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ARTS&CULTURE September 20, 2017

The Timeless Art of Japanese Woodblock Prints

The_Great_Wave_off_Kanagawa The Timeless Art of Japanese Woodblock Prints

Even those unfamiliar with various styles of woodblock printing from around the world, let alone Japan, are likely to be familiar with what is perhaps the most famous woodblock print in the world: Kanagawa-oki nami ura (The Great Wave Off Kanagawa), by ukiyo-e artist Hokusai.

Created sometime between 1829-33, the print depicts what is thought to have been a rogue wave off of Kanagawa, near present day Yokohama in Tokyo Bay. The massive wave has since become nearly as familiar, and as often-satirized, as iconic Western paintings such as the Mona Lisa or The Scream.

But beyond the worldwide fame of that particular image, the piece is an exemplar of ukiyo-e woodblock printing, which flourished in Japan for nearly three centuries. Although woodblock printing goes back to the earliest days of Chinese influence on Japan – printed books are recorded as early as the 8th century CE – woodblock printing came into its own after the invention of moveable type and the introduction of mass printing in the 16th century.

The History of Printing in Japan

Japanese Woodblock Prints

The first hero of the story of printing in Japan is Tokugawa Ieyasu, just a few years before he founded the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan during its two and a half centuries of isolation. Tokugawa was the first to create a native printing system using moveable type that could work with the tens of thousands of Japanese characters – the German Gutenberg, by contrast, only needed to create 26 letters and 10 numbers.

The best-known style of woodblock printing in Japan was Ukiyo-e – literally “pictures of the floating world” – the hedonistic world of merchants and artisans that grew up during the 18th and 19th centuries under the Tokugawa shogunate. Although the lowest of the four classes of the shogunate were the merchants (the highest being samurai), those merchants thrived under the relative calm of the shogunate, and with their newfound wealth, they discovered the pleasures of the “floating world” and paid good money for representations of it: Woodblock prints of geisha, courtesans, kabuki theater actors and nature were highly-prized and widely-disseminated.

Women of the Green Houses The Timeless Art of Japanese Woodblock Prints

The next man to influence Japanese woodblock printing was the artist Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-94), who in 1670 began to create monochromatic prints, and was also the first to produce prints that were not illustrations in books, but works of visual art that stood on their own as single prints.

Color was gradually added over the next century, and by 1760 the artist Harunobu was creating so-called “brocade prints” that were made with numerous blocks that added different colors, making him the dominant artist of the period. Later in the 18th century, a number of artists had perfected the complex process and were producing what we now know as the classic woodblock prints, of which the acknowledged masters were Hiroshige and of course, Hokusai, whose above-mentioned The Great Wave Off Kanagawa was the ultimate expression. Their work in landscapes was the final iteration of the ukiyo-e style, as was their focus on the details of everyday life.

The Proccess

The process was complex, requiring not just an artist, but four people to produce: The publisher was first, financing the production and hiring the three master artisans who would actually create the work: A painter, who created the original artwork; a carver, who carved the lines of the painting into cured white cherry wood for printing; and the printer, who actually applied the paints to the woodblock and rolled out the prints. With this process, artists were able to mass produce copies of a print, while at the same time making something that was utterly unique, as each print was slightly different, at least in coloration, than the others.

Women's Activities of the Tokugawa Era- Creating Bonkei Tray Landscapes LACMA AC1998.235.1.1-.3

After that, with the rapid social and technological modernization of the Meiji Restoration, ukiyo-e went into a steep decline from which it never recovered, though color block printing is still practiced. Still, the Meiji Restoration in 1868, and the subsequent modernization of Japan led ukiyo-e style to be exported, particularly to Europe, where “Japonism” became a hot trend and artists such as the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists (particularly Manet, Cassatt and Whistler) adopted some of the style and techniques. Vincent Van Gogh went so far as to paint copies of some Japanese originals. Subsequent artists such as the art nouveau master Toulouse-Lautrec made their debt to ukiyo-e even more apparent in their prints (and in many cases, choice of subject matter).

The vogue for Japanese woodblock prints may have surprised some Japanese, who considered form to be a mass medium, by no means a high art. Funny, then, that the cover of composer Claude Debussy’s pivotal work La Mer would be published with a woodblock print variation on Hokusai’s Great Wave as its cover. In keeping with the growing appreciation of the form by Westerners, was an American, Ernest Fenollosa, who curated the first exhibition of ukiyo-e work in Japan itself, in 1898.

With the ongoing popularity of The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, the position of Japanese woodblock printing in art history would seem to be assured.


TRAVEL September 13, 2017

A Guide To Tokyo’s Coolest Neighborhoods

A Guide To Tokyo’s Coolest Neighborhoods

Tokyo’s sheer size can make planning a visit to the expansive metropolitan area seem like a daunting task. Apart from popular tourist destinations like Shibuya and Ginza, where are the best neighborhoods to discover chic cafes, modern museums, artsy boutiques and creative bars and restaurants?

Wonder no longer; we’ve compiled a guide to Tokyo’s trendiest neighborhoods so you don’t have to.

From winding cobbled paths dotted with design shops to bohemian bookstores and scenic parks, here are some of the coolest spots to discover in the world’s largest city:

A Guide To Tokyo’s Coolest Neighborhoods


Tokyo’s Coolest Neighborhoods Naka-Meguro - Tokyo - Japan

Photo via Staffan Asami on Flickr

It wasn’t long ago that Naka-Meguro was a mecca for hipsters and artists. While increasing development and gentrification have started to change the vibe in this neighborhood, you’ll still find plenty of alternative shops, innovative art galleries, and creative souls.

Don’t miss a stroll along the canal at Meguro River, especially picturesque when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. From here, take time to explore the neighborhood’s narrow lanes, dotted with design stores and artisan coffee shops.

Keep an eye out for Cow Books, an offbeat bookstore selling out-of-print books, including “first editions of modern day authors.” For hydration, try the Sidewalk Stand, which specializes in quality coffee, hot sandwiches and craft beer.

When hunger strikes, stop by Junkadelic. The hip Tex-Mex restaurant has a funky atmosphere, beautiful murals, and a cool grunge design.


Tokyo’s Coolest Neighborhoods Kagurazaka Snowfall

Photo via Jim O’Connell on Flickr

Once known for its geisha houses (a few of which still stand today,) Kagurazaka is the place to experience traditional Japanese culture.

Come hungry, because you’ll find an array of authentic Japanese restaurants serving everything from ramen to soba noodles to Japanese rice pudding. Of particular note is Kyourakutei, a chic but affordable Michelin-star restaurant famed for its Japanese noodle dishes and tempura.

To learn about furoshiki, the beautiful cloths used to wrap, protect and decorate various Japanese items, visit Yamato Nadeshiko. Furoshiki make excellent gifts and souvenirs. The helpful attendants can demonstrate how to use your furoshiki as shopping bags, decorations, and even to present wine bottles.

Kagurazaka is also home to a large French population, which means you’ll find a surprising number of delicious French restaurants that are worth checking out. Try the savory crepes at Cafe-Creperie Le Bretagne, the first creperie to open in Japan.

Round out your visit to Kagurazaka with a stop at the Akagi-jinja, a unique shrine remodeled by famed Japanese architect Kengo Kuma.


Tokyo’s Coolest Neighborhoods Jiyugaoka

Photo via chia ying Yang on Flickr

Fittingly referred to as “Little Europe,” at first glance, Jiyugaoka’s promenades and Venetian Piazza “La Vita” (featuring Italian architecture and an actual gondola) might leave you feeling like you’ve changed continents. But take a closer look, and you’ll discover a mesmerizing fusion of European design with authentically Japanese touches.

Alongside mouthwatering French bakeries and stylish boutiques, keep an eye out for Japan’s famous zakka shops. These miscellaneous goods stores are all about improving home, life and appearance. Koe House is always a favorite stop in Jiyugaoka; it focuses on accessories for the home, but you’ll find plenty of zakka shops of all sizes and wares throughout the neighborhood.

Finally, don’t miss Joshin Temple, a large complex of Buddhas, gates and exquisite buildings surrounding by lush woodland. It’s the perfect spot to escape the bustle of the city without having to venture far.


Sakura (Cherry blossom) at Inokashira park Tokyo’s Coolest Neighborhoods

Photo via Naoki Nakashima on Flickr

Kichijoji might not be a popular spot for tourists, but it is very well known amongst locals, many of whom consider it to be one of the best places to live in Tokyo. Start your exploration with a visit to Inokashira Park. Shaded walking paths make this an ideal location to take a stroll; the scenic pond in the center serves as the perfect backdrop for a quiet picnic.

Also within the park is the mesmerizing Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli animation house. You don’t have to be an anime fan to appreciate this museum, which features a walk-through of animation techniques, temporary exhibitions, a roof garden, cafe, and gift shop. Just be sure to purchase your tickets well in advance as they are high in demand.

For shopping and drinking, head to Harmonica Yokocho. This maze of alleys was once home to Tokyo’s black market. Today, you’ll find a large variety of merchants selling a little bit of everything, including specialty goods like yokan (sweet bean jelly). Most visit Harmonica Yokocho for the vibrant open-air bars and restaurants. It’s easy to while away an entire night hopping from bar to bar without leaving the area.


Crate digging Tokyo’s Coolest Neighborhoods Shimokitazwa
Photo via Zac Davies on Flickr

For a neighborhood that’s both edgy and sophisticated, the colorful streets of Shimokitazawa are a must-visit. From vintage clothing stores to organic shopping to theaters and live music venues, Shimokitzawa lives up to its Bohemian reputation.

Savor the izakaya dishes at the hugely popular Shirubei. The restaurant is always crowded but for a good reason, with a nice variety of traditional and fusion dishes. Or, combine your drinking with flower shopping at the eclectic Flowerbar Gardena.

When you need a pick-me-up, stop into the small but memorable Ikkyu Donut. Their Soy Cream and airy donuts are consistent crowd-pleasers, guaranteed to give you the sugar rush you need to continue your neighborhood exploring.

ARTS&CULTURE, TRAVEL August 30, 2017

Shinto Weddings: Your Complete Guide to a Perfect Traditional Japanese Wedding

Traditional shinto wedding.
Photo by Simon Desmarais

Gone are the days when tying the knot was confined to a ceremony in a Christian church; now, couples looking to celebrate their love through marriage have a wealth of more unique options available to them.

As wedding destinations go, Japan surely ranks as one of the most romantic. Famed for its delicate cherry blossom, elegant temples and ancient traditions, Japan also has surprises up its sleeve when it comes to getting hitched. Read on to learn why a Shinto wedding – the country’s traditional type of ceremony – could well be the perfect celebration for you and your partner.

What is Shinto and what are the traditional features of a Shinto wedding?

Shinto beliefs

Japanese gates

A Shinto wedding is a traditional marriage ceremony that takes places at a Shinto shrine in Japan. Shinto is a system of beliefs centred around worshiping kami, a word loosely translated in English as “spirits”. The kami can influence people’s everyday lives, bringing good fortune or misfortune to worshippers.

Praying to these spirits normally take place at private Shinto shrines in family’s houses or at one of the thousands of larger shrines that are dotted around Japan. Shinto shrines are an iconic part of Japanese architecture, recognizable the world over for the vermilion-coloured torii gates that mark their entrances.

Shinto weddings are held at these shrines and the first ceremony actually took place relatively recently, when Crown Prince Yoshihito (who would later become Emperor Taishō) married Princess Sado in 1990.

Features of a traditional Shinto wedding

Although Shinto weddings were once a popular type of marriage ceremony, estimates now suggest that only twenty percent of all Japanese weddings now are in this style. The majority of Japanese couples now opt instead for a “white” or “Western” wedding.

Photo by David Offf

But those that do take place include the following features:

– The wedding takes place at a Shinto shrine using a Shinto priest
– The couple are dressed in traditional outfits, with the bride wearing a white or silk kimono or “shiromuku” – the colours associated with purity in Shinto – and a hood (or “wataboshi”) or a paper hat (“tsunokakushi”) on her head.
– The most important feature of the wedding is the purification ritual, the san-san-ku-do ceremony that sees the bride and groom sharing and exchange three different sized cups of sake, which are poured and offered to the couple to be drunk.
– Vows are then read by the groom and the whole wedding party – which normally only consists of a small group of close family – join together in drinking sake.
– Offerings are given by the priest and a representative of each family to thank the kami that have blessed the union and finally the rings are exchanged.

After the official ceremony, the celebrations continue at a large hall or hotel, where more friends and family are invited to join the reception. Food and drink are served and speeches are made.

Guests are expected to make gifts of money to the couple and in return are given wedding favours, known as hikidemono. These can range from tableware to confectionary and even catalogues from which the guests can choose their own gifts.

How to plan a traditional Japanese wedding

Even if you’re a resident of another country, it is possible to celebrate your marriage with a traditional Shinto wedding.

Organizing your Shinto wedding

One of the initial stages of planning is to contact a Shinto shrine directly to organise the dates of the celebration. Many can hold up to 15 weddings per day, but it’s still essential to book well in advance to avoid disappointment.

here comes the bride
Photo by David Offf

Another vital step in planning your wedding is to file for marriage at the local government office in Japan. You can only conduct a Shinto wedding if you have the correct official paperwork and documentation.

Costumes and make up are other crucial components and bridal outfits can be hired from Japanese companies or hotels that offer wedding packages.

Get in touch with, who can help you find the perfect Shino shrine and wedding reception venue, or take all of the planning out of your hands with their range of wedding packages that will ensure the day runs without a hitch.

Although the website is in Japanese, don’t hesitate to contact one of their wedding planning specialists who can assist you in English.

Best times of the year for holding a traditional Japanese wedding

Spring and Autumn are the most popular times for wedding ceremonies in Japan, with the months of March, May, October and November when most take place. Expect no rainfall, clear skies and the chances of seeing the cherry blossom in bloom or autumn colours in all their glory.

ARTS&CULTURE August 17, 2017

How Art Transformed This Island Into A Unique Must-Visit

red pumpkin naoshima
Photo by cotaro70s

There are a number of open-air art museums in the world, places where large works stand amid the elements, often situated harmoniously in the environment so that each is elevated by the other.

And then there is Japan’s Naoshima Island.

One of the roughly 3,000 islands located in the Seto Inland Sea between southern Honshu and the island of Shikoku, Naoshima was long obscure. It was known, if at all, for the Mitsubishi plant that employed many of the island’s nearly 9,000 residents.

But time and industrialization – and nearly two-thirds of the island’s residents – moved on. It was then, just 30 years ago, that Soichiro Fukutake, head of the language arts and test-prep publisher Benesse Corporation, decided he wanted to share his extensive art collection with the world.

In doing so, Fukutake began the transformation of this region from a post-industrial decline to a vibrant arts-based economy.

The Origin of Naoshima As The Art Island

"The Oval" by Tadao Ando
Photo by Todd Lappin

Choosing Naoshima Island, Fukutake hired the internationally-known Japanese architect Tadao Ando, winner of the 1995 Pritzker Prize, to design a museum, and a hotel, and then another museum – and another, and another. Over the subsequent 30 years, Naoshima Island has become one of the great museums of the world, indoor or outdoor, an entire island devoted to contemporary art in its many forms.

Among the names represented here is Japan’s beloved matriarch of modern art, Yayoi Kusama, whose giant, polka dot “pumpkins” are the island’s icons.

Naoshima Island, Japan
Photo by Jason Schlabach

But there are many other artists represented here: Luminaries such as Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jasper Johns, David Hockney, Bruce Nauman, Walter de Maria, Lee Ufan and Richard Long are represented on the tiny island.

Chichu Art Museum

Chichu Art Museum
Photo by Todd Lappin

Dominating the island is the Chichu Art Museum – entirely underground, and thus named chichu (literally, “in the ground”) – that nevertheless uses natural light to illuminate its collection. Those works include some by the artists above, as well as by an artist who is not contemporary, but whose epic, quasi-environmental works have inspired generations of artists and art lovers: One of French Impressionist Claude Monet’s large-scale “Water Lilies,” as well as four smaller pieces, are displayed in minimalist settings that make them appear almost to float in the air.

The Chichu Art Museum, opened in 2004, is situated above the sea, and was built adjacent to Benesse House, opened in 1992, a luxury hotel of only 10 rooms in which one can stay surrounded by monumental environmental art. Designed by Tadao Ando, the galleries are open to those who stay in the hotel after it is closed to visitors, giving greater space to view the art.

Another Japanese architect who has contributed greatly to the look of the island is the late Kazuhiro Ishii (1949-2015), who designed all of the municipal buildings on the island, including the local schools, a gym and the town hall. All can be visited during normal business hours.

Kazuhiro’s work has come to be known as Naoshima Style.

There are other recent additions to the island, including the relatively new (2009) public bath house, or sento, cleverly called I Love Yu, a Japanese/English pun that plays off of the double meaning of yu, which means hot water in Japanese. Like everywhere else on Naoshima, I Love Yu also integrates contemporary art, and the fusion of utilitarian spaces with art means that visitors are more likely to come into contact with local residents.

Honmura Village

Honmura Village
Photo by cotaro70s

In the village of Honmura, on the east side of the island, a number of artists have taken seven distinctive local buildings – including one that used to be a parlor for the playing of the beloved Japanese game called Go – and turned each one into a unique environmental art experience. This Art Houses Project easily charms visitors, in contrast to some of the larger works.

Honmura itself was built to evoke the castle towns of the “Warring States” period of civil war in Japan, during the 15th-16th centuries, and is thus a unique visit even without the art houses.

How Art Is Transforming Islands Outside Of Naoshima

 Teshima Art Museum
Photo by Yellowmo

The successes of Naoshima have begun spreading to other islands in the Seto Inland Sea, and the Setouchi International Art Festival, held every three years, has expanded to include nearby islands.

One of them is Teshima Island, population 920, a half hour’s ferry ride from Naoshima. 2010 saw the opening of the Teshima Art Museum, shaped like a drop of water, which has, in turn, inspired the restoration of the terraced rice paddies that surround the museum is yet another example of the merging of architecture, art and landscape – and another example of how art can transform, even revive, post-industrial areas.

ARTS&CULTURE November 28, 2016

Haiku and the Japanese love of brevity


In a land of people who love miniatures, efficiency and a clean, simple aesthetic, the haiku may be the ultimate Japanese literary form.

Familiar all over the world, these almost impossibly brief, elegant glimpses of life and spirit have grown in popularity in many languages. As in Japan itself, the form has changed from the strict structure of the past, but all retain the simplicity and clarity of the original. The most famous haiku written in Japanese was from the national saint of Japanese poetry, Matsuo Basho:

old pond…
a frog leaps in
water’s sound

Basho, who lived from 1644-1694, wrote his poems long before what we now call haiku existed as a form. What we know as the haiku’s structure evolved from an earlier form, the hokku, which was a short opening stanza to a longer poem called a haikai or renku. It wasn’t until the Meiji Restoration that the poet Masaoka Shiki, who lived from 1867-1902, would cut the haikai’s opening lines free, thus bringing the haiku itself into being.


Since then, the haiku has changed its form over the centuries, and grown in popularity with the talents of Kobayashi Issa and Masaoka Shiki. In Japanese, the haiku has traditionally consisted of one long vertical line down the page, just as all Japanese is written, its rhythm implicit in the sounds and sense of the words used.

Haiku first entered English via Japanese poets, who tried their hand at creating original hokku in English at the beginning of the 20th century. Yone Noguchi even wrote “A Proposal to American Poets,” suggesting that they try their hand at this economical form. Haiku itself was introduced into French in 1906 by the poet Paul-Louis Couchoud, and in Spanish not long thereafter, and the style, if not the name, was adopted by the expatriate American poet Ezra Pound in 1913, with his “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Pound’s poem was considered to be an Imagist work, a modernist form of the time, but the influence of haiku was clear to many. Still, full recognition in the West of the Japanese form would be some time in coming, when Reginald Horace Blyth, an Englishman living in Japan, produced a four-volume collection of Japanese haiku in 1949, followed by Japanese-American translator Kenneth Yasuda’s 1957 collection and interpretation of haiku in both Japanese and English.

In English, we think of haiku as consisting of 17 syllables, arranged in three horizontal lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables. That tradition has changed in the 100 years since Pound introduced an approximation of that form to English literature, but most writers of haiku still don’t stray far from this limitation, which imposes a discipline and structure on what could otherwise be a very insubstantial form.


In Japanese, the structure is quite different. The mora is a unit of sound roughly similar to a syllable, thus the Western style of the 17-syllable haiku. But haiku structure isn’t just a matter of counting syllables, or morae; it is about how elements that might not otherwise fit together are juxtaposed to create an effect akin to a kind of revelation. Haiku allows the reader or listener to make an imaginative leap simply by hearing two phrases or images bump up against each other in a compelling, insight-inducing way.

the first morning of autumn:
the mirror I investigate
reflects my father’s face

(Shiki Masaoka)

Besides the number of syllables, or morae, the essential element in most haiku is something less precise but equally important: the kireji, or “cutting” word, which comes at the end of one of the three lines, and separates the two thoughts in a way that unifies them, or ends a haiku in a way that signifies closure or emphasizes an emotion. English doesn’t have an equivalent, save perhaps in classical poetry’s caesura; instead, Western poets use punctuation to pause the flow, change the poem’s direction or end it all together.

Another element of haiku that has remained relatively consistent is the kigo, or seasonal reference, which places the poem in the proper seasonal context. It does that through the use of specific words that have long been understood by the Japanese to signal specific seasons. This is an important aspect of much Japanese art in general, which has long been connected to the changing of the four seasons the Japanese celebrate. Haiku written in other languages, by poets of other cultures, often lack this seasonal element, but it is still considered essential by most Japanese lovers of the form.

Japanese haiku may strike some Westerners as insubstantial, or overly simple, and the limits of translation work against a full understanding of the form outside of its native language. Still, some time spent reading haiku, even in translation, can draw even the less-poetically inclined into its spell, making haiku yet another way in which Japanese art can illuminate the mind and soul of the Japanese people.


ART&DESIGN November 21, 2016

Elements of Japanese Garden Design


Japanese culture may well be the most deliberate, self-conscious culture on the planet. One excellent example of this is found in Japanese garden design.

As with ikebana or >bonsai, Japanese garden design aims for a naturalism in which nothing is left to chance, and everything has meaning. If there are leaves scattered on the ground, they were left there to simulate nature’s processes; if a moss garden looks parched and fading, it has been left that way because it is the height of summer; and if there is a mound toward the center of things that seems to be the same shape as Fuji-san, well…that’s supposed to represent Japan’s most famous and revered mountain.

Japanese garden design has evolved over more than a thousand years, and into a number of different kinds of gardens, each one suited to a very particular purpose: Karesansui, Zen or rock gardens, for contemplation; kaiyū-shiki-teien for strolling; roji, to enjoy while participating in a tea ceremony or kaiseki feast ; and tsubo-niwa, small courtyard gardens that may be designed to suggest Japan’s grand vistas – or even the celestial vistas of heaven.


To achieve each of those effects, there are techniques and guidelines of great detail. Nothing about a Japanese garden is by accident. In that way, Japanese gardens are like three-dimensional, living symbolist paintings or sculptures, in which one thing represents another, or sometimes, even its opposite. For instance, one’s first glance at a Zen rock garden may seem to a foreign viewer as something dry and austere. But look at those carefully raked, curving rows of gravel snaking along, in parallel lines: as they flow around a carefully placed, upright rock, they suddenly are revealed as waves lapping against the bases of the enormous rock formations such as those seen on the coasts of Japan.

Suddenly, the vast white expanse of raked gravel is revealed for what it “really” is: the vast, rippling ocean. Scale disappears, or is reordered; the space in front of the viewer suddenly expands and one is no longer looking at a small, fenced garden; one is transported into a much larger reality. With more contemplation, the rows of rocks undulate, turning from solid rock to endlessly changing water. One’s vision expands.

None of it happens by chance. Japanese gardens, many of them hundreds of years old, are the product of countless hours of thought, deliberation and painstaking care.

Japan’s Zen gardens, which use rocks large and small to such remarkable effect, are just one style; water itself also plays a crucial role in most Japanese gardens, which are, above all, meant to be evocations of Japan’s natural beauty, its mountains and waterfalls, its lush forests and dense undergrowth, all of which are a result of the country’s remarkable mountain geography.

But Japanese gardens are also meant to transcend nature, to acknowledge that the gods – kami in Shinto – that inhabit nature are to be worshipped through nature. Japanese gardens – one word for which is niwa, the word for a place that has been purified for the arrival of the kami – are temples of the natural world.

Japanese gardens are – consciously, deliberately – spiritual places, temples created from not just natural materials, but from the very elements of nature: water, rock, plants, space. The godai, the five elements of all creation, are all present in Japan’s gardens.

Japanese gardens are, of course, pretty as well, and one need not be a Shinto believer, or obsessed with symbolism, to enjoy them. Gardens that were at one time the exclusive province of the Imperial family, going back a thousand years, have become much more open to the general public for all to enjoy.


When initially brought over from China in the sixth and seventh centuries, these were “pleasure gardens,” places for frolics of the ruling elites. But as with other elements of Chinese culture, the Japanese soon made them their own, so that despite elements of Chinese garden design – arching bridges, water features, little islands and anchoring rocks – the more naturalistic tastes of the Japanese soon took hold.

Nature is what these beautiful gardens evoke for foreigners visiting them for the first time. But knowing that ancient Japanese cosmology was based on the legend of a perfect central mountain, Mount Horai, where the gods reigned in a misty past, makes those rocks, and that mound rising in the center of the garden, take on a deeper meaning. Sitting quietly in a Japanese garden is one of the great pleasures of life in Japan, as it was many centuries ago.


ARTS&CULTURE November 11, 2016

Japan’s Spectacular, Diverse Geography


Geography isn’t just destiny, as the old saying points out; it can also be culture, cuisine and worldview: Witness Japan.

A shimaguni, or “island country” of 6,852 islands, Japan is a mountainous, lush but rugged land that stretches from a subtropical south to a largely temperate north. It lies east of the Koreas and Russia, at latitudes roughly similar to the east coast of the United States. Tokyo sits at about the same latitude as Las Vegas, Nevada and Tangier, Morocco.

Despite the abundance of islands, four of which dominate, and fewer than 500 of which are inhabited, Japan is not a large place; it ranks No. 61 in size among the nations of the world, the same as Germany.

Japan is defined by several crucial geographic features: It is more than 73% mountains, which means that less than 12% of its land is arable or habitable in large numbers; it is surrounded by, and permeated by, the sea – no spot in Japan is more than 150 km from its 30,000-kilometer coast; and it gets a tremendous amount of rainfall, which causes most of those mountainous areas to be heavily forested.

There is a fourth feature, perhaps the most dramatic, and famous, and certainly the deadliest: Japan is one of the world’s most unstable geologic areas, with fully ten percent of the active volcanoes in the world – 40 of them. A visitor can be in Japan for weeks without feeling an earthquake, but this seismically active land can experience anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 measurable earthquakes a year, or roughly three to four a day.

The 1923 Kanto Earthquake was the deadliest, killing more than 100,000 people. But most recently, earthquakes in Kobe (in 1995) and Tohoku (internationally known as the Fukushima Quake, in 2011) were disastrous events for the densely populated country. The latter brought on a second disaster: the nation’s largest-ever quake at 9.0, it occurred offshore and created an enormous tsunami that damaged or destroyed more than a million buildings, killed more than 16,000 people, and caused a nuclear reactor to melt down.

Japan’s seismic instability has also given the country its highest point: Mount Fuji, or Fuji-san, a dormant volcano of 3,776 meters (12,388 feet) that is Japan’s national symbol. The mountain is yet another natural threat: Fuji-san last exploded in 1707, but given its proximity to the Tokyo metropolitan area and its tens of millions of residents, it is a sleeping giant.


Another element in Japan’s geography is its wet, monsoonal climate, with water – in the form of rain and snow, and a constant high humidity through all seasons – playing a considerable role. Japan’s abundant rainfall and often cloudy character has determined its destiny. The surface of Japan is only one percent lakes, and the biggest lake, Biwa, just north of Kyoto, is one of the country’s major sources of potable water. More important, though, are the archipelago’s rivers. None are very long – the longest is the Shinano, which stretches 367 km (228 miles) – but their steepness means that they are often cascades, which makes them perfect for generating hydroelectric power.


The highest mountains in Japan are the three ranges that run north-south across the islands, centered on the biggest island, Honshu. They are generally called the Japanese Alps, but the Japanese call them Nihon Arupusu. Due to the volcanic nature of the land, many of these mountains feature hot springs, or onsen, which are of major appeal to both the Japanese and visitors.

Given the rugged, mountainous land, the Japanese have always turned to the sea for sustenance and inspiration, and it plays an outsized role in the country’s cuisine, its art and perhaps most importantly, its long isolation from the rest of the world. The sea provides much of the country’s food, whether fish or sea vegetables, especially kelp, thanks to the confluence of the warm Oyashio Current coming up from the tropics and the colder Tsushima Current coming down from the Arctic. Where these currents meet, at around the 36th parallel, just north of Tokyo, is one of the world’s great fisheries, and anyone familiar with Japanese art and especially, cuisine, knows that the sea looms large here.

Just as importantly, the sea has for centuries insulated and isolated Japan from the Asian continent – even at its closest point to the mainland, it is still 193 kilometers (120 miles) from Russia, its closest neighbor. By contrast, at its closest point, Britain is only 34 kilometers (21 miles) from Europe. Much of Japan’s character can be attributed to this one geographical fact. Living in a rugged, turbulent but exceptionally lush land, ringed by bountiful but isolating seas, Japan’s destiny has been, and continues to be, determined largely by its remarkable geography.


FOOD&DRINK November 4, 2016

9 Delightful Drinks from Japan’s Ubiquitous Vending Machines

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For a country so steeped in a clean aesthetic and natural materials, Japan’s profusion of vending machines is remarkable. Even the most elegant, traditional-looking street is liable to be marked by one (or six, or 10) vending machines.

This may be the first thing a foreigner notices about the country, and one could be forgiven for thinking that the Japanese might be the thirstiest people on the planet. There are, by one industry count, more than 50 million vending machines in the country – just less than one for every two people.

Fortunately, to balance the intrusiveness of these ugly, bulky machines, they have a benefit: Japanese vending machines carry far more than the Western world’s usual Coke/Sprite/Dr.Pepper/Fanta/water combinations. A Japanese vending machine contains a remarkable variety of cold (and often, hot) bottled and canned beverages, available 24 hours a day, virtually everywhere.

Juusu is the Japanese word for “juice,” but it can mean anything like a canned or bottled tea or even soda. Costs are anywhere from 80 to 160 yen per bottle, which is not cheap, but Japan makes it easy for you: You can even use your transit card to buy a drink.

oneinchpunch /

While many juusu are sold cold, and most often enjoyed in the hot summer months, these machines also dispense hot drinks – be sure you push the red button to get the hot version – which can be a wonderful way to keep your hands warm during the cold Japanese winter.

One thing to keep in mind when you get drinks from a vending machine: You won’t see Japanese walking around and drinking. Because of that, you’ll find that as soon as you’ve walked away from a vending machine, you’ve also walked away from the only waste bin around. Japan doesn’t DO public trash cans. So slow down, enjoy your beverage while stationary, then put the empty bottle in the recycling bin and move on.

As far as the flavors go, they lean towards various tea flavors, coffees, and fruit flavors – even bubblegum! With their often-humorous names and eye-catching packaging, Japanese juusu can be utterly irresistible, especially on a hot day.

Pocari Sweat is a weird name, and not particularly appetizing – but it is memorable, as is the drink. A highly-diluted, artificial grapefruit flavor, Pocari Sweat is lightly sweetened, and has a slightly salty aftertaste, which means it lives up to the name. It is also one of the most popular Japanese drinks worldwide, seen in Asian 7 Elevens as far away as Cambodia and Laos.

Calpis Water is another inadvertently unappetizing moniker, but is not meant to be quite as hot weather-worthy as Pocari Sweat, given that it is a diluted, milky drink that is slightly sweet-sour, with a vaguely liquid yogurt quality. Nevertheless, it is quite tasty, one of the country’s best sellers, and

Filipe Frazao /

While many vending machine drinks, especially sodas, are anything but healthy, some try hard. One is Yamazaki Blizzard, a tasty “storm of Vitamin C” that also contains hard-to-get B vitamins 1, 2, 6 and even 12, and has a pleasant sour flavor, presumably from that blizzard of Vitamin C.

Melon flavored drinks are popular in Japan and bottled variations on the popular melon soda – melon juice with a dollop of ice cream – are particularly popular. Zeitaku Melon Milk and Natchan! are two versions of this favorite concoction, and if you’ve got a sweet tooth, you’ve got to try them.

Lychee fruit is a popular flavor all over Asia, and Japan has one of the best drinks in Kirin Salty Litchi, a lightly salted drink with about 10% juice. Note that very few vending machine juusu are anywhere near 100% juice. Few are more than 30% juice, both for freshness and to cater to the Japanese taste for light flavors.

No Japanese meal, or vending machine, would be complete without a cup, glass, bottle or can of green tea. One of the favorites is Ooi Ocha, which translates as “Hey Tea” and is as light and refreshing as green tea can be.

Gogo no Kocha is, as its name (Afternoon Tea) suggests, an English style black tea, complete with milk and sugar. If green tea is not to your liking, then this is a tea to try. (Note that there are also dozens of milk coffee drinks, including those made by Coca-Cola, but these are now common all over the world.)

Hiyashi Ame is a sweet, malty drink flavored with ginger and cinnamon, which gives it a slightly earthy and more exotic, almost Middle Eastern, flavor.


ART&DESIGN October 26, 2016

The Art of Bonsai: Creating Little Green Worlds


Bonsai, which literally means “plantings in a tray,” doesn’t sound impressive – until you see a small, 30 centimeter tree in a small ceramic dish. Then as you admire it, you find out that this tiny tree – which looks like a 100-year-old tree, standing stately – actually is a 100-year-old tree.

In addition to being perhaps the most widely-practiced Japanese art on the planet – there are more than 1,500 bonsai societies in 90 countries, and hundreds of books and magazines have been published on the subject in dozens of languages – the art of bonsai may also be the most quintessentially Japanese.

Bonsai combines all the fundamental Japanese sensibilities into one art form: the love of nature combines with the deep attention to form, the fascination with asymmetry comes into harmony with the concept of wabi-sabi, and the reverence for life – and the joy in its tending – itself becomes subject to the artist’s painstaking manipulation. The Japanese desire to improve on nature, and yet to hide any trace of those improvements, finds its fullest expression in bonsai.

Like many Japanese arts, bonsai goes back more than a thousand years, and as in most things, was influenced by the Chinese, whose art of penjing did much of what bonsai does. Although there is evidence of bonsai as far back as 1200 CE, the art grew popular during the Edo period, under the rule of the Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu, who loved the art of what was then called hachi-no-ki, and practiced it himself.

One bonsai that the Shogun created more than 400 years ago still lives in the collection of the Tokyo Imperial Palace. Bonsai is the very ideal of enduring, not to mention living, art.


Bonsai are created from various plant sources, and depending on the source, they undergo a great many different techniques to become bonsai. Some are grown from cuttings of a favorite plant, others are small trees that have been found in nature, or in a garden, and deemed worthy of the time required to turn it into a bonsai.

Many species respond well to this patient, painstaking treatment. Favorites include Japanese natives that have been cultivated in gardens for centuries: Juniper, Japanese maple, birch, magnolia, various pines, dwarf pomegranate, Chinese elm and even oak trees are staples of Japanese gardens, and are frequently turned into bonsai.

The goal of creating a proper bonsai is to manage the growth of a small plant so that, over the course of many years, it becomes a mature tree that has the look and proportions of a full-grown tree, but has maintained its small size. The techniques employed to do this are many, time-consuming and intricate.

Leaf-trimming manages the size and distribution of the leaves; careful pruning of the trunks, branches and, especially, the roots of the tree to control its growth; and the wiring of branches forces them to grow in a particular fashion to achieve the desired effect. As with most works of art, most bonsai are meant to be seen only from the front, so all trimming and cutting aims to create an illusion of fullness – but only as seen from one side.

Attention is also paid to the texture of the bark, which ideally will develop the rougher, aged bark of a mature tree. Likewise, higher branches are pruned to keep them smaller at the top, and thicker at the lower reaches, so that as the trunk tapers, the optical illusion created is of a much taller, correctly proportioned tree, with the same sense of mass and gravity as a full-sized tree.

In this way, bonsai are shaped into a variety of established forms, whether it be the “formal upright” style or its slightly more “informal upright” variation, the “cascade” style in which plants bend part or even all the way over, “slant-style” plants that come out of the ground at an angle, trees whose roots wrap around a rock, or even the “forest” style, with several trees in one pot. Some trees even incorporate dead trunks to mimic the “snags” that are found in nature.

Whatever form is chosen, concerns for balance, asymmetry, the correct use of “empty space” between the branches and the sense of movement in the tree are all foremost in the artist’s mind.


As in other forms of Japanese art, great care is given to create the illusion that this highly-manipulated form is actually completely natural; the artist’s hand, though it is clearly in charge of every aspect of the bonsai, must not appear to have been involved at all. The illusion of natural beauty must be total. That said, even the pot must be carefully chosen to “frame” the tree properly, just as a frame would be chosen for a painting. After all, this living art has the potential to literally outlive the person who created it.


FOOD&DRINK October 19, 2016

Umami, Japan’s “Fifth Flavor”


The Japanese didn’t invent what has come to be known as the “fifth flavor” – besides the well-known sweet, sour, bitter and salty – but a Japanese man named it: umami.

In 1907, during the first few decades of modern Japan, a chemist at Tokyo’s Imperial University named Kikunae Ikeda had an insight that the flavor of one of Japan’s staple foods – the broth called dashi, a basic ingredient in countless soups, sauces and stews – had a quality that, chemically and gastronomically, qualified it as a distinctive flavor.

By 1908, Ikeda had isolated the chemicals, the salts of glutamates, an amino acid, and given his discovery a new name: umami, a word combining the kanji for delicious (umai) and taste (mi). By 1909, he had developed a chemical process for isolating the brown crystals that contained the flavor: L-glutamate.

Ikeda’s discovery was scientific proof of what the Japanese, and chefs the world around, had known for centuries: that there is a “brothy” or “meaty” taste to some foods, particularly meats, seafoods, cheeses and fermented foods, that is uniquely satisfying. The presence of umami can add dimension to foods, balancing out other flavors – especially salt, but also sweet – and giving dishes a depth and satiation factor.


Subsequent Japanese chemists such as Shintaro Kodama (a student of Ikeda’s) and much later, Akira Kuninaka, discovered other foods that contained the chemical elements of umami, including dashi’s main ingredient, bonito flakes, and much later, shitake mushrooms. Kuninaka added greatly to the research when he proved that it was the chemical synergy between ribonucleotides and L-glutamate that created even stronger umami flavors.

It wasn’t until 2000, when scientists found receptors in the tongue that responded specifically to umami chemicals that the taste was joined to the other four basic tastes. Before that, umami was generally thought to be something that enhanced other flavors, but was not itself distinctive.

It was the combining of certain foods – what chemists call components but cooks know as ingredients – that produced umami flavor by reinforcing and thus strengthening each ingredient’s umami quality. This is why meats and vegetables create such satisfying flavors, whether in a French ratatouille or a Vietnamese pho. Potatoes, tomatoes, eggs, asparagus, mushrooms, walnuts…all can, when combined with the right other ingredients, produce an umami flavor. Elsewhere, umami is the dominant flavor of one of the world’s most common food bases: chicken broth, which gets its umami from the chicken bones. Likewise, tomato sauces are full of L-glutamine, and when combined with, say, a parmesan cheese…umami!

Because of the ubiquity of dashi, the Japanese are familiar with the flavor as its own unique self. It is particularly fitting that umami is a Japanese word, because the Japanese are particularly fond of this flavor, it being prominent in such staple foods and sauces as soy sauce, fish sauce, dried fish, seaweed, pickled plums – and that stand-by beverage of any Japanese meal, green tea.

Similarly, the fermented vegetables that are so popular here are umami because of the combination of various vegetables with the yeast or bacteria that ferment them. Cured meats and aged cheeses, which are not Japanese in origin, but which many Japanese love, are umami – as if anyone had to tell you that.

Like fermenting and curing, cooking is a significant aspect of the development of umami flavors: raw meat isn’t umami, nor are many vegetables; but put them in a pot and let them cook – preferably for a long time – and the umami flavors burst out. It’s chemistry.

That said, it may be that virtually all humans respond to umami flavors because we are given food with a strong umami flavor from the moment we are born: Breast milk has approximately the same quality and quantity of umami components as a hearty broth.


Ikeda’s discovery was not confirmed by Western scientists for many years, long after his death in 1936, but he is not to be pitied: He quickly realized the value of what he had found. He took the chemical that he had isolated and packaged it as a cooking ingredient that quickly became a staple seasoning in Japan and all over Asia and the world: Monosodium glutamate, or MSG.

MSG was particularly popular in its “home” country: When in 1986, Westerners were asked to list the basic tastes, they listed sweet, sour, salty and bitter. But when Japanese were asked the same question, they answered sweet, sour, salty and bitter…and “Ajinomoto,” the commercial name for the global brand of L-glutamate crystals that Ikeda manufactured. And although Ikeda is long departed, the company he founded has its name on Tokyo’s biggest baseball park: Ajinomoto Stadium.