is paired with rice. The mixture of meat is also a glaring difference. This has a big effect on taste and texture. Hambagu is still a versatile dish that can be enjoyed anyway you like, either on a bun or with rice and with an array of your favorite side dishes!

Try this easy hambagu recipe!


3/4 pound ground beef
1/4 pound ground pork
1 egg
1/4 cup breadcrumbs
1 medium onion
1/2 tablespoon oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon milk
Tonkatsu sauce for drizzling (ketchup, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, sherry, sugar, garlic powder, and ginger)

KCP Fall 2016 cooking class. | KCP Flickr


  • Chop onions and cook in a pan over medium heat with oil until translucent. Allow to cool.
  • Combine all other ingredients in a bowl. Divide into patties of desired size, or about 6 patties for this recipe.
  • Heat pan over medium high heat. Cook patties until done at the bottom, then flip. Cover the pan and cook until the other side is done.

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Using a Bicycle in Tokyo

  • Posted by:
  • January 19, 2017

Bicycling is a common mode of transportation in Japan. It’s a great way to get to school, to work, and to the train station. A bicycle is also a fine way to exercise and stay fit, and it helps reduce global warming because it emits no fossil fuels. A bike requires less energy to produce: unlike a car, it doesn’t need a lot of metal; it can use smaller roads to travel on; and it takes up less space for parking. Most of all, it is convenient and inexpensive when you need a quick ride to get around in one of the most expensive and populated cities in the world, Tokyo.

There are many things to discover in Tokyo aside from the usual tourist attractions. Some local neighborhoods hold the best treasures to be found in such a bustling yet quaint metropolis as Tokyo, and they’re right within a few kilometers of where you’re staying. There are many other unnoticed places only the locals know of, such as restaurants, shops, temples, and parks hiding in the backstreets that are just a short bicycle ride away.

Before hopping on a bike and searching for places off the beaten path, here are a few things to not to do on a bicycle in Japan:

Don’t ignore traffic signals – be aware of the traffic signs. Like anywhere around the world, red means stop and green means go. Don’t let all the beautiful sights distracts your attention to the traffic signs.

Bikes in Shinjuku. | Andrea Schaffer

Don’t ride in prohibited areas – stay off footpaths, pedestrian roads, and private property. Bicycles are considered small vehicles and by law must be ridden on the road.

Ride your bike on the correct side of the road  – always keep in mind  the flow of traffic in Japan is opposite of the U.S. where it is right-hand traffic (RHT). In Japan, the rule of the road is left-hand traffic (LHT), so when moving forward, stay to the left side of the road.

Avoid obstructing pedestrians – always remember to yield to pedestrians and give them the right of way. Remember to maintain a safe and slow speed when sharing the road with pedestrians.

Stop, Look and Listen – Before crossing through an active railroad crossing, make sure there are no lights flashing and the guard rails are up.

Joyride with pets in Japan. | m-louis

Observe intersection safety – look at both directions of traffic before crossing, and check to see who has the right of way.

Do not obstruct an intersection – a right turn is equivalent to a left turn in Japan.  Also remember to let the drivers behind know if you’re making a turn by using hand signals.

You can also check local cycling rules and regulations in Japan to familiarize yourself with the ins and outs of cycling. Enjoy and have a safe ride!

Rustic Japan scene. | Iñaki Pérez de Albéniz

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Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine: The Magical Forest of Princess Mononoke

  • Posted by:
  • January 5, 2017

Princess Mononoke, or “Spirit/Monster Princess” is an epic anime historical fantasy from 1997. It was written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. It was produced by Toshio Suzuki and Studio Ghibli was responsible for bringing the film to life. Released in the U.S. in 1999, the film was a critical and commercial hit and was the highest-grossing film in Japan of 1997, and the highest-grossing in Japan of all time until the film Titanic was released later that same year.

The setting of “Princess Mononoke” was during the late Muromachi period (about 1336 to 1573) of Japan combined with some elements of fantasy. The story follows the adventures of the young Emishi  prince Ashitaka as he gets entangled in the struggle between the gods of a forest and humans who squander its resources.

Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine. | JoshBerglund19

The Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine (白谷雲水峡, Shiratani Unsuikyō) was the inspiration for the magical forest of “Princess Mononoke.” The  forest is in Yakushima (one of the Ōsumi Islands in Kagoshima Prefecture), a green, lush nature park with a number of islands growing with ancient cedar trees like Kugurisugi, Yayoisugi, and Nidaiosugi.

At the ravine. | JoshBerglund19

A network of hiking trails runs along the forest’s ravine. Several recommended paths vary in length, from a short one hour to a five-hour trek. You can also wander off  and explore on your own, choosing your own trail. There are different trekking trails for everyone to try, from beginners to avid trekkers. There is a historic footpath from the Edo Period; English signs are also posted all throughout the paths.

The Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine is a wonderful place to explore, not just for Princess Mononoke fans, but for all who wish to enter a magical forest. This is just one of the many wonders to experience when in Japan!

Trail at the ravine. | JoshBerglund19

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