6 traditional forms of expression – Japanese garden

Japanese gardens – Moss, rocks and contemplating life

Today, we give you a new entry in our column ‘6 traditional forms of expression’. Let’s talk about Japanese gardens. These miracles of garden architecture can leave you breathless, help you overcome internal conflicts thanks to its beauty and spirituality, and, most importantly, transport you to another world. Join us in our adventure and find out what exactly makes a Japanese garden so special.

What exactly is a Japanese garden?

The idea of what later would become the Japanese garden was influenced by the Chinese gardens during the Asuka period in the early 7th century CE. During that time, Japan was trading with China and when the merchants came back from China, they had stories about these beautiful Chinese gardens. Some aristocrats were interested and decided to use these merchants to bring back gardening techniques and supplies. Of course, Japan already had its own gardens, gardens were already mentioned in historical texts in the Nihon Shoki (the second oldest book of Japan), but they were not that well-maintained or stylised. After the introduction of the Chinese garden, the Japanese people were inspired and throughout the centuries the different styles of Japanese gardens were created. At first, gardens were mostly made for the richer people. After the introduction of Buddhism in Japan, gardens were also installed at temples and new ways of expressing oneself were found in the creation of a garden.

Japanese garden

Typical sight in a Japanese garden.

Now, what exactly makes a Japanese garden different from a Western garden? The biggest difference is the thought that feeds the creation of a garden. In the west, gardens were mainly made for the visual entertainment and to let people see the beautiful flower arrangements. In Japan, gardens are built as a way to express oneself and they have certain spiritual and philosophical ideas that help create the different parts of a garden. In a way, architects always tried to show a natural setting to show respect for the land and the spirits that exist in these lands. Every rock, tree, flower or even fish, was carefully thought about before they were put into the garden and each and every one of them have a meaning for the person who made the garden. There are many styles of Japanese gardens, but one thing that is always present in a Japanese garden, is water. It can be in the form of a pond, a river, or even sand. In the typical rock garden, white sand is used to represent water. Water represents the flow of life and has a cleansing power. It’s important to note that water always has to enter the Japanese garden from the east or southeast and flow towards the west. The water flows from the home of the Green Dragon, the divinity of the east, towards the home of the White Tiger, the divinity of the west, and in that way makes sure that the garden will be healthy and have a long life.

A sight in the Kenroku-en Garden in Kanazawa. One of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan.

A sight in the Kenroku-en Garden in Kanazawa. One of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan.

Different styles for Japanese gardens

As we have mentioned before, there is a great variety of styles for Japanese gardens. In this part, we will tell you more about the most prominent ones in a historical order.

Pond gardens or chisen-shoyū-teien

Most of the first Japanese gardens were pond gardens or chisen-shoyū-teien. The idea was imported form China and as the name might say, the garden is built around a pond or lake. This type of garden is always built behind the main building of a house. This building has two wings that reach out to the garden so guests can observe the garden from two different viewing platforms. It was also possible to tour the garden by boat and enjoy the beautiful scenery and even musicians who were placed on small islands in the pond for special occasions. Sadly, this day only reconstructions of this type of garden still exist.

A recreation of a pond garden at Heian-jingu.

A recreation of a pond garden at Heian-jingu.

Courtyard gardens or tsubo-niwa

The courtyard garden or tsubo-niwa, are tiny gardens that were made in the courtyard of houses and palaces during the Heian period. The size was about one tsubo, or 3.3 square meters and they were made to show nature’s beauty and provide some privacy for the residents. Throughout history, these type of gardens were also made by merchants and citizens. However, these gardens were not meant to be entered but only to be viewed. These gardens were usually made with a stone lantern, a small water basin, some trees and, ironically, stepping stones. Today, you can find tsubo-niwa in many Japanese homes, restaurants or shops.

A typical tsubo-niwa.

A typical tsubo-niwa.

Paradise gardens

The Paradise gardens were inspired by the concept of the Pure Land, or Jōdo, where Buddha contemplated a lotus pond. In this form of Japanese garden, a lake with an artificial island is the main element. This island is called Nakajima, and was the home of the Buddha Hall. It was connected to the main land by an arching bridge. One of these gardens survived time and can still be visited, the garden of the Phoenix Hall of the Byōdō-in Temple in Uji. It was built in 1053 CE and it is one of the only remaining Paradise gardens in Japan.

The Phoenix Hall with arched bridge.

The Phoenix Hall with arching bridge.

Rock gardens or karesansui

During the 14th century CE, rock gardens or karesansui grew in popularity. As the name might tell you, these gardens are made with just rocks, sand and sometimes some moss. This form of Japanese garden was meant for meditation and you had to sit down on the porch in front of it to contemplate life. The most famous example of this form of garden is the garden at the Ryōan-ji Temple in Kyoto

The famous Ryoan-ji rock garden.

The famous Ryoan-ji rock garden.

Teahouse gardens or roji

Roji is the path towards a teahouse and during the 14th and 15th century CE, and it was made to make people connect to their spirituality as they walk to the teahouse that is in the middle of the garden. These gardens are always lusciously green and moist and the path through it is made to resemble a mountain path. The roji starts from a fence and winds through the garden until visitors reach the teahouse. There, they have to wash their hands and rinse their mouths before entering the teahouse.

The winding path through the roji garden

The winding path through the roji garden

Promenade gardens or kaiyū-shiki-teien

The last form of Japanese garden in this article is the promenade garden or the kaiyū-shiki-teien. This style was introduced in the 17th century CE and was mostly used in gardens around villas or palaces. Visitors had to walk clockwise on a winding path that was made around a lake. This path would take them to different sceneries that each had its own story. Some of these sceneries might even be miniaturisation of famous natural items, such as Mount Fuji. The promenade garden used two different techniques called shakkei, or borrowing of sceneryand miegakure, or hide-and-reveal. The first one means that the architect would use external natural elements as part of the garden. In this way, a mountain in the background could be used to emphasize the way a tree was shaped. Miegakure just means that the winding path is constantly hiding following sceneries from the visitor. In this way, visitors can only see a scenery when they enter it. 

A miniaturised Mount Fuji at the Suizen-ji Joju-en in Kumamoto.

A miniaturised Mount Fuji at the Suizen-ji Joju-en in Kumamoto.

As you can see, a Japanese garden can mean more than meets the eye. Hopefully you can see a Japanese garden in a different way the next time you visit one. If you’re in Belgium and you want to visit a Japanese garden, we suggest you visit the Japanese garden in Hasselt. It’s the biggest Japanese garden in Europe and certainly is worth a visit.

If you have questions or want to tell us something, don’t be afraid to leave a comment, send us a mail or message us on Facebook.


Japanese Prefectures – Akita (秋田)

Akita – Relax and be a samurai. Just watch out for the demons.

Welcome to another entry in the Japanese Prefectures column. Today you will join us on our journey to the Akita prefecture. What’s on the program? Festivals, demons searching for lazy children, tons of hot springs and samurai villages.


Typical view in the Akita prefecture.

Geography and history

Akita shares its borders with the Sea of Japan in the west, the prefecture of Aomori in the north, the prefecture of Iwate in the east, the prefecture of Miyagi in the southeast and the prefecture of Yamagata in the south. On its coastline, you can find the Oga Peninsula, famous for its Namahage Festival and much more. The eastern border is defined by the Ōu Mountains, the longest mountain range in Japan with a length of about 500 kilometers. The prefecture’s industry is mostly focused on agriculture, fishing and forestry but it is especially known for its rice farming and sake brewing. It is also the prefecture with the highest consumption of sake. Akita City is the capital of the prefecture and has a population of about 317,236 people. It’s a lively city with an amazing variety of cultural activities and festivals. Lastly, Akita is thought to be the origin place of the Akita inu, the cutest dog in existence.

The Akita prefecture.

The Akita prefecture.

Akita’s history is quite comparable to the rest of the prefectures located in the Touhoku Region. Being isolated due to the mountain ranges on its borders, Akita was only made part of the Japanese empire around 600 CE. The native people were conquered around 658 by Abe no Hirafu, a governor of the Koshi Province located south from modern day Akita. He built a fort along the Mogami river and made Akita part of the governed land. During the Japanese mission to drive the native inhabitants away from the Touhoku region, Akita city was established as a base in 733. After years of different clans having control over the prefecture, it was finally reconstructed in 1871 into what is now known as the Akita prefecture.

Akita Castle.

Akita Castle.

Must-see locations

Akita 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 ones for you.

First of all, let’s focus on the city of Akita, the capital of the prefecture. This old city borders the Sea of Japan and, as said before, has quite a lot to offer concerning culture and festivals. You can also find a lot of interesting historical sites in the city. For starters, you can always visit the Akita Castle that was the base of operations in the region for centuries. After having been under control of different clans, a lot of historical artifacts can be found here. The city of Akita also houses a nice collection of museums for those who value culture and art. It is recommended to visit the Akita Museum of Art if you visit the city. But Akita is mostly known for its Kanto Festival that takes place from the 3rd of August until the 6th. During this festival long bamboo poles with an array of paper lanterns attached to them are paraded through the city. Performers balance these poles on their heads or hands and create a superb festival feeling.

The Kanto Festival in Akita City.

The Kanto Festival in Akita City.

For travellers with an interest in Japanese folk tales, Oga Peninsula is the place to be. This peninsula is home to the Namahage Museum and Namahage Festival. Namahage are typical Japanese demons or oni. Their appearance is that of a man wearing a demon mask and a straw cape and armed with a knife and a wooden bucket. Their purpose is to berate the lazy children or those with bad behaviour. They march in pairs or threes past the houses and stop at every door, looking for children that they can punish. In the museum, you can find different dolls of the different Namahage. During the annual festival that takes place on New Year’s Eve, people dress up as Namahage and visit the different people. After receiving sake and mochi or ricecakes, they leave the house and bless the family with eternal good health, a good catch and a splendid harvest. Next to the folky vibe that exists on the Oga Peninsula, it is also the perfect place for sightseeing and hiking. The peninsula hosts an amazing nature and if you’re lucky, you’ll even see the Godzilla Rock. Which is a rock, shaped like Godzilla. Yes. A Godzilla-shaped rock.

Different Namahage.

Different Namahage.

Oh, you’ve always wanted to know how samurai lived and what they did every day? If that’s the case, you might want to visit Kakunodate. This city used to be a castle town that was established in 1620. Today you can’t find the castle anymore but the old samurai district and merchant district that were built around it, are still there and still look the same. This is one of the best places in Japan to witness the old samurai architecture. And if that’s not enough, it is also one of Touhoku’s most popular cherry blossom spots. More than a million visitors visit Kakunodate yearly and enjoy hundreds of beautiful trees that are losing their blossoms.

A view of the Samurai District.

A view of the Samurai District.

Lastly, Akita also has a vibrant and beautiful environment. This is seen in Hachimantai, a mountainous region in northern Akita. You will not only find a volcanic landscape there, but the region is also filled with rustic onsen or hot springs. You can find a great number of different onsen but our favourite is probably the Nyuto Onsen, which is a collection of eight different onsen. One is even ranked as best of the best and is definitely a must-visit. Its name is Tsurunoyu Onsen and its ryokan, or Japanese inn, was built during the Edo Period (1603-1867). It is a hot spring at its best. If you would rather go hiking, a trip to Mount Hachimantai is recommended. This mountain has a collection of hiking trails that offer some of the best sightseeing spots in the region combined with a breathtakingly beautiful landscape.

One of the Nyuto Onsen in Hachimantai.

One of the Nyuto Onsen in Hachimantai.

How to get there?

You can travel to the Akita prefecture by many ways. By train, you can take the Akita Shinkansen from Tokyo and there are also smaller lines that take you to Akita from different places in the Touhoku region. If you have a rental car, you can always take the Touhoku Expressway. This expressway runs from Kawaguchi, near Tokyo,  to Aomori through the entire region. And finally, you can always take the plane to one of the two different airports in the Akita prefecture.

The best roadmap of Akita we could find.

The best roadmap of Akita we could find.

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

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

Six traditional ways of expression: Music

Music: poetry of the soul

Hello fellow Inari readers! In any culture or society music has been one of the strongest ways to express one’s feelings. It was also like this with the Japanese. Let us dig a bit in the world of Japanese tradition and discover how they expressed their feelings with music!


Gagaku (雅楽) is the oldest form of traditional Japanese music. Although it was imported from China at the end of the sixth century, it is different since it is used more as a form of banquet music than a form of ceremonial music. Just like Shōmyō, a Buddhist genre added at sutra readings, it uses the ‘yo scale’: a music scale that uses five tones per octave. By the seventh century, the koto and biwa were also introduced in Japan and used in these musical pieces. At the height of its popularity; in the tenth century, more than twenty instruments were used in gagaku. In the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) its use was heavily reduced under influence of the upcoming samurai class. Only in the Edo Period (1603-1868) it knew a renewed rise in popularity.

a gagaku performance - music

A gagaku performance.

To the western listener gagaku will sounds strange and even alien. Its slow pace and sharp tones, especially from the sho, a group of bamboo pipes that create distant, and sometimes eerie tones, makes it hard for lots of people to appreciate it the first time they hear it. For those that go beyond that phase, gagaku can be music of serenity and spirituality, so don’t be afraid to check it out to hear for yourself if it is something for you!


There are a lot of instruments the Japanese used in traditional times. We will focus on the most known. First up is the shamisen (三味線), a snared instrument with three strings slightly resembling a guitar and played with a heavy and large kind of plectrum. The shamisen evolved from the sanshin (三線), a three-stringed instrument originating from the Okinawa region, and this was based on the Chinese sanxian. Its use is varied, as it can be played solo, or in groups and ensembles. Furthermore it is often played at drama plays like bunraku or kabuki or accompanied by singing. The term used for music on shamisen is shamisenongaku.

a portraying of a geisha playing at a party

A portraying of a geisha playing at a party.

Next is Shakuhachi (尺八), a traditionally bamboo flute of about 55 cm long. The name itself means 55 cm (in obsolete Japanese measurements). This instrument was introduced in the late sixth century from China, and became a favorite instrument of komusō, or ‘monks of emptiness’: Zen Buddhist monks of the Fuke sect. These are recognized by the wicker baskets on their heads. At the start of the Meiji period (1868-1912) the shakuhachi was banned for several years before being allowed again. Though traditionally the shakuhachi was played by men, recently more and more female players are learning to play it.

three komusō playing the shakuhachi

Three komusō playing the shakuhachi

Sōkyoku (筝曲) is music played with the koto (箏), a type of zither with 13 strings. Later the koto was accompanied by shamisen and shakuhachi. It gained popularity in the Edo period (1603-1867) There are two main forms of Sōkyoku: the Ikuta ryu, where the shamisen takes on a big role, and the Yamada ryu, where they focus on singing.

postcard of a geisha playing the koto

Postcard of a geisha playing the koto

Lastly we have biwagaku, music that uses the biwa (琵琶). The biwa is an instrument resembling a lute. One of the most known forms of Biwagaku is biwa hoshi. This form combines music with storytelling and was traditionally used by blind performers also called biwa hoshi. One of the most known stories in this style is ‘the tale of the Heike’, which tells the fall of the Taira clan and rise of the Minamoto clan.

'Hoichi the Earless', a mythical biwa hoshi

‘Hoichi the Earless’, a mythical biwa hoshi


The term ‘Min’yo’ (民謡) was only created recently, in the twentieth century. It is the translation for the German word for ‘folk song’. Each region has its own specific songs and this stems from its traditional use: originally min’yo were songs for a specific trade or event, and were sung between work or on specific jobs, though songs for simple entertainment were also possible. Nowadays many of these songs have instrumental accompaniment, but in essence they are to be sung alone or in groups. It is said that for many (Japanese) people min’yo evokes a feeling of nostalgia to a real or imagined distant home or distant relatives.

Min'yo performers

Min’yo performers


Lastly we will talk about the percussion part of music, and in no way is this expressed more in Japan than taiko (太鼓). Though in Japan the term is used for any kind of drum, in the Western world the term references mainly to the specific types of Japanese drums and its performance, called kumi-daiko. This however, is a recent form of taiko invented by Daihachi Oguchi (小口 大八) in 1951. Before that the drums were mainly used as a rhythmic accompaniment to other performances or on Bon or other festivals. An even older use was in warfare: to issue orders, motivate the troops or set a marching rhythm. Interesting trivia: according to legend taiko originated when the goddess Amaterasu locked herself away in a cave out of anger, and another goddess, Ame-no-Uzume, emptied a sake barrel and danced on top of it to lure Amaterasu out of the cave.

Kumi Daiko

Kumi Daiko

This marks the end of our short glance on traditional music in Japan. As ever, if you have any questions or comments, do not be afraid to ask or post them! Inari out!

Japanese holidays and festivals in May

Japanese festivities during May

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 May. In this month, you will see flying koi, historical parades and much more.

Golden Week and the three different holidays

In our article about Japanese Holidays and Festivals in April we told you about the Golden Week that revolves around 4 different holidays. Three of those holidays occur during May and we’ll tell you about all three of them.

Constitutional Memorial Day or Kenpō Kinenbi (憲法記念日)

The first one is called Constitutional Memorial Day or Kenpō Kinenbi, and it is celebrated on the third of May.  On this day, Japan celebrates the enactment of the Constitution of Japan in 1947. and it was held in 1948 for the first time. The original meaning of this holiday was to think about what democracy actually is and what the Japanese government’s task really is. However, because it is also part of the Golden Week, most Japanese people use this day as vacation and go on a trip. Some papers may publish editorials about certain articles in the Constitution of Japan so that people can reflect on their meaning. This year should be an interesting edition because the Japanese government approved a legislation that allowed the Japanese military to participate in foreign events. A legislation that has met quite some resistance from the Japanese citizens but has come in effect on the 29th of March, 2016.

People celebrating Constitutional

People celebrating constitutional Memorial Day.

Greenery Day or Midori no Hi (みどりの日)

Greenery Day or Midori no Hi is celebrated the day afterwards. Originally it was held on the 29th of April as a celebration of Emperor Shōwa’s birthday but in 1989 it’s name was changed to Greenery Day because Emperor Akihito ascended to the throne. The name Greenery Day was chosen because the late Emperor Shōwa had a controversial love for everything that had to do with nature. In present times, it is just a holiday that makes the Golden Week longer.

The nature so loved by the late Emperor.

The nature so loved by the late Emperor.

Children’s Day or Kodomo no Hi (こどもの日)

The last one of the Golden Week holidays is Children’s Day or Kodomo no Hi, and is celebrated on the fifth of May. On this day, the people in Japan celebrate their children. Families raise carp-shaped flags, also called koinobori, to symbolise the father, the mother and one for each child. Originally this holiday was made to celebrate young boys because young girls were celebrated on Hinamatsuri. But in 1948, the Japanese government decided to put the focus on all the Japanese children.

Typical Koinobori.

Typical Koinobori.

Hollyhock Festival or Aoi Matsuri (葵祭)

This matsuri is one of the three main festivals in Kyoto and it is held on the 15th of May. During this festival, the followers of two different shrines organise a grand parade throughout the city. The people walking in this parade, are dressed like people from the Heian period (794-1185) as they walk from the Imperial Palace to the two Kamo shrines, two of the oldest and most popular shrines in Kyoto. The origin of this festival are natural disasters that occurred in the 8th century CE. After Emperor decided to make offerings to the Gods, these natural disasters stopped happening. Since then, the festival has been celebrated every year. The parade starts at 10.30  at the Southern Gate of the Imperial Palace and passes the first Kamo Shrine at 11.15. The parade stops there for a couple of hours of ceremonies. Afterwards it leaves to the second Kamo Shrine and it arrives there at 15.30. The parade itself is an hour long and consists of giant bouquets of flowers, horses and kimono-clad women who are escorting the Saio of the year. The Saio was originally a young female member of the Imperial Family that served as high priestess of the shrines. Today a unmarried woman from Kyoto is chosen as Saio and must participate in purification ceremonies. During the parade, she is carried around on a palanquin.

The Saio being carried around.

The Saio being carried around.

Three Shrine Festival or  Sanja Matsuri (三社祭)

The Sanja Matsuri is one of the three great Shinto festivals in Tokyo and it is held during the third weekend of May at the Asakusa District in Tokyo. It is one of the most popular matsuri in Japan and it receives more than 2 million visitors every year. The festival is held for three consecutive days. It starts on Friday with a parade of geisha, musicians, city officials, priests and dancers in Edo period costumes. Afterwards a Shinto ceremony is held at the Asakusa Shrine. During the afternoon, the first of the mikoshi, or portable Shinto shrines, are carried through the streets accompanied by musicians. On Saturday almost 100 neighbourhood mikoshi are carried out to get blessings at the Asakusa Shrine or the Sensoji Temple. Afterwards, they are carried back to their neighbourhoods. On Sunday, hundreds of festivalgoers come together at 6.00 am at the Asakusa Shrine to try to be one of the carriers of the three great Asakusa mikoshi. The mikoshi  are carried throughout the district and are carried back to their shrine during the evening. If you want to take part in the Sanja Matsuri this year, it takes place from the 13th of May till the 15th of May.

People carrying one of the Japanese Asakusa mikoshi.

People carrying one of the Asakusa mikoshi.

These are the most important Japanese holidays and festivals that take place in May. 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 June.