Wednesday, February 17, 2010


The Koto is a traditional Japanese instrument that first made its way into Japan in the 7th century. It was brought over by Chinese and Korean musicians who came to play in the Japanese court, this instrument known as the guzheng gave way to the development of the koto. Beyond this there are a number of different Japanese myths that relate the creation of the Koto. One of these myths states that the Koto was created in the form of a crouching dragon.

The Koto consists of 13 strings stretched out against a soundboard made out of hallowed out paulownia timber. Traditionally these strings were made out of silk but modern Kotos use synthetic fibers. The strings are tuned using moveable bridges that are made of either ivory or plastic. In order to play the Koto one puts ivory pectrum on the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand. The left hand applies pressure in order to change the pitch.

It was during the 15th century that solos for the Koto came into fancy, these were known as sookyoku. By the 17th century the sookyoku was among the most popular entertainment for the wealthy merchant class. The popularity of the koto continued to grow as even more strings were added and students spend their lives studying the instrument.

Today the koto has somewhat decreased in popularity because of the influx of popular music. But music is still being written for all kinds of kotos including varieties with as many as 25 strings. The Sawai Koto School was founded in 1965 and is now the center of modern koto music in Japan. The school was founded by Tadao Sawai who was a prolific composer and brilliant koto player. Today International Sawai Koto Schools have been created in order to spread the culture and music of Japan to all areas of the world, as was the original dream of Tadao Sawai.

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Friday, February 12, 2010


Kabuki is a form of Japanese theater that began in the 17th century. Kabuki is a type of dance/drama that is renowned not only for the performance itself but also for the elaborate make-up that is worn by all of the performers.
Kabuki traces its origins back to 1603 when Okuni of Izumo began performing a new style of dance and drama in the dry riverbeds of Kyoto. The performances were done by women who portrayed both men and women and feature comic stories about everyday life. These performances gradually gained in popularity until Okuni was even asked to perform for the Imperial court.
With the increased popularity rival troupes quickly formed and the performances would be solely performed by women. Many of these performances became very suggestive and this only increased due to the fact that many of the troupe members were also prostitutes. In 1629 it was decided that women were degrading the art of the Kabuki and were therefore banned from Kabuki performances.
After this the performances were taken over by men who would cross-dress in order to take on the female roles. Strangely enough these performances required younger men with less masculine appearances in order to take on the female roles, but these performances were just as suggestive as the female versions. Many of these men were also available for prostitution as well. When the audiences began to get overly rowdy it was decided that roles involving young men, or men dressed as women should be banned, but both of these bans were rescinded in 1952.
Following these period Kabuki truly began to thrive and adopted a more formal structure. Conventional characters were developed and eventually professional playwrights of Kabuki entered the scene, the first of which was Chikamatsu Monzaemon. His most influential work was Sonezaki Shinju which was originally written for bunraku but was adopted for Kabuki. This work spawned many copycat versions, but the play’s nature (telling the story of lovers who committed suicide) was eventually banned by the government because it was believed to cause too many copycat suicides.
Today Kabuki remains the most popular of all the traditional styles of Japanese drama. There are a few theaters in the major cities as well as troupes that perform in the smaller cities and in the country. Today there are even troupes that include women in their cast and even a few troupes that have all women casts, just like the original kabuki troupes.

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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Japanese Tea Ceremony - Manner

The Japanese Tea Ceremony is steeped in tradition and it is filled with rituals that all have a deep and significant meaning.
If you are a guest of the tea ceremony you are expected to know the importance and the tradition of the ceremony as well as the host. All guests are first led to a waiting room while the host prepares for the ceremony. Once the host is prepared the guests are lead through a dew garden, where no flowers grow. The garden is meant to cleanse the guests of the dust of the world. After walking through the garden they sit upon a special bench to await the appearance of the host.
Before greeting the guests the host must cleanse his hands and mouth with fresh water in a stone basin. The guests are then welcomed with a bow, but no words are spoken. The guests will then enter in the order of assistant host, main guests and then the rest of the guests. When the guests pass under chumon (middle gate) they are leaving the physical world and entering the spiritual world that is represented by tea. The guests then enter the tea house through a sliding door that is only three feet high. Once inside everyone will bow in order to show that they are all equal.
The tea house has no decoration except for one hanging scroll. The scroll is chosen by the host and is meant to represent the tea ceremony. The guests will then each admire the scroll, tea kettle, and the hearth. The guests are then seated in the same order that they entered, the host will then seat themselves and the greetings will begin.
Everything used in the tea ceremony has a different meaning. The water represents yin and the hearth represents yang. The host will have a tea bowl which will contain the tea whisk, the tea cloth, and the tea scoop. The host will then purify the tea container and the tea scoop with a fine silk cloth. The items will then be dried with the tea cloth. The host will then place three scoops of tea into the tea container for each guest. Hot water is then added to the bowl in order to make a paste. The paste is stirred with the whisk until it resembles a cream soup.
The bowl is then passed to each guest who examines the tea and the bowl and then takes a sip. The bowl is then passed back to the host who cleans the bowl and all of the articles used. Each item is then passed to the guests for examination as many of the items used in the tea ceremony can be generations old. Once the ceremony is complete the guests will discuss the ceremony and the items that they examined.

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Friday, February 5, 2010


Ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arranging. The oldest school for ikebana was a Buddhist school formed in the 15th century. The tradition of ikebana schools began with a priest at the Rokkakuda Temple in Kyoto. It was said that he was so skilled at flower arranging that other priests would seek him out for instruction. This led to the priests being known at Ikenobo because they spent their time learning and practicing their arrangements by a lake.

During Ikebana silence is a must because the creation of the arrangement is meant to be a time to appreciate things in nature that people most often overlook. The process allows one to feel close to nature and to appreciate and find beauty in all art forms. It also inspires patience and tolerance of differences, not only in nature but in life as well.

When Ikebana first began the arrangements were quite simple consisting on only evergreen branches and flowers. This form of flowering arranging is called Kuge. By the end of the 15th century Ikebana was an art form and book were written with detailed instructions. The oldest is Sedensho which covers the years from 1443 – 1536.

During the Momoyama Period (1560-1600) ikebana evolved into a style known as Rikka. This style consisted of standing flowers that were meant to be a Buddhist expression of the beauty of nature. This style including seven branches which were arranged in a specific way in order to represent hills, valleys, waterfalls and other aspects of nature.

As the tea ceremony evolved so did another form of Ikebana, Chabana. This style was much simpler and did not have the rigged rules and instructions of other forms of Ikebana. It was simply meant to be an elegant but simple flower arrangement to be displayed during the tea ceremony.

There are three other styles of flower arranging and they are known as Nageire, Seika or Shoka, and Jiyuka. Nageire is consists of a very tight bundle of stems in a triangular three-branched arrangement. This style is considered very classic and it is also very easy to learn.

The Seika or Shoka style consists of three branches, with each having its own meaning. They are ten (heaven), chi (earth) and jin (man). This style is meant to show off the beauty and uniqueness of the plant in a very simple way.

The final style Jiyuka is a very open and creative style. It can include anything and everything, even things that are not plants. This style allows the flower arranger to be very creative and show off the beauty of nature as well as their own particular art form.

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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Japanese Castles

Japanese Castles as they are known today evolved from traditional fortifications. These fortresses were built for the main purpose of military defense. For this reason they were placed in very strategic locations. These fortifications were also built to serve as governing centers which meant they needed to be well protected.

By the Sengoku (1467 – 1603) period these fortifications became the homes of daimyo’s (feudal lords). The fortifications served as a way to not only show other lords their strength and power but also to impress them with the beauty and elegance of the interior. As these fortifications became more and more elaborate they became known as Japanese castles.

The first one of these castles was built in 1576 by Oda Nobunaga. This was the first fortification or castle to include a tower keep and it was the center of governance for Oda’s territories as well as being his lavish home. The location of the castle allowed him to keep track of the movement and communication of his enemies and it was only a short distance from Kyoto.

These castles were built to last and they had to be able to be defendable and strong, despite this they were still primarily constructed of wood. They did include more stone that other Japanese buildings but nowhere near the amount that is found in European castles.

Few of these castles remain today many of them were destroyed by conflict which they were built to guard against. While others were destroyed in a more modern era, such as the castle at Hiroshima which was destroyed by the atomic bomb, this castle was rebuilt as a museum. Castles that remain today include the castles at Matsue and Kochi which were built around 1611. Today more than 100 castles can be found throughout Japan, this number may seem large, until you realize that at one point there were over 5,000 castles scattered all over Japan.

A large number of these castles were deliberately destroyed by the Meiji Restoration in 1871 which sought to abolish the Han system. During this period 2,000 castles were either destroyed or dismantled. Many of the castles you may see in Japan are reconstructions that are made out of concrete and made to resemble the wood that they were originally built from.

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Japanese Gardens

Japanese gardens first came into prominence during the Asuka period( 538-710). These original gardens were meant to express Buddhism and Taoism by replicating the mountainous regions of China. These gardens can be found in ruins in Fujiwara and Heijyo castle towns.

The next type of garden that emerged was during the Heian Period. (794-1185) this is when the gardens began to move from being purely religious to becoming a place for ceremonies, amusement and even contemplation. These gardens would often be featured in front of mansions or what was called the south side. These gardens would include water that would flow through artificial waterways before ending in a pond that would have small floating islands. Very few of these gardens exist today but their formation and description is found in old texts.

Near the end of this period the style of the gardens would shift once again. This was due to the influence of Pure-Land Buddhism. This caused the homes and gardens of the Japanese to be modeled after the Amitabha hall style which was a shift from the Shinden style.

The next period of gardening was during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods (1185-1573). During this period gardens evolved due to better gardening techniques and the spread of zen beliefs. Zen beliefs had a large influence on the design of gardens and it was during this period that dry designs began to get popular. Gardens also grew in popularity during this period due to the fact that the Shoguns truly enjoyed them.

This explains why during the Edo period (1603-1868) the gardens drifted even further away from religion and more to express the power and prestige of the Shogun. It became typical for the garden to represent the tastes and desires of the Shogun himself.

During the Meiji period traditional gardens are owned by businessmen and politicians. Today many of these extensive and beautiful gardens are open for public viewing some of which are found in Kyoto and Tokyo.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Samurai Armor

The samurai were well known throughout Japan and the world for their fighting skills. Despite the fact that they were most commonly remembered for their swords and skills, their armor was also a very impressive sight.

The first dedicated attempt at armor for these highly trained warriors was plate armor in the 5th and 6th centuries. This armor was short lived and popular culture recognizes the armor as wearing a different type of armor.

The lamellar armor is what the samurai are most known for. This armor is made by binding metal scales together to create a plate. These plates were then covered with lacquer so that they would be able to withstand water. The plates were bound together with leather in a way that each plate slightly overlapped the other. This reduced the ability of an enemy to find a gap between the armor.

There are two main type of lamellar armor. The Yoroi armor was worn by the samurai who were honorable enough to be mounted. This type of armor featured a metal helmet and very striking shoulder guards. This armor was considered to be relatively heavy since the samurai had the aid of the horse.

The second type of armor was Do-Maru. This was the armor that was worn by the samurai who fought on foot. This armor was much lighter than the Yoroi armor because the samurai had to be able to walk and fight efficiently in the armor. This type of armor was also more closely fitted as the fighters on the ground were more vulnerable.

Eventually the Do-Maru armor became the most popular because hand to hand combat became more prevalent. The helmet of this armor was called the kabuto and they were often riveted together in distinctive patterns. The more important the samurai the more intricate the helmet and the more likely that it would be decorated with clan symbols. Some of these helmets are so intricate that today they are considered to be works of art.

To get dressed the samurai would first don an undergarment. This would then be covered by a kimono and a pad would be placed on the head to make wearing the heavy helmet more bearable. The samurai would then put on the Do which was the main torso armor and it hangs from the shoulders. On top of the Do would be Tsurubashiri which was a leather covering that went over the Do. This would often have colorful and intricate designs. Then the Sendan-no-ita, kyubi-no-ita would be placed over the shoulders. These metal plates hang down from the shoulders and protect the leather strands which bind the Do together. Finally there would be the Kote which was an armored sleeve placed on the left arm. The right arm was left uncovered so that the samurai would be able to fire a bow. This practice continued even after the samurai no longer practiced archery.

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