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FOOD&DRINK January 25, 2018

Rice and its Infinite Products

Photo by Shunichi kouroki via Flickr

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

Japanese Rice

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

rice field art
Photo by Tagosaku via Flickr

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

Rice In Japan

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

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

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

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

Non-edible Rice Products

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

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

Photo by Melanie M via Flickr

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

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

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

– David Watts Barton

ARTS&CULTURE January 11, 2018

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

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

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

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

Kenzaburo Oe

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

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

Banana Yoshimoto

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

Haruki Murakami

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

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

Amy Yamada

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

Ryu Murakami

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

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

Natsuo Kirino

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

Shintaro Ishihara

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

Mitsuyo Kakuta

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

Souseki Natsume

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

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

Kenzo Kitakata

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

Kenji Miyazawa

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

Yasunari Kawabata

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

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

Kyoichi Katayama

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

Yukio Mishima

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

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

ART&DESIGN December 21, 2017

Why Architecture Enthusiasts Will Go Crazy For Omotesando

Architecture in Omotesando
Photo by Yassine Jaï

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

Award-Winning Designs

Photo by Nokton

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

The Walking Tour

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

The Audi Forum

Audi Forum Tokyo
Photo by IQRemix

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

Tokyu Plaza

Fragments of reality
Photo by Mark Esguerra

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

Prada Building

prada japan
Photo by SoulSonic

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

Dior Omotesando

Dior Omotesando
Photo by Naoya Fujii

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


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

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

Sunny Hill

Tokyo, Japan
Photo by Alejandro

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

Hugo Boss

Tokyo, Japan
Photo by C-Monster

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

Tod’s Shoes

Photo by sunnyshine80

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

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

ARTS&CULTURE December 14, 2017

A Brief History of the Tokugawa Shogunate

Minamoto Yoritomo
Public Domain, Link

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

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

By Utagawa Sadahide – Public Domain, Link

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

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

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

Public Domain, Link

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tokyo Tower_2
Photo by hans-johnson

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

By David Watts Barton

TRAVEL November 23, 2017

The Whimsical Treehouses of Koyabashi

takashi kobayashi treehouses hokkaido
credit: Takashi Kobayashi / Treehouse People

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

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

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

credit: Takashi Kobayashi / Treehouse People

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

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

takashi kobayashi treehouse
Photo via Pinterest

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

takashi kobayashi treehouses chiba
credit: Takashi Kobayashi / Treehouse People

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

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

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

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

kobayashi treehouse
photo via

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


TRAVEL November 15, 2017

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

Itsukushima Floating Shrine
Photo by DozoDomo

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

A Site Steeped in History

Photo by Thilo Hilberer

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

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

Steeped in Spirituality

Floating Shrine Itsukushima
Photo by Joe deSousa

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

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

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

Where to Stop

Inside Floating Shrine Itsukushima
Photo by Thilo Hilberer

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

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

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

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

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

Floating Shrine at Night
Photo by Rosino

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

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

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

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

FOOD&DRINK October 26, 2017

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

Izakaya Culture in Japan
Photo by Japanexperterna

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

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

History of the Izakaya

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

Photo by Kurt

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

How Izakayas Work

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

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

Photo by Nobuhiro Nikushi

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

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

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

izakaya hagi
Photo by Kok Chih & Sarah Gan

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

By David Watts Barton

TRAVEL October 11, 2017

7 Stunning Train Rides in Japan You Don’t Want to Miss

On the way (嵯峨野観光鉄道)
Photo by Alex Chen

If you’ve started your research about getting around in Japan, you’ve discovered that trains are the most popular mode of transportation, both in major cities and between them. Although they can be a bit complex to use, they are notorious for being punctual and are the most efficient way to traverse the country once you get the hang of it. Since it’s inevitable you’ll be spending at least some time on trains while you’re traveling here, we’ve compiled a list of breathtaking train rides in Japan that will make all your efforts worth it.

#7: Tetsudo Hobby Train on the Yodo Line

YODO LINE one of the Best Train Rides In Japan
Photo by Kzaral

This trip is one we sussed out for the train enthusiasts among us. This particular one was remodeled to resemble the “o series,” the first line of Shinkansen, or bullet train, that came onto the transportation scene more than 50 years ago.

The charm of this train ride in Japan between Kubokawa and Uwajima stations is a two-parter. First, the route is along the crystal clear Shimanto River, famous for being one of Japan’s last limpid streams. The river has 26 low water crossings, and is surrounded by natural, untouched beauty. Second, as you make your joyful journey, train geeks will find many fascinations in the interior of the train; it has been converted to a showcase of model trains of the past and present, so you get a museum and a nature tour in one!

#6: Hanwa Train Line in Kansai

see cherry blossoms during train rides in JapanPhoto by Pedro Martín

Japan is definitely famous for its sakura, or cherry blossoms. The sakura is the national flower, appears on Japanese money, and is a Buddhist metaphor for the brevity and beauty of life itself. If cherry blossom viewing is on your vacation bucket list, they are at peak season in April.

Located in the Osaka Prefecture of the Kansai Region, this train ride in Japan takes you from Osaka City to Wakayama, with eye candy galore along the way. Both sides of the rail are filled with pink or white sakura, allowing for a peaceful and alluring view that is quintessential to any trip to Japan.

#5: Kyoto’s Sagano Scenic Railway

Sagano Scenic Railway One Of The Best Train Rides In Japan
Photo by cotaro70s

If foliage is your cup of hot sake, another essential item on your list of train rides in Japan should be the Sagano Scenic Railway. Although this particular ride is only 7 kilometers (about 4.5 miles) long, it’s likely the best 25 minutes you could spend in this region.

The train moves at a deliberate, lounging pace so you can take in views of the Hozugawa River and is especially pleasant in autumn. Although Japan is indeed famous for their plum and cherry blossoms in the spring, the vibrant colors of fall are not to be missed. This train line is ideal for koyo, or the viewing of the shifting shades.

#4: Kurobe Gorge Railway in the Northern Japan Alps

Kurobe Gorge Railway Best Train Rides In Japan
Photo by tsuda

This railway was originally built for the construction of the Kurobe Dam, the tallest dam in Japan, and arguably the most beautiful, as it contains a gorgeous artificial lake and is surrounded by the Japanese Alps. It has since been repurposed for visitors who wish to explore this exotic area.

For almost an hour and a half, this train takes you through forested mountains, past rivers, over 20 bridges and through 40 tunnels. You can also stop at one of the many onsen, or hot springs, along the way for a relaxing dip. As a bonus, this train ride in Japan is another exceptional way to see the fall foliage.

#3: Hakone Tozan Railway in Kangawa

Hakone Tozan Train Rides In Japan
Photo by Jordi Sanchez Teruel

For anyone staying in Tokyo but still looking for a taste of life outside the city, this train ride in Japan is ideal. Hakone has many onsen resorts, making it perfect for a day or two outside the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. On the train, both the hydrangea blooms in June and the changing colors of autumn make this trip worthwhile. Once in Hakone, onsen, lakes, shrines and an open-air museum make this mini vacay complete!

#2: Mount Fuji From the Shinkansen

Mt. Fuji and Shinkansen Express train rides in Japan
Photo by Kosho Owa

As Japan’s highest mountain, Mount Fuji is a must-see on your itinerary. One of the best ways to do this is on the Shinkansen bullet train line between Tokyo and Kyoto. Fuji is visible from the train for 10 minutes or so about an hour after leaving Tokyo.

On this train ride in Japan, you should plan your seating accordingly; if you’re heading South to Kyoto, Mount Fuji will be on the right side of the train, and if you’re headed North to Tokyo, it will be on the left. If you have time and would like to explore a bit more, you can take the bullet train to Fuji’s 5th station and spend the day around the mountain. There are lakes, shrines and an aerial tram to the top of neighboring Mount Komagatake for superb views of Fuji and its valley.

#1: North Honshu’s Gono Line

North Honshu’s Gono Line Scenic Train rides in Japan
Photo by Kzaral

Running between the Akita Prefecture to the Aomori Prefecture, this train ride in Japan has some of the best coastal scenery in the world. We especially recommend you hop on this trip if you’re traveling to Japan during the winter; the line runs along the Sea of Japan, and juxtaposed with the snow-covered natural rock formations of the region, is sure to be unforgettable. As a bonus, this excursion also affords you views of Mount Iwaki, an inactive but still impressive volcano.

Trains are one of the best ways to travel in Japan. From cityscapes to countrysides, mountains to the sea, a train ride in Japan is guaranteed to never disappoint. For a totally unique and unforgettable experience, make sure you fit these locomotive locations into your itinerary!

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.