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KYOTO July 11, 2018

Gion Matsuri: Japan’s Most Famous Festival

Photo by S. via Flickr

The month of July officially kicks off the start of Gion Matsuri in Kyoto. It is not only the largest festival in the city, but is also one of the most famous festivals in all of Japan. It is a festival that can be traced back to the 9th century where it was hoped that the celebration would appease the gods that had the power to inflict a range of natural disasters.

Today the festival is a wonderful way to experience authentic Japanese culture, witness exciting float processions, meet local residents, and enjoy delicious food.

History of Gion Matsuri

Gion Matsuri came about when a plague outbreak ravaged Kyoto, leading Emperor Seiwa to call on his people to pray to the god of the Yasaka Shrine, a Shinto shrine that is located in the Gion district of Kyoto. This is how the festival became known as the Gion Matsuri.

Photo by Takashi Hososhima via Flickr

The festival was a way of calling on the gods whenever they were in need and eventually the practice became an annual event. Only during the Ōnin Wars was the popular festival interrupted. The festival went on to become a way for local merchants to show off their wealth by creating impressive floats. Many of the floats that are used today have been used for centuries. They are continually cared for and refurbished by the local people. Influences from the Middle East and Europe due to the Silk Road trade route is apparent by the artwork that makes up many of the floats.

Today, visitors can enjoy a month of intriguing events and celebrations including the Yoiyama which takes place twice during the month in the lead up to the famous float processions. During Yoiyama, one can experience lively night celebrations which run for the 3 nights before each float procession is held.

Yoiyama- Night Celebrations

As previously stated, the Yoiyama night celebrations take place on the three nights before each float procession. The first Yoiyama celebration takes place from July 14-16 and is the more lively and celebrated of the two. During this time there will be road closures and the traffic becomes pedestrian only.

Photo by Ryosuke Yagi via Flickr

The streets become filled with street vendors selling delicious food and you can watch locals and visitors dress up in yukata, or casual summer kimono. Focus your attention on streets such as Karasuma and Takoyakushi for the most action.

The Float Processions of Gion Matsuri

The Gion Festival incorporates two separate float processions that are held on the 17th and 24th of July, known collectively as Yamaboko-Junko. The procession parades large elaborate floats through the streets of Kyoto, mostly centered on Shijo, Kawaramachi, and Oike streets.

Photo by TAKA@P.P.R.S via Flickr

The first procession takes place on July 17th, beginning at Shijō Station and finishing at Karasuma Oike station. The second procession takes place on July 24th and follows the same route as the first, only in reverse by starting at Karasuma Oike station. The parade of floats makes three dramatic turns known as tsujimawashi, which are not to be missed.

The procession is made up of two types of floats which are known as yama and hoko. The hoko floats are less numerous but are the larger of the two varieties, often reaching heights of 25 meters and weighing in at 12 tons. The yama are the more numerous variety of floats and are topped with a pine tree.

Gion Matsuri parade - Hoko float turning
Photo by S. via Flickr

Both types of floats are elaborately decorated and often have themes. The floats are truly a form of moving art as they show off traditional artworks that include sculptures and Nishijin textiles.
The second parade is referred to as Ato Matsuri Junko where you can enjoy fewer crowds but you should be aware there will be fewer yama and hoko floats during this procession.

If you wish to have a close up look of the floats before the procession, they are usually grouped near the Shijo-Karasuma intersection. After the processions, the floats are dismantled and returned to storage for the next year’s celebrations.

Other Gion Matsuri Events

Don’t miss the Omukae Chōchin (Lantern Reception) and the Mikoshi Purification which are both held on July 10. During the lantern reception, watchmen carry lanterns from the Yasaka Shrine along with dance performances from women who carry out the Sagi Odori and Komachi Odori outsides places like Kyoto City Hall and Yasaka Shrine. The Mikoshi Purification involves carrying portable Shinto shrines to the Kamogawa River where they are purified by priests.

Mikoshi of Gion Matsuri
Photo by Run Mizumushi-Kun via Flickr

After these events you can watch as locals spend several days constructing the elaborate floats that will be presented in the upcoming processions. This is known as the Hoko and Yama-tate.

During the first Yoiyama celebrations, you can witness the Byōbu Matsuri or Folding Screen Festival. Local notable families allow the public to see many of their treasures and family heirlooms, which may include painted screens, kimonos, and artwork. Items are usually placed in front of their homes and some may open their doors to allow you in.

During the second float procession on July 24, you can witness the Hanagasa Junkō or Flower Umbrella Procession. Watch as vibrant umbrella floats make their way from Yasaka Shrine accompanied by beautiful geiko, or geisha. The procession allows you to experience several dance performances as well.

The closing of the Gion Matsuri takes place at Eki Shrine on July 31.

ARTS&CULTURE June 20, 2018

The Ubiquitous Power of Shikata

Photo by Dick Thomas Johnson via Flickr

The Japanese word shikata is often translated to mean “shape” or “form,” or in other translations, “way of doing things.” Familiar book titles such as The Way of Zen or The Way of the Samurai, touch on this. But in Japan, numerous kata – the word used for the many different forms of this devotion – are simply an element of life. There are kata for nearly everything the Japanese do.

The number of kata is almost limitless, and together, shikata provide much of the basis of Japanese culture. One kata or another teaches the Japanese the proper way to do nearly everything: There are kata of how to hold chopsticks or a paintbrush, of the way of addressing business clients, even of the proper way to use the telephone. Ancient and modern, kata have developed over centuries and are strictly adhered to by any proper Japanese person, which is to say, nearly all.

Photo by Sara Tae Yamazaki via Flickr

To a foreigner, the use of kata can get to a point that any non-Japanese would likely consider more ridiculous than sublime, a total society controlled by the (only half-joking) notion that it is better to do the wrong thing the right way than the right thing the wrong way. And while that has bound the Japanese together in a nearly airtight certainty of the right and wrong ways to do things, it can seem absurd to outsiders – and oppressive to the Japanese themselves.

As a Japanese friend who has lived outside the country recently told me, she sometimes goes to Chinese restaurants in Japan simply to escape the constant self-consciousness and even social control represented by, and enforced by, kata. To visitors, kata are interesting; to the Japanese, they can be suffocating. On top of that, the utter ubiquity of kata can mean that the Japanese hardly even know what is suffocating them. They take shikata so for granted that it is nearly invisible to them, even as they do things in a strictly-proscribed manner. That’s just the way things are done, they say, if challenged.

For the visitor, knowing a bit about kata is helpful, because it can explain the ritualistic approach to even the most mundane activities. Everything from the ways Japanese bow, or drink tea, or greet friends, or write, or hand a customer a package…are dictated by kata. The extreme precision of Japanese behavior makes more sense if one knows a few kata. But shikata is one big reason that foreigners remain forever outside of Japanese society: We don’t know the proper way. And in a society that values form more highly than most, it can also be intimidating; the behavior of outsiders is so relentlessly (if silently) observed and judged that a non-Japanese can’t possibly perform up to the standards of even the most relaxed Japanese. The good news, of course, is that the Japanese generally know this, and don’t judge foreigners for their inevitable lapses.

Photo by Takashi .M via Flickr

Shigto-no-shikata, the way of working, is a whole group of kata that oversee how Japanese interact at work, and is an area where many foreigners who come to Japan to work first encounter its myriad expressions, to much confusion and frustration. Shiji no dashi kata is the way of giving direction at work; meirei no shikata is the way of giving orders; hanashi kata covers the area of how one is to speak; and tanomi kata expresses an enormous area of business interactions far too complex to describe here. This is just the tip of a very large iceberg.

Lastly – though there is no end to shikata – is wakata, which is the way of harmony, or wa. In the West, harmony is thought of as either musical, or, perhaps, a desirable state of any given relationship. In other words, harmony is nice. In Japan, wa is almost everything, and it is maintained at all costs. Wa is one of the highest ideas in Japanese culture, and much is sacrificed – happiness, money, individual desires, even lives – to maintain it. Wakata is very serious business.

But so are all kata. Because of that, the system of shikata cuts both, or perhaps many, ways: Various kata are oppressive, but they also give form to a culture and society that is devoted to, even obsessed with, form in the service of harmony. Kata also give Japan a great deal of its charm and beauty, for many of these kata have evolved over centuries, and give to a function as simple as arranging flowers a grace and beauty, not to mention efficiency and utility, that can be breathtaking. Shikata rules Japan, and the Japanese, but also gives them an ease and grace that can be a balm to visitors from countries where social graces are often tossed aside in pursuit of individuality and personal advantage.

Photo by kyoto flowertourism via Flickr

Most visitors would automatically rebel at being forced to observe many kata; but most also appreciate the form and grace and beauty that the shikata structure gives this most orderly of societies.

By David Watts Barton

KYOTO June 7, 2018

History Of Kyoto – The Heart Of Japan

Kiyomizudera - Kyoto, Japan
Photo by Espen Faugstad via Flickr

Once the Imperial capital of Japan for more than a thousand years, Kyoto still stands as the Heart of Japan despite Tokyo taking on the title as the country’s capital. The city’s history has seen the rise and fall of several Japanese shogunates and saw the construction of some of the country’s most important shrines and temples.

The history of Kyoto survives today and offers a glimpse into traditional Japanese culture. It is here where many of Japan’s cultural arts began and where they can be still be experienced today. Let us look at the journey Kyoto has taken from its humble beginnings to becoming one of Japan’s most beloved cities.

Early Beginnings

Archaeological evidence suggests humans were present in modern day Kyoto as early as the Paleolithic period, although little is known of these early peoples. Around the 6th century, the famous Shimogamo Shrine was believed to be constructed, one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan.

The 7th century saw the construction of the Kamo-jinja shrine, the Yasaka-no-to pagoda, and Kyoto’s oldest temple known as Koryu-ji. The 8th century was largely known as the Nara period, a time period where Heijō-kyō (currently Nara) was Japan’s capital. Japanese society was village-based and focused on agriculture and a religion that worshipped natural spirits known as kami.

法隆寺 Horyuji temple
Photo by ume-y via Flickr

In 794, Emperor Kanmu relocated the capital to Heian-kyō which would later become known as Kyoto. This began the period referred to as the Heian Period which would last until around tfive-year the 12th century.

Kamakura Period: 1185-1333

The five year long Genpei War fought between the Taira and Minamoto clans would lead to the end of the Heian Period and begin the Kamakura Period when the Minamoto would prevail in the battle of Dan-no-ura.

During the Kamakura Period, the Kennin-ji Zen Buddhist temple was built. Today it stands as one of the Kyoto Gozan, or five most important Zen temples of Kyoto. You also saw the reconstruction of the Kozan-ji temple which was destroyed numerous times by fire and war. Other notable temples founded during this time period include Hongan-ji and Tofuku-ji. The Kamakura Shogunate would be defeated around 1333, giving rise to the Muromachi Shogunate.

Photo by Karen Eliot via Flickr

Muromachi Period: 1336-1573

It was during this period that the iconic Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji, was constructed. You also saw Hosokawa Katsumoto create the famous Zen rock garden found at Ryoan-ji temple.

The once divided Northern and Southern courts became reunited in 1392 after a period of instability which saw the continual destruction of Kyoto. Famine, economic distress, and a succession dispute led to the 10 year Ōnin Civil War. Sadly many of Kyoto’s historic treasures were destroyed during the war.

Azuchi-Momoyama Period: 1573-1603

In 1573 the Muromachi Shogunate would fall when Oda Nobunaga would overthrow the Muromachi bakufu and gain control over all of Japan. The Battle of Sekigahara took place in 1600, a battle which saw 40,000 men die in a fight between the forces of Tokugawa Ieyasu and his opponents. After his victory, Tokugawa Ieyasu would become the shogun of Japan, thus establishing the Tokugawa Shogunate that would last until 1868. This became known as the Edo period.

Edo Period: 1603-1868

This period brought about 250 years of stability within Japan, a time without war. Cities like Kyoto flourished and saw large population increases along with an increase in transportation infrastructure and agricultural production.

Japan became a closed country in terms of severely limiting trade with the outside world along with expelling outsiders. Christianity bacame outlawed and Japan’s own citizens are not allowed to travel outside the country.

Photo by hans-johnson via Flickr

Matsuo Bashō became the master of the Haiku poetry and the period gave rise to professional sumo wrestling and modern day sushi. Many great fires also ravaged the city during this period including The Great Tenmei Fire, a fire that broke out in the Kyoto Imperial Palace in 1788. Most of the city was engulfed in flames and many temples, shrines, and other structures had to be rebuilt.

Meiji Period: 1868-1912

During the Meiji Period, Japan began its assimilation of Western civilization and the Emperor would move the imperial capital from Kyoto to Tokyo. Telecommunication lines were constructed and locomotives began running. Dress and style became more westernized and Ito Hirobumi became Japan’s first prime minister when Japan adopted a cabinet system of government.

Kyoto Prefecture was created in 1871, with Kyoto being named as its capital. Lake Biwa Canal is built along with the creation of today’s cherry blossom viewing center known as Maruyama Park.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Heian-Jingu Shrine was built and Jidai-matsuri festival was created to honor the founding and history of Kyoto.

Kyoto Today

Kyoto is one of the few Japanese cities that thankfully avoided bombing during WWII but modernization now threatens to replace historical architecture with newer construction. Still though, ancient traditions seem to hold on and blend harmoniously with modernity.

Sunset in Kyoto
Photo by Chris Yiu via Flickr

Large international brand hotels tower over the city beside traditional Japanese inns known as ryokans. The city is well maintained, has up to date facilities, and offers a wonderful transportation system. It is a city where one can enjoy many authentic Japanese cultural experiences with all the modern conveniences.

ARTS&CULTURE May 19, 2018

Bowing In Japan – A Basic Formality

Bowing is a fundamental human motion, a way of paying respect that has had expressions in nearly every culture in the world. While it has largely disappeared in Europe and was never common in the Americas – but where entertainers still bow to their audience – it remains widely used in Asia. Nowhere, however, is it as crucial, and complex, as bowing in Japan.

Perhaps one reason it is less common in the West is that bowing is largely driven by a respect for social rank, and the whole concept of social ranking is frowned upon in the egalitarian societies of Europe and the Americas. This is not the case in Japan, which, despite its democratic politics, is at its core a hierarchical society. The Japanese will go to great lengths to determine the status of the person they are interacting with, and that awareness will appear first in the bow.

Bowing in Japan is so ubiquitous as to be daunting to visitors, but as a show of basic humility and manners, it is not difficult once you get used to it. Simple attempts at bowing are appreciated by the Japanese, who will not expect a visitor to understand the numerous variations. Just don’t over-do it, by bowing too low or by bowing while you’re shaking someone’s hand, and you’ll be fine.

The variations of bowing in Japan are mind-boggling, and the “degree” of a bow is literal: the numerical degree of each bow, from 15 to 90 degrees, is determined by the relative social status of the person to whom one is bowing. All of this explains why bowing can be intimidating to the visitor. But rest assured that as with all Japanese social manners, it is much more difficult for the Japanese themselves. Knowing the correct form of bowing is so crucial to business that many Japanese companies insist their (Japanese) employees take classes in proper bowing.

Bowing in Japan
Photo by ThisParticularGreg via Flickr

The Japanese bow in virtually every social situation, and often, even when they are not in the presence of another person: Seeing a Japanese bow while speaking to someone on the phone, when that other person can’t even see them, underlines dramatically how deeply ingrained this formality is. Japanese will bow to another driver in traffic. They will bow to a mountain at the end of a hike. It’s all about showing respect.

(Note well: In Thailand and other countries in South East Asia, people bow with their palms together, nodding their head slightly. This is known as a wai, and it is used more and more often by cosmopolitan Westerners. But it is not used in Japan.)

In Japan, bows are done from either a standing position (called seiritsu) or from the kneeling position called seiza. They are done, as noted, to varying angles depending on the situation, and they can be done for different lengths of time. Those are the basic parameters of a bow.

Bows are done for a variety of reasons, from a basic greeting to the most dramatic, even desperate, bow of apology. The deeper, longer and more energetic the bow, the greater the apology, but bows are generally meant to express respect and appreciation, and they may show up when interacting with a shop clerk, any sort of public officer, a teacher, an employer, a superior at work…or even a mountain one has just climbed, since many mountains are holy, or even gods themselves, and thus, deserving of respect.

One situation in which it feels especially important to get bowing right is during visits to temples and shines, and where paying proper respect isn’t just required, but can have the effect of deepening your experience of a religious act. At Shinto shrines, you will want to make an offering of a small coin, then by washing your hands (and mouth) and then bowing in the following way: Do two keirei (formal, 30-45 degree) bows, then clap your hands twice in front of you, then do a single saikeirei (deeply reverent) bow, which is 45 degrees or more.

In other situations, it’s best to watch the Japanese bow and follow suit, remember some basic elements that are important in nearly any setting, and this will serve as a way to show basic respect, humility and politeness.

One bows from the waist. The back remains straight, the eyes cast down, the hands on the front of your thighs. Bow when bowed to, with the exceptions of shopkeepers, whose bows you are not expected to return. When you do bow, something along the lines of 30 degrees is about right. Don’t bow and shake hands. Don’t bow while walking, or while speaking. Stop everything and bow.

As a foreigner, you are not expected to get this right, but as with speaking a bit of Japanese, any attempt is appreciated.

By David Watts Barton

ARTS&CULTURE May 10, 2018

Understanding Shinto – Japan’s Ancient Religion

Shinto Narnia
Photo by Jeffrey and Shaowen Bardzell via Flickr

The traditional religion of Japan, nearly 80% of the country’s population take part in Shinto practices or rituals. Shinto is Japan’s major religion alongside Buddhism and the country is home to over 80,000 Shinto shrines.

So what exactly is Shinto and what are its beliefs and rituals. We’ll discuss the history of Shinto, why it didn’t really spread beyond Japan, and what the future holds for the religion.


What is Shinto?

Torii Gate at Itsukushima Shrine
Photo by Travis Wise via Flickr

Shinto is deeply rooted in the Japanese people and their cultural activities. Unlike many religions, Shinto does not have a founder nor does it honor a single god. There is also no sacred book such as the Bible or holy place to pray to.

Shinto believes in the kami, a divine power that can be found in all things. Shinto is polytheistic in that it believes in many gods and animistic since it sees things like animals and natural objects as deities.

Also unlike many religions, there has been no push to convert others to Shinto. This has led to the religion remaining for the most part within Japan. Its practice and traditions have spread somewhat due to Japanese emigration but it is rare to find Shinto shrines and priests outside of Japan. Many say that to really understand and appreciate Shinto, you have to experience and practice it in Japan, and this may have led to it not traveling far and wide.

Many say that Shinto is less like a religion and more like a way of life or way of looking at the world.


The History of Shinto

Photo by via Flickr

Although the exact beginnings of Shinto are not known specifically, many say its foundations may have begun as early as the 3rd century BCE. Shinto did not start off as a formal religion. The faith consisted mainly of rituals and stories concerning a spiritual and cultural world that allowed people to better make sense of their world.

Buddhism arrived in Japan around the 6th century and with it, Shinto faiths and traditions began to adopt Buddhist elements. Although there were a few conflicts between the religions, Shinto coexisted quite well with Buddhism for centuries, as it was seen as an aspect of Japanese life as opposed to a competing religion.

Japanese people began to believe in the kami as well as Buddhist ideas. Shinto was made Japan’s state religion during the Meiji Period until the two were separated after WWII when the Emperor lost his divine status. During the Meiji Period, many Shinto shrines were supported by state funding for a short period. During this period it became unacceptable for kami to be associated with Buddhist deities, therefore Buddhist imagery and rituals were removed from shrines and Buddhist monks were replaced with Shinto priests.


Shinto Beliefs

Shinto Prayer
Photo by via Flickr

Shinto involves the worship of kami. Kami can take the form of animals or natural objects such plants, mountains, or rivers. They are said to be responsive of human prayer and have the ability to influence the course of natural forces.

Once a human dies, they are said to become a kami themselves and are memorialized by their living descendants. Not all Kami are thought to be good, however, and the goal is to ward off evil kami.

Both men and women are allowed to become priests and they may choose to marry and have children as well.


Shinto Rituals

Shinto priestess?
Photo by Nikita via Flickr

Shinto priests are often called on to bless objects such as cars, planes, and new buildings. These are known as Jichinsai. Although many wedding ceremonies are considered to be Shinto in Japan, the religion is not associated with funerals or cemetery rituals.

Shinto believers can worship in shared public shrines although many choose to do so in the privacy of their own homes where they may have their own shrine set up. Japanese people may set up what is known as a kami-dana, or shelf, in which they place offerings to the kami.

Unlike some religions, there is no specific day of the week in which believers of Shinto worship kami. People simply choose when they wish to call on kami or attend festivals. During festivals, purification is followed by offerings to kami, prayers, music and dance, and a ceremonial meal consisting of sake.


The Future of Shinto

Understanding Shinto
Photo by MIXTRIBE via Flickr

Today Shinto is one of the most widely practiced religions in Japan. Nearly every aspect of Japanese culture incorporates Shinto beliefs whether its politics, ethics, the arts, sports, or spirituality.

The Japanese people and their various religions and beliefs continue to coexist harmoniously. They may attend funerals in a Buddhist temple, Christian weddings, and Shinto festivals.

Although the percentage of Japan’s population that identifies with Shinto may be declining, they still actively incorporate Shinto beliefs into their daily lives. Shinto customs are ingrained in the Japanese lifestyle and they continue to form the identity of Japan in many respects. Japanese people today attend Shinto festivals more out of tradition rather than because they believe in the faith.

ARTS&CULTURE April 19, 2018

LGBT Weddings in Japan

Photo by specchio.nero via Flickr

As in virtually every culture in the world, weddings are fundamental in Japan. They are also big business, as the bridal industry in Japan is estimated to generate roughly $25 billion a year. This enormous industry is dedicated to making sure that every detail of the perfect wedding is done just-so, with a correspondingly impressive price tag: In 2016, the average wedding in Japan was said to cost $35,000.

While most of those weddings in Japan are between native men and women, a growing number are between Japanese and foreigners, and even between two foreigners – predominantly Koreans, Chinese and Americans – who have been captivated by the beauty and ceremony of Shinto weddings. (There is no such thing as a Buddhist wedding, Buddhist ceremony focuses on another crucial cultural milestone: the funeral.)

Photo by Cyril Bèle via Flickr

With Japan’s population in decline, the overall annual rate of marriage in Japan has dropped by half since the early 1970s (from 10 per thousand people to five per thousand), but there is one area in which weddings are growing, if modestly: Same-sex marriages. Gays and lesbians are increasingly drawn to Shinto weddings for the same reason many foreigners are: their beauty, sophistication and unique “Japanese-ness.”

These couples are not drawn to a Japanese wedding for its legal advantages: Japan still does not recognize same-sex marriage in the way that most of the rest of the developed world now does. LGTB weddings are merely symbolic in Japan, and even then, only in fewer than ten municipalities. The first same-sex “marriage” – in which the participants received a “partnership certificate,” not a marriage license – was performed in 2015, when the district of Tokyo known as Shibuya first sanctioned the process.

Since then, a handful of municipalities, from Sapporo on Hokkaido in the north to Fukuoka on Kyushu in the south have made same-sex marriage even quasi-legal – the latter just this month (April 2018). Again, these unions are not the same as marriage – or even as substantial as the “civil unions” that formed the legal pathway to full marriage equality in the West. But these partnership certificates are an important step forward, conferring some rights (hospital visitation, immigration benefits, life insurance protections) without giving LGBT couples full legal equality.

In contemporary straight marriages in Japan, the (partners) participate as legal equals, even though fewer overall are participating in the tradition. As in the West, the age at first marriage has gone up over the last few decades, and a 2013 poll of Japanese men and women in their 30s found that 40 percent saw “no reason” to get married at all.

Shinto Wedding
Photo by m_nietzsche via Flickr

The number of gay marriages is small – one report had these partnerships in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, introduced in 2015, still looking to top 20 total marriages – because Japanese culture doesn’t support much openness of any kind, let alone of gays and lesbians coming out of the closet and getting married. The current conservative government of Shinzo Abe has chosen to simply ignore the issue.

That said, having a wedding ceremony in Japan can be a delightful prospect for LGBT couples, especially if they will get their legal status in their home country, then come to Japan to celebrate with all the beauty and grace for which Shinto weddings are rightly known. Gay-friendly municipalities have been joined by gay-friendly entities such as the Disney Company, which offered one of the first venues explicitly to gay and lesbian couples: A marriage in Cinderella’s Castle in their Tokyo Disney Resort.

These are small steps, but the acceptance of same-sex marriage in Japan has followed the same trajectory as it did in other modern countries, with one major difference: Without a strong political push by the LGBT community itself, it remains several steps behind. The first poll to show support for same-sex marriage finally broke 50% in 2017, after a relatively rapid rise over the previous 20 years. Few Japanese harbor religious objections to same-sex marriage as there have been in parts of the United States, Catholic Europe and Latin America, and the Muslim world. And as in most countries, younger people are widely accepting of the concept, and it is expected that same-sex marriage will eventually become the law of the land as it has in many other countries.

We Are In Love!
Photo by H.L.I.T via Flickr

There is a final irony in these beautiful-but-not-quite-legal weddings: Most Japanese this century are much more inclined to eschew a Shinto wedding for what they call a “white wedding,” inspired by the 1981 nuptials of Britain’s Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Televised around the world, what was its “exotic” appeal to the Japanese hastened a stylistic shift in Japan.

Could it be that foreigners coming to Japan for same-sex ceremonies might conceivably cause a shift in the Japanese community? In a globalizing world of cross-cultural influences, and in a Japan ripe for change and ever-eager to import and adopt some of the cultural norms of outsiders, gays and lesbians who come to marry in Japan could well end up contributing to increasing the rights of Japan’s own LGBT community.

By David Watts Barton


Ryōan-ji, The World’s Most Famous Rock Garden

Ryōan-ji The World's Most Famous Rock Garden
photo by Wenjie, Zhang via Flickr

Japanese rock gardens or Zen gardens have been around since the 8th century where they served as a place to meditate and search for the meaning of life. They can be recognized by their raked gravel or sand which symbolizes water ripples and great planning goes into what rocks are selected and where they are placed.

There are strict rules to be followed when it comes to designing a Japanese rock garden, with the main focus being on creating a harmonious composition. Rocks vary in color, shape, and size and mustn’t be overly flashy or colorful so as to distract the viewer from the overall picture.

No Japanese rock garden captivates visitors more than the 15th century Ryōan-ji, located in Kyoto. Also known as the Temple of the Peaceful Dragon, the garden measures no larger than a tennis court. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ryōan-ji is classified as one of the finest extant dry landscape gardens and is defined by its 15 stones set amongst patterns of small polished white river rocks.


The Meaning of Ryōan-ji

Ryōan-ji Rock Garden
Photo by Andrew Smith via Flickr

When one thinks of the word garden they may picture lush vegetation, but the only green you will see here is a small amount of moss around the clusters of larger stones. Although there are no plants to care for, the garden still requires great care. Monks set out each day to rake and maintain the design of the gardens.

You may not be able to stop and smell the roses in this garden but the idea is somewhat a similar one. The garden’s main function is to incite meditation and is open to interpretation as to what it truly represents. Ryōan-ji has always been somewhat of a mystery, its designer and their thoughts unknown to this day.

No matter what angle the garden is viewed at, it is said that only 14 of the 15 stones are visible to the naked eye. Only through enlightenment can one experience all 15 stones at once. As for the stones which can be seen, some people see the rock clusters as islands while others view them as swimming tigers or even forming a branching tree from certain angles. Because there isn’t a defined meaning to the garden, it is up to the visitor to decide what he or she takes away from the experience. That may have been the designer’s intent all along.


The Temple Grounds

Ryōan-ji Temple, Kyoto, Japan
Photo by John Gillespie via Flickr

Most visitors will be strictly focused on the Temple’s rock garden but the surrounding grounds are equally impressive. Although the garden may be void of vegetation, ponds, and hills, the surrounding grounds offers hiking trails and a scenic pond with a bridge which leads to a shrine topped island. Surrounding the garden is an earthen wall outlined by cherry blossoms in the spring and fiery foliage in the fall.

After viewing the gardens via the Hojo viewing platform, visitors can grab some delicious Japanese cuisine in one of the local restaurant’s beautiful tatami rooms.


Tips for Visiting

Ryōan-ji, Kyoto
Photo by np&djjewell via Flickr

The Ryōan-ji Temple is located at 13 Ryoanji-Goryo-no-Sita-cho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto City and can be easily accessed by public transportation.


Traveling by Bus

From JR or Kintetsu “Kyoto station”: Take the city bus 50 to Ritsumeikan daigaku-mae stop. From here it is a 7-minute walk to the temple.

From Hankyu Railway “Omiya station”: Take the city bus 55 to Ritsumeikan daigaku-mae stop. From here it is a 7-minute walk to the temple.

From Keihan Railway “Sanjyo station”: Take the city bus 59 to “Ryoanji-mae” stop.


Traveling by Train

Take Keifuku Kitano Line to “Ryoanji”. From the station, it is a 7-minute walk to the temple.



Mar- Nov: 8:00 – 17:00, Dec-Feb: 8:30 – 16:30


Entrance Fees

500 JPY for Adults and 300 JPY for Juniors aged 15 and under.

You are asked to remove your shoes before entering, where you can then safely store them in cubbies. To enhance your experience you should plan on arriving early or late to beat the crowds, making meditation easier. Head to the Temple during the spring hanami season to witness the stunning cherry blossoms or during autumn which will provide you with an equally impressive landscape of vibrant fall foliage.


Final Thoughts

Ryōan-ji Rock Garden
Photo by Andrew Smith via Flickr

Today’s fast-paced world has a tendency to keep your mind focused on everything except what is truly important in life. Visiting a rock garden such as Ryōan-ji will allow your mind a chance to declutter for a bit. It is also easy to find ourselves having to deal with stress on a daily basis, which if left unchecked can result in harmful effects to our overall mental and physical well being.

You will find many visitors to Ryōan-ji will get lost in thought for hours. It is quite incredible that such a simple garden can have such a positive impact on visitors. Although Ryōan-ji must remain in Kyoto, you can easily implement the experience into your daily life upon returning home. Create your own Zen garden or simply visualize one in your head. Having a place to find relaxation and calm will allow you to better manage stress that can find its ways into your daily life.

FOOD&DRINK March 22, 2018

Japan’s “Greatest Invention”: Instant Ramen

Japans Greatest Invention Instant Ramen

For all their culture’s artistry, subtlety and sophistication, the Japanese are a practical people. So when, in 2000, it came time to answer pollsters about what they consider their country’s greatest accomplishments of the 20th century, the top choice was the essence of practicality: Instant ramen.

Instant “ramen” – which was actually just dried ramen noodles, not the complex soup that has become an international sensation – was invented in 1958 by Momofuku Ando. The inventor came up with a process to flash-fry pre-flavored noodles, which preserved them until it was time to add water. It wasn’t until 1971 that Nissin, Ando’s company, created the “cup of noodles” that we now generally know as instant ramen. But in whatever form, this form of noodles, now known by a mind-boggling array of names, and coming in a tongue-dazzling variety of flavors, has become an international sensation.

But instant ramen got the top spot in Japan because it perfectly fits the Japanese desire for simple, tasty food that can be eaten quickly and easily. Turns out the Japanese are not alone in this desire, as any college student can tell you. Instant ramen is also a source of pride because, no matter how many anime films or manga comic books are served to the world, or how many Toyotas or Hondas driven, no other Japanese invention reaches as far or as deep as Cup Noodles, Top Ramen…or Ramyeon in Korea, or even Instant-Nudeln (noodles) in Germany. Indonesia specializes in many dried versions of its national curries and noodle dishes. More than 100 billion packages of instant noodles are now consumed every year around the world.

Spicy ramen
Photo by Dave Liao via Flickr

China consumes nearly half of that number, and dwarfs all other countries’ consumption, even Japan’s, which comes in third. That makes sense, since ramen, as with many things we think of as distinctly Japanese, originally hailed from China. In fact, the original name for ramen, when it was introduced in the early 20th century from China, was shina soba, or “Chinese noodles.” Momofuku was himself born and raised in Taiwan, and began life with the Chinese name Go Pek-Hok. He became a naturalized Japanese citizen, married a Japanese woman and the Japanese adopted him as their own.

Ramen itself, as opposed to the instant variety, is currently enjoying a sushi-like vogue, variations of it Japan’s latest, greatest culinary export. One need only to wait in line for two hours at New York’s Ippudo to discover what the Japanese have long known: Ramen is a dependable, delicious and by-and-large affordable all-in-one meal. From the attention paid to the broth – when pork-based it is called tonkatsu, but there are many other bases – to the consistency of the noodles and the delicate garnishes of pork (chasu), dried bamboo shoots (menma) and seaweed (nori) – aficionados are known to obsess over every element.

Shoyu Ramen
Photo by City Foodsters via Flickr

Books have been written about the many subtleties and glories of ramen, but besides the broth, a crucial ingredient is one a casual diner won’t notice: Kansui is an alkaline solution that is added to the flour and water when making ramen noodles, and helps develop the gluten in the noodles to give them their characteristic chewiness, as well as their yellow color.

No self-respecting ramen lover would ever make the claim that instant ramen is even the same food as fresh ramen itself, let alone as good. Many ramen places, even as far away as California, won’t even allow their ramen to be delivered, because the noodles won’t reach their destination in the proper condition. Some Japanese get absolutely obsessive about their ramen.

So what was Momofuku Ando’s innovation? The trick was to flash-fry the noodles in such a way that they can be “reanimated” by the simple addition of hot water. We take it for granted now, but in 1958, it was a surprising and successful innovation. The result was noodles that, ideally, retain their texture, and the chewiness the Japanese prize. Add a blend of dried ingredients usually comprising monosodium glutamate (see umami), some dried green onions, or shrimp, maybe nori, and – it must be said – ungodly amounts of sodium, and voila: a meal. It’s not the most healthy of meals – most just-add-water ramens are the result of so much industrial processing that they make McDonald’s hamburgers look like health food by comparison – but don’t tell that to instant ramen fans.

04 Fuku Instant Noodles package contents
Photo by Jason Lam via Flickr

Still, if instant ramen has been your idea of ramen, you owe it to yourself to visit one (or ten) of the world’s thousands of ramen houses, especially if you find yourself in Japan, where the choices will overwhelm – and delight. Make your way to the city of Fukuoka, on the island of Kyushu, and you will find more than 2,000 ramen shops…in a city of 1.5 million! In any case, “Japan’s greatest invention” or not, you will never look at instant ramen the same way again.

By David Watts Barton

ARTS&CULTURE March 16, 2018

Japanese Cultural Values and How to Fit in as a Foreign Traveller

Japanese Cultural Values

It is always important to adhere to the customs and values of the country you are visiting, and this is especially true when visiting Japan. Unlike many other western cultures which are a melting pot of ethnicities, Japan’s population consists of mostly ethnic Japanese. In homologous societies such as this, it becomes more expected that you fully understand and practice the local traditions and rules.

Japan shares many aspects of western philosophy but also embraces its differences. As a foreign traveler, it is important to recognize that these cultural differences are neither right nor wrong, they are simply different. The most respectful thing you can do before traveling to Japan is to research the country’s cultural values so you blend seamlessly into society when visiting.

The following are some common aspects of Japanese etiquette and cultural norms, and how you can fit in as a foreign traveler


What may be deemed as being cold by western culture is actually Japan’s way of being formal. The Japanese usually refrain from physical contact and won’t engage in too much small talk. Personal space is respected and people generally try to be unassuming.

Japanese Culture Politeness

Shaking hands is replaced by bowing, and this is done frequently instead of solely for greetings. Bowing in Japan can be used to show your gratitude, or as a sign that you are remorseful. Bowing more deeply is used in more formal instances such as business dealings whereas a casual nod is used most other times.

As a foreign traveler, it is important to keep in mind that speaking bluntly is considered rude. Speaking your mind is not usually practiced in Japan nor is making prolonged eye contact or anything that could be deemed as confronting.

Friendship and Respect for Others

The Japanese take friendship much more seriously than you may be used to in your country, and although it may take longer to gain friendship, it is much harder to break once made.

People generally do not judge nor talk down to those with inferior backgrounds or statuses. Respect for others is very apparent when you spend time in Japan, and the country has one of the world’s lowest crime rates. Punctuality is of huge importance in Japanese society and is seen as a sign of respect. The Japanese will always be a few minutes early, so you should make a concerted effort to never be late, whether you have an appointment for a business meeting, are meeting a tour, or catching up with friends.

You should always remove your shoes when entering someone’s home and even some restaurants, where practicing proper table manners is expected. This means using chopsticks properly, eating quietly, waiting for everyone to be served drinks and meals before starting, and fully finishing your meal.

In more formal situations, people generally wait until they are instructed to sit, enter a room, or address a person of importance or seniority. If traveling for business, always carry business cards as they are widely used and deemed important for showing your seriousness to do business. Treat any business card given to you with respect in the presence of others – you should accept it with both hands, and take the time to read the card before putting it away.

When visiting a host family in Japan or simply friends, it is a nice gesture to bring a decent gift. Gift giving is a very popular Japanese tradition.

Gender and Social Roles

Japan is still a rather patriarchal society where gender roles are a bit stricter. Although women are not submissive or devoid of self-determination, there are traditional expectations for wives and mothers that act as a sort of barrier to gender equality.

The monarchy consists solely of males and the women hold less than 10% of the seats in government. The majority of working age women seek employment but are far more prevalent in part-time work and are paid around 40% less than the average man.

Japan has made recent strides regarding gender equality issues and today’s women model many more westernized traits. The contraceptive pill is now legal and sex out of wedlock is not looked down upon as much as other Asian societies. More than half of Japanese women are college or university graduates and household chores once solely performed by women are now beginning to be shared by husband and wife.
When it comes to social roles, seniority reigns more supreme. It is expected that you respect management and do not challenge authority. Younger or newer employees are expected to look at those with more experience as their mentors.

Living Arrangements

Unlike expansive countries like the United States, Canada, and Australia, Japan is a small island country where space is precious and maximized. You may find that homes or hotel rooms offer much less space than you may be used to.

Japanese Culture and Living Arrangements

Children usually live with their parents much longer than is normal in Western countries, and even young married couples may live with their extended family. Japan is much more of a community rather than focusing on the individual.


Japanese Culture and Religion

The most common religions practiced by the Japanese are Buddhism and Shintoism. When visiting temples and shrines you are usually expected to remove your shoes and are asked not to enter if you are ill.

Pay a visit to the purification fountain if you understand the correct procedure which involves rinsing your hands and mouth. Place donations in any offering box and look for signs regarding photography restrictions.


When visiting a restaurant in Japan, it is expected that you clean up after yourself. People refrain from eating while they walk as it is seen as impolite, and most Japanese people take rubbish home with them instead of placing it in a public bin.

Littering is almost non-existent and streets are therefore spotless. Japan’s recycling policy is also quite strict. You will also find very few instances of graffiti along the streets. Houses in Japan are kept immaculate and children help keep their schools and classrooms tidy by cleaning up at the end of each day.

Surgical masks are commonly worn to avoid spreading germs, especially when someone is sick. Japan’s high population density means people are usually always in close contact with one another, so this prevents many airborne sicknesses.

Photo by Kevin Utting via Flickr

Service and Gratuities

Unlike many western cultures where tipping is encouraged or even expected in industries like hospitality, it is deemed insulting to do so in Japan. But you will find that despite the lack of tipping, Japan offers some of the finest service you will find anywhere.

ARTS&CULTURE February 21, 2018

A Short History of Karaoke in Japan

Of all the forms of contemporary Japanese entertainment that have reached international audiences, perhaps the most unique, and surely the most ubiquitous, is karaoke.

The word is a portmanteau of shortened versions of the words for empty (kara) and orchestra (oke), creating karaoke, or “empty orchestra.” This poetic phrase well describes what are simply music tracks, shorn of their lead vocals. It is in those empty places that the magic – or, let’s be honest, the train wreck – happens. In those spaces, amateur singers of all levels are able to sing lead on their favorite songs, with the full backing of that “empty orchestra.”

Karaoke was introduced in 1971, when Daisuke Inoue, a professional drummer in Kobe in Kansai (western Japan), figured out a way to offer instrumental tracks without a vocal. He did this, he said, at the request of many of his clients, who wanted to be able to sing along to his music even when he wasn’t performing.

Inoue did not do this to make money, and that’s a good thing, because he never did: The musician/inventor didn’t know much about patents, and never got one for his invention. Instead, the karaoke machine as we know it has been registered to the Filipino entrepreneur Roberto del Rosario, who patented it in 1975. To be fair, many Filipinos had long enjoyed what they called “music-minus-one” singalongs, and brought such innovations to Japan in the mid-‘60s. So the notion was in the air by the time Inoue “invented” karaoke.

But Inoue remains famous and honored in Japan, and karaoke has since become a standard global entertainment option, in homes, in bars, even in cabs. Karaoke has been sung in remote truck stops and at birthday parties – even at music festivals such as Knebworth in Britain, where in 2003 singer Robbie Williams led the biggest karaoke event in the world, with 120,000 singers taking the lead vocal, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

Karaoke remains a crucial part of contemporary entertainment in its homeland. For a nation of people widely thought to be restrained and undemonstrative – and who largely are – the Japanese turn out to be passionate singers, and Japanese parties have traditionally featured singalongs.

Karaoke Microphone

Many Japanese are also quite happy to sing to themselves, and that inclination led to the next big development in the world of karaoke: The karaoke box. These commercial establishments introduced the concept of separate, small, soundproof rooms, or “boxes,” where singers, alone or in small groups, could sing to their hearts’ delight without disturbing the neighbors. The boxes also accelerated the commercial development of karaoke, and today, karaoke boxes, usually rented by the hour, are the norm around the world.

In terms of karaoke machines themselves, and the technology behind them, being launched in the ‘70s meant that most early karaoke machines used cassette tapes, an unsophisticated technology even at the time. Then, in the mid-‘80s, karaoke tracks moved on to the new LaserDisc format. This crucial development added the ability of karaoke music producers to add the lyrics to the coding on the discs, so that the words played along with the music. This ability to read the lyrics is a crucial part of karaoke, since few amateur singers are able to remember all the lyrics. But LaserDiscs, being digital, could carry this extra information and put it up on the video screen, vastly improving the memories of millions of singers, and saving the ears of millions of listeners.

Since then, improvements in karaoke have included ongoing refinements to storage and delivery with the ensuing waves of CDs, DVDs and now, hard drive machines that can store thousands of songs, lyrics and even videos to accompany the “empty orchestras.” One form is known as tsuushin karaoke (“communication karaoke”), which provides songs and videos from a commercial content vendor, which is outside the box and delivered via the internet or cable. Tsuushin karaoke greatly expands the number of songs available to singers, beyond whatever discs or limited collection one particular karaoke box may have.

Another form of karaoke that is growing in popularity is the wankara, or solo karaoke box (the word is a pun: “one-kara”). In this small “room” – with just enough space for one person to stand or sit in – a shy singer can belt a song out to her heart’s content, without the social pressure that comes from singing karaoke in public. The verb hitokara (combining the Japanese words “hitori” (alone) and “kara” (karaoke) means to sing karaoke alone.

Karaoke Singer

This is a development that all of us should be grateful for, whatever our level of vocal ability. Another is the relatively recent addition of pitch-correcting technology, similar to the Auto-Tune used by many pop singers, which evens out even the wobbliest pitch.

In any case, any trip to Japan will offer many opportunities to sing karaoke, and a visitor would be foolish to pass up the chance, as singing together is a common way for the Japanese to bond. If you do, be prepared to be asked to name your juhachiban – your favorite song to sing karaoke. You’ll enjoy karaoke more if you have one.

By David Watts Barton