Gundam – “The Star Trek of Japan”

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The RX-78-2 Gundam, life-sized statue in front of Diver City mall in Odaiba, Tokyo

After reading the title you might be going “Hang on a sec!! Isn’t Gundam an anime about giant robots and war? Kinda exactly the opposite to what Star Trek is about?” Well, I see you already know a bit about Gundam then, but hear me out. ^_^

Gundam is, as we mentioned above, an anime about giant robots used instead of tanks in battles. The original anime is from 1979, and tell a story about how humanity has spread out into space, and are now populating space colonies. Some of these colonies join together as the Principality of Zeon, and start a battle for independence from the Earth Federation. This war claims almost half of the population on both sides, and quickly end up in a stalemate. It is in this stalemate that we are introduced to the main characters, and the anime Mobile Suit Gundam starts of.

The RX-78-2 Gundam watching over Tokyo

The RX-78-2 Gundam watching over Tokyo

After the original anime, several other animes, as well as spin-off work, has been produced, and the story is either built on further, or set in parallell universes with different stories, but all connected in that they use “mobile suits” and that the “Gundam” suit is in there somewhere.

“Well, that is nice and all, but how is this related to Star Trek?”, I hear you ask. Well, in the west we have Start Trek to thank for a lot of influences in our culture and in our technological advances: Such as the first space shuttle being named “Enterprise” after the space ship in the series and the films, the design of Palm PDAs and mobile phones, as well as Google Earth being inspired by the Tricorders mapping ability in the series. In the same way, Gundam has had a major cultural impact in Japan: Japanese Self Defence

A poster for the Japanese Firefighting corp, with the help from Gundam.

A poster for the Japanese Firefighting corp, with the help from Gundam.

Force code-named its developing advance personal combat system as Gundam, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution appearance is influenced by the Gundam mobile suit, and some products have special “Char Custom” editions in Japan, which are normally a red version of a product, imitating the custom red mobile suit, used by Char Aznable, a Zeon faction main character in the first few Gundam series. Such examples include a red Nintendo Gamecube and Game Boy Advance SP.

So whether you are a Gundam fan or not, it is still a huge staple in the current Japanese culture. And if you are a Gundam fan, or want to become one, or just want to know more, I can recommend the animus, but also a visit to Odaiba, Tokyo. Here you can see a life-sized statue of the titular mobile suit in front of the Diver City mall. And on the 7th floor of the mall you can either visit the figure shop, the clothes shop, or experience the Gundam Universe even more in Gundam Front Tokyo.

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So why not get more acquainted with the Gundam universe, and take a trip to Odaiba while you’re at it? ^_^

Kawagoe, “Little Edo”

Before Tokyo became known as Tokyo, it was named Edo. And it is from this name that we get the name of the entire era known as the “Edo Jidai”, or Edo Period (江戸時代, 1603〜1868). After Tokugawa Ieyasu’s victory at the Battle of Sekigahara, and becoming the new Shogun, he moved the capital to Edo, his strategically placed castle town.

6500_01The Edo period was characterised by economic growth, strict social order, isolationist foreign policies, environmental protection policies, and popular enjoyment of arts and culture. Ukiyo-e printing became more and more popular, and so did also normal printing and book making. Water works with underground wooden plumbing was developed and maintained, and aqueducts were built to transport drinking water to different parts of Edo. And western teachings in fields such as medicine, geography, astronomy etc was introduced through the Dutch settlement on Dejima in Nagasaki.

Store_of_the_godown_style,Kawagoe-city,JapanThe Edo period is the last of the “samurai” periods, while the society as a whole was slowly moving forward in it’s own pace. This gives Edo a special “air”, a feeling that is attractive to Japanese and foreigners alike. If you want to dive more into this time period, I warmly recommend a visit to the Edo Tokyo Museum here in Tokyo.

If you already been there, or want to get away from Tokyo, but still want to feel that Edo Period feeling, Then Kawagoe is the place for you!

Located in Saitama Prefecture and also known as “Little Edo” (小江戸 “koedo”), it is a 30-minute train ride from Ikebukuro in Tokyo. Famous for its sweet potatoes, the local “Candy Street” sells such treats as sweet potato chips, sweet potato ice cream, sweet potato coffee, and even sweet potato beer, brewed at the local Koedo Brewery. Kawagoe castle was the headquarters of the Kawagoe Domain and occupied by close aides of the Tokugawa shogunate.

KawagoeTowerCommonsThings to see here includes the Bell Tower. Originally built in the 1600’s, the current structure is from the 1800’s, because of the Great Fire of Kawagoe. The tower has been telling time to the city’s residents for 350 years and has been deemed as a symbol of the city. Currently, the bell can be heard four times a day: 6 a.m., 12 p.m., 3 p.m., and 6 p.m.

The Kurazukuri Street is also worth a visit, with the street lined with Edo-style warehouses known as “kurazukuri” (蔵造り). The Kawagoe Kurazukuri Museum is located in a traditional warehouse built in 1893 and allows its visitors to walk around inside and experience the life of Edo merchants.

So if you have the time, and want to get out of Tokyo, and into “Edo”, why not set your sights on Kawagoe?

Izakaya

1024px-Cyochin2Have you ever seen the red rice-paper lanterns with these characters on them? (Or if you are a little bit taller than the average, have you ever dodged this type of lanterns?) Ever wondered what lurks inside? Or you might actually already visited an Izakaya, perhaps more than once? Either way Izakaya, or Japanese “pubs”, are a very big part of the modern Japanese culture. They com in all shapes and sizes, from small local establishments, to large chains that you can find all over Japan. No matter what type you go to, you will always find a cosy and welcoming atmosphere.

Izakaya is a compound word consisting of “i” (to stay, 居) and “sakaya” (sake shop, 酒屋), indicating that Izakaya originated from sake shops that allowed customers to sit on the premises to drink. Once inside, depending onIzakaya-Seki the place you are either seated on tatami mats next to low tables, or on chairs with a normal table. You are then often given a wet towel, called “oshibori” (お絞り), and then you are given a light snack that is included in the final bill. You then order drinks and food during your stay as desired.

When it comes to drinks, you can usually find beer, chûhai, cocktails and whiskey. In the foods department, you can find everything from yakitori and sashimi (raw sliced fish) to grilled meat and vegetables.

izakaya_barIzakaya also come in different varieties, with big chains, cosplay places, yakitori-ya, and akachôchin (“red lantern”) referring to smaller places that doesn’t belong to a chain.

Next time you are out for a stroll, or heading out with friends, why not try out a local Izakaya, and get that Japanese feeling going?

Onigiri! The popular rice ball of Japanese culture

onigiriIf you have ever been to a store in Japan, you are sure to at least have seen the おにぎり(“Onigiri”). Even if you never bought them, or tried them, you have some form of idea what it is: usually a triangle-shaped rice ball, with sometimes weird fillings in it. And if you don’t master the Japanese language fully, the kanji-heavy names can sometimes lead to Onigiri-roulette: you go “Oh, what the heck, how bad could it be?”, you buy one, take a bite, and then realise it’s 梅干し (“Umeboshi”, dried and pickled plum) in it, and not that awesome ツナマヨ (“Tsuna-mayo”, Tuna and Mayonnaise) that you had last time. O_O

おにぎり might be known to you under other names: おむすび (“o-musubi”), or にぎりめし (“nigirimeshi”), or just simply as rice balls. common shapes of the おにぎり is triangular or oval, and most often you will find it wrapped in のり (“nori”, seaweed), but you can also find them in shapes like cylindrical, flattened spheres, actual ball shapes, and rectangular.
Common fillings are, but not limited to:

  • 梅干し (“Umeboshi”), dried pickled plum.
  • サルモン (“Salmon”) or 鮭 (“Sake/Shake”),  salmon, either dried and salted, or fried, and sometimes with mayonnaise.
  • 昆布 (“Konbu”), edible kelp.
  • たらこ/鱈子 (“Tarako”), salted fish roe, most commonly from cod or Alaska pollock.
  • ツナ or ツナマヨ (“Tsuna” or “tsuna-mayo”), tuna with or without mayonnaise.

Onigiri Convenience StoreThe earliest mention of おにぎり is from the 11-century diaries of Lady Murasaki. But the idea of the rice ball predates that by a long way. Before the use of chopsticks became popular in the Nara period, rice used to be rolled into small balls so that they could be picked up more easily for eating. From the Kamakura period to Edo period (ca. 1100’s – 1600’s) おにぎり was used as a quick meal. This made sense as cooks simply had to think about making enough onigiri and did not have to concern themselves with serving. These おにぎり were simply balls of rice flavored with salt. のり did not become widely available until the mid-Edo period, when the farming of のり and fashioning it into sheets became widespread. It is also known that samurai used to store rise balls wrapped in bamboo, as a quick meal during wars.

So next time you decide to play the onigiri-roulette, because you don’t know what the label says or because you just want to try something new, enjoy your meal, preferably with some tea, and maybe in a public park or near a canal, and think back on the history echoing back to our day through this simple piece of traditional fast-food.

The Daruma Doll, symbolism, toy and charm, all in one

DarumaOne thing that you might have encountered when reading about Japan or Japanese culture, is the Daruma doll: a traditional Japanese doll usually made from papier-mâché, with a weighted round bottom, and painted red with big round eyes. These doll are said to be depicting Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism. The Daruma doll is also regarded as a good luck charm and a symbol of perseverance, and are also used when one wants to reach a certain goal.

The shape of the Daruma doll is a round and hollow doll, with a weight in the bottom so that it self-rights when tilted over. This has come to symbolise the ability to have success, do overcome obstacles, and to recover if you are knocked down by misfortune. Daruma is often illustrated together with the proverb “Nanakorobi Yaoki” (“seven times down, eight times up”). If any of this seems familiar, you might have read our news letter. ^_-

The reason for the Daruma dolls usual red colour is not entirely certain, but it is believed that it comes from the colour of priest’s robes. Because of the red colour, the Daruma doll was used a lot as a get-well-charm for those with smallpox. A child with smallpox, in the Edo period, was usually dressed in red robes, and the houses afflicted would be surrounded with ropes with red paper strips to warn others. However, the red colour of the Daruma was not to warn, but to appease the “god of smallpox” that people believed was behind the outbreaks. This in combination with the weighted bottom was to encourage the sick person to get well soon.

Daruma dollsWhen you buy a Daruma doll you will often find that the eyes are blank. This is used to keep track of goals or big tasks. When you buy the doll, in the beginning of a project for example, you colour in one eye. When you have reached the goal you set out for, or finished the project, you colour in the second eye as well. And while you are trying to achieve your goal, whenever you see the one-eyed Daruma, you are reminded about your goal. This practise might also be connected to “enlightenment”, as this custom has led to a phrase in Japanese that means “Both Eyes Open”, referring to attaining your goal.

Even the facial hair of the Daruma is full of symbolism. The eyebrows are said to be in the shape of a crane, and the hair on the cheek is said to resemble the shell of a tortoise, two animals that in Asian culture embody long life.

Next time you decide to quit smoking, to eat better, to save money, to do well on a test, or have a project that you want to get done, pick up a Daruma and let him help you out. And if you get knocked down, bounce back up!

Noh Theatre, precursor to Kabuki

I don’t know if you have ever been to a Kabuki show, or seen Kabuki on the TV, but almost everyone interested in Japanese culture have heard of Kabuki. There is even an old game for the Nintendo Entertainment System called “Kabuki Quantum Fighter”, where you play as a Kabuki actor, fighting his way through a digital world. You know, your normal game story line….

However, Kabuki is actually not the most traditional form of Japanese stage performance. It has taken a lot of influences from an older art form, that is still performed to this day: Noh (能, “skill, talent”).

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Noh developed from traditional popular, folk and aristocratic art forms. The art form Noh has today was essentially developed during the Muromachi Period (1336-1573), under the patronage of the Ashikaga Shoguns (the first shogunate in Japanese history). Noh is primarily performed by men, and it is customary in Noh that the performers don’t rehearse together until a few days before the public appearance. This gives Noh a distinctive feel, and follows a principle that’s known as “ichi-go, ichi-e”, or “one meeting, one chance”.

One of the more amazing points of Noh is the masks (能面 noh-men, or 面 omote). Carved out from a block of Japanese Cypress, and then painted with natural pigment, these masks can be very lifelike. But the really interesting point is the fact that in different angles and different light, the same mask can portray many different expressions.

Three pictures of the same female mask showing how the expression changes with a tilting of the head. In these pictures, the mask was affixed to a wall with constant lighting, and only the camera moved.

Three pictures of the same female mask showing how the expression changes with a tilting of the head. In these pictures, the mask was affixed to a wall with constant lighting, and only the camera moved.

All performers in Noh, actors and musicians alike, all have foldable fans, which in many cases acts as stand in for any handheld weapon or tool that the character might be using at the time.

If you are interested in Noh, and it’s later cousin Kabuki, be sure to visit a play when you are in town. If you have access to a TV here in Japan, NHK sometimes send Kabuki and Noh performances. If you don’t find yourself in Japan at the moment, I am sure you can find something on YouTube as well.

Kamaitachi, the three weasels that cut you

I thought it might be time for a visit into the world of Yôkai, or “Phantom”/”Spirits”. So let’s take a look at the Kamaitatchi.

If you look up the word “kamaitachi” in your dictionary, it will probably give you the following definition:
– A cut caused by a whirlwind
– A type of Japanese folkloric “monster”, thought to be a trio of weasels who appear in a whirlwind to cut their victim.

As you can see, the two definitions are related, and the word is used both for the cut you might have gotten, as well as the Yôkai that cut you. But let’s dive a bit deeper.

"Kamaitachi" (鎌鼬) from the Kyōka Hyaku Monogatari by Masasumi Ryūkansaijin

“Kamaitachi” (鎌鼬) from the Kyōka Hyaku Monogatari by Masasumi Ryūkansaijin

The word “kamaitachi” is composed of two words: “kama”, meaning sickle, and “itachi”, meaning weasel. Kamaitatchi is commonly thought of as three weasels riding on dust devils, or dust whirlwinds, and using their sickle-like nails cutting people that come in their path. Usually it is though that the first weasel cut you with its nails, the second weasel uses medicine to stop the bleeding, and the third one applies another medicine to make it hurt after a while, so that they can make their escape before one notice them.

However, there are several versions of this legend, differing in the different regions of Japan:
– In Shinetsu, kamaitatchi are seen to be the work of an evil god.
– In the Yoshio District area of the Nara Prefecture, it is said that when one gets bit by a kamaitachi invisible to the human eye, one would tumble over, even though no blood comes out, there is a big opening in the flesh.
– In the western parts of Japan, kamaitachi are called “kazakama” (風鎌, “wind sickle”), and said to slice off people’s skins, and there is no pain the instants after it is scraped off, but after a while a hard to bear pain and bleeding would start to occur, and it is said that one could protect against this by obtaining an old calendar in one’s hand

As you can see, in the old days, whenever you got a wound when out walking that you could not explain, it must have been the Kamaitachi. Or maybe they do exist, then in that case be careful out there, and keep your eyes open for weasels in the wind…

Inari, the Shinto goddess of foxes, rice and sake. 稲荷大神

If you’ve been in Japan for a while, you will most likely have visited at least one Shinto shrine. Or perhaps a Buddhist temple. (The difference is huge, but at the same time small, and will leave that for another time). Perhaps you have seen a shrine where there are foxes on pedestals infront of the actual house for the Kami, and have wondered what the deal with the foxes are? Well, one thing you can know for sure is that the shrine that you are looking at is in honor of the goddess Inari.

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Inari appears to a warrior (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Inari is the Shinto goddess for foxes, fertility, rice, sake, and agriculture and industry. In earlier times, she was also the goddess of swordsmiths, and merchants. Inari has been depicted as a male, as a female, and as an androgynous god, and is usually though of as a collection of 3-5 Kamis in one. Inari’s messenger is the fox, and that’s why at least a pair of foxes decorate the path up to an Inari shrine. The pair of foxes always represent the male and the female, and they usually hold something under or between their paws, like a jewel, a key, a fox cub, or a sheaf of rice. Inari shrines also have one or more red Toriis (the wooden or stone arches that mark the entrance to a Shinto shrine).

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Toriis at Fushimi Inari Shrine (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

It is commonly thought that foxes in Japan loves fried tofu (油揚げ “abura-age”), and since foxes are the messengers of Inari (or sometimes Inari herself), sushi with fried tofu is named Inari Sushi. You can also find Udon noodles with the fried tofu, and this dish is known as Kitsune Udon (狐うどん “fox noodles”).

So the next time you pass a shrine and see foxes in front of it, why not give a little bow to Inari for the rice, the sake, and the booming industry, all the things that makes the world go round. And then go and enjoy some Kitsune Udon, or Inari Sushi. ^_^

Japanese Calligraphy: “Shodo” 書道

"Peace", in calligraphy. Written by Oura Kanetake, in the Meji Period.  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“Peace”, in calligraphy. Written by Oura Kanetake, in the Meji Period.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

If you are interested in Japan and Japanese, you will most likely have stumbled upon the art of Japanese Calligraphy at one point or another, in one form or another. Japanese calligraphy can be everything from slender and beautiful, to thick, coarse, and almost unreadable to the untrained eye.

The history of the Japanese Calligraphy is (almost) as old as the history of the Kanji themselves. Once the Chinese characters had started to be standardized in the Qin dynasty of China, and the ink and paper replaced the chisel and stone, calligraphy was born, and new ways of expressing yourself in writing was also born.

With the spread of Chinese culture through out Eastern Asia, calligraphy also spread to neighboring countries, such as Korea, and to Japan. This happened in the 7th century. Anyone who was anyone in those days had to be able to know how to read and write Chinese, and that included the art of calligraphy as well. (A common likeness to the Latin of Medieval Europe is often drawn.) However, after a while, the Japanese had found that the Chinese characters all that practical to write Japanese with, and they developed the Hiragana and Katakana alphabets to fill the gaps that they felt was left when only using Kanji. In the 9th and 10th centuries, a style unique to Japan started to emerge. This was not solely because of the (then) fairly new alphabets, but also a way to separate oneself from China, and from the Chinese culture. The emperor of Japan wanted to establish that Japan was it’s own country, with their own culture and style.

Shodo is a living art in modern Japan still, with companies and stores wanting their names written in different traditional styles in order to reflect either the company’s heritage, or its design or focus. You find Shodo on everything from ramen shops to Izakayas (bars).

The different styles of Shodo. From left to right: "Kaisho" regular script, "Gyôsho" semi-cursive script, "Sôsho" cursive script, "Reisho" clerical script, and "Tensho" seal script. (Photo courtesy of shodou.info)

The different styles of Shodo. From left to right: “Kaisho” regular script, “Gyôsho” semi-cursive script, “Sôsho” cursive script, “Reisho” clerical script, and “Tensho” seal script.
(Photo courtesy of shodou.info)

Next time you walk down the street, take an extra look, and see if you can see any Shodo around you. (My bet is that you will.)