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FOOD&DRINK, KYOTO September 13, 2018

Must Eats in Kyoto

Vegetarian meal at Buddhist temple
Photo by Andrea Schaffer via Flickr

Once Japan’s Imperial capital, Kyoto is known for its temples, shrines, and beautiful natural landscapes. The city also presents a rich culinary history, offering several famous dining styles, local dishes, and confectionaries to tempt your taste buds. Japanese food is very regional, with each region having its own specialty dishes and ingredients.

Follow this guide to the most delicious high-quality must eats in Kyoto and where to try them.

Shojin Ryori

Must eats
Photo by S. via Flickr

Shojin Ryori consists of a collection of dishes made without animal products, making it the perfect option for vegetarians or vegans. Full of flavor, the dishes of Shojin Ryori usually incorporate tofu, natto, and seasonal vegetables. A typical meal usually includes three small side dishes, soup, and rice. The idea is to bring balance to the body by choosing ingredients to match the seasons along with selecting 5 colors and 5 flavors. Flavors are enhanced by using seasonings such as soy sauce, sake, or mirin. The best place to enjoy Shojin Ryori is within the restaurants of Buddhist temples.



Yudofu must eats in Kyoto
Photo by City Foodsters via Flickr

A popular comfort food during the winter months, yudofu is a very simple dish that is very healthy. Known as “hot tofu”, the dish has but just a few ingredients of which include tofu, dashi kombu (Japanese stock using kelp), and water. Add flavor to the meal by adding sauces such as soy sauce, ponzu vinegar, or sesame sauce. The dish makes a great appetizer or meal if you’re looking for something light. Sample this great dish in the popular tofu restaurant Yudofu Sagano in Western Kyoto.



must eats in Kyoto Sesame Yatsuhashi
Photo by Monte Bianco5 via Flickr

Those with a strong sweet tooth will want to sample yatsuhashi. This popular sweet treat is made with glutinous rice flour, sugar, and cinnamon. You can try it three ways: baked, unbaked, and unbaked with red bean paste. The unbaked version is known as nama yatsuhashi, raw triangles of goodness which can be eaten plain or filled with bean paste. The baked variety looks like curved rectangular crackers or biscuits and usually has an intense cinnamon taste. You can also find yatsuhashi in flavors such as chocolate, strawberry, banana, and green tea. Look for this treat is souvenir stores and airport gift shops.



must eats in Kyoto Yuba Twists
Photo by Máirín via Flickr

Yuba is made from boiled soymilk. The skin that is created when the soymilk boils away is dried to create this “tofu skin”. A bit chewier than tofu, yuba doesn’t have that much flavor on its own and therefore is best experienced with soy sauce, wasabi, ginger, or soup. Yuba is said to have come to Japan from China around 1200 years ago, with the first experienced in Kyoto. You can try yuba raw like sashimi or dried in the form of yuba sticks or twists. Yuba is high in protein and iron with little cholesterol. Great restaurants to try yuba are Toyouke Jaya and Gyatei.


Matcha Desserts

must eats in Kyoto Matcha Cream Puff
Photo by Kirinohana via Flickr

Kyoto is well known for its matcha desserts which are made from finely ground powder of specially grown and processed green tea leaves. Kyoto’s “Uji matcha” is considered a specialty and one of the finest examples of Japanese green tea. Kyoto offers numerous matcha cafes serving up delicious and healthy desserts using matcha. Desserts include matcha macaroons, shakes, matcha cake rolls, emerald pecan brownies, matcha tiramisu, matcha custard, and matcha parfait. Head to places like Nakamura Tokichi Honten and Charyo Tsujiri to sample some of these tasty treats.


Nishin Soba

must eats in Kyoto SOBA
Photo by Toshihiro Oimatsu via Flickr

Soba is thin noodles made from buckwheat flour. Kyoto’s clean pure waters produce some of the finest soba and a popular dish to try in Kyoto is nishin soba. Nishin soba consists of sweet and tender herring that is presented over a tangle of soba noodles. The herring is cooked in soy sauce and sugar and its addition to soba noodles became popular in 19th century Kyoto. If you aren’t into herring, you can also enjoy soba with toppings like tempura, duck, or curry. Check out one of Kyoto’s oldest soba restaurants, Matsuba Soba, for great tasting nishin soba.

Which one of these must eats in Kyoto sounds most appetizing to you?

ARTS&CULTURE August 22, 2018

The Individual and the Group In Japan

There is an old saying in Japanese which translates as “The nail that protrudes will be hammered down,” and it says much about the place of the individual in Japan’s group-oriented society.

All cultures must balance the often-conflicting needs of the individual to be happy, and of the society to function. But in Japan, historically and even up to the modern age, that balance more often favors society over the individual.

A recent court case in Osaka made this point in a stark, almost ridiculous fashion: A young woman sued her school because she, with her naturally dark brown hair, was harassed and intimidated by school authorities into dyeing her hair black to match her fellow students’ hair.

Imperial Palace, Tokyo
Photo by John Gillespie via Flickr

Now, social conformity is the rule in most traditional societies, where ostracism is the ultimate punishment; but Japan has all the appearances of a modern country, and the Japanese are most certainly a collection of unique individuals. Singular creatives like Yayoi Kusama and Haruki Murakami and many others make that abundantly clear. But such artists are also the exceptions that prove the rule: The “hammer” comes down with swift efficiency on average Japanese who step too far away from the culture’s well-established norms.

There are several reasons for this, which are rooted in Japan’s long geographic and cultural isolation, its racial homogeneity and its legendarily-efficient productivity, and they are not without positive effects: Japan is a unique, well-integrated and generally highly-functioning society that provides its people a sense of national self that is rare in the modern, rapidly-shifting world.

Japan’s isolation, at first geographic and then by decree, led to it evolving as a separate, homogenous culture. The Japanese see themselves as a nation apart even now, and there are enormous benefits this – the Japanese know who they are. But the cost has been that, in order to be truly Japanese, one must observe Japanese norms, and these are not optional. They are also ruthlessly enforced by the people themselves.

Photo by Janko Luin via Flickr

There are other reasons: Japan’s economy, before the post-War industrial “miracle,” was based on rice farming, which requires group efforts that an individual, or even an individual family, could scarcely manage alone. The creation of rice paddies, the management of water, the planting, harvesting and processing of rice are fundamentally group activities, and in order to make that work, group cohesion became essential to group success – that is, survival.

The upshot was that any individual who decided that he didn’t need to work with the group was very quickly disabused of that notion. The “rugged individualism” so admired by many in the West was anathema to the Japanese – and it still is.

It is telling that, in addition to the very clear proverb of the nail, there was no equivalent of the word for “individual” in Japanese prior to the opening to the West in the Meiji Restoration of the late 19th century. The words shakai (society) and kojin (individual) appeared only as translations of English words when these concepts were introduced. Until then, they had simply not been necessary.

What the Japanese had instead was the word mura, from the verb mureru, which means “to flock together,” as birds – and who thinks of birds as individuals? Thus, this “flock” of people were bound by something called seken, which means society, or more accurately, “the power of public opinion,” which still holds enormous sway over the members of the flock.

This worked fairly well for the society as long as it developed in isolation, and the strict social hierarchy of Japan’s medieval period – which ended with the Meiji Restoration in 1868 – kept everyone in place. But the industrialization and modernization that followed, then accelerated since the end of the Second World War, and has been a byproduct of the rapid globalization of the Information Age, has thrown Japanese society into conflict, with itself as well as the modern world.

Thus, trends such as the rise of divorce, the decline of family formation and other indicators of the change from collectivism to individualism – which has affected most cultures around the world – has been particularly stark in Japan. The Japanese are still acculturated to prefer group activities, group identities and to be suspicious of any nail that sticks up too far above the others.

Dancing Down the Street
Photo by Yiannis Theologos Michellis via Flickr

Combine this with the fundamental concept of wa, or harmony – which the Japanese go to great lengths to maintain, and which will be covered in another post – and one can see that even in the modern world, the position of the individual is still subject to the group.

Thus, the need for the hammer has, if anything, increased, even as it has been challenged by school girls who want to retain their natural hair color. The girl’s court case, filed in October 2017, is still pending.

By David Watts Barton

ARTS&CULTURE August 9, 2018

Traditional Japanese Wedding Dresses (Shinto style)

Photo by Marco Mastrojanni via Flickr

You will find four major styles of wedding celebrated in Japan including Shinto, Christian, Buddist, and non-religious. In the past, it was the Shinto style wedding that dominated Japan. This style of wedding became popular in the early 20th century before it was replaced by the more westernized Christian “White Wedding” in the late 1990s. Even though Christians make up about only 1 percent of Japan’s population, Japan has adopted the fancy flowing white gowns, exchanging of rings, bouquet toss, taking honeymoons, and more.

While Christian-style weddings may now be the preferred type of ceremony in Japan, accounting for over two-thirds of unions, let us take a deeper look into the elaborate Japanese wedding dresses of the more traditional Shinto style wedding. Shinto style weddings involve several wedding dress changes throughout the celebration and we will discuss outfits worn by both the bride and groom. It is a beautiful tradition that is sadly vanishing from Japanese culture, not only due to Christian style weddings, but also because Japanese marriages have dropped to record lows in recent years.


The Shiromuku

Photo by gwaar via Flickr

Let us start off with the bride. For Shinto weddings, brides typically start by wearing an ensemble known as a shiromuku. This mostly white ensemble is worn during the wedding ceremony and signifies pureness, cleanliness, and virginity. Being dressed in white is also symbolic of the bride being a blank canvas for accepting her new husband’s ideas and values.

The shiromuku consists of a white furisode kimono that has a trailing hem called a kakeshita. Over this, a maru or fukuro obi (broad sash) is worn around the waist and is secured by a scarf-like obi-age and a rope known as an Obi-jime. Next a second robe-like kimono known as an uchikake is put over all this.

Footwear consists of tabi socks and zōri sandals and accessories include a hakoseko purse, sensu folding fan, and sometimes a kaiken knife (from the age of the samurai). While western brides often wear veils, the shiromuku often consists of wearing a large white hood known as a wataboshi. This is said to hide the bad spirits that exist in a woman’s long hair as well as making the bride’s face only visible to her husband. Other brides may choose to wear a tsunokakushi hat over their shimada wig which is adorned with kanzashi hair ornaments. Wigs are styled in the Edo period shimada style. Some brides may wear the wataboshi during the ceremony and then switch to the tsunokakushi for the reception.

While most of the shiromuku ensemble may be white, the kimonos as well as the wataboshi and bows may be lined in vivid red.


The Iro-uchikake

Under the cherry blossoms
Photo by gwaar via Flickr

After the wedding ceremony, brides get ready for the reception by changing into a much more colorful iro-uchikake. The iro-uchikake is most often bright red but may also be gold or more modern colors such as deep purple or turquoise. The garment often features beautiful designs consisting of cherry blossoms, cranes, or other Japanese motifs. The symbols chosen often are meant for the purpose of bringing good luck or fortune.



Brides looking for a little less formal dress often opt for a hikifurisode. It is a classic kind of bridal kimono that may simply be worn at the wedding reception. The hikifurisode is generally an o-furisode which has a longer sleeve length. It is often worn with a small trail and without a fold at hip-height. Brides choosing to wear a hikifurisode often get to showcase their own individual style a bit more by adding their favorite accessories. While many brides use the hikifurisode as a third change of clothes during the wedding, some may choose it as their sole dress since it is lighter weight and often much more inexpensive than the other two more formal choices.


Mon-tsuki Haori Hakama

Groom Shinto Wedding Attire
Photo by jpellgen (@1179_jp) via Flickr

While the bride’s attire may get the most attention, the groom doesn’t escape having to dress up. Although the groom isn’t expected to go through the often multiple costume changes the bride must endure, they do dress up in what is known as a montsuki haori hakama. This consists of a traditional formal kimono known as a mon-tsuki that is adorned with family crests, a pair of striped hakama trousers, and a haori overcoat.

Much like the suits or tuxedos worn by western grooms, the formal kimonos worn during Shinto style weddings lack color. They are often black or grey with white family crests. This type of garment is worn not only by the groom but also by many male wedding guests.

ARTS&CULTURE July 20, 2018

How Baseball Came to Japan (and Became Japanese)

Photo by takako tominaga via Flickr

Though one might naturally assume that baseball came to Japan during the U.S. occupation after World War II, this quintessential American sport was actually one of Japan’s earliest Western imports, during the Meiji Restoration, having arrived in the archipelago in 1872. Brought by an American, the sport was quickly adopted, and adapted, by the Japanese, and thus has a history in Japan nearly as long as its history in its home country.

Which is not to say that the Japanese play the sport the same way as Americans – or at least, with the same attitude. While Americans celebrate the home run hitters and fastball pitchers who rise above their peers to become baseball stars, and individual stats are followed obsessively by fans, the Japanese, true to their cultural heritage, make team cohesion and harmony the focus. As with many other imports, the Japanese have made baseball – now besuboru (bay-sue-boe-rue) – into something distinctly Japanese.

The Japanese National Tourism Organization once noted that besuboru (also known in Japan as yakyu, a combination of the characters for “field” and “ball”) is so familiar to the Japanese that some are surprised when they hear that it started in the United States.

Interaction between Japanese and American teams has been a feature of Japanese besuboru from the start, culminating in 1934, when an American All-Star team that included Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth and Lefty Gomez visited Japan to play 16 exhibition games against the All-Nippon Stars, a largely-amateur assembly. The Americans won every game – Ruth alone homered 13 times in 16 games – but the Japanese were inspired by several close games, and the characteristic Japanese sense that, were they to stick to it, they could challenge the Americans. Soon enough, the Japanese turned pro.

陽 岱鋼 Dài-Kāng Yáng Yoh Daikan
Photo by Takahiro Hayashi via Flickr

The first Japanese pro team, the Yomiuri Giants, was formed in 1936, but an actual league, Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) didn’t come together until 1950, when it became the overarching pro organization, similar to Major League Baseball in the US. Divided into two leagues (Pacific and Central) of six teams each, NPB isn’t a big league in terms of numbers of teams, but what the Japanese lack in numbers they make up for in intensity.

Besuboru is different. Everything from the ball to the strike zone to the dimensions of the field are smaller than in U.S. baseball, but the differences go much deeper: Since it was originally conceptualized by the Japanese as a form of martial art, akin to kendo (a form of sword play), besuboru in Japan ends up being subject to all the Japanese obsessions with form, face-saving and group harmony that rule most Japanese undertakings. Instead of a focus on individual players who excel in the context of the team – a great home run hitter in American baseball does his work within the context of the team, but is still celebrated for his individual accomplishments. As always in Japan, the individual is only as good as his ability to function within the team, even at the expense of his own ambitions.

These differences show up starkly when foreign players who are hired by Japanese teams assume that what works in American (or Cuban, or Dominican) baseball will work in Japanese besuboru. The difference lies in the importance of the group, or in this case, the team. A great player who draws too much attention to himself, even if it’s by hitting well or striking out a string of opposing batters, risks alienating his own teammates, even embarrassing them. More than once has a player who hits too many big hits, or strikes out too many opposing batters, could find himself benched until he cools off. In this way, no one stands out too much, and no one loses face. Even if they lose the game.

D7200 Testing - JPEGs
Photo by troy_williams via Flickr

Needless to say, this is contrary to most competitive players in most sports the world ‘round. But this is besuboru, not baseball, and for the Japanese, it works.

That said, a number of Japanese players have proven themselves, sometimes brilliantly, in American baseball, starting with the all-star Ichiro Suzuki early this century, right up to the present day (2018), when the California Angels’ pitcher/slugger Shohei Ohtani has jaws dropping all over Major League Baseball. More than 50 Japanese pros have transferred over to U.S. baseball since Ichiro cleared the way, and many have proven to be stars in the U.S. as well as in Japan.

For the visitor, seeing besuboru in Japan is generally overlooked by all but the most rabid baseball fans, but visitors ought to consider trying a game, which are not expensive and can be a cultural experience as well as an athletic one. Especially fun are the cheering sections at games, where fans, divided by team loyalties into parts of the stadium, passionately call out fight songs and bang on drums for the length of the game, once again showing that team spirit and group organization are among the highest values of the Japanese – even when enjoying an imported game.

Photo by kagawa_ymg via Flickr

And then there’s this: Even if you’re a dedicated fan of the American hot dog, you’ll probably never regard it with quite the same affection after spending a Japanese ball game enjoying Japanese bento boxes and fresh sushi. This is one area where Japanese besuboru could markedly improve American baseball.

By David Watts Barton

KYOTO July 11, 2018

Gion Matsuri: Japan’s Most Famous Festival

Photo by S. via Flickr

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

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

History of Gion Matsuri

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

Photo by Takashi Hososhima via Flickr

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

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

Yoiyama- Night Celebrations

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

Photo by Ryosuke Yagi via Flickr

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

The Float Processions of Gion Matsuri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Gion Matsuri Events

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

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

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

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

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

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

ARTS&CULTURE June 20, 2018

The Ubiquitous Power of Shikata

Photo by Dick Thomas Johnson via Flickr

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

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

Photo by Sara Tae Yamazaki via Flickr

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

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

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

Photo by Takashi .M via Flickr

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

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

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

Photo by kyoto flowertourism via Flickr

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

By David Watts Barton

KYOTO June 7, 2018

History Of Kyoto – The Heart Of Japan

Kiyomizudera - Kyoto, Japan
Photo by Espen Faugstad via Flickr

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

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

Early Beginnings

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

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

法隆寺 Horyuji temple
Photo by ume-y via Flickr

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

Kamakura Period: 1185-1333

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

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

Photo by Karen Eliot via Flickr

Muromachi Period: 1336-1573

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

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

Azuchi-Momoyama Period: 1573-1603

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

Edo Period: 1603-1868

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

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

Photo by hans-johnson via Flickr

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

Meiji Period: 1868-1912

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

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

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

Kyoto Today

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

Sunset in Kyoto
Photo by Chris Yiu via Flickr

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

ARTS&CULTURE May 19, 2018

Bowing In Japan – A Basic Formality

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

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

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

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

Bowing in Japan
Photo by ThisParticularGreg via Flickr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By David Watts Barton

ARTS&CULTURE May 10, 2018

Understanding Shinto – Japan’s Ancient Religion

Shinto Narnia
Photo by Jeffrey and Shaowen Bardzell via Flickr

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

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


What is Shinto?

Torii Gate at Itsukushima Shrine
Photo by Travis Wise via Flickr

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

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

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

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


The History of Shinto

Photo by via Flickr

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

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

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


Shinto Beliefs

Shinto Prayer
Photo by via Flickr

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

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

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


Shinto Rituals

Shinto priestess?
Photo by Nikita via Flickr

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

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

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


The Future of Shinto

Understanding Shinto
Photo by MIXTRIBE via Flickr

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

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

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

ARTS&CULTURE April 19, 2018

LGBT Weddings in Japan

Photo by specchio.nero via Flickr

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

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

Photo by Cyril Bèle via Flickr

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

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

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

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

Shinto Wedding
Photo by m_nietzsche via Flickr

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

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

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

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

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

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

By David Watts Barton