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Articles

  1. Culture Momotaro

    Momotarō (桃太郎, "Peach Boy") is a popular folktale recounting the adventures of a boy born from a peach found by an elderly woman washing clothes on a riverbank. When she and her husband try to eat the peach, they discover Momotarō who claims to be sent from heaven to be their son. He is adopted by the couple. Maturing quickly, he soon leaves the couple together to fight off a band of ogres (鬼 oni). On his way to their island he meets a dog, a pheasant, and a monkey who join him. Conquering Ogre Island (鬼ヶ島 Onigashima), Momotarō returns home with treasures for his foster parents. Momotarō...
  2. Culture Kintaro

    Kintarō (金太郎, "Golden Boy") is a popular figure in Japanese folklore and was the childhood name of Sakata no Kintoki (坂田金時), one of the four trusted followers of the famous warrior Minamoto no Yorimitsu (源 頼光, 948-1021). Although Sakata seems to have been a historical figure from the Heian Period who appeared in the 11th-century anthology Konjaku Monogatari (今昔物語), he is later depicted as the son of a yamauba (山姥 or 山うば, mountain witch) born on Mount Ashigara (modern-day Kanagawa Prefecture). Being of Herculean strength, he said to have wrestled with bears and other beasts. Kintarō...
  3. Culture Japanese New Year

    New Year's or ō-shōgatsu (お正月) is one of the most important and most elaborate of Japan's annual observances. There are regional differences in customs, but what is in common is that at this time homes are decorated and families gather to spend the holidays together. Shrines and temples are visited, and formal calls on relatives and friends are made. Officially, New Year is observed from 1 January through 3 January, during which time public offices and most companies are closed. In contrast to previous decades, supermarkets, convenience stores as well as many department stores remain open...
  4. Culture Momijigari: autumn leaves

    Momijigari (紅葉狩) is the traditional Japanese pastime of viewing autumn foliage. Momijigari means literally “maple hunting”, from the Japanese word for maple or “red leaves”, 紅葉 (momiji) and kari (狩り), “hunting”. Another common reading for momiji is “kōyō” (紅葉). Like cherry-blossom viewing (花見 hanami, “flower-viewing”) in the spring, it was popular among the court aristocracy of the Heian period (794-1185). The nobles went boating on ponds in the gardens around their mansions, playing music and composing poetry while enjoying the fall colours, or went to excursions into the mountains to...
  5. Culture Teru teru bozu

    Teru teru bōzu (照る照る坊主) are traditional Japanese dolls made of tissue paper or cloth hung in front of the window to prevent rain. Teru (照る) means “shine” as in sunshine, while bōzu (坊主) refers to a Buddhist priest or bonze. Therefore, teru teru bōzu means as much as “shine, shine, monk” and alludes to a priest’s magical powers to prevent a rainy day. Ghost-like in appearance, they became popular in the Edo era and were used by children the day before important events or festivities. How to create a teru teru bōzu 1. Prepare two pieces of tissue paper and some string. Crumble the sheet of...
  6. Culture Tanabata

    Tanabata (七夕) is one of Japan’s five traditional festivals (五節句 gosekku) and is usually celebrated on July 7, or in other areas, on the seventh day of the seventh month based on the lunar calendar, which could in some years fall on the beginning of August. It is based on a Chinese folk legend concerning two stars, Vega, the Weaver Star, represented by the deity Orihime (織姫), and Altair, the Cowherd Star, represented by Hikoboshi (彦星), who – being lovers separated by the Milky Way (天の川 Amanogawa, the “heavenly river”) – could only meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar...
  7. Culture Kappa

    Kappa (河童, lit. “river-child”), also known as kawatarō (川太郎, lit. “river-boy”) or kawako (川子, “river-children”), are supernatural amphibious creatures said to inhabit Japan’s waters. They are considered to be a transformation of a Shintō water deity (水神 suijin). The description and the name of the kappa vary from region to region, and they are among the best known of the Japanese yōkai (妖怪, ghosts or demons). Appearance They are believed to be of the size and shape of a young teenager, with a cat-like face featuring a snout; their hair is bobbed, and a saucer-like depression on top of...
  8. Culture Gift-giving in Japan

    Gift giving in Japan involves complex and elaborate rules and is part of a larger system of social exchange. Basically, gifts are given each time another person is visited and usually exchanged on other particular occasions. Not a week goes by without an average Japanese family either giving or receiving a gift, and sometimes a not insignificant part of a family’s budget is spent on purchasing gifts. Unless gifts are specifically given to an individual at work, school, university, etc., they are presented to the family as a unit. Nowadays, it has become more common to exchange gifts within...
  9. Culture Omiyage

    Omiyage (御土産 or お土産) are Japanese souvenir gifts travellers bring from their trips. Almost every destination in Japan has its own specialities in food, traditional art, crafts, etc. The omiyage industry built around gift-giving is huge and very lucrative. Japanese feel a strong obligation to bring such items as gifts not only for family members, but also relatives, neighbours, friends, and colleagues at work, school or university. Giving miyage is based on strict reciprocality: if one has received a gift in the past, one has an obligation to return a gift of similar quality or value. Also,...
  10. Culture Hina Matsuri

    Hinamatsuri (雛祭り) is a festival for girls held on March 3. Tiered platforms for hina ningyō (雛人形, hina dolls) are set up at home, and families celebrate with a meal, eating hishimochi (菱餅), sweet diamond-shaped rice cakes in pink, white, and green layers, hina-arare (雛あられ), small crisps flavoured with sugar or soy-sauce chirashizushi (ちらし寿司, “scattered sushi”), as well as sakura-mochi (桜餅, sweet pink rice cakes) and drinking shirozake (白酒), sake made from fermented rice. The hina dolls are a set of dolls representing the emperor, the empress, their attendants, guards and ladies-in-waiting,...
  11. Culture Japanese Falconry

    Japanese falconry (鷹狩 takagari) is said to have come to Japan from China around the 4th century CE and was practised by emperors, courtiers, and later by the samurai class well into the Edo period. Haniwa, earthenware figures of the Kofun Period (ca. 250-710 CE), show a falconer, and the Kojiki (古事記, “Records of Ancient Matters”) mentions pheasant hunting excursions in the Yamato area (modern-day Nara Prefecture) with hawks or falcons. The Shinshū Yōkyō (818), based on Chinese manuscripts, was one of the first Japanese textbook on falconry. In the Heian Era (794-1185), falconry was...
  12. Culture Setsubun

    A traditional ceremony to dispel demons, usually observed on the third of February. The practice of scattering beans (豆撒き mamemaki) to drive away demons is one of a number of magical rites performed to ward off evil. The term setsubun (節分) originally referred to the eve of the first day of any of the twenty-four divisions of the solar year known as setsu (節). Later it was applied more specifically to the last day of the setsu called daikan (大寒, “great cold”), which corresponded to the eve of risshun (立春, “the first day of spring”), the New Year’s Day of the ancient solar calendar and the...
  13. Culture Noh Theater

    Noh (能 nō) or nōgaku (能楽) is an abridgment of sarugaku no nō, an aristocratic form of sung and danced performance developed from kagura (神楽, “god-entertainment”) plays, a type of Shinto theatrical dance, sarugaku (猿楽, lit. “monkey music”), a form of theatre popular in Japan during the 11th to 14th centuries, and folk dances, like dengaku (田楽), by Kan’ami Kiyotsugu (観阿弥 清次, 1333-1384) and his son Zeami Motokiyo (世阿弥 元清, 1363-1443), on the order of shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. Nō uses masks derived from gigaku (伎楽). This theatrical genre involves two types of plays: those dealing with...
  14. Culture Japanese Tea Ceremony

    Known as sadō or chadō (茶道, “The Way of Tea”), chanoyu (茶の湯, “tea water”), or otemae (お手前, お点前) when performed, it refers to the formal and ceremonial preparation and presentation of Japanese green tea (抹茶, matcha, powdered green tea). History At the end of the Kamakura Period (1185–1333), chaya (茶屋, teahouses) opened near the temples, spreading the consumption of tea among the Japanese population. Previously, tea had been reserved almost exclusively for zen monks and aristocrats. The faithful often gathered in chaya; in these meetings, called cha-yori-ai (茶寄合), and later, during the...
  15. Culture Chopstick Etiquette

    How good are you at using chopsticks? If you are a Japan resident of some years, “pretty good!” you might say. However, the real question goes: how familiar are you with chopstick manners and taboos? Even the native Japanese do not seem to know about them so well, though using chopsticks is an everyday ritual. Well, not too surprisingly, the relationship between the Japanese and chopsticks dates back to the Yayoi era (300 BCE-300 CE), when they were brought in from China. We can say that Japanese chopstick-using food culture is an artifact of the Chinese food culture. However, at that...
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