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FOOD&DRINK November 4, 2016

9 Delightful Drinks from Japan’s Ubiquitous Vending Machines

MosayMay /

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

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

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

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

oneinchpunch /

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

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

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

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

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

Filipe Frazao /

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

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

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

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

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

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


ART&DESIGN October 26, 2016

The Art of Bonsai: Creating Little Green Worlds


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


FOOD&DRINK October 19, 2016

Umami, Japan’s “Fifth Flavor”


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


ARTS&CULTURE October 11, 2016

The Five Elements in Japanese Culture

Travel Stock /

When traveling around Japan, there are a number of different statuary that will quickly become familiar: the komainu (lion dogs) that stand at either side of a Shinto shrine entrance; the numerous orange torii gates; and, of course, there is the Buddha in his many forms.

The godai is the five elements; the gorintou is the three-dimensional representation of that concept. It can be best described as a stack of geometric forms,like a totem pole or a particularly elegant child’s stack of blocks. A cube forms the base, with a sphere on top of that, then a pyramid, then a crescent, like a new moon lying on its side, and at the top, a form reminiscent of a lotus flower..

The godai isn’t so ubiquitous, or perhaps striking, but once you know it, you may notice it more often. The word godai combines the kanji for five (go) and great (dai), the name for one of the fundamental concepts in Japanese culture: the five elements. Based on concepts that came to China from India, the godai are universal: Earth, water, fire, wind and void. Each element is said to represent a certain tendency in the world, whether it be in physics, in spirituality or even just in personality. Together they are said to explain the nature of things, of action, of societies, and of people.

In Japanese cosmology, one by one, beginning with the most basic, they are:


Chi (earth): Represented by the square, chi (not to be confused with ki, the essential energy of the cosmos) is the fundamental element, the base upon which all else rests. It is the element that engages all five human senses. Earth is basic matter, often represented by (and in) stone, which is not sentient, doesn’t move of its own accord, and has no great motivating energy. Chi is acted-upon only. It is inanimate. In terms of personality, it is similarly inert: Stubbornness, yes, but also stability, and heft, and gravity: Chi is basic, fundamental, even dumb; but as a quality, it is also dependable, sure, solid. It is a good base on which build the godai.


Sui (water): Represented by a circle, or sphere, sui sits upon the solid base of chi, but look at the difference! Instead of stable and unmoving, sui is ready to move at the slightest movement, a ball ready to roll – or, perhaps, to bounce. Sui flows, representing the formless things of the world, including the emotions: ever changing, ebbing and flowing, like blood, like the tides. Where chi is earth, sui is water, but it is also plants, which grow from the combination of earth and water, reaching for light, expanding and twisting, but forever anchored.


Ka (fire): A flame-like pyramid represents fire, sitting upon the sphere of sui, pointing upward, the motivating energy that lifts, that animates, and that ultimately destroys. Animals, including humans, are ka, are fire, are creativity, are life itself. The way in which the body burns food for fuel, the way that sunlight animates the combination of chi and sui to make plants, the heat that combustion produces…all are expressions of ka. Motivation, intention, desire, drive, passion…these are all ka.


Fu (wind): Atop the triangle/pyramid of ka sits the crescent-shaped fu, representing wind, emblematic of things that move, that have freedom, that fly through the air. Fu is the mind in action, thoughts flying about, our mental agility and freedom to create anything out of nothing. Air is invisible, it can’t be touched or smelled or even heard…until it connects with one of the other elements. Then everything happens: fires blaze, water fall as rain, dust moves across the face of the planet. Fu isn’t just air: fu is air in motion. Fu is motivation, growth, change, all forms of movement. Fu is freedom, it is breath, the breath of life, of compassion – even, perhaps, of wisdom. Fu is spirit.

Ku (void): The fifth element sits atop even fu’s crescent, a shape that seems to combine the circle of water with the rising energy of fire, but is most recognizable as that central Buddhist icon, the lotus flower, which holds the jewel of enlightenment in its center. Despite that all-importance, ku represents not everything, but nothing: the void. Ku is emptiness, ku is…not. Ku can be translated as sky, as heaven…but at its core, ku is the absence, the hole at the center of who we think we are, the womb from whence we came, knowing nothing, having nothing; ku is the death that looms before us.

And yet, this fifth element is also our spirit, our knowing beyond thoughts, the mystery we glimpse from time to time as we cycle through the other elements. Ku is the source of our creativity, the source of the creativity of the world.

And thus, the godai, the great five, expresses the very structure not just of physical reality, but of our very personalities – as well as the structure of the Universe as well.


ARTS&CULTURE October 5, 2016

Japan’s “High Context” Society – Tips on Reading Between the Lines

Lodimup /

It is a truism to say that every culture is unique, and it is also unnecessary: Everyone can see that food, dress, language, architecture and social customs can vary greatly from country to country, or even within countries.

But some differences are not so obvious, and that makes them harder to grasp; indeed, some differences are so subtle as to be all but invisible to visitors, because they are, in some ways, invisible even to those who “know” them. Some established ways of behaving are so “natural” that even natives are unaware of them.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Japan has more of these subtleties than most countries, which makes understanding more difficult, and misunderstandings more likely.

Japan is what some sociologists call a “high context” culture, similar to other Asian (and Middle Eastern) cultures, and in contrast to many European (and American) cultures, which are described as “low context.” The explanation was formalized by the anthropologist Edward T. Hall in his 1976 book Beyond Culture.

Hall explained that contrasts between high- and low-context cultures can be deep, profound and pervasive when it comes to behavior and, especially, communication. Understanding the difference is a good step toward a deeper knowledge of Japanese culture – and perhaps a better understanding of one’s own.

High context cultures are those in which the culture is homogeneous and well-established, in which communication is often subtle or even unspoken. The goal is almost always intergroup harmony.

By contrast, low-context cultures are much more heterogeneous, with many different actors engaged, and often with new members, so that things must be better spelled out. This can result in the need for longer and even more contentious discussions; thus, low-context cultures may seem less harmonious. Because such cultures also focus on individual freedom and expression, rule breakers are sometimes honored for their ability to “think outside the box.”


Japan is not a country of rule-breakers. Because of this, and because of its exceptionally low in-migration and high cultural homogeneity, where nearly everyone has been raised according to exacting rules, much can go unsaid; in Western cultures, with high levels of cultural mixing, even basic things must be worked out, out loud – sometimes, loudly. Those who keep their real feelings or opinions to themselves in low-context cultures are considered insincere or even two-faced; in high-context cultures, that ability to tell (and express) two different “faces” may be a sign of maturity and social grace.

Thus, in Japan, much communication goes on non-verbally, through subtle gestures, facial expressions and voice tones, in ways that Western visitors may not even notice, let alone understand. The problem comes when visitors don’t understand, and the Japanese, accustomed to being understood by each other without explanation, don’t understand why they’re not being understood!

Some of the ways in which this may show up in one’s interactions with Japanese are in social situations in which Japanese are much more likely to want to please, but may do so in a way that offends. For example, in a restaurant, the host may order for everyone, which he intends as an acknowledgement that we are all in the same group, together, and that he is doing all he can to attend to his guests; a Westerner may find that this offends her sense of individual will, and she may feel controlled or her opinion discounted. A Westerner would never dream of ordering for another individual.

In conversation, Japanese are more likely to listen than to talk, assuming that they are being told what they need to know; they are also more likely to defer to the group than to assert their own opinions. In personal conversation, Japanese are less likely to discuss personal details, while people from a low-context cultures may ask personal questions as a way of showing their interest; Japanese may find this invasive of their privacy.


While Westerners may complain about service or something they don’t approve of, Japanese are more liable to overlook discomforts to assure everyone in the group that they are happy. Japanese are individuals, certainly, but they are culturally trained to defer to the group; Westerners see the group as important, but only so far as they thrive within it; most are quick to assert their individual needs if the group doesn’t satisfy them.

Japanese who are accustomed to interacting with foreigners are aware of this difference, and make allowances for it; foreigners would be wise to reciprocate. Just being a bit more observant can go a long way towards smoothing interactions, and Western visitors should try not to assume that the Japanese are being purposely misleading, deceptive or intentionally “mysterious” – accusations that have been hurled at the Japanese – simply because they don’t spell everything out.

This requires some effort on a visitor’s part, but that effort can make for a wonderful opportunity to learn more about others – and ourselves – in marvelous and subtle ways. And isn’t that why we’re traveling in the first place?


ARTS&CULTURE September 27, 2016

7 Ways the Meiji Restoration Shaped Modern Japan


Although Japan had been absorbing external cultural influences since the 7th century, especially from Korea and China, it spent many hundreds of years purposely cut off from the rest of the world. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that Japan began opening up to the outside world.

While western history records this as the “opening” of Japan, the country was “opened” in much the same way an oyster is “opened,” and for the same reasons: The Western colonial and mercantile powers wanted what Japan had, and forced it open. The conflict that arose in response to the resulting push and pull with the United States, Great Britain and even Russia forced Japan to come out of its medieval isolation and enter the modern world.

That required a virtual revolution in Japan – again, the word “restoration” sounds far more peaceful and orderly than what was a shift of power within Japanese political structure. When a group of young Japanese essentially overthrew the Tokugawa Shogunate that had run the country for nearly 300 years, they installed – restored – the Emperor as the head of the government.


Restoring the Imperial family was a way of gaining legitimacy for what was essentially a coup. The revolutionaries were young – the oldest was only 41 – and for that matter, the new Emperor himself was only 17 when he was put on the throne. Nevertheless, though it was born in conflict, the Meiji Restoration did indeed open up Japan in myriad ways, and the country developed at a furious pace. In two short decades, Japan was transformed from a closed medieval society into one of the world’s most modern nations.

The transformation was deep, comprehensive and complex, but for simplicity’s sake, here are seven ways in which the Meiji Restoration shaped modern Japan:

1 – Japan’s encounters with the colonial powers, beginning with the appearance of U.S. Commander Matthew Perry’s four gunboats in 1853 in Tokyo Bay, spurred the country to develop its military to match those of the U.S., Russia and Great Britain. Within a very short time, Japan became one of the world’s most formidable militaries – even a colonial power itself, as it embarked on its own Imperial expansion, taking for itself parts of the Korean peninsula, Manchuria and even the island of Formosa, and defeating the Russian and Chinese militaries in the process.

2 – The new Meiji government – Meiji being the name the young Emperor took, it meaning “enlightened ruler” – introduced compulsory, free education for both boys and girls, and sent students, many of them former samurai, abroad in search of education in the sciences, industry and the arts, bringing many new ideas from the United States and Western Europe into Japan.

3 – Employing those ideas, the Japanese government rapidly built infrastructure – railroads, shipyards, mines, telephones and telegraphs, electrical grids and other basics of a modern society – at a remarkably rapid pace. The country began industrializing within a couple of years of the start of the Restoration – and has, of course, never stopped.

4 – The government quickly broke down the rigid social structure of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which had split society into four separate and unchanging social classes, and allowed education and merit to determine an individual’s success. The samurai class was disarmed and essentially eliminated, though former samurai, who were well educated, were encouraged to go into business and government. After developing the above industries and many others, the government privatized industrialization by selling off many of these industries to private concerns, including many run by former samurai.

5 – With the restoration of the Imperial line, the traditional divinity of the Emperor was reasserted. The indigenous Shinto religion was elevated above Buddhism, with which it had long shared popular and official support, as a way of reinforcing the Emperor’s potency as a political and religious symbol for the still-fractious Japanese population to rally around.


6 – The Meiji government managed to eventually corral all the original daimyo – the widely distributed landowners and warlords whom the Shogunate had ruled, more than 300 of them – and combined their lands into what are now 47 separate prefectures under the central government. That restructuring included significant land reform and the redesign of the country’s entire legal system, modeled on the French and Germany systems. In that way, Japan was able to gain international legitimacy, and put itself on a more equal footing with the colonial powers.

7 – Finally, the Meiji Restoration introduced a modern constitutional government in 1889, with an elected parliament called the Diet, loosely modeled on the American and French constitutions. Only one percent of the male population could vote, as universal (male) suffrage was still a long time in coming, not being fully realized until 1925. But in a matter of a few years, Japan had utterly transformed itself, and was soon to become a major player on the world stage.


ARTS&CULTURE September 20, 2016

Who the Geisha Really Were – and Are


As any visitor to Kyoto will soon notice, geisha are not just historical figures. With some luck, a visitor wandering in the city’s ancient Gion neighborhood may well catch a glimpse of one of these exotic, mysterious women as she moves quickly through the area’s narrow streets, on her way to work. But who are the geisha? What do they do? And in the 21st century, what is their role in society?

Misconceptions about geisha are many, and their history is full of contradictions and confusion. Right from the start, their identities were uncertain: What kind of women were they? Were they entertainers? Servants? Courtesans? Prostitutes? The answers are complex; to show just how complex, let’s note that the first geisha were, in fact, not women at all: the first geisha were men.

The word geisha combines two kanji: gei, meaning “art,” and sha, meaning “person” or “doer.” A geisha, then, is a person who does art: An artist.


During the Edo period that began around 1603 and continued for more than 250 years, the court system revolved around the samurai class, and those samurai needed to be entertained. Thus, the early Edo saw the development of walled pleasure quarters, or yukaku, in Kyoto, Osaka and Edo (now Tokyo). Dancing, gaming, drinking and legal prostitution were among the offerings, the last supplied by sophisticated courtesans, or oiran, who entertained the samurai aristocracy. The role of entertaining the men while they waited for the oiran fell to entertainers known as geisha – who were exclusively men at that time.

Meanwhile, teenage dancing girls called odoriko, of a lower class, would find themselves unemployed as they grew into adulthood, and many fell into prostitution. Around the mid-1700s some began referring to themselves as geisha, after the male performers. The first was a woman in Fukagawa called Kikuya, a prostitute who was also a skilled singer and shamisen player. Kikuya’s success as a geisha inspired other women to adopt the name, and after two decades, the two forms of geisha, male and female, grew together, the female geisha becoming known for their entertaining skills rather than their sexual favors. Thus, the geisha’s role became distinct from the courtesan’s. Instead, as with the men whose title they adopted, geisha were hired for their expertise as entertainers, for their skill in conversation and for the felicity of their company.


These new female geisha added something the courtesans had: Great beauty and style. Developed in part from the styles worn in the kabuki theater that developed in Kyoto, by the mid-19th century the distinctive geisha style was being emulated by many fashionable women.

Geisha cut a distinctive figure, with a dramatic style that remains as powerful as it was 200 years ago. Everyone knows what geisha look like, but when one really breaks it down and looks at it piece by piece, it is a remarkable, and very expensive, illusion to maintain: Every hair is pomaded into its proper place; the clothes, elegant silk kimono and exquisitely-tied obi, are of the finest design; and the make-up – that astonishing make-up – is applied with methods that have developed over the centuries, each detail refined to the brushstroke.

But that is just the beautiful package. Young women receive extensive training, serving apprenticeships of several years before becoming full geisha. Known as maiko, these young women learn the arts of conversation, music, calligraphy and ikebana. They are also trained in the many subtleties of the rarified geisha culture, hanamachi (“flower town”), which is complex even by the subtle standards of Japan.

The original geisha also developed a business model that created one of the few arenas where a woman could be a success in what was otherwise a male-dominated society. Thus the geisha operated in a subculture populated almost entirely by women, who ran the businesses, earned the money, organized the unions and lived in a world that was almost entirely devoid of men – except those who came as customers. In a Japan in which women, particularly unmarried women, had no rights or economic power, the hanamachi were a powerful exception.

Maintaining the standards of the geisha was and remains so expensive that, after it’s peak 150 years ago, the geisha gradually declined, almost disappearing entirely during World War II. Ironically, it was the abuse of the term geisha, during the American Occupation – when G.I.s and the prostitutes who served them corrupted the term geisha as “geisha girls” – that prompted women who understood the historic place of geisha to restart the culture.


Today, even in Kyoto, even in streets full of young female tourists dressed in a simplified geisha style, there are not many real geisha left – probably no more than a few hundred – but their rarity makes them that much more magical. To be able to hear the sound of a geisha quickly moving down a quiet Gion street in her wooden sandals is one of the most satisfying delights to be had in contemporary Japan.


ARTS&CULTURE September 13, 2016

Introduction to the Art of Ikebana


Flowers are valued as offerings throughout Asia. From Thailand to Bali to India, bouquets or even single flowers are an offering to the gods: a gift of life, given in thanks, to the Source of Life. And around the world, flowers have been offered at funerals as gifts to the spirits of the dead.

But in Japan, what were once devotional offerings have grown over the centuries into one of Japan’s quintessential art forms, one that has spread all over the world, and continues to develop to the present day: Ikebana, the art of flower arranging.

Although the earliest origins of flower arranging are lost to history, the tradition of ikebana has been consciously and deliberately developing for nearly six centuries, since a monk at Kyoto’s Rokkakudo temple, Ikenobo Senkei, became the first known master of flower arranging, in 1462. His followers continued his work, spreading his ideas from the priestly caste into the samurai class, where it became a sign of refinement.

A somewhat later priestly ikebana master, Ikenobo Senno, wrote in the mid-16th century compilation of ikebana teachings, Senno Kuden, “Not only beautiful flowers but also buds and withered flowers have life, and each has its own beauty. By arranging flowers with reverence, one refines oneself.”

This idea is familiar to anyone who understands the reverent Japanese relationship with nature, and the deep Buddhist understanding of the impermanence of all things, as summed up in the elegant notion of wabi-sabi. Ikebana is an enduring expression of that ideal.

During the past six centuries, ikebana’s place in Japan has waxed and waned in popularity, and shifted from the province of monks and samurai to that of housewives and artists. But its formal standards have continued to evolve in surprising, and always artful, ways. As the practice of the art has moved from Japan into dozens of countries around the world, it has absorbed international flavors but remains one of Japan’s quintessential art forms.


The roots of flower arranging

Ikebana as we know it began in the Muromachi/Ashikaga period, during the late 14th to mid-16th centuries, a chaotic period in which warlords battled for supremacy before the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate, later known as the Edo period. This was the period in which many of Japan’s quintessential art forms blossomed. In addition to ikebana, the tea ceremony was refined during this period, as were theories of garden design and the structure of noh plays.

As Japan moved on from the Muromachi period, ikebana became the province of the emerging merchant culture, and the original style of Tatebana, developed for tea rooms evolved into the new, more decorative Rikka (“standing flowers”) style, which in turn became the more austere, symbolic Seika (or Shoka) style. The symbolism was expressed through a triangular structure that aimed to evoke heaven-earth-mankind through various arrangements.


Attention to form

Whatever the form of the era, the structure of ikebana (literally, “flowers kept alive”) has always been its essential element. Ikebana masters teach based on sophisticated diagrams that show the precise angles of the branches, flowers and other elements, as seen from eye level and even from above. An ikebana arrangement aims to look almost natural – the upright nageire style literally means “thrown in” – but it is in fact a stylized, deeply proscribed form that takes many years to master.

Two keys to ikebana are the use of asymmetry and an allowance for space in the arrangements. Ikebana arrangements do not burst with flowers as they might in other cultures; instead, each branch, each stem, each bud, is placed deliberately, and balanced with every other element.

The Moribana style is still the basis for ikebana, in both its basic “upright” and more complex “slanting” forms. Each individual element has a name (the shin, soe and hikae) and the relative lengths of each piece are determined by complex formulae.


Ikebana’s place in society

During the crucial 19th century Meiji Restoration, during which time Japan opened to the West and began its process of modernization, the government began allowing women to study ikebana as part of the necessary movement to educate them for the modern world. In barely a generation, at the dawn of the 20th century, ikebana went from being an art form meant for the refinement of men to one used for the education of women. Today there are more than 3,000 ikebana schools in Japan, and it is estimated that as many as 15 million Japanese, most of them women, practice ikebana.

The spread of ikebana worldwide means that many new elements of the art form have been introduced, all with the creative passion and deep respect for a form that is now more than 550 years old. But one of the most important modern schools began in Japan, when Ohara Unshin broke with the Ikenobo school and began using Western plants, creating the Ohara School.

Visitors to Kyoto are especially lucky because the development of ikebana began right here, at the Rokkakudo temple. Ikenobo, the oldest school of ikebana, continues to thrive here under the 45th head of the school, Sen’ei Ikenobo. In 1977, Sen’ei began developing yet another new form of ikebana, shoka shimputai, a modern, three-part form that has dazzled the ikebana community and continues to carry the ikebana tradition into the future.


FOOD&DRINK September 7, 2016

What Makes Kobe Beef the World’s Best?


In the world of beef, there are top sirloin steaks from Omaha, bifteck in France and lomo from Argentina. But Kobe beef stands alone, with a reputation for high quality and a deep mystique surrounding its breeding and raising.

Beef cattle have been raised in Japan back to pre-history, but in very small numbers, given the rugged terrain of this mountainous archipelago. Because of Imperial decree, until very recently, the native cattle – Wagyu beef cattle, a name that combines the ancient name for Japan, Wa, with gyu, for beef – have been bred in isolation, so that they are distinct from the more common European breeds that have spread around the world.

But given that so many things in Japan are, or at least seem to be, from a long established tradition – think tea cultivation, seaweed in cuisine and traditional post-and-beam architecture – visitors are often surprised to learn that world-famous Kobe beef has barely reached the half-century mark.

The evolution of Kobe beef

Kobe beef only became internationally-known in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, when cattle ceased to be beasts of burden, and it was only in 1983 that the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association was formed to oversee quality and protect the Kobe trademark.

But the Japanese cattle producers applied themselves to this new industry as the Japanese do to nearly everything, investing a great deal of care and subtlety, and the result is one of the finest cuts of beef ever produced.

The desired qualities of Kobe beef – even marbling, a distinctive flavor, great tenderness and a quality of fat that is high in unsaturated fats and has a low melting point – are important. But just as compelling is the manner in which it is raised: Very few Argentinian cattle ranchers are liable to massage their bovine charges, and even fewer American cattlemen are going to be found sharing their beer with their livestock.

The result is a variety of beef that is highly-prized – and just as high-priced, with a pound going for as much as $300 in Japan. A 10 oz. tenderloin steak is currently on the Empire Steak House menu in New York City for $295. And that’s for Wagyu beef that likely never set a hoof on Japanese soil.


The extraordinary qualities of Kobe beef

So, what makes Kobe beef so special, besides the world-famous price?

Tajima cattle are fattened considerably longer that cattle in the United States, living about 26 to 32 months, compared to 18 months for US cattle. Kobe cattle are not “free range,” or “grass fed” – trends that are growing in the U.S. market – for a variety of reasons. Densely-populated Japan doesn’t have much “range land,” and certainly not in the Kobe area. The individual cattle are each so valuable that most Japanese beef ranchers are loathe to leave their precious charges out in whatever field (or weather) is available.

Considering that they are being raised to be slaughtered, Wagyu beef have it easy. During the hot summer months, they are fed with a bottle of beer a day if they don’t eat because of the heat. They are kept largely indoors to preserve their energy and are even given special oil massages, which are thought to distribute their subcutaneous fat and promote the even marbling for which Kobe beef is known.

When the cattle are slaughtered, the qualities that make Kobe beef so special come fully into play. If it has been done well, the meat from the cattle is consistently marbled. Not just that, but the quality of the fat itself is qualitatively different than most beef: The melting point of fat of Kobe beef is said to be considerably lower than that of common beef fat, meaning it requires less cooking. And that fat is said to be much higher in unsaturated fat, with high levels of oleic acid, making it similar to olive oil.


The market for Kobe beef

Because it is so popular in Japan itself, very little Kobe beef is exported, and the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2009 led the United States to ban Kobe beef for several years. The relatively small number of individual animals that may qualify as Kobe beef is a big part of why the resulting meat is so expensive. Only about 3,000 head of cattle can be called Kobe, a result of the high costs and labor intensive nature of raising the cattle, as well as the length of time they are allowed to grow.

Most of the Wagyu beef produced today is raised outside of Japan, largely because of the greater availability of grazing land and cheaper feed. It is then sent to Japan for the fine finishing needed to please that discriminating market. Beef called “Kobe” outside of Japan is most likely the result of this process, and may well have grown up in California (or Australia), but been finished back at home in Japan.

But to be truly Kobe beef, the animal must be a Tajima cattle, actually born and slaughtered in Hyogo prefecture, with a high marbling ratio, among other factors.

So, Kobe beef is hard to come by in most of the world. That’s why you must come to Japan.


ARTS&CULTURE August 31, 2016

Gifts, Obligations and Japan’s Obsession with Beautiful Packages


Visitors who spend any amount of time in Japan quickly become aware of the importance, even the primacy, of presentation. A nice meal, or a gift, or even an everyday object, is always appreciated for itself – but just as important is how it is wrapped or otherwise packaged.

Go to a shop, even to buy a t-shirt or a package of breath mints, and then watch as the clerk carefully wraps the item in paper, affixes a printed sticker to hold it, then puts it into a bag, then folds over the top of the bag and affixes another sticker to close the bag. This focus on presentation comes right down to the receipt, which isn’t just “handed” over; it is presented, with both hands, the eyes of the clerk fixed on the customer – with a smile.

Once one notices this – and it is difficult not to – one sees it everywhere, from hotels with their beautifully laid-out personal items and perhaps individually-wrapped biscuits or chocolates, to grocery stores with their individually wrapped fruit, to the way a shirt comes back from the dry cleaner wrapped in plastic, with a tiny paper bowtie affixed to the collar.


Wrapping (tsutsumu) and tying or binding (musubu) are ways of saying that something is important or precious, ways of separating mundane things from the mundane world, and thus, are signs of respect. Properly wrapped, properly presented, anything can be made special.

Westerners, particularly in the hyper-efficient, modern world, with its added layer of casual indifference to appearances, may find this pretentious or even false. But to the Japanese, who rigorously observe the division between tatemae (the public face or “official position”) and honne (the “true voice”), presentation isn’t pretense – it is everything.

Wrapping is most obvious where it is obvious in all cultures, in the presentation of gifts. But Japanese gift-giving, while often “from the heart,” is just as often a proscribed action that represents a complex social code with multiple hierarchies and responsibilities. Gift-giving is just one of many forms of giri (obligation, or duty) in Japanese culture: a gift is an obligation, and it is often one that comes with an obligation to reciprocate. Gifts may be given freely, with sincerity, but giri may not be far behind.

Gifts carry a lot of weight, and that puts even more pressure on the wrapping. Because of this, Japanese wrapping is often as important as what’s inside, and when one is given a gift by a Japanese, it is important to give as much attention to praising the wrapping as to the gift itself.

Given the Japanese skill in wrapping and packaging, this isn’t hard to do.


Elegant presentation goes far beyond mere gift-giving in Japan. Take lunch: Even the cheapest bento boxes display their modest lunch items with great care, and the boxes are often quite beautiful themselves. If they are not lacquerware, they are plastic painted to look like it. A recent trend among Japanese mothers was a competitive approach to kyara-ben, or the bento boxes “with character” – in which case the humble rice ball may be decorated to look like an adorable panda bear. Even the mundane school lunch was an area to demonstrate mastery of presentation.

Sake bottles come wrapped in beautiful paper and the simplest cookies and biscuits are sometimes hidden behind two or three layers of beautiful packaging. If you think this may have a larger cultural meaning – well, what doesn’t? The word for wrapped (tsutsumu) has a analogue in tsutsushimu, which means to be chaste or discreet, or to be careful. It has also been used to express the need to suppress one’s feelings – to keep one’s feelings wrapped.


Even the Japanese themselves can be wrapped, as any geisha can tell you. Traditional kimono and yukata are, compared to Western clothes, beautiful wrapping, with a carefully-tied obi being the bow.

Japan, as a high-context society, is on some fundamental levels distrustful of speech – the English phrase “talk is cheap” may well express a core belief of the Japanese. Another is “actions speak louder than words,” and in this respect, the wrapping culture may well be an expression of that wariness of mere verbiage. In that way, the presentation of a gift, or even the wrapping of a recent purchase, may say something more profound than the most effusive thank you.

For as with much Japanese culture, what is external is not just about hiding something, though it may do that as well. Instead, fine presentation is about is about honoring it. The Japanese believe that it matters whether something is done beautifully. Wrapping isn’t just about making something prettier; it is about honoring other people, even the world, by presenting one’s best as beautifully as possible.