Japanese Prefectures – Fukushima (福島)

Fukushima – Hawaiian resorts, nature in its purest form and amazing castles

Welcome to the prefecture of Fukushima. A prefecture that suffered greatly during the 2011 Tōhoku Disaster but has since found hope and is simply beautiful. Take a look around and discover lush marhslands, amazing castles, a little bit of Hawaii and volcanic sceneries.

Lake Inawashiro, one of the biggest lakes in Japan.

Lake Inawashiro, one of the biggest lakes in Japan.

Geography and history

The Fukushima prefecture is the southernmost and last prefecture of the Tōhoku region. It is the third largest prefecture in Japan and is bordered by the Pacific Ocean in the east, the prefectures of Miyagi and Yamagata in the north, the prefecture of Niigata in the west and the prefectures of Gunma, Tochigi and Ibaraki in the south. Fukushima is divided in three regions: Aizu, Nakadōri and Hamadōri. the Aizu region is in the west and contains a lot of mountains, lakes and lush nature. Nakadōri is the heart of the prefecture and is known for its agricultural strength. Hamadōri is the region in the East that borders the Pacific Ocean. This coastal region was hit the most by the 2011 Tōhoku Disaster. The capital of the Fukushima prefecture is Fukushima City and it is located in the Nakadōri region of the prefecture. The prefecture is mostly known for its sake, lacquerware and an assortment of fruits like pears, peaches and cherries.

Fukushima

A map of the regions in Fukushima

As most prefectures in the vicinity, Fukushima was also part of the Mutsu Province until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Two barriers were made to defend ‘civilised Japan’ from the barbarians in the north. Sadly, there are no remains left of these barriers and you will only find stone monuments where the barriers used to stand. In 1882, the so-called ‘Fukushima Incident’ happened after the appointment of Mishima Michitsune as governor. This appointment was opposed by two groups of activists who came together and formed their own party called the ‘Fukushima Jiyūtō’ or the Liberal Party. They thought Mishima had a secret mission and were afraid that he would try to get rid of them. After a lot of political dancing, activists of the Jiyūtō were attacked during their sleep by agents of the government and their opposition was weakened strongly.

A stone monument where the Shirakawa Barrier used to be.

A stone monument where the Shirakawa Barrier used to be.

Of course we cannot talk about the history of Fukushima without mentioning the 2011 Tōhoku Disaster that happened on the 11th of March in 2011. On this day a massive earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 occurred off the coast of the Miyagi prefecture. The tsunami that followed hit the Hamadōri region in Fukushima with an unopposable strength and destroyed lives and buildings. In total, 1,817 residents of the Fukushima Prefecture are confirmed dead or missing. In 2015, a report confirmed that the entire disaster was the cause of 15,894 deaths, 6,152 injured and 2,562 people missing. After the disaster, it was clear that the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was damaged. The outer housing of two of the six reactors exploded and partially melted down. This is seen as the biggest nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl disaster and is the second disaster that received the level 7 event classification of the International Nuclear Event Scale. Level 7 is the highest level on this scale. To this day, a safe zone with a radial of 20 kilometres around the area still exists.

Explosion of one of the reactors at the Daiichi Nuclear Plant.

Explosion of one of the reactors at the Daiichi Nuclear Plant.

Must-see locations

The first location we recommend is Aizuwakamatsu. This castle town is located 100 kilometres west of the nuclear powerplants and the area around it didn’t have a higher radiation level than before the accident. Aizuwakamatsu is surrounded by lovely natural scenes, mountains and rivers. This town is very old and has a lot of cultural attractions that are simply amazing. You can visit the burial mounds or kofun that were made in the fourth century CE, take a look at the fascinating Aizuwakamatsu Castle, which is a replica sadly, or take a stroll between the old samurai houses that are still maintained. Do you want to relax? Visit some of the old onsen that are spread out over the town. People who like Japanese gardens should visit the Aizu Matsudaira’s Royal Garden, a garden that was designed in the 1380’s and has a more than 400 different kinds of medicinal herbs. The garden pond called Shinji no ike, is shaped like the kanji for heart (心) and will provide you with peace and harmony. This old town is definitely worth a visit for those among us who want to see some cultural and natural beauty.

The lovely Aizuwakamatsu Castle.

The lovely Aizuwakamatsu Castle.

Do you want to see some more untamed nature? Go visit the Bandai Region in the Fukushima prefecture. This region is located in the western part of the prefecture and houses a great amount of hiking and walking trails and places to ski at. The entire region is actively volcanic and because of that, the views you’ll get while hiking are breathtaking and raw. In the centre of the region stands Mount Bandai, a volcano that erupted for the last time in 1886, giving it a very iconic appearance. Due to the eruption, the landscape became dotted with ponds and highlands with lovely scenery and amazing trails were created. These highlands are called the Urabandai which literally means ‘behind Bandai’. To the south of Mount Bandai, you can find one of the biggest lakes in Japan, Lake Inawashiro, and north of Mount Bandai is Mount Azuma, a unique volcanic mountain range that towers above the horizon.

Mount Bandai dwarfing the countryside.

Mount Bandai dwarfing the countryside.

Iwaki used to be a coal mining town that lost its shine when oil started to be used even more in Japan. As a way to fix this, Iwaki built the Spa Resorts Hawaiians to draw in tourists and save the town. This resort is without a doubt unique and if you are passing by, make sure to take a look inside the first themepark ever built in Japan. The mascots of this themepark are the dancing Hula Girls and they are a popular sight in the prefecture. After the 2011 disaster, they toured the prefecture and kept hope up for the inhabitants of Fukushima. Beside watching the dancing performance, the themepark has a lot more entertainment to offer. Spa Resorts Hawaiians is divided in different parts. The Water Park is filled with different pools and slides. You can also visit two different onsen, one unisex indoor onsen in the Spring Park and another gender separated one outside that is said to be the biggest outdoor onsen in Japan. The last park, Vir Park, is mostly used for dancing lessons, massages and much, much more.

One of the many indoor pools at Iwaki's Spa Resorts Hawaiians.

One of the many indoor pools at Iwaki’s Spa Resorts Hawaiians.

Finally, we want to show you the Oze National Park. It’s a natural paradise. This National Park only 100 kilometres north from Tokyo, is known for its Ozegahara Marshlands and the Onezuma Pond. By using perfectly maintained walking trails, you can discover this beautiful park yourself and be amazed by its pure atmosphere and lovely colours. The Ozegahara Marshlands are six kilometres by one kilometre in size and are guarded by Mount Shibutsu and Mount Hiuchigatake. Because the walking trail isn’t that long, it is one of the most popular walking trails in the park. In late May and early June, white skunk cabbages sprout out of the ground delivering a stunning sight of the Marshlands. The walking trails pass through, around and over the park, making it easy to enter and leave the park where you want. You can even stay the night in one of the cosy mountain huts. It’s a place that is on Inari’s bucketlist, that’s for sure.

Mount Shibutsu towering over the Marshlands.

Mount Shibutsu towering over the Marshlands.

How to get there?

Being close to Tokyo, Fukushima is very easy to reach. You can get there by plane, by Shinkansen, by train or by bus. If you rather want to go by car and be free, you can easily reach everything in the prefecture. There are simply no reasons not to take a look at this hidden pearl. Just make sure not to enter the safe zone around the Daiichi Nuclear Plant.

A map including the safe zone and the levels of radiation.

A map including the safe zone and the levels of radiation.

So do you want to visit Fukushima now? We hope that we have showed you the different reasons to visit this lovely place. If you want to know more about travelling to Fukushima, leave a comment, send us a mail or please visit this page.

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

6 traditional forms of expression – Japanese sport

Japanese sport – Find your fighting spirit

In our final segment of ‘6 traditional forms of expression’, Inari would like to tell you a bit more about the traditional Japanese sports. Join us in our discovery and find out if there is a sport in this article that you wanted to practice all along but just didn’t know yet.

Different traditional Japanese sports

In this article we chose some of the most popular Japanese sports, we also chose to only talk about martial arts. Be ready to feel your fighting spirit as you read about the five Japanese sports we chose. First of all, we’ll tell you a bit about kendo, a sport that utilises a bamboo sword and one of the most amazing looking armours you can imagine. Secondly, the sport jujutsu will be look at. This sport was the foundation for many modern sports and should be respected as that. The third one is the all-famous sumo. This popular sport is only practised on a professional level in Japan and the wrestlers receive quite some attention in Japan. The second to last sport in this article is karate, a sport that we all grew up with while watching ‘The Karate Kid’. Last but not least, we’ll tell you about kyūdō or the way of the bow. This amazing looking sport is definitely one that deserves a lot of attention.

Kendo – The way of the sword

Kendo (剣道) is a sword fighting sport that is based on the traditional art of kenjutsu or the art of the sword. During the Shotoku Period (1711-1716) Naganuma Shirōzaemon Kunisato, a kenjutsu practitioner, introduced the use of a bamboo sword, or shinai, and an armour, or bogu. to the art and created a special form of training what later would become the standard way of training kendo. A bogu has different parts, a headpiece called men, armour for the hands called kote, armour for the chest called dō and a tare that protects the waist. Underneath the bogu a kendoka wears a hakama, which is a very wide pants, a keikogi which is a form of jacket and a tenugi or headband underneath the men. He also introduced the style exercises called kata that are still being studied to this day. In 1820, Chiba Shusaku Narimasa, a famous sword legend in Japan, introduced Gekiken. A form of full-contact duels with shinai and bogu that received a lot of attention and became quite popular in Japan over the years. These duels are very loud because the kendoka shows fighting spirit by using a kiai or shout. In 1920 this form of kenjutsu was called kendo but it was prohibited in 1946 after the Second World War and was reintroduced in the 50s as a way to pass the time. Today it is believed that globally about 6 million people practice kendo.  You can see some kendo action in this movie.

Japanese sport

Two kendoka fighting in a shiai or match.

Jujutsu – Foundation for a lot of other martial sports

Jujutsu (柔術) is a martial art that can be seen as the foundation for different other martial arts like judo and aikido. In this sport, practitioners use their opponent’s own force against them to defeat them. This form of Japanese sport was created to defeat the Japanese samurai. Because it was inefficient to strike an armour-clad opponent, the users of the sport resort to pins, joint locks and throws. Founded in the Sengoku period (1467-1603), this Japanese sport had quite some different styles and ways of practicing the different techniques, giving birth to Japanese sports like judo. Today this Japanese sport is practised in its traditional and modern form. The students learn a great variety of fatal techniques but since the sport is not practised in a competitive environment, the risk is not that big. Each student also learns every possible way to break a fall to minimise injuries. The name actually means ‘gentle art’ because it uses the power of an opponent instead of using your own force.

An old photograph op people practising jujutsu!

An old photograph op people practising jujutsu!

Sumo – Sport of the stars

Every person has probably heard of sumo (相撲), one of the most famous Japanese sports. In this sport that dates back to Edo period (1603-1868), a wrestler or rikishi tries to force another rikishi out of the ring or on the floor with any other bodypart other than their feet. However, the sport also has more ancient origins in shinto stories and practices. Used as a way to promote the harvest, sumo has been part of the Japanese society for a long time. Sumo is the a sport that is only practices professionally in Japan and has quite a following. The life of a sumo wrestler is actually very interesting. Each and every one of them lives in their dojo and according to their rank have different chores and ways of training. The hierarchy at a dojo or in the sumo rankings is very important and decides everything in the life of a rikishi, such as salary, what type of dress to wear in public, when to wake up, etc. The highest rank in sumo is the rank of Yokozuna. You can easily identify the yokozuna by the shinto rope or shimenawa that is tied around his waist during ceremonies and other formal occasions. Ranked sumo wrestlers are actually as popular as someone can be in Japan.

An amazing view during a sumo match.

An amazing view during a sumo match.

Karate – Enter Mr. Miyagi

Karate (空手), which literally means ’empty hand’ is a martial art that originated from China and was introduced in the Ryukyu Kingdom, now Okinawa, by trade around the 1600s. This form of martial art had a great variety of different styles and schools and focused on hand-to-hand combat with all sorts of punches, kicks and other fighting techniques. Gichin Funakoshi, who founded the Japanese sport of Shotokan karate, brought the martial art to the mainland in the late 19th century and changed a lot of the names for the exercises and kata. He did this because Japan was at war with China at the time and he thought that the Japanese people would not accept a sport with Chinese names for everything. in 1936 he built his dojo in Tokyo and Shotokan karate was named after that building. At the same time, karate was also systematised by adding a white uniform and the coloured belts that signify the rank of the karateka or person who practices karate. A second Japanese school was founded in 1956 by Masutatsu Oyama under the name Kyokushin karate. This style is more physical and is seen as the full contact way of karate. Out of this school, a lot of other styles and schools were established throughout the 20th century. It is thought that between 50 and a 100 million, depending on the source, people practise karate worldwide. Because Okinawa became an important American military site after the Second World War, karate was also introduced to the American soldiers and became a popular way to spend their free time, helping karate to reach the West.

The Japanese Female Karate Team warming up.

The Japanese Female Karate Team warming up.

Kyūdō – The way of the bow

Kyūdō (弓道) or the way of the bow is a Japanese sport that is the oldest one in this article. Japan already used bows in the 6th century BCE and around the 12th century CE, the first school of kyujutsu, or art of the bow, was created by Henmi Kiyomitsu. Throughout the following centuries, the sport was optimised by different schools and war strategist but once the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century CE with their firearms, Japan quickly integrated this new weapon in their military, lowering the use of a bow or yumi. After Japan closed its borders during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), the bow regained some of its popularity but once the borders were opened again in the Meiji period (1968-1912) quickly declined again. It would take until 1949 before the Japanese sport was popularised again. Right now, there are about 133 thousand people who practise the sport in the world. Some prefer the militaristic way of kyūdō, and others follow the more ceremonial styles. The bow or yumi is not to be compared with the Western bow. Standing at more than 2 meters tall, this asymmetric bow is quite hard to handle but it definitely looks awesome when a trained kyūdōka fires and arrow.

Kyudo practitioners out in the field.

Kyudo practitioners out in the field.

This was our short introduction into five amazing Japanese sports that we think should be known by everyone. If we made a mistake about a sport because we don’t don’t practice any of these, feel free to contact us or send us an email at info@inarivzw.be.

Since this was the last article in our column ‘6 traditional forms of expression’, you must be wondering what’s next. Without further ado, our next column will be about 6 Japanese movie directors who deserve a place in your cupboard! Prepare to be amazed by the beautiful Japanese cinema.

Japanese holidays and festivals in June

Japanese festivities during June

During the month of June, no Japanese national holidays take place. But, no stress, there are three nice Japanese festivals instead. Join us and celebrate the different festivals that take place in Japan during the month of June.

Atsuta Festival or Atsuta Matsuri (熱田祭)

This Japanese festival takes place on the 5th of June in Nagoya and is held at the Atsuta Jingu Shrine. This shrine is seen as one of the most sacred shrines in Japan and has more than 9 million visitors annually. It is believed that Kusanagi, the holy sword of the  Emperor and one of the three Imperial regalia, is kept here. During this festival, you can see a wide range of traditional Japanese arts such as taiko (Japanese drums), kendo (a Japanese sport with bamboo swords) and traditional dance. The festival starts at 10 a.m. at the shrine itself with a beautiful ceremony dedicated to the deities of the shrine and during the day you can see the Japanese arts. At night, the precinct around the shrine turns into a fair that has small stalls with food, beautiful lanterns and even a firework show at the end. However, the most popular attraction during this Japanese festival are the five Kento Makawari, huge floats that are decorated with lanterns and that are placed near the torii of the shrine.

Japanese parade

The parade!

Sannō Festival or Sannō Matsuri (山王祭)

This festival takes place in every year with an even number in the middle of June at Tokyo. This year it started on the 10th of June. It is one of the three greatest Shinto festivals in Tokyo and takes place for an entire week. It is mostly famous for its parade that starts and ends at the Hie Shrine, a shrine that houses the guardian deity of Tokyo. This shrine was associated with the Tokugawa family and in Japanese history this festival was held as a celebration of the nation’s political centre and those in charge. These days however, the parade is much smaller so it won’t interfere with the traffic that much. The parade of about 500 people dressed in colourful costumes, starts at the Hie Shrine at 7.30 a.m. and arrives at the Imperial Palace around noon. After a short break, the parade continues towards other shrines until it returns to the shrine. At the shrine, visitors can find a large straw ring standing in the middle of the shrine grounds. By walking through the ring, you can purify yourself.

One of the mikoshi during the festival.

One of the mikoshi during the festival.

Yotaka Festival or Yotaka Matsuri (夜高祭)

The last Japanese festival in this article has different dates depending on where it’s held but in the city of Tonami, it takes place on the 10th and 11th of June. This festival is held to make sure that the next harvest will be bountiful. During this festival, each neighbourhood makes its own giant lantern float and parade it through the city. The carriers drink sake and are being guided by people playing different music instruments. Once the mood is settled, each neighbourhood starts participating in the takiawase, a competition where the carriers climb on top of the floats and the floats collide with each other to try to destroy other floats. This tradition differs in each region, but in Tonami they charge each other head on and try to destroy the other float. In other regions, they will race side by side while trying to kick and punch the other float. You can watch a video of a collision here. As violent as this might seem, it is still a community activity and is meant to bring joy and fun!

Collision!

Collision!

These are the most important Japanese  festivals that take place in June. 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 July.

Japanese Prefectures – Yamagata (山形)

Yamagata – Skiing, pilgrimages and time to relax

Welcome in the prefecture of Yamagata, a mountainous region with a spiritual and natural history. Join us in our trip and discover the different reasons to visit this lovely prefecture.

Yamagata

A typical sight in the Yamagata prefecture.

Geography and history

Yamagata is located in the north-western part of the Tōhoku region and is bordered by the Sea of Japan in the West, the prefectures of Niigata and Fukushima in the South, the prefecture of Miyagi in the East and the prefecture of Akita in the North. All of these borders are natural borders made by various mountain ranges. Due to Yamagata’s mountainous geography, the biggest share of its population lives on the central flat plain around the capital of Yamagata City. Besides having a lot of mountains, about 17% of Yamagata’s land is registered as Natural Parks. The prefecture is mostly known for its fruit, especially the Yamagata cherry and pear are famous.

A map of Yamagata.

A map of Yamagata.

As expected, the history of this prefecture is again comparable with the history of the other prefectures in this region. Yamagata was originally inhabited by the indigenous Ezo people who basically were all native people living in the northern part of Japan. This day, these people are called the Ainu. Up until the start of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Yamagata was part of the Dewa Province and was ruled by the famous Fujiwara clan. They transformed what is know Yamagata City into a flourishing castle town that thrived thanks to its production of the red safflower and its post station. After the Meiji Restoration, the prefecture got its name and grew out to be the prefecture it is today. It is interesting to note that Yamagata is known for its dialect, Yamagata-ben, sadly, in most of Japan it is seen as a lesser form of Japanese and it is often used in popular media to create the setting of a backwards and rural town.

Yamagata City.

Yamagata City.

Must-see locations

The first location that is simply a must-visit is the Yama-dera, which is literally a temple on top of a mountain that looks out over Yamagata city. This temple was founded in 860 as a temple for the Tendai school of Buddhism and a way to bring Buddhism to northern Japan. To get to the temple on top of the mountain, you have to hike up a mountain trail for 30 minutes and you’ll see an amazing temple complex and view over the city. Along the path are various small temples and once you arrive at the top, you can find the famous Kaisando Hall that was built in memory of the founder of the temple. There is also the Godaido Hall that has an observation deck where you’ll get an amazing panoramic view of the valley.  If this climb of about 1,000 steps is too difficult, you can always enjoy the different shops, buildings and Konponchudo Hall, which is the main hall of Yama-dera. This wooden building is the oldest of the complex and it is said that the flame that is burning inside, has been burning since the founding of the temple. For the people with an interest in Japanese poetry, the famous Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō once visited this place and wrote a haiku about it.

The breathtakingly beautiful Yama-dera.

The breathtakingly beautiful Yama-dera.

There are quite some mountains in Yamagata, so of course there are also quite some mountain shrines. The most famous ones in Yamagata are without a doubt Dewa Sanzan. These three mountains are a centre of the Shugendo school like Kumano Kodō and each have a shrine on its top. The followers of this school do pilgrimages from mountain to mountain in a specific order.The first mountain is called Haguro-San and it represents birth, the second one is called Gas-San and it represents death and the third one is Yudono-San and represents rebirth. This Shugendo centre is also known for its extreme test of belief and endurance. At the Churenji and Dainichibo temples, two monks have preserved themselves as mummies with the help of an extreme diet and meditation. Even though this practice is forbidden today, these two monks are seen as living Buddhas.

A five-story pagoda on the route to one of the three mountains.

A five-story pagoda on the route to one of the three mountains.

This one is for the winter sport lovers out there. Mount Zao is a mountain on the border between Yamagata and Miyagi. During the winter it transforms in one of the most famous ski resorts in Japan and one of the only places to see ‘snow monsters’. These snow monsters are actually trees that are fully coated in snow and ice, transforming them in silhouettes of monsters on the ski slopes. The longest ski course starts at the place where most snow monsters are and is 10 kilometres long. After skiing your heart out, you can always relax in the local onsen and enjoy the snow monsters that are lit up from a distance. During the rest of the year, you can visit the local onsen town and Okama Crater that we talked about in our article about the Miyagi Prefecture.

A collection of snow monsters!

A collection of snow monsters!

The last location that simply is a must-see is the hot spring town called Ginzan Onsen. This secluded town is found in the mountains of the Yamagata prefecture. It used to be a town that was built close to a silver mine. These days however, it is a famous relaxing town filled with different onsen houses and historical ryokan, or Japanese inns. The buildings are made in a historical architectural style with a lot of wood and  plaster, reminding the visitors of a Japan that used to be. One ryokan however, is redesigned by the Japanese architect Kuma Kengo and was rebuilt in a modern style, turning it into an exception of the normal street view in Ginzan Onsen. Tourist can also hike on a natural path and find the old silver mines that have a part that is accessible for visitors. The path winds past a beautiful waterfall and gives a stunning view for nature lovers.

The town with the modern ryokan designed by

The town with the modern ryokan designed by Kuma Kengo.

How to get there?

Yamagata has two airports that have connections with Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Sapporo. Furthermore, due to the extensive railroad network in the Tōhoku Region, you can easily get to most places in the Yamagata. You can even get there by Shinkansen from Tokyo. If you’d rather go by car, it’s possible to hit the road and reach most places. Be careful however, because there are a lot of mountains in Yamagata, it can be hard to reach some places and it is definitely advisable to research the accessibility of the places you want to visit!

A roadmap of Yamagata.

A roadmap of Yamagata.

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

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

Six traditional ways of expression: Poetry

The language of the soul: poetry

Hello and welcome in the next installment of ‘six traditional ways of expresssion’. Today we are going to look at the land where words are mightier than the sword, and feelings are often abundantly expressed. Yes: today is all about traditional Japanese poetry, or waka in Japanese.

Waka (和歌)

Waka poetry written in Japanese (in contrast to the older tradition of Chinese poetry), and is characterised by lines of five or seven morae. Morae are “the minimal unit used in phonology that determines stress and timing”. In most Western languages this equals a syllable, but in Japanese the ‘n’, or ん, is in itself a mora. Thus this is critical for the formation of, for example, haiku.
Waka mainly encompasses tanka and chōka. Due to the dominant use of tanka however, the term waka has become the same as tanka.

'kyokusui no utage' a Haian practice of drinking sake and composing poetry while sitting next to a stream. The poet must have improvise a poem by the time the sake cup reaches him/her

kyokusui no utage‘: a Heian practice of drinking sake and composing poetry while sitting next to a stream. The poet must have improvise a poem by the time the sake cup reaches him/her

Tanka (短歌) and Chōka (長歌)

These two types of waka are respectively the ‘short poem’ and the ‘long poem’. The tanka consists of five lines wit ha 5-7-5-7-7 metre. Chōka can be as long as the poet wanted and switches between lines of five and seven morae, ending with two lines of seven mora. The shortest ‘long poem’ consisted of nine lines and is written in the Man’yōshū (万葉集) , the oldest book of Japanese poetry. By the end of the tenth century the two above forms had become so popular that other forms of waka were practically abolished. These ‘minor forms’ were the kata-uta, the shortest form of Japanese poetry with a 5-7-7 metre, the Sedōka,composed of two sets of 5-7-7, and the Bussokusekika, which is a tanka with an extra line of 7 morae at the end.

manyoshu

Pages of the Man’yōshū

Renga (連歌)

The ‘collaborative poetry’ or renga was one of the most important literary art in pre-modern Japan. Renga were made by multiple poets who each write a stanza following the previous one. Hence the name. A renga consists of at least two stanza and uses a 7-5- ot 7-7 mora count. The first stanza is called the hokku (発句) and is created by a special guest when present. It is seen as the greeting of the stanza. The hokku always consist of a 5-7-5 morae count, and is the predecessor of the more modern haiku. The second stanza,or waki (), is created by the person organising the gathering and uses a 7-7 morae count. The third stanza is again in the 5-7-5 form and must end in the te-form. After that the poets are free to choose which form they use.

As renga grew in popularity and became institutionalized, it also lost a lot of its original vulgarity and coarseness. Where the most important criteria used to be how great the link between the two verses was, now it had set forms and became ‘stale’ according to the critics. In response to this staleness ‘haikai no renga‘ or ‘renku’ (連句) came into existence. it embraces the vulgar attitude and contempt for traditional poetic and cultural ideas, as you can read in the following poem:

kasumi no koromo suso wa nurekeri
The robe of haze is wet at its hem

to which the next poet responded:

saohime no haru tachi nagara shito o shite
Princess Sao of spring pissed as she started

statue of Matsuo Bashō, one of the most famous poets of the Edo period.

statue of Matsuo Bashō, one of the most famous poets of the Edo period and participant in many haikai no renga.

Lastly we need to address the following: though most of the above may seem quite easy,  every poet needed a great knowledge of the classic texts and literature. Spotting the references and using them to form the next stanza resulted in praise,while overlooking one could mean loosing your hard-earned prestige. We also have but slightly touched the many special techniques and terms, for example ‘pillow words’. This is a theme were many books have already been written about, and is a bit too complex to explain in this short article. Feel free to explore the world of Japanese poetry by yourself though, and if you feel like it, why don’t you write us your own tanka or haiku? Inari out!

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.

Akita

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

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!

Instruments

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

Min’yo

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

Taiko

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.

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.

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’.