6 traditional forms of expression – art

Japanese art – A short introduction into painting and woodblocks

After an introduction into the different forms of Japanese drama, it is time to talk about Japanese art. Japan has had a rich art landscape throughout the centuries, ranging from ceramics to paintings and papercrafts. We think it is very hard to write about all of that in a short article so we have decided to focus on four Japanese artists that should be known by everyone who has an interest in the Japanese culture. We will also focus on the world of Japanese painting and woodblock prints because they provide better pictures. Bring out your brushes, wash your woodblocks and come with us as we paint a short history into the world of Japanese art.


Red Fuji, Southern Wind, Clear Morning by Hokusai.

Four artists who had a major impact on Japanese arts

As said in our introduction, Inari would like to focus on four artists who, in our opinion, had a major impact on the Japanese arts. Because the Japanese art landscape is so diverse and it is almost impossible to address all different forms and schools, we have decided to just talk about the art of painting and prints. First of all, we’ll tell you more about Sesshū Tōyō, a famous sumi-e artist from the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573). Our second artist will be the ukiyo-e artist Hiroshige who made a lot of woodblock prints during the Edo period (1603 – 1868). The all-known Hokusai who was also active during the Edo period will be the third artist and to end our article we chose the modern artist Takashi Murakami.

Sesshū Tōyō – Master of Sumi-e

Sesshū Tōyō (雪舟 等楊) was a sumi-e artist during the Muromachi period. He was born into a samurai family and was supposed to become a Buddhist priest. During his life however, it became clear that he had a certain feel for the visual and he became a popular sumi-e artist. But what exactly is sumi-e? Sumi-e, or ink wash painting, is an originally Chinese art style wherein a brush and black ink is used to paint mostly landscapes. Thanks to the use of ink and water, a sumi-e artist is able to make different shades of black and grey. The artist uses a brush made from bamboo and hairs from different kinds of animals such as goat, horse, sheep, deer and wolf. Every kind of hair has a different effect on the stroke. Because it is impossible to redo a stroke or change one, a certain mastery is required to be a sumi-e artist.

View of Ama-no-Hashidate by Sesshu

View of Ama-no-Hashidate by Sesshū Tōyō.

Sesshū Tōyō’s most famous work is the 15-meter-long scroll named Long Scroll of Landscapes or Sansui Chokan (山水長巻). This work depicts the four seasons in sequence. Sesshū Tōyō took the Chinese way of painting and added his own meaning to it by a stronger contrast between dark and light, thicker lines and different perspectives. Another work from Sesshū Tōyō, Huike Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma, shows, like the name might already have told you, a man offering his arm to a shrouded figure. This work was designated as a National Treasure of Japan in 2004.

Huike offering his arm to Bodhidharma by Sesshū Tōyō.

Huike Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma by Sesshū Tōyō.

Hiroshige – Depicter of the Tōkaidō

Our second artist is Ando Hiroshige (安藤 広重), or Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川 広重) and he was active during the latter half of the Edo period. Also coming from a samurai family, he was in charge of the prevention of fires in the Edo Castle. Once his parents died, he began painting and at the age of 15 he was permitted to sign his works with the name Hiroshige. He was mostly known for his ukiyo-e prints of landscapes. Ukiyo-e is an art style where woodblocks are used to print lovely paintings. The themes in this art style include landscapes, folktales, sumo wrestlers, beautiful women and Kabuki performers.

Station 11, Hakone by Hiroshige.

Station 11, Hakone by Hiroshige.

In his thirties, Hiroshige got the opportunity to travel to Kyoto along the Tōkaidō. During his journey he made sketches of the different resting points on the road between the two capitals. Once he returned to Edo, he turned these sketches into ukiyo-e works and made the series names The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō. These series are well-known these days and are seen as a perfect example of Japanese art. Seeing the success of these series, Hiroshige continued working on art with the same theme. Coincidentally, works such as One Hundred Famous Views of Edo or The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kiso Kaidō were also added to his name and fame.

The Plum Garden in Kameido by Hiroshige.

The Plum Garden in Kameido by Hiroshige.

Hokusai – Master of the Wave

Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾 北斎) is another ukiyo-e artist from the Edo period and is probably one of the most famous Japanese artists. During his life, he changed his name more than a hundred times and each time he changed his name can be linked with a change of style.  Born in an artisan family, it is believed that Hokusai began painting when he was six years old. When he was 18, he became an apprentice of Katsukawa Shunshō, an artist known for his ukiyo-e works of courtesans and Kabuki actors. After the death of his master, he became inspired by Western art and was thus expelled from the Katsukawa school. At that time he chose to depict other things in his works and he fell in love with the Japanese sceneries. During this period he experimented with different art styles such as surimono, another form of woodblock print, and manga.

Hokusai Manga.

Hokusai Manga.

The peak of Hokusai’s career came in his fifties. It was also the time where he was finally seen as an exceptional artist throughout Japan. Inspired by his obsession with Mount Fuji, he created his most famous series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. The first work in this series is the Great Wave off Kanagawa, a work that is known by everyone in the world. This series was so well-received that he added ten more prints in the year following. Hokusai kept painting and making art until the day he died. Despite his waning popularity due to younger artists arriving on the scene, he never lost his creative motivation and kept on going. It is said that the last words on his deathbed were “If only Heaven will give me just another ten years… Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.”.

Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai

Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai.

Takashi Murakami – Superflat combinations

Takashi Murakami (隆 村上) is the only artist in this article who is still alive. This contemporary Japanese artist started out as a boy from Tokyo inspired by anime and manga with the dream to become an animator. During his studies however, he chose to study nihonga, a traditional Japanese art style that utilises traditional contexts, depictions and themes. After receiving his Ph. D., he was fed up with the world that accompanies that form of art and started to explore the world of the contemporary art styles. Murakami received a fellowship at the Asian Cultural Council in New York and strategically decided to establish his name in the West first and to come back to Japan once his name was well-known. This strategy paid off!

An Enchanting Mushroom by Murasaki.

An Enchanting Mushroom by Murakami.

Murakami is also known for his creation of the term ‘Superflat’. ‘Superflat’ describes the combination of elements from Japan’s traditional art like Hokusai’s Great Wave of Kanagawa, and the aesthetics found in Japan’s post-war culture and society. His mix of ‘high’ art, or traditional art, and ‘low’ art, or popular art such as manga, found a large audience. A great example of this combination is the work titled 727. Murakami his works range from sculptures to paintings to animation videos and much more. He truly is an artist worth following and actually the favourite Japanese artist of this writer.

727 by Murasaki.

727 by Murakami.

Thank you for reading our intro into Japanese art. We hope you are inspired and will make your own works now. We’ll be back in two weeks for another installment in our column ‘6 traditional forms of expression’.

Japanese Prefectures – Miyagi (宮城)

Miyagi – Pine islands, painting-like environment and Sendai, home of the Date clan

Miyagi is not just the name of our favourite karate teacher but also the name of the fourth Japanese prefecture. It is home to the biggest city in the Touhoku region, Sendai, an amazing canvas of autumn colours, small islands filled with pine trees and is rich with Japanese history, specifically the Sengoku period. Join us on our trip to the Japanese Miyagi prefecture.

zao mountains miyagi

The Zao mountain range in Miyagi.


Miyagi shares its borders with the prefectures of Iwate in the north, Akita in the north-west, Yamagata in the west and Fukushima in the south. The only body of water on its borders is the Pacific Ocean. Along this coastline is the famous Sanriku Coast, a rocky coastline filled with countless bays and cliffs. Tiny islands dot the coastline and deliver a certain serenity combined with the openness of the ocean. Sadly, a number of these natural wonders were destroyed during the Touhoku Disaster in 2011 and are lost to both nature and time. Today, we know that the Sanriku Coastline was actually an amplifier for the strength of the tsunami due to its countless bays, coves and cliffs, making the tsunami larger and stronger. Miyagi was also the prefecture that was hit the worst by the disaster. A lot of places were rebuilt because it is thought that tourism is the best way to repair the region. For instance, in 2012 23% of Miyagi’s land area was assigned as Natural Parks, so if it’s nature you’re looking for, this is the place to go to. The capital of the Miyagi prefecture is Sendai, the largest city in the Touhoku region, and it has a population of just over 1 million people.

A map of Miyagi.

A map of Miyagi.

The history of the region is quite comparable to the history of the surrounding prefectures. During the biggest part of Japanese history, Miyagi was part of the Mutsu Province, the province that was made by taking the land from the local Emishi people. During the Sengoku period (1467 – 1603 CE), a period known for a lot of fighting and fragmentation of larger provinces, it was ruled by the Date clan, a strong ally of the Tokugawa family. They created the city of Sendai. During the Meiji period (1868 – 1912), the province formerly known as Mutsu was divided into 4 smaller provinces. What later would be known as Miyagi was part of the Rikuzen province but in 1871 the Sendai prefecture was established and a year later, its name was changed into the Miyagi prefecture.

A statue of Date Masamune, the leader of the Date clan.

A statue of Date Masamune, the leader of the Date clan.

Must-see locations

Miyagi has so many places that must be visited and things to do that it is impossible to mention all of them in this article. That is why we decided to pick the most important for you. We do have to say that there is a island completely devoted to cats. This island is called Tashirojima and it was already a topic in one of our articles about ‘6 unusual but fantastic places in Japan’. If you want to read more about it, just click here.

The first location that you simply must visit is the city of Sendai and its surroundings. A castle, historical sites, temples, local food, nature, this city just has it all. Sendai is the place to visit if you are interested in the rich history of the Sengoku period. Historical sites from the Date clan are spread out through the entire city. The most important one is the Zuihōden, the tomb of Date Masamune who was the leader of the Date clan. You can also find a lot of artifacts from the Date clan such as Date Masamune’s armour in this beautiful city and her museums. Of course, there is more to see here than history. Around different onsen resorts you can enjoy the natural beauty of the region. One of the three greatest waterfalls, Aiku waterfall, is found in the lush autumn forests surrounding the city. Last but not least, a must-visit location about 40 kilometers from the city of Sendai is Kinkasan. This small island is one of the three most holiest places in the Touhoku region. It is told that if you visit the Koganeyama shrine on this island three years in a row, you’ll never have financial problems again.

Sendai, the largest city in the Touhoku region.

Sendai, the largest city in the Touhoku region.

It wouldn’t be Japan if there wasn’t an amazing natural sight or location in Miyagi. Enter Matsushima, a collection of small islands covered in pines. In total, there are about 260 small islands that you can cruise around by boat. These islands are part of the Three Views of Japan and should be visited by everyone who visits Japan. Thankfully these islands were not damaged a lot by the Touhoku Disaster and only a few islands like Chōmei-ana collapsed. The Miyagi prefecture has established four unique viewing points to look at the small and beautiful islands. These viewing points are the Magnificent View or sōkan (壮観) at Otakamori, the Beautiful View or reikan (麗観) at Toyama, the Enchanting View or yūkan (幽観) at Ogidani and the Grand View or ikan (偉観) at Tamonsan.

Two of the Matsushima islands.

Two of the Matsushima islands.

Just 70 kilometers away from Sendai we find an astonishing gorge called Naruko Gorge. This gorge is located in the north-western part of Miyagi and only 2 kilometers away from the small onsen town Naruko. You can walk through the breathtaking nature around and in the gorge on two different trails. The first one is called the Naruko Gorge Walking Trail and it runs along the two kilometer long gorge. It is definitely the most scenic route but sometimes it is closed due to the possibility of falling rocks. The second trail is the Ofukazawa Walking Trail that passes past the Ofukazawa Bridge and runs through the forested area around the gorge. The best time to visit the Naruko Gorge is during the autumn, especially from the end of October until the beginning of November. All the trees change their colours and the gorge transforms in a natural canvas with warm colours.

A breathtaking view over the Naruko Gorge and the Ofukazawa Bridge.

A breathtaking view over the Naruko Gorge and the Ofukazawa Bridge.

The last location on our list is the Okama Crater, an old volcanic crater that is now the home of one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. The Okama Crater is located in the Zao mountain range in south-west Miyagi on the border with the Yamagata prefecture. The name is derived from the shape of a typical Japanese cooking pot called a kama. The lake is also called the Goshikiko or Lake of Five Colours due to the different shades of emerald green during the different times of the day. Due to its highly acidic water, no animals or plants can survive in and around the lake. To get to the Okama Crater, you can go by foot, take a ski lift or go by car to a viewing deck. It is recommended though to visit the crater during the spring or summer. In the winter it is not possible to hike to the crater and you can only watch it from afar.

The Lake of Five Colours.

The Lake of Five Colours.

How to get there?

As most prefectures in the Touhoku region, you can easily reach Miyagi from Tokyo or other big cities in Northern Japan. You can get there by train thanks to the great amount of train lines that run through the prefecture, by car, by plane to the Sendai airport or even by boat. The possibilities are enormous.

The roads in Miyagi.

The important roads in Miyagi.

This was our short intro to Miyagi. We hope that we have showed you the different reasons to visit this lovely place. If you want to know more about traveling to Miyagi, leave a comment, send us a mail or please visit this page.

We will be back with another Japanese prefecture in May when we will tell you more about Akita.

6 traditional forms of expression – drama

The art of acting, drama in Japan

Hello fellow readers, and welcome to the first entry of our new column ‘6 forms of expression’. In this theme we will take a look at how the Japanese traditionally expressed themselves. This ranges from poetry,to music, to martial arts and much more. So polish up your acting skills, take the stage and hear the applause, for today we will take a look at drama!

Noh (能)

Noh is one of the oldest forms of drama in Japan and finds its roots in several types of dance drama and festival dramas that emerged in the 12th and 13th century. It became its own genre in the 14th century (Muromachi period) at the hands of Kan’ami Kiyotsugu and his son Zeami Motokiyo. In the Tokugawa Period (1603-1867) the shogunate made Noh its official ceremonial art, which caused it to be standardised. Noh, or Nogaku (能楽), is derived from the Sino-Japanese word for ‘skill’ or ‘talent’.

Noh play at a traditional shrine stage - drama

Noh play at a traditional shrine stage.

But what kind of drama is Noh? Song and dance are the main focus. Movement is slow and the language is poetic. The costumes are visually rich and masked actors, who were until recently exclusively male, speak in a monotonous voice. Though we have just called them actors, they are more like storytellers who capture the essence of the story in their movements and symbolic gestures. This causes the layman to miss much of what is happening. Most of the Noh plays requires knowledge of the story prior to watching the play. It is to no (Noh?) surprise then that, throughout history, most plays were meant for the elite, though plays for commoners were also performed.

Kabuki (歌舞伎)

Another form of drama in Japan is Kabuki. Originating in the 17th century (Edo Period), it quickly became popular amongst the rising merchant class and the common people. Originally the actors were women, but due to the nature of the dances and movements, which were seen as arousing, lots of these women were also prostituted. This eventually caused the government to ban women from playing in Kabuki because of its ‘disruptive’ behaviour in 1629. Young boys then took on the roles, but once again the government banned these kind of actors for ‘moral reasons’. Ever since then Kabuki is played by older men, and some even specialise in female roles.

man portraying a femalerole

Man portraying a female role.

Kabuki relies heavily on the show-element of drama. Actors make exaggerated movements and exclamations, parts of the stage rotate and move, and the costumes and make-up are often extraordinary. This all has symbolic meaning (different types of make-up can indicate supernatural beings, main roles, villains,… for example), and if you plan to attend one of these plays, it is recommended that you do some basic research, though a heavy preparation like in Noh is not needed.


The visual style of kabuki.

Bunraku (文楽)

The next form of drama we will talk about is Bunraku, or Japanese puppet theatre. This form of drama was founded at the end of the 17th century, when Uemura Bunrakuken started his own theatre in Osaka. This theatre was called ‘Bunraku’, hence the term given to the art.

a typical bunraku play

A typical bunraku play.

Each puppet is half life-size and is operated by three men in black clothes, which often cover the face as well. This means they are ‘invisible’ to the audience and ensures the attention goes to the puppet. The three men cooperate to move the string-less puppet. Next to all of this, there is a narrator that narrates the whole story, including the voices of all puppets. The whole play is accompanied by chanters, shamisen, and sometimes taiko drums. Be prepared for a long performance, since a play takes a whole day!

Rakugo (落語)<

Rakugo is often referred to as the ‘art of storytelling’. It became popular in the Edo Period as entertainment for the common folk. A lone storyteller sits in seiza position and tells a comical story to the audience. This sounds easy at first, but most stories are quite long and complex and the storyteller has to depict all the story and different characters with only a paper fan, a cloth, and his or her upper body and facial expression. Rakugo has been called ‘a one man sitcom’

rakugo storyteller depicting a scene

A rakugo storyteller depicting a scene.

This marks the end of our little introduction into traditional forms of Japanese drama. Questions or remarks? Feel free to post them below or send us a mail! You can also watch these movies on Youtube.

Inari out!

Japanese holidays and festivals in April

Japanese festivities during April

Like every country, Japan has its own days and festivals to celebrate. In this article, Inari will tell you more about the Japanese holidays and festivals that take place during the month of April. In this month, you will see birthdays, flower petals and much more.

Shōwa Day or Shōwa no Hi (昭和の日)

This annual Japanese holiday is held on the 29th of April in order to celebrate Emperor Hirohito who reigned from 1926 to 1989. On this Japanese holiday, which is actually the birthday of Emperor Hirohito, people are encouraged to think about the turbulent years that Japan had when it was under the reign of Emperor Hirohito and how Japan recovered afterwards. Some people attend lectures concerning Japan’s participation in the Second World War, others tell stories about what they remember so the memories continue to live on. This holiday is somewhat frowned upon by China, South-Korea and North-Korea because they see it as a way to celebrate Japan’s war past.  This is also the first day of the Golden Week. This week has 4 national Japanese holidays that in combination with a good placed weekend, provides 7 days of hard-earned vacation. A lot of Japanese people take the time to travel and relax during this week. The other three Japanese holidays take place during the beginning of May and we will talk about them in the next article about Japanese holidays and festivals.

Japanese Emperor Hirohito

Emperor Hirohito in his formal attire.

Hanami (花見)

Hanami must be one of the most known Japanese traditions. During the month of April, this tradition is done the most. Various cities hold festivals in honor of the blooming sakura trees, families gather underneath the falling blossoms and other people celebrate this tradition on their own way. There won’t be a park without people eating underneath the sakura trees. It’s a Japanese tradition to have a family or company picnic while looking at the blossoms that fall down like a feather. The picnic is most of the time accompanied by music, entertainment and quite some sake. The best location to watch the falling flowers is Mount Yoshino in Nara. With more than 30.000 trees it’s quite the view! If you’d rather see some festivals, the chances are great that you’ll find one while driving around during April. Most bigger cities have their own Hanami festival and even smaller towns also have some festivities to celebrate this amazing time of the year.

A typical flower viewing afternoon for Japanese families or companies.

A typical flower viewing afternoon for Japanese families or companies.

Takayama Festival or Takayama Matsuri (高山祭)

This Japanese festival that takes place during the 14th and 15th of April, is one of the three most popular festivals in Japan. During this festival in Takayama, Gifu, the local shrine called the Hie Shrine or Sanno-sama is celebrated. It also has a complementary festival during the Autumn. This is done over the course of the two days and hundred of thousands of people from all over the Japan and the world attend it! The most popular event during this festival is the display of the festival floats. These tall and heavily decorated festival floats are put in public in the streets of Takayama. Some of these festival floats also have some sort of mechanical dolls or karakuri on top of them. These karakuri perform dances and move the entire time. During all of this, a procession is held as well. The people from the shrine carry a portable shrine, or mikoshi, through the streets. This portable shrine holds the shrine’s deity or kami. At night, the floats are carried through the streets of Takayama while the visitors celebrate the shrine and enjoy themselves. If you want to witness this beautiful festival, be sure to book a hotel in advance. Due to its immense popularity, most of the available hotel rooms or other places to sleep are already taken. You could always stay in a neighbouring city but that might make it difficult to see the evening part of this amazing festival.

The Takayama Festival Floats and a karakuri.

The Takayama Festival Floats and a karakuri.

These are the most important Japanese holidays and festivals that take place in April. If you want to know more about this subject, feel free to contact us or write a comment.

We’ll be back next month to tell you more about the Japanese holidays and festivals that take place during May.