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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

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!