Browsing Articles Written by


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

TRAVEL February 8, 2018

23 Places To See Cherry Blossoms In Japan This Spring

Cherry Blossoms Japan
Photo by cpo57 via Flickr

Any well-seasoned Japan lover knows the obsession with cherry blossom season across the island. Every spring, thousands of viewers flock to see the various shades of beautiful blooms decorate the air. There is no shortage of spectacular locations to enjoy a stroll through the fairy-tale like atmosphere, so we’ve listed a few of our favorite options here.

23 Places To See Cherry Blossoms In Japan This Spring


Ueno Onshi Park

Photo by YukiNoSato via Flickr

One of the most popular and cheerful cherry blossom spots in Tokyo, the central pathway in Ueno Onshi Park has over 1000 cherry trees.

Shinjuku Gyoen

Rain in Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
Photo by Tatters via Flickr

Another large and lively park, Shinjuku Gyoen is a convenient hanami location for those who can’t make it during the primary season as the park includes numerous early and late-blooming trees.

Sumida Park

Sumida Park
Photo by Christian Kadluba via Flickr

Located along the Sumida River, this long straight path is perfect for walks while admiring the blooming cherry blossoms.

Koganei Park

Photo by Dan Crowther via Flickr

The second largest park in Metropolitan Tokyo is actually the former aqueduct that supplied Udo (the former Tokyo) with fresh drinking water. This spacious park is great for lounging, especially among one of the 430 trees found in it’s dedicated 2.9-hectare cherry-tree orchard.

Inokashira Park

Inokashira Park
Photo by kanegen via Flickr

Don’t miss the Benzaiten shrine that sits vibrantly amongst the colorful surroundings or the opportunity to take in the cherry blossoms from a swan-shaped boat ride or rowboat on the tranquil Inokashira lake!

Yoyogi Park

Hanami at Yoyogi Park 2017
Photo by Dick Thomas Johnson via Flickr

The site of Japan’s first successful powered aircraft flight, Yoyogi Park is more suited for the rowdy party time.


Maruyama Park

Maruyama sakura
Photo by Chris Gladis via Flickr

The oldest park in Kyoto, Maruyama Park is also one of it’s most popular for hanami. Don’t miss grabbing a meal and admiring the enormous weeping cherry tree as it lights up the night.

Philosopher’s Path

Philosopher's Path Kyoto
Photo by Pablo Padierna via Flickr

A casual stroll along the Path of Philosophy takes you along a stream with cherry blossoms on either side. To avoid the crowds try walking the path just after sunset as lights illuminate the trees for several hours after dark.

Kyoto Gosho

Photo by Kimon Berlin via Flickr

The Imperial Palace Park hosts many cherry blossoms throughout, but the highlights are the large shidare-zakura (weeping cherry trees) at the north end.


shirakawa fukushima cherries!
Photo by bluXgraphics via Flickr

Famous for its UNESCO world heritage site of grass farmhouses and historic villages, a trip to Shirakawa during cherry blossom season is like traveling back in time.

Daigoji Temple

The main gate of Daigoji Temple
Photo by Takashi Nishimura via Flickr

On the second Sunday in April this large UNESCO listed temple is host to Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s cherry blossom-viewing parade. Hideyoshi was a prominent daimyo (feudal lord) and is known as one of the three great historical unifiers of Japan. In 1598 he originally had 700 cherry trees planted where now over 1000 stand.


Goryokaku Fort

This star-shaped fort, which can be viewed at the top of the tower, is a popular The moat is surrounded by some 1,600 cherry trees,

Matsumae Castle

Photo by Wendy Cutler via Flickr

Created around the castle ruins, Matsumae Park proudly boasts being the site of some 10,000 cherry trees of 250 different early, mid and late bloom varieties.

Moerenuma Park

Photo by makou0629 via Flickr

The large grounds of Moerenuma Park encompasses about 467 acres and an area called “Cherry Blossom Forest” with an astounding 2,600 cherry blossom trees.


Ashino National Park

Aomori Ashino Park in Spring
Photo by PROAkinori YAMADA via Flickr

The Kanagi Cherry Blossom Festival, hosted by Ashino Park, is held from April 29 to May 5 every year. We recommend grabbing the train that runs through the plains of Tsugaru peninsula from Tsugaru Goshogawara station to Tsugaru Nakazato station as you admire the cherry blossoms as they pass from your seat.

Hirosaki Park

Hirosaki castle in cherry blossom festival season
Photo by Yuichi Shiraishi via Flickr

The entire park has approximately 2,600 cherry trees of 50 different varieties including a 134-year-old Yoshino cherry tree, the oldest Yoshino sakura tree in Japan. Be sure not to miss the elegant Hirosaki Castle with its moat filed with pink petals.


Miharu Takizakura

Photo by ayu oshimi via Flickr

The main attraction here is the famous “waterfall cherry tree” considered by some to be the single most beautiful cherry tree in all of Japan. Stretching over 18 meters in diameter and rising 12-meters tall; this magnificent tree is thought to be more than a thousand years old.

Hanamiyama Park

Photo by Kimon Berlin via Flickr

The private park opened to the public in 1959, allowing visitors to trek to the top of the hill where the view of the gentle pink blossoms covering the gently rolling hills is particularly spectacular.



Nara Park

Photo by fortherock via Flickr

There are plenty of cherry trees to enjoy in this expansive park. It’s also a famous spot to enjoy the company of the resident deer.


Sakura Mountain Road
Photo by Reginald Pentinio via Flickr

If you’ve got half a day to spare, then head south of Nara City to admire the cherry blossoms that cover the hills in and around the town of Yoshino.


Kema Sakuranomiya Park

Cherry Blossoms, Kema-Sakuranomiya-koen Park, Osaka, 2016
Photo by lasta29 via Flickr

A promenade along the Okawa River is lined with nearly 5000 cherry trees stretching for several kilometers. For another vantage point, enjoy the seemingly endless rows of cherry trees from one of the ships cruising the river.

Osaka Mint Bureau

2017 Cherry Blossom Viewing in Osaka, Japan Mint
Photo by lasta29 via Flickr

The cherry trees here were initially transplanted from the Todo clan’s residence to the Mint Bureau early in the Meiji Era. For just one week out of the year, the Osaka Mint Bureau opens its gates for the public to enjoy hanami.

Nishinomaru Park

Nishinomaru Garden
Photo by Andy via Flickr

Nishinomarue Park is a particularly pleasant place for a picnic as it’s view of the Osaka castle is spectacular, especially when lit up at night. This space includes large lawns, perfect for picnicking amongst the over 4000 cherry trees planted on the spacious grounds.

Be sure to book your hotel well in advance as accommodation fills up fast in popular areas!

FOOD&DRINK January 25, 2018

Rice and its Infinite Products

Photo by Shunichi kouroki via Flickr

When one wants to say “meal” in Japanese, one says the words gohan or perhaps meshi. Both words literally mean “cooked rice.” That etymology says much about the central role that rice plays in the Japanese diet. Valued as currency in past, rice is still used in a remarkable variety of ways, from housing elements to cosmetics to booze to, yes, food. Without rice, the Japanese diet wouldn’t be very Japanese.

Japanese Rice

Asian wet rice, or “paddy” rice – known by the botanical name Oryza sativa – is an annual grass that is grown from spring to fall all over Japan, the seasons varying with the latitude of the area. The variety grown in Japan is known as Oryza sativa japonica, which thrives in the archipelago because it likes Japan’s more temperate climate, rather than the tropical climate favored by its botanical cousin, Oryza s. indica, which grows in the more tropical climes further south. In fact, some strains of Japanese rice have been developed to grow in northern climates that few would think of as capable of supporting rice cultivation.

rice field art
Photo by Tagosaku via Flickr

Of the nearly two and a half million farms in Japan, roughly 85% are dedicated at least in part to growing rice, even though the average Japanese rice farm is less than two acres. Because of this, most rice farmers cultivate the crop as a part-time vocation, since profits per tiny farm are modest. Consequently, most rice farmers are more than 65 years old.

Rice In Japan

Despite the ubiquity of this crop, the volume of paddy rice grown in Japan as of 2017 is barely more than 11 million metric tons, a third of the 33 million metric tons grown in Thailand and a quarter of the 44 million metric tons grown in Vietnam. Production in Indonesia, Bangladesh, India and China far outstrips Japan’s. But despite government regulation, which subsidizes farmers and bans competition from imported rice, rice farming in Japan is in steady decline. It is also very expensive, 5-6 times more expensive than in other rice-center countries, a fact that Japanese accept because of what they consider its superior quality.

The Japanese remain passionate about rice, and visitors eat even more of it than you think you are. In addition to rice in dishes such as sushi, donburi, chahan (fried rice), omuraisu (omelet rice), onigiri (rice balls) and breakfast dishes such as kayu (rice porridge) and tamago kake gohan (egg rice). You will also likely be consuming rice in noodles, sake, bread and pastries made with rice flour, and desserts such as wagashi and ice-cream-filled mochi.

Red leaf shiso mochi
Photo by « R☼Wεnα » via Flickr

Many of those foods depend on the particular qualities of the japonica variety, which is a short-grain rice that is stickier than rice grown in other regions. This makes the rice clump more easily, which as anyone who has had nigiri sushi or onigiri knows, is a crucial element of these basics.

Non-edible Rice Products

Non-edible rice products are also a part of daily life in Japan. Primary among them is rice straw, the non-edible part of the plant, which constitutes about half the biomass created by rice farming (by weight), and which is a troublesome byproduct because of the burning that causes air pollution all over the rice-growing world. The Japanese, ever-keen to use every part of everything they grow, have found myriad uses for this rice by-product, from roofing material to feed for livestock.

Most ingenious is the use of rice straw to create one of the Japanese home’s most distinctive features: The tatami floor. Created from up to 35 kilograms of highly-compressed rice straw, tatami mats offer solid-yet-yielding flooring that works beautifully with the traditional Japanese habit of sitting and even sleeping on the floor.

Photo by Melanie M via Flickr

Another rice byproduct is the husks that are removed from the rice grains during processing. The Japanese prefer white rice, which is nutritionally-inferior to whole grain rice, but is said to taste better and is certainly more useful in the creation of staples such as mochi, rice flour, rice noodles and sake. But rice husks are also used in the production of important such as bedding, seedbeds for other crops, livestock feeds, ceramics, filters, and even oil, the source of rice bran wax, which is used in some cosmetics.

Still, today rice is in overall decline in Japan. On average, Japanese consumption per capita has declined by a remarkable 50% since 1965, as the Japanese diet and lifestyle grow ever-more international.

But rice retains a unifying, symbolic significance. In a country in which more than half of foods consumed are imported, rice remains symbolic of the desire for “food security” and even of national identity. Eating Japanese rice – the only kind of rice most Japanese know – is considered one’s patriotic duty, a tasty duty indeed.

– David Watts Barton

ARTS&CULTURE January 11, 2018

14 Japanese Authors You Should Know (And The Books You Need To Read)

14 Japanese Authors You Should Know (And The Books You Need To Read)

Often dark but full of humor and valuable life lessons, Japanese literature has a long history of producing entertaining as well as intellectually stimulating authors. Here are 14 Japanese authors and some of their most notable works that are definitely worth a read.

14 Japanese Authors You Should Know (And The Books You Need To Read)

Kenzaburo Oe

Paris - Salon du livre 2012 - Kenzaburō Ōe - 003.jpg
By ThesupermatOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

His novels, short stories and essays deal with political, social and philosophical issues. These topics typically including nuclear weapons, nuclear power, social non-conformism, and existentialism. His most notable works are A Personal Matter, a semi-autobiographical dark tale which tells the story of a man who must come to terms with the birth of his mentally disabled son, and The Silent Cry, a story of two brothers in the early 1960s.

Banana Yoshimoto

The pen name of Japanese writer Mahoko Yoshimoto, she comes from a family full of creative talent. Yoshimoto is the daughter of the famous poet and critic Takaaki Yoshimoto and her sister, Haruno Yoiko, is a well-known cartoonist in Japan. Yoshimoto says she wants to portray through her works the exhaustion of young Japanese in contemporary Japan and the way in which terrible experiences shape a person’s life. Her publications include 12 novels and seven collections of essays, her most notable being her debut titled Kitchen.

Haruki Murakami

By wakarimasita of Flickr, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Murakami has won numerous awards both in Japan and internationally for his fiction and non-fiction works. His novels are frequently surrealistic and melancholic or fatalistic, marked by “recurrent themes of alienation and loneliness.” Murakami’s most critically acclaimed works include A Wild Sheep Chase, Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, and 1Q84.

Amy Yamada

A popular but controversial contemporary Japanese writer she is most famous for her stories that address issues of sexuality, racism, and interracial marriage, topics not typically discussed openly in Japanese society. Bedtime Eyes and Trash are two of her most recommended works.

Ryu Murakami

Ryu Murakami.jpg
By Joi Ito, CC BY 2.0, Link

Murakami is a Japanese novelist, short story writer, essayist and filmmaker. His works explore human nature through the dark themes of disillusion, drug use, murder and war, set in Japan. His best-known novels are Almost Transparent Blue, Coin Locker Babies and In the Miso Soup.

Natsuo Kirino

The pen name of Mariko Hashioka, this Japanese novelist is a leading figure in the recent boom of female writers of Japanese detective fiction. Kirino’s works, such as her most notable novel Out, asks the reader what they would do if something awful happened to them. Kirino hopes her novels can help her readers through hard times and be comforted.

Shintaro Ishihara

Ishihara is an author who was also Governor of Tokyo from 1999 to 2012. His book, The Japan That Can Say No, co-authored with Sony chairman Akio Morita and published in 1989, called on his countrymen to stand up to the United States.

Mitsuyo Kakuta

Altogether Kakuta has written over 80 works of fiction. Her most notable works include the prizewinning A Blissful Pastime, Woman on the Other Shore and The Eighth Day which has been made into a television series drama and film. She is currently working on translating The Tale of Genji into modern Japanese.

Souseki Natsume

1000 yen Natsume Soseki.jpg
By Japanese Government – Bank of Japan, Public Domain, Link

In Japan, Natsume is often considered as the greatest writer in modern Japanese history. So important in fact that from 1984 until 2004, his portrait appeared on the front of the Japanese 1000 yen note. He is best known for his novels Botchan, Kokoro, I Am a Cat and his unfinished work Light and Darkness.

Kenzo Kitakata

This Japanese novelist is known for his hardboiled (crime fiction style) novels. His most acclaimed works include Ashes which follows the fortunes of a yakuza mobster, Winter Sleep about an ex-con painter and City Of Refuge which tells the story of a man running from, not only the police, but also from the mob with a kidnapped boy.

Kenji Miyazawa

Miyazawa was a Japanese poet and author of children’s literature in the late Taishō and early Shōwa periods. Almost completely unknown as a poet while alive, Kenji’s work gained its fame after his death. Some of his major works include the posthumously published Night on the Galactic Railroad, as well as Gauche the Cellist, Kaze no Matasaburo, and The Night of Taneyamagahara.

Yasunari Kawabata

Yasunari Kawabata c1946.jpg
By Unknown, Public Domain, Link

Kawabata was the first Japanese author to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. Snow Country, Thousand Cranes, and Beauty and Sadness are a few of his most cherished works.

Kyoichi Katayama

Katayama is best known for his melodrama novel Socrates in Love which revolves around narrator Sakutaro Matsumoto’s recollections of a school classmate whom he once loved. It has since been adapted into manga, a film as well as a television drama.

Yukio Mishima

Yukio Mishima.jpg
By Shirou Aoyama –, Public Domain, Link

Japanese author, poet, playwright, actor, film director, founder of the Tatenokai, and avid nationalist, Mashima is well known for both his writing and his political views. His works include the novels Confessions of a Mask as well as The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, and the autobiographical essay Sun and Steel. His avant-garde work displayed a mix of modern and traditional aesthetics that shattered cultural boundaries, mainly focusing on sexuality, political change and death.

ART&DESIGN December 21, 2017

Why Architecture Enthusiasts Will Go Crazy For Omotesando

Architecture in Omotesando
Photo by Yassine Jaï

At first glance, visitors to Omotesando may be impressed by the avenue’s vast array of exclusive haute couture brands like Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton. It’s a hotspot for fashion and jewelry. However, despite the shopping-centric nature of this district in Tokyo, it contains some of the most famous architecture in the city. It is sometimes called the world’s best outdoor modern architecture museum. Whether by day or by night, this stretch of road is sure to be a spectacle of modern beauty and style.

Award-Winning Designs

Photo by Nokton

The architects responsible for the stylized glass facades, sleek angles and carefully crafted support are both famous and award-winning. Omotesando is a single neighborhood with more buildings by great modern architects than anywhere else. Many of these designers are laureates of the prestigious Pritzker Prize. In fact, mention the names of these architects to anyone with an interest in the industry, and you will get instant recognition. In the world of architecture, they’re all superstars.

The Walking Tour

While it can be difficult to touch on all the stunning buildings of Omotesando in one place, there are some definite highlights and must-see spots if you’re headed this cool Tokyo neighborhood. Any architecture enthusiast worth their salt would be sadly mistaken to miss out on this famous (and free!) hotspot of modern creativity.

The Audi Forum

Audi Forum Tokyo
Photo by IQRemix

All transparent walls and breathtaking angles, this building seems to defy gravity. It is often referred to as “The Iceburg” for its crystalline form and soaring height, and is a sight to behold either by day or by night, when it lights up blue. Three kinds of color-laminated glass enhance the edgy effect of the building shape, making it look like a giant crystal rising up in the middle of the city.

Tokyu Plaza

Fragments of reality
Photo by Mark Esguerra

Surrounded by roads on all sides, and boasting a whopping 50,000 square-meter floor area, this commercial giant is a 1 block full development, which is a rare case in this district. Its three-dimensional façade is mainly composed of glass, which results in a diverse optical phenomenon derived from transmission and reflection of sunlight. Depending on the angle and the nature of the sunlight at any given moment, onlookers are either able to see into the building, the city is reflected in its walls, or it seems to blend in with the sky itself. Tokyu Plaza is truly a sight to behold.

Prada Building

prada japan
Photo by SoulSonic

Designed by Herzog & de Meuron, Pritzker Prize-winning architects, Prada’s flagship store in Omotesando is a five-sided, six-story building composed on diamond-shaped glass panes, which vary in nature between flat, concave and convex bubbles. Designed with the intent of “meshing consumption and culture,” the glass panes are described by Herzog as “an interactive optical device. Because some of the glass is curved, it seems to move as you walk around it. This creates awareness of both the merchandise and the city-there’s an intense dialogue between actors.” For these architects, a view of the city is just as important as the merchandise being purchased here.

Dior Omotesando

Dior Omotesando
Photo by Naoya Fujii

To keep with the theme of Pritzker Prize winning designers, SANAA’s Dior building does not disappoint. Comprised of irregular layers seemingly stacked atop one another, The building’s façade is composed of glass walls set in front of a translucent acrylic screen. Lit up at night, it truly is a spectacle. While fairly straightforward in design, the screen gives a hint at what is inside without revealing too much, and creates a glowing blank canvas for nighttime light shows. The architects admit that while lacking a bit in form, this building serves its function, which is somewhat the opposite of the Prada building: it separates interior from exterior so shoppers can focus on the task at hand while they’re inside perusing.


MVRDV - GYRE - Photo 01 - front view
Photo by eagar

The word “gyre” means “twist” or “spiral,” which is exactly what this edifice appears to do. Each floor is offset from the one below it, forming a unique spiraling promenade. The goal: flow of traffic. As the floors twist gradually around a central core, a series of terraces is formed that open up to the street. Stairs and elevators connect these spaces, creating a twin pair of two vertical terraced facades on each side of the core, one for ascending and the other for descending. We have Netherlands-based architecture firm MVRDV to thank for this remarkable structure.

Sunny Hill

Tokyo, Japan
Photo by Alejandro

Home to a small shop that sells pineapple cake, this noteworthy building is surrounded by a crisscross of latticework. Over 5000 meters of hinoki (Japanese cypress) were used to create this visual spectacle. The design is meant to reflect the careful preparation of the company’s trademark desserts. The way the light plays off the wooden façade on the inside of the building evokes a feeling of being in the forest.

Hugo Boss

Tokyo, Japan
Photo by C-Monster

Designed by famous Japanese architect Norihiko Dan, this building is immediately recognizable as one of the most iconic and unique buildings of Omotesando. Resembling the turret of a castle, its hourglass shape and iconic grooved concrete makes this building foreboding, whimsical and fascinating all at the same time.

Tod’s Shoes

Photo by sunnyshine80

In 2013, architect Toyo Ito won the Pritzker Prize for this one-of-a-kind design. This store’s fractured, matte concrete and glass structure is inspired by the web of tree branches that line the street. Inside, the motif continues, with diamond-shaped walls that lean and list in varied directions. The interior feels very modern, but still warm and comforting.

With its insatiable appetite for the new and edgy, Tokyo’s high-style Omotesando is a neighborhood that will astound and delight architecture fans at every turn. Even if you can’t afford to spring for the dizzying prices of the merchandise, you can experience this rare and spectacular game of architectural one-upmanship free of charge. It’s a unique experience you won’t want to miss on your next trip to Tokyo!

ARTS&CULTURE December 14, 2017

A Brief History of the Tokugawa Shogunate

Minamoto Yoritomo
Public Domain, Link

For the country’s entire history, even its prehistory, the official supreme ruler of Japan has been the hereditary head of the Imperial Family, usually the Emperor (or rarely, Empress). But the men wielding actual political and military power in Japan were not royals. The most famous leaders of Japan were the shogun – a shortened version of the title Sei-i Taishogun, which translates as Commander in Chief of the Expeditionary Force Against the Barbarians.

The name first appeared sometime during the classical Heian period, 794–1185, when the Imperial Kyoto court was still attempting to assert control over the archipelago, some inhabitants of which were considered barbarians. But the first dominant shogun was Minamoto Yoritomo, who established the first bafaku (literally, “tent government,” based on the military nature of his leadership) in 1192. This bafaku also elevated the warrior, or samurai, class above all but the top nobility.

By Utagawa Sadahide – Public Domain, Link

As the “Commander in Chief” title indicates, this shogun was a military dictator with supreme power, and the basic governmental structure of the bafaku endured for an epic stretch of Japanese history, ultimately lasting nearly seven centuries, from 1192 to 1867, when the Emperor was restored to head of government in what is known as the Meiji Restoration. During this time, the Imperial Family served as a unifying, but impotent symbol; the real power was wielded by the shogun.

The first ruling shogunate arose with the 150-year Kamakura period, 1192-1333, followed by another during what is known as the Muromachi Period, from 1338-1573. Japan was not yet a truly unified country, thus this era was a feudal period during which competing warlords (or daimyo) fought for control of the archipelago.

Growing trade between the various regions of the country led many daimyo to rebel against centralized control (from Kyoto), and in 1467 the Onin War launched the period known to Japanese as the Sengoku, or the Warring States period. For the next 150 years there was nearly constant warfare between regional warlords, numerous clans fighting for control of the country over the decades, handing it back and forth amid much chaos and destruction.

Public Domain, Link

What history now shorthands as the shogunate arose when one clan, the Tokugawa, finally defeated the others, uniting the country under one government. The Tokugawa shoguns would rule a relatively peaceful Japan for more than 250 years, from 1603 to 1867. It was during this time that Japan became the country that we recognize today.

The Tokugawa Shogunate was begun by its victorious first shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was named shogun by the Emperor Go-Yozei in 1603. But after only two years in power, he abdicated the throne, handing it to his son, Tokugawa Hidetada. Ieyasu maintained control until his death 11 years later, but this maneuver established the hereditary nature of the shogunate, which it would be maintained through 15 Tokugawa shoguns, until 1867.

The Tokugawa Shogunate was, by and large, a peaceful period, but it was not exactly easy. The intrigues of the Tokugawa clan down through the centuries were very much the match of the European dynasties of the same era in their betrayals and violence. And for most Japanese, living in one of the four classes the shoguns (and the nobility, or daimyo) ruled – the samurai, the farmers, the artisans and the merchants – life under the rigid hierarchy of the shogunate was hardly carefree.

Yokohama LMI 1865.jpg
By E. Roevens – Le Monde Illustré, Public Domain, Link

The shogunate was based in a new city far to the east of the longtime capital, Kyoto, called Edo – today’s Tokyo – which is why the shogunate is also called the Edo Period. This period was marked by stability, but that stability came at a cost. Minority Christians were persecuted as threats, social mobility was impossible, and the policy of isolationism known as sakoku meant that Japanese culture was a closed system. The laws enforcing that system were strict: Leaving the country was punishable by death, should one return; even receiving a letter from abroad could get an entire family killed.

Given these strict limits, it was perhaps inevitable that the Tokugawa shogunate would fall of its own weight, unable to respond to changing circumstances – particularly the encroachment of the rest of the world in the mid-19th century. The modern world was knocking on Japan’s door, and the isolated country the shoguns had created and maintained for nearly three centuries was unable to withstand the pressure.

Tokyo Tower_2
Photo by hans-johnson

When a rebel group of daimyo united to support the restoration of the Imperial Family to power, the brittle shogunate collapsed. In 1868, the Emperor Meiji became the country’s ruler, and immediately instituted a dizzying array of modernizations to what was suddenly no longer a feudal society. With a jolt, the Tokugawa shogunate was gone, and Japan had entered the modern world.

By David Watts Barton

TRAVEL November 23, 2017

The Whimsical Treehouses of Koyabashi

takashi kobayashi treehouses hokkaido
credit: Takashi Kobayashi / Treehouse People

Interest in tree houses continues to grow, to the point that builders even have an annual conference in Oregon, U.S.A. celebrating the form. Photo spreads of treehouse dwellings have graced numerous magazines and travel websites, documenting ingenious arboreal habitations from Costa Rica to England, Mozambique to Sweden, Bali to British Colombia. Airbnb features a number of tree houses for rent.

Japan has its own modest contributions to the trend, in the many forms of the delightful tree houses of Takashi Kobayashi. While Kobayashi’s tree houses are smaller and simpler than many of those in other countries, they are uniquely Japanese and are arguably the most like the “tree houses” we might imagine from childhood than the many structures now being called tree houses.

While some “tree” houses are more like hillside, cantilevered or merely stilt-based dwellings that earn the name by emphasizing their views out through the branches of trees, Kobayashi’s trees are exactly what you’d expect from the phrase “tree house”: Small, hand-crafted, rustic, and sitting high above the ground, directly on the trunk and biggest branches of a carefully-chosen tree. While this means that they feature no hot tubs or extensive decks, as in many other “tree houses” around the world, a Kobayashi tree house is the real deal.

credit: Takashi Kobayashi / Treehouse People

His tree houses are a way, the artist and self-taught architect says, “To break down the feeling of separation that exists between humans and nature.”

True to basic elements of Japanese design, Kobayashi pays special attention to the setting of his houses, and places them in the landscape – and in the trees themselves – in the most sympathetic ways. While many “tree houses” around the world tend to dominate their arboreal environments, Kobayashi’s tree houses seem almost half-hidden in the tree branches, more like a natural outgrowth of the tree than a heavy burden imposed upon it.

takashi kobayashi treehouse
Photo via Pinterest

As he has written of his inspiration, “Treehouse building has taken me to forests and woodlands across Japan, across the globe, and everywhere I’ve been, I’ve seen reflected in these largest and oldest of living beings the same nameless light that I’ve struggled to maintain within myself for so many years, the one that no one could tarnish and that never seemed to disappear. That comfort, that sense of calm, is something I’d like to share with as many people as possible. And it is with that in mind that I will continue with the one-of-a-kind rush that is treehouse creation, all the while carrying out my own personal dialogue with their hosts.”

takashi kobayashi treehouses chiba
credit: Takashi Kobayashi / Treehouse People

Kobayashi first discovered trees when living, of all places, in the hip, chaotic Harajuku area of Tokyo, hardly a rustic, natural environment. But an enormous Himalayan cedar in front of his building touched something deep inside him, and led him down the path to becoming an unschooled, but hardly uninspired, arboreal architect.

That first tree house still stands, and is the easiest of Kobayashi’s creations to visit. It is now a coffeehouse called Hideaway, which features a library, a shop and fixed-price lunches daily, as well as a teatime in the late afternoon. It is located not far from the Harajuku railway station, at #202, 3-20-1 Jingu-mae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. It is open from noon to 2300 daily.

Kobayashi’s devotion to the basics of Japanese design does not keep him from also incorporating another of contemporary Japan’s artistic delights: Playfulness. Because he likes to design for children, Kobayashi’s structures can be fanciful in the extreme, as in the kindergarten treehouse he made in Katsushika, Tokyo, which looks like a small wooden boat sailing over the school’s playground. Another example is the schoolhouse Kobayashi built as a gift to the children and families of Sendai, in an area devastated by the catastrophic tsunami that hit Fukushima in November 2011. There, Kobayashi, a father of three who was deeply affected by the disaster and its impact on children, decided to build a tree schoolhouse that would bring delight and joy back into the lives of the families whose lives had been so tragically disrupted.

The details of Kobayashi’s roughly 120 tree houses are often influenced by elements of the surrounding trees themselves, such as doorways and railings made from lovingly-crafted branches, which give a rustic, natural feel to the buildings. Some houses even feature wood-burning stoves, which add a nice touch of the circular nature of trees and the useful products (e.g. deadwood) that they provide humans. Others are angular and almost modernist, were it not for their rustic materials and natural settings.

kobayashi treehouse
photo via

Above all, Kobayashi’s whimsical tree houses are a sweet, often dazzling expression of Japanese design as well as art, not to mention being modern exemplars of the Japanese fascination with and love for nature.


TRAVEL November 15, 2017

A Closer Look at Itsukushima: Japan’s Mesmerizing Floating Shrine

Itsukushima Floating Shrine
Photo by DozoDomo

If you have any interest in Japan and its most popular sites, you’ve likely heard of the Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island in Hiroshima Prefecture. After all, Miyajima is one of the top three scenic spots in Japan. But, there is much to learn about this hallowed site, and we’re here to give you the lowdown so you can be an expert when you visit.

A Site Steeped in History

Photo by Thilo Hilberer

As a registered World Heritage Site, the Itsukushima Shrine is nestled amongst the Prussian blue sea and the lush green of the surrounding virgin forest. For as long as anyone can remember, the island of Miyajima has been revered for its spiritual sanctity. In fact, the island itself has been worshipped as a goddess since time immemorial.

The story goes that this mysterious and beautiful “floating shrine” was built over 1400 years ago by the first samurai to assume the role of the Daijo-Daijin, or head of the imperial government. From there, many other prominent revelers continued to add their own structures, culminating in the buoyant complex of grand corridors, shrines and stages that exist today. The shrine was constructed on pier-like structures over the bay so that it would appear to be floating on the water at high tide, separate from the sacred island, which could be approached by the devout.

Steeped in Spirituality

Floating Shrine Itsukushima
Photo by Joe deSousa

While Miyajima is venerated as a deity, the shrine is dedicated to Shinto gods of the Imperial Household: the 3 daughters of Susano-o no Mikoto, the god of seas and storms, and brother of the son goddess Amaterasu. Various other shrines within Itsukushima are dedicated to other deities and Buddhist purposes, such as spiritual purification, worshiping, chanting, offerings to divine beings, and seclusion.

Because the island itself is considered sacred, commoners were not allowed to set foot on it during much of its history to maintain its purity. The shrine was constructed to allow pilgrims to visit at a distance, with the water between them and the hallowed ground of Miyajima. The red entrance gate, O-Torii, was built so visitors had to steer their boats through it before approaching the shrine.

It is so important to retain the purity of Itsukushima that no deaths or births have been allowed near it since 1878. Still today, pregnant women are instructed to travel to the mainland as they near delivery, as are the very elderly or terminally ill who are approaching the end of life. Burials on the island are strictly forbidden.

Where to Stop

Inside Floating Shrine Itsukushima
Photo by Thilo Hilberer

Popular spots to visit at the shrine are, of course, the main shrine itself, the noh stage, and the O-Torii gate.

*The Main Shrine is dedicated to three female deities, who have long been worshipped as gods of the sea, transport, fortune and the arts. This area is the largest shrine (in fact, it is one of the biggest in Japan) and is said to have an ethereal, special atmosphere.

*The noh stage is the only one in Japan constructed over water. Noh theater is one of the oldest surviving theatrical forms in the world, relying heavily on subtle visual cues rather than a conventional narrative to express ideas and tell stories. Samurai have been watching noh theater at this stage for centuries.

*The O-Torii gate is a dramatic structure built so it appears to float at high tide and can be approached on foot at low tide. Indeed, the appearance of the entire shrine complex changes each time the tides rise and fall, which adds to the appeal of the site. The gate is 16 meters (nearly 52 ½ feet) tall, and weighs 60 tons. Rather than being buried in the seabed, the gate relies on the weight of the Camphor wood pillars themselves to remain standing.

Other things you don’t want to miss when visiting the shrine:

Floating Shrine at Night
Photo by Rosino

*The illuminations after dark are a sight to behold. After the sun sets, it’s easy to imagine the shrine glowing with the hundreds of burning torches of the nighttime worshipers of the ancient days. Whether you witness its beauty up-close or from afar, the shrine and O-Torii gate lit up and floating is a vision you won’t soon forget.

*The East and West Corridors are hailed as masterpieces of architecture and craftsmanship. Unique structures that were built to link the separate shrines of Itsukushima, they are a sight to behold themselves. Vibrant colors and creative, functional construction make these a fascinating piece of your visit.

*Mt. Misen, the highest mountain on Miyajima island, is said to be filled with wonders- 7, to be exact! These include the Kiezu-no-hi, or eternal flame, that has been burning since 806 and a legendary plum tree that took root around the same time. 7 wonders or no, the mountain is home to the Virgin Forest Misen, which has been selected as a Natural Monument of Japan. Mt. Misen has been worshipped as a hot-spot of spiritual energy for ages, and is included in the shrine’s title as a World Heritage Site.

Known for its serene beauty, rich history, and ethereal nature, the Itsukushima Shrine is a must-see on your journey through Japan. High tide or low, day or night, this spiritual hotspot should not be missed. Walk or float this hallowed ground and you’ll be sure to come away with a peaceful heart and a tranquil mind.

FOOD&DRINK October 26, 2017

Beyond The Pub: A Closer Look At Japan’s Izakaya Culture

Izakaya Culture in Japan
Photo by Japanexperterna

Japan’s dining options range from convenient and cheap vending machines to elegant and very expensive kaiseki banquets, with everything in between. But another kind of relatively inexpensive, not to mention tasty way to satisfy your hunger and thirst is becoming popular all over the world.

Izakaya is the Japanese equivalent of the international gastropub, a place to eat and drink in a setting that is high quality but informal and friendly.

History of the Izakaya

Izakaya first began to be popular during the rapid modernization of the Meiji Restoration, but it gained contemporary popularity a hundred years later, during Japan’s go-go years of the 1980s. Today’s izakaya offer a slow-paced, eat-and-drink-as-you-go style, with drinks and dishes being ordered and appearing at the table in a relaxed, informal style (as contrast, say, with kaiseki’s highly-orchestrated pace). International analogs are Spanish tapas, Turkish meze, or perhaps even Chinese dim sum.

Photo by Kurt

Although some izakaya are nomi-hōdai (“all you can drink”) and tabe-hōdai (“all you can eat”) styles, most izakaya allow drinkers – and in this format, drinking is the main point – to order as they go along, with the drinks and eats being totaled up at the end of the evening.

How Izakayas Work

Most evenings start with a beer (biiru), even if drinkers intend to move on to sake or cocktails. After all, beer is a universal language, and the Japanese speak it with enthusiasm. Izakaya are generally after-work or even happy hour-type affairs, so drinking remains the focus. Along with beer, sake is a mainstay, but shochu drinks and other cocktails are also popular. Wine is less common, and you may find that your favorite red doesn’t really go with a lot of Japanese food. But if you’re a wine drinker, most izakaya will be able to produce a decent bottle or two. Whisky is also popular, especially Japanese whiskeys, which are blended to work particularly well with Japanese food.

The food at izakaya can be standard items such as edamame (boiled soy beans), tsukemono (pickled vegetables) and tofu in various forms, but things can get much more interesting as the evening wears on, with gyoza (dumplins), karaage (fried chicken, octopus or vegetable bites), sashimi slices, and kushiyaki or yakitori (various meats grilled on skewers) making frequent appearances. Many diners will finish with a hearty rice or noodle dish.

Photo by Nobuhiro Nikushi

As with many forms of bar food, most often plates are shared among the group, rather than enjoyed separately. But however you eat it, most of this bar food is likely to be of the consistently high-quality that most Japanese establishments maintain. This being Japan, the variations on these basics can be overwhelming, and the menus can be intimidatingly extensive. But chosen wisely, no more than two or three dishes at a time, and washed down with the beverage(s) of choice, izakaya snacks can add up to a balanced, healthy and filling meal.

(Note: Although izakaya usually do have sushi, this is not their speciality, and if you have any sense of sushi quality, you may find it to be less-than-ideal. Better to stick with sushi bars for this internationally-popular treat.)

Izakaya began as small, informal affairs, with seating on tatami mats, at low tables, similar to the local pub, and traditionally marked with red paper lanterns hanging outside. But today large, well-lit chains such as Tsubohachi, Watami, Shoya and many others have sprung up to serve the large and often rambunctious post-work gatherings that izakaya have come to be. Seating at tables has become much more common.

izakaya hagi
Photo by Kok Chih & Sarah Gan

Whatever the style of the place, some diners like to izakaya crawl, grabbing a drink (or two) and a bite (or two) at the first stop, then moving on to a second, to repeat the process. If you have a short time in Japan, it’s a great way to experience different places, but be warned: a lot of izakaya to fill up after work, which can mean a wait for a table at the next establishment. Better perhaps to linger in one place, enjoying the slow pace of the traditional izakaya – this, after all, is the whole point to this delightful dining tradition. Sit down, have a beer, order a snack, and chat. Then order a sake, and something more substantial. And then yet another drink, and another; after all, izakayas are one of the relatively few places in Japan where one is encouraged to get a little (or a lot) loose. In any case, what’s your hurry? You’re in an izakaya, there’s no need to go anywhere else!

By David Watts Barton