Ceramics is the most vigorous of Japanese crafts. It has the greatest number of artisans—probably more per capita than in any other country—and a steady, discerning clientele among the average Japanese. This is due both to the tea ceremony, with its connoisseur's appreciation of folk-style pottery, and the artistry demanded by Japanese cuisine.
Shinto, the ancient, indigenous religion of Japan, is all about appeasing the spirits and gods to ensure prosperity and avoid harm, and the tens of thousands of shrines that dot the countryside are veritable monuments to anxiety and guilt. Some of these potentially dangerous spirits include the souls of humans who were treated shabbily during their earthly lives. A great example is "Tenjin-san," the spiritual incarnation of Sugawara no Michizane, a ninth-century egghead who got on the wrong side of the powerful Fujiwara family in Heian (the capital city now known as Kyoto).
For Japanese bathing enthusiasts, the search for the ultimate bath is something in the nature of a religious quest. That yu, hot water, is held to have divine powers is best demonstrated by remote shrines, such as Yudono-san (Bathtub Mountain), where a hot spring is regarded as the god incarnate (Dewa Sanzan, Tōhoku: West from Sendai).
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Kaiseki originated four centuries ago as a light repast served during the tea ceremony. Its name comes from the word for the warm stones placed over the stomach to quell the hunger pangs of Zen acolytes. In keeping with tea philosophy, this meal “is a series of seasonal morsels, prepared simply, with careful distinctions between hot and cold dishes, appropriate vessels and visual appeal. The aim is to showcase the natural essence of the food. This chakaiseki (tea kaiseki) introduced an esthetic code to the cuisine of Japan.
We're pleased to announce that Gateway to Tokyo is now available on Kindle. This volume is adapted from Gateway to Japan, Digital Edition, with a focus on this great super-city. You can purchase it here.
Gateway to Tokyo is designed for the traveler who is visiting Tokyo, while the complete Gateway to Japan serves as a companion volume offering deeper insights into Japan’s history and culture, as well as in-depth information on travel throughout Japan.
The Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) has launched a free smartphone app that provides information on travel destinations, restaurants, train routes, free Wi-Fi spots, ATM locations, hospitals, and other useful tips to visitors. The app is available in English, Korean, and Chine
Farming villages were part of the landscape appreciated by poets and artists of old Japan. The romance of the road, however, was not for the hapless farmers, who under the authoritarian edicts of the Tokugawa shogunate (1601-1857) were not normally allowed to leave their farms and villages. This oppressive law helped preserve Japan's many distinct provincial subcultures. One of the special pleasures of traveling in the remoter parts of Japan is that each few hours of travel will reveal new crafts, a different, delicious regional cuisine and, among the elderly, a yet more incomprehensible dialect.
In mid-August, Japanese head for their hometowns to observe O-Bon, the festival of the dead. During the evenings, softly glowing lanterns fill the cemeteries, and in some regions people leave their doors open and prepare a special feast of vegetables for the returning souls. Bon Odori, hypnotic outdoor dancing, is performed everywhere. On the last night, the souls of the dead are guided by fire back to their proper realm. Flames are lit—from oil lanterns and candles to raging bonfires—and in many areas lanterns are set adrift on a body of water to guide the spirits back across the sea, creating a poetically beautiful spectacle.
Summer in Japan’s coastal and low-lying regions, including Tokyo and Kyoto, can be miserably hot and humid, but it is also an opportunity to experience the mind-over-matter tactics traditionally deployed by the Japanese to help make the season more bearable.