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Zen: A Religious and Philosophical Tradition

Great Buddha of Kamakura, Zen Buddhism

Zen is the concept that enlightenment may be realized through quiet meditation.

Zen is a religious and philosophical tradition established by Myoan Eisai (1141-1215), who studied Chan Buddhism in China and founded Japan’s first Zen temple in 1191.

The Chan School traces its own origins to Bodhidharma, the legendary Indian monk who brought Mahayana Buddhism to China and founded the Xiaolin temple. Mahayana Buddhism began to incorporate elements of Daoism, which led to the simplified, experience-driven approach of first Chan, and then Zen.

Like Indian Mahayana Buddhism, Zen asserts that suffering in the world comes as a result of our ignorant attachment to false ideals, particularly the concept of a permanent self. The true nature of reality is engi, or interdependent arising, in which everything is part of a dynamic, interrelated web of being. All things are impermanent and nothing exists apart from the natural and social context in which it is embedded.

Through meditative practices, a person can experience the truth of engi and gain satori (enlightenment), which is characterized by mushin, a state of “no-mind” that perceives things as they truly are without abstraction.

Zen training involves the cultivation of two main virtues: chie (wisdom about the true nature of reality) and jihi (compassion for all sentient beings).

The two most dominant schools of Zen are

  1. Soto, which focuses upon seated meditation
  2. Rinzai, which emphasizes the contemplation of koans, or paradoxical riddles.

The cultivation of mushin results in a type of hyperpraxia in which a person’s performance of any task is greatly enhanced, and many artists since the samurai era have studied Zen to augment their abilities.

The Japanese-Buddhist author and lecturer D. T. Suzuki once said, “Zen … turns one’s humdrum life .. . into one of art, full of genuine inner creativity.”

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Discover the Superb Shrines and Temples of Nikko

Beautiful Vermilion Shinkyo Bridge in Nikko

“Build a small shrine in Nikko and enshrine me as the God. I will be the guardian of peacekeeping.”
Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa, 1542–1616

Packs of chattering monkeys stand between you and the entrance to this distinctive shrine complex in the mountains of northern Japan. Avoiding the creatures as best you can, pick your way through the woodland up the final stairs, and you will find yourself face to face with the remarkable Rinno-ji temple, founded in 766. Its large hall is full of treasures from Edo-period Japan, and there is a beautiful nineteenth century landscaped garden outside.

The stunningly beautiful Nikko Historic Areas, with its well-protected historic buildings, was named fourth best in National Geographic’s 2008 “Places Rated” Destination Stewardship survey.

Venture farther into the shrine complex and you will find that the temples become more and more magnificent, with lines of ornate stone lanterns, tombs, treasure towers, and statues showing antique samurai baring their teeth and ferociously flashing their eyes at visitors. The Taiyuin-byo Shrine, which houses the ashes of shogun Tokugawa lemitsu (1603–1605), is especially superb. It sits at the top of a series of decorative red and golden gates, in grove of Japanese cedars.

Taiyuin-byo Shrine, Nikko, Japan There is something about the geographic isolation of Nikko, a village set high in the mountains, that makes this multiplex feel very different from other shrines and temples you may see anywhere else in Japan. The Shinto belief in Kami, the existence of a spiritual being or genius of a particular place, seems remarkably moving here in the silence of the forests, and the sensation that something enchanting lurks nearby is not easily shaken off.

Close by, the historic, vermillion Shinkyo Bridge and Nikko Botanical Gardens are also very picturesque, as is Ganmna-ga-fuchi, a scenic river that runs a pastel, mineral blue through the old lava flows of nearby Mount Nantai and has a statue-lined footpath. The beautiful vermilion arch of Shinkyo Bridge is the classiest image of Nikko. The current structure of the sacred bridge was built in 1636 and went through major renovation in the early 2000s. Nevertheless, there has been a bridge on the site right through recorded history. Originally, it was only open to the highest levels of aristocracy; but after the restoration, it has been open for the general public to cross. And the five-story pagoda is one of a striking selection to be found in the shrine complex at Nikko.

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Unwind at Zao Onsen in Japan’s Yamagata Prefecture

Zao Onsen, Yamagata City, Yamagata Prefecture

Open-air baths do not come more extraordinary than this. Nestled at the mouth of the Zao national park, the biggest of the steaming pools of purifying waters at the Zao Onsen is big enough to hold 200 people. The best part of the rustic dai rotem buro, a trio of bubbling outdoor pools, is a enormous tub built into a ravine with impressive views of the forest-covered mountains. Zao Onsen is one of the most well-known and long-established skiing & snowboarding resorts in Japan as well as a popular all year traditional onsen hot spring resort village. The water rushing from the hot springs will ease your joints in all seasons, leaving you totally relaxed.

Discovered as far back as 110 C.E., the Zao hot springs are the oldest of the three famous hot springs of Japan’s northeast Tohoku region. According to local legend, an injured warrior drew an arrow from his body and cleaned the wound at a spring. The injury recovered inexplicably, and the healing properties of the waters became famous. The high acidity of the milky white waters, which preserve a constant temperature of nearly 125 deg F, is still regarded as a cure for skin conditions and gastrointestinal disorders.

Snow Monsters of Zao Onsen The village has managed to preserve its traditional charm and an virtually Zen-like sense of calm. After a soak in the springs, wander through the lantern-filled streets lined with rickety ryokan inns. A bus ride away from Yamagata bullet train station, Zao Onsen is as popular with skiers as with hot spring lovers. When snow falls, it is transformed into a winter wonderland with fantastic ice-covered trees, better known as “snow monsters.” One of the oldest ski resorts in Japan, the mountain at Zao Onsen reaches an altitude of more than 4,000 feet. For the brave, the Wall is a 1,000-foot run with a 30-degree slope. For a more laid-back option, lights light up the piste for romantic night skiing.

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Bask in the Splendors of Old Kamakura outside Tokyo

Kamakura Daibutsu, The Great Buddha of Kamakura

This peaceful town might be just 31 miles from Tokyo, but it feels like a world away. There are no high-rise buildings reaching dizzyingly up into the sky or neon-lit karaoke bars here. Kamakura was the capital of Japan during the shogunate from 1185 to 1333, when it was the fourth-largest city in the world.

Steeped in history, it is the antithesis of the modern capital. Day-trippers from Tokyo flock here to enjoy the cooling sea breezes while they visit the Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Surrounded to the north, east, and west by mountains and to the south by the waters of Sagami Bay, Kamakura is a natural fortress. The scenery is as spectacular today as it was in its heyday all those centuries ago.

Bamboo forest by the Hokoku-ji Temple, Kamakura Kamakura’s landmark is the monumental bronze statue of the Buddha, called Kamakura Daibutsu or The Great Buddha of Kamakura, which looks out over the city. Located at the Kotokuin Temple, this giant bronze statue of Amida Buddha, has been established since the year 1252 and has survived numerous typhoons and tidal waves throughout the history of Kamakura.

During the thirteenth century, Kamakura was also the cradle of Nichiren Buddhism. Nichiren was not local; he was born in Awa Province, but came to the political center of the country to teach, and the town has been associated with him ever since.

The bamboo forest by the Hokoku-ji Temple is famed for its beauty and Zen-like serenity. To see Kamakura at its best, follow the three-hour walk from the Tokeiji, up through the forest to the Kotokuin. Go to the Zeniarai Benten Shrine to see the money-washing ceremony, which purifies offerings, and drop in on temples along the way. The only sound you will hear is the song of nightingales as you pass blooming purple irises and abundant plum trees. The city is not all about ancient history. The beach is a big attraction, as well as the senbei—crisp rice cakes grilled and sold fresh along the main shopping street. Try one for a taste of the real Japan.

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Tour the Captivating Mount Fuji and Hakone National Park

Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park

Hakone National Park is one of five parks that make up Japan’s Fuji-Hakone-lzu National Park, centered around Lake Ashinoko, or Ashi as it is tenderly known, a adored site in Japan with unparalleled views of the imposing Mount Fuji. It is a popular day-trip destination among tourists keen to go out of Tokyo. Fuji-Hakone-Izu is the most visited national park in Japan.

Located within a volcanic territory, Hakone is famous for its hot springs, health resorts, spas, and therapy centers. The area has long been thought to have magical healing qualities, and people in quest of renewal flock here in the thousands. Never fear if you have not booked into one of the treatment hotels; it is still doable to enjoy a sake bath with green tea: Hakone Kowakien Yunessun is a hot springs spa resort and water amusement park open to the public all year round, a ideal pit stop after trekking the peaks of mounts Komagatake and Kanmurigatake. Those seeking a longer life head to Owakudani, in the Great Boiling Valley, an area with active sulfur vents and hot springs. Here they boil eggs, which turn black and slightly sulfuric, and if you can stand the smell. Fable has it that eating one egg adds seven years to your life.

Lake Ashi, Hakone National Park Hakone also boasts the generally celebrated Hakone Botanical Garden of Wetlands and an open-air museum, with masterpieces on display by celebrated modern artists, including Picasso, Rodin, and Miro. However, Lake Ashi steals the show. It is set in a surreal landscape with snow-covered Fuji as a stage set and the bright red torii gates of Hakone Jinja shrine to the fore, a Shinto shrine forever marking the entrance to a sacred space, another world. At 72,400 feet high, Mount Fuji dominates the skyline across the waters of Lake Ashi. Spring is cherry blossom season in Japan and the most exceptional time to visit the park. Travelers can take in the imposing cone of Mount Fuji through pale-lavender and rose-colored branches in the park during the Sakura season.

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Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru: One of the Most Stirring Life-Affirming Films

When Tokyo bureaucrat Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) learns he’s dying of stomach cancer he suddenly realizes he’s wasted his entire life. For 30 years, he’s worked as an isolated, inward city clerk in a stuffy office stamping paper after paper. Depressed that he’s never really lived, he tries to drink his sores away until he meets an upbeat young woman who encourages him to make a difference. With a new-found purpose, Watanabe becomes a passionate activist and his touching journey in Ikiru (“To Live”) continues to inspire audiences to truly live well over half a century later.

In what could be the greatest closing shots in the cinema, in the last few moments in Watanabe’s life, he sits on the swing at the children’s park is built on a wasteland. As the snow falls over the playground, Watanabe is seen fondly observing the playground, at peace with himself and the world.

Takashi Shimura in Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru

With a compelling, radical narrative structure, Kurosawa depicts Watanabe’s last months and how his final decisions affect those left behind. Ikiru is one of the Japanese master’s darkest, yet most life-affirming works.

Famed movie critic Roger Ebert included Ikiru in his list of Great Movies and wrote, in his review of the film,

We who have followed Watanabe on his last journey are now brought forcibly back to the land of the living, to cynicism and gossip. Mentally, we urge the survivors to think differently, to arrive at our conclusions. And that is how Kurosawa achieves his final effect: He makes us not witnesses to Watanabe’s decision, but evangelists for it. I think this is one of the few movies that might actually be able to inspire someone to lead their life a little differently.

Over the years I have seen “Ikiru” every five years or so, and each time it has moved me, and made me think. And the older I get, the less Watanabe seems like a pathetic old man, and the more he seems like every one of us.

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Sake and Japanese Culture

Sake Ceremony in Japan

An Introduction to Sake and Japan

The Japanese archipelago stretches over 3,000 km from north to south. Therefore, there are various lifestyles and customs. In addition, Honshu (the main island) is divided into the Pacific Ocean side and Japan Sea side by it’s over 1,000-meter elevation backbone ridge. This further results in different lifestyles and customs.

Therefore, the various cultures such as food and drink, festival rites, and folk entertainment have developed according to the climate of the plains, basins, mountains, and seasides. Since there had been almost no historical influence of politics and religion, the cultures of each small local community have been well preserved.

Despite this history, the pursuit of higher-quality sake has progressively evolved.

For example, in ancient times, it was the custom for the people in each region to brew and drink sake with Shinto deities after offering it to those deities at festivals and events. The main sake was called doburoku (unrefined sake). However, such a tradition has declined these days.

More ancient sake, such as kuchinokami-no-sake (sake made from rice or other cereal which is chewed to promote fermentation) and shitogi-zake (sake made from powdered rice which is also chewed) were recorded but the details have not been confirmed.

Seishu (refined sake) is the symbol of present-day sake. In the urban areas, this dates back to the Edo period (17th to 19th century). However, for the farming, mountain, and fishing villages, it was after the Meiji era (19th to 20th century) with the development of brewing techniques and distribution channels.

Present-day sake is made with high-quality standards for a refined taste and is easily available.

However, this standardization does not necessarily mean the decline of the cultural aspects of sake. The relationships of festival rites and sake, appetizers and sake, and containers and sake pass on the unique Japanese tradition, although the differences of the regions are declining.

By striving for the excellent taste and recounting the history of sake, we hope to pass on this part of Japanese culture to future generations and the international community.

History of Sake

History of Sake

Sake is made from rice. In Japan, sake has been consumed since ancient times. Of course, it is not exactly the same sake as what we have these days. The technique has advanced over time to the present day. Considering that the common ingredient, rice, is both the staple of Japanese food and the main ingredient of sake, this history goes back about 2,000 years.

The brewing of sake is a complex process. First, the rice starch needs to be converted into sugar. Then sugar is converted by kobo (yeast) into alcohol. The present, established method of converting starch into sugar is by koji-kin (aspergillus mold), the same process used since the fourth century. Until that time, sake was brewed by a method such as kuchikami-sake (sake made from rice or other cereal, which is chewed to promote fermentation.)

The organization called Miki-no-Tsukasa (sake brewery office) was established by the Imperial Court and started brewing sake for the ceremonies during the Heian period (eighth to 12th century). During the Muromachi period (15th century), hundreds of small-scale sake shops were born in Kyoto and sake came to be brewed throughout the year. At the same time, the brewers of soboshu, sake brewed in temples in Nara and other places, came to lead the development of brewing techniques.

Since then, the technical development with consistent quality has progressed and from the middle of the Edo period (around 18th century), the brewing technique was established and is similar to the technique used today.

First, koji-kin (aspergillus mold) is carefully grown over the steamed rice to make komekoji (malted rice). Then, to komekoji, steamed rice and water are added to make the fermentation starter, shubo (yeast mash). After that, the fermentation is promoted by the method called danjikomi (three-step fermentation process) by adding steamed rice, komekoji, and water three times. After the fermentation, sake is filtered, pasteurized at low temperature, stored, and matured. This production method requires very complex, advanced skill.

At around this time, it became popular to concentrate brewing sake in the best season, winter. This technical development gave rise to the special professional group of sake brewing consisting of toji (chief sake brewer) and kurabito (a worker at a sake brewery.) Migrant workers mainly from farming villages during agricultural off-season became the professional group.

It was also discovered that the quality of water used in brewing had an effect on the brewing of sake. It was the development of the breeding of rice, brewery science, and manufacturing facilities after the Meiji era (19th to 20th century), which marked the beginning of modern Japan, that established the modern brewing process. However, the skill involved with the multiple parallel fermentation process, which converts rice starch into sugar by koji-kin (aspergillus mold) and converts sugar into alcohol by the power of kobo (yeast) simultaneously, has not changed even today.

The fermentation method, which performs simultaneous saccharification of rice and alcoholic fermentation of sugar. With this method, the putrefaction risk becomes lower and alcohol content becomes higher than saccharifying and fermenting alcohol separately.

Various Sake Produced in Climate Conditions of Japan

Japan, which is situated off the northeast portion of the Eurasian continent is a long arc-shaped island country, surrounded by the Kuroshio (warm current) flowing from south to north and the Oyashio (cold current) flowing from north to southwest. The climate varies greatly from north to south and from the Pacific Ocean side to the Japan Sea side. Japan also belongs to the temperate monsoon region and experiences four seasons. However, due to the central mountain range that divides the archipelago, the character of the climate, even at the same latitude, is quite different from the Pacific Ocean side to the Japan Sea side.

As a result, the farm and marine products are very different in each region. Although food from all over the country is available these days, it was in the past the custom for the Japanese to eat local food using local recipes. Therefore, traditional Japanese cuisine is as diverse in flavor, seasoning, and cooking methods as each region.

As a result, the basics of brewing sake in over the 1,000 breweries in Japan are to match the sake to the local diet. For example, there is many red fish caught from the Pacific Ocean, white fish from the Seto Inland Sea, and fatty fish from the Sea of Japan because of the extremely cold winters. Food preservation developed in the inland provinces. In addition, some breweries brewed sake for Edo (present-day Tokyo), which was the world’s largest consumer city during the Edo period (17th to 19th century). Brewing sake for each lifestyle and diet was developed and refined for each region.

Even now, the Japanese cultural sensitivity to the four seasons is reflected in how sake is consumed. Each season brings us a different type of sake and a different way to drink it. In autumn, we have hiyaoroshi, which is sake well matured over the summer; in the winter to early spring, shiboritate (fresh sake) with a fresh flavor; in the hot summer, namazake (unpasteurized sake), which is cooled in the refrigerator. Some prefer to drink sake cold or at room temperature called hiya (unwarmed sake). On the other hand, even these days, others prefer the traditional drinking custom of kanzake (warmed sake) from autumn to spring.

Sake and Japanese Cuisine

Recently, a technical approach to sake brewing has developed. There are the traditional kimoto and yamahai with a sour and thick taste; and daiginjo (very special brew) with the fruity taste using highly polished rice and brewing at a low temperature. Recently, sparkling sake is being produced.

The traditional method of growing of active kobo (yeast) through the action of lactic acid produced by natural lactic acid bacterium while preventing other bacteria activity.

Yamahai operates kimoto-type shubo (yeast mash) growing method which cut the operation procedure called yamaoroshi, grinding rice during the process of active kobo.

Most importantly, the quality control of sake after shipping is essential for enjoying the delicate taste and different flavors. The reason for the sake containers to have lightproof brown or UV-cut bottles is to reduce the sunlight, the most dangerous factor for preserving sake. For drinking delicious sake, it is important to store it in a cool, dark place.

Three Reasons Why Sake Goes Well with Japanese Cuisine

A distinct flavor produced from the brewing of sake is called umami, or savory good taste. These days, sake is consumed with a variety of delicious foods. However, traditionally, it was consumed with a simple appetizer called sakana. The variety of conditions spanning east to west in Japan has produced a diversity of flavors complimentary to the local sake.

  1. Sake contrasts well with salty foods. Because the Japanese summers are hot and humid, salted seafood evolved as a preservative over smoked foods. Therefore, many appetizers that are consumed with sake are high in salt content. Shiokara (salted and fermented fish innards) and naresushi are such examples. It was also common to have sake with salt and miso (fermented soybean paste) only. The umami character of sake goes well with the salty taste of these appetizers.
  2. Sake complements fermented foods. The variety of ingredients used in Japanese cuisine results in unique seasonings. Common seasonings such as shoyu (soy sauce), miso, komesu (rice vinegar), and mirin (sweet sake for cooking) are all fermented using koji (malted rice). In particular, shoyu and miso, like sake, are uniquely developed in each region and have become the main taste of the local cuisine. The predominant use of fermented foods and almost no use of oils and fats are the features of “Washoku: Traditional Japanese Dietary Cultures” listed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
  3. Sake is good in recipes for cooking. The variety of fish, which Japanese people prefer to eat, is rich in minerals and calcium, more than that of Western food. Sake goes well with these flavors. Additionally, it has a good masking effect to remove the odor of raw fish. Therefore, sake is often used, not only as a drink, but also as a cooking ingredient. For these reasons, sake goes well with Japanese cuisine.

The good taste and the variety of qualities of present-day sake have not only become popular over a wide range of Japanese cuisine. It has also become popular with international dishes including fatty meats.

Sake Strongly Connected with Traditional Ceremonies

Shinto is a polytheistic belief system based on nature and ancestor worship. As such, there are many Shinto deities throughout Japan. Based on farming culture, Japan cultivates rice in the northernmost possible location of the world. Rice produced under these severe weather conditions has become the most precious staple food for the Japanese. It has been ancient tradition to celebrate the good harvest and express gratitude by offering sake to the deities. The food and sake offerings to the deities are called shinsen. Although there are various offerings for each region, the essential ones are as follows: miki (sake made from fermented rice), mike (washed rice or boiled white rice), and mikagami (round rice cake made from pounded steamed rice).

These days, the Japanese people eat rice throughout the year as a staple food. However, in the older days, people used to eat katemeshi, rice mixed with crops such as millet as a staple food, eating pure rice only on honored days such as ceremonies. In addition, sake made from the abundance of valuable rice and through much effort has become the most important part of these offerings.

Drinking sake with the deities and offering gifts to them on festival days are traditions passed on to today. Even today, the summoning of the Shinto deities is a tradition that is preserved throughout Japan.

For example, the ceremony jichinsai, for the construction of the new buildings, is performed by sprinkling sake over the property and offering it to the owners. Furthermore, Japan celebrates four distinct seasons with a festival called Sekku, performed at the turning point of each season. Although it has been simplified in recent years, it used to be the custom to float seasonal flower petals on sake, admire the flowers, and drink sake. For example, peach sake in March, sweet-flag sake in May, and chrysanthemum sake in September. People drink it to ward off evil spirits and wish for a long life. Also, on New Year’s Day, there is a custom by which people wish the peace for the new year by drinking sake called toso, a mixture of about ten kinds of herbs mixed with seishu (refined sake).

While feeling the change of each season, we Japanese hope to cherish those events by celebrating with sake and strengthen the ties now and forever.

Sake in Japanese Wedding Ceremony

Sake Necessary for Social Bonding

Since ancient times, Japanese have used sake as a way to create special bonds with each other. Sakazukigoto is a ceremony meaning the exchanging of sake cups. San-san-kudo is the most popular type of ceremony. After pouring sake, each person takes three sips of sake from each of three kinds of cups: large, middle, and small. It is important to sip three times as the number three is considered lucky. Especially in wedding ceremonies, san-san-kudo is usually performed while making vows before Shinto deities.

Outside of weddings, a custom called katame-no-sakazuki (ceremony of exchanging sake cups as a pledge of friendship) is used when people with no blood relationship become sworn brothers or a parent and a child. The phrase, “exchanging sake cups,” has a similar meaning as “contract” in Western societies. The phrases “drink sake together” and “eat out of the same pot,” mean closer relationships without any special contracts.

During present-day Japanese banquets, we often hear the phrase like “let’s do without the formalities and make ourselves at home today.” This means that there is no distinction between social statuses for developing relationships. Usually organizers and guests of honor give the opening speech to propose the toast saying, “kampai” at the beginning of the banquet. Kampai means to dry or empty a glass. It is a Japanese word to express not only a toast, but also a feeling of cultural bonding.

After this reiko (formal ceremony) people start bureiko, an informal party. The phrase, “we wish you continued success and prosperity …,” is usually used to propose a toast of kampai.

The word kinen means, “praying to the deities” In short, the original traditional ceremony sakazukigoto (ceremony of exchanging sake cups) is symbolized in the act of the toast, kampai, as the simplified confirmation of the purpose of the gathering. Therefore, we make a toast, kampai, with sake to pray to the deities.

Originally, it was common that people drank sake not only for auspicious occasions but also for funerals and Buddhist services. People drank sake to bid farewell and to remember the deceased. For important emotions in Japanese life, sake was indispensable.

Sake in Gift Exchange Culture

Gift Exchange Culture and Sake

It is ancient tradition and customary for people to exchange sake as gifts. First, sake is indispensable as the offering to the deities.

People bring sake as the celebration gift on New Year’s holidays and at festivals saying the words such as “we offer this to Shinto deities” or “we offer this to Buddha.” After offering sake to the deities, people commenced with osagari, consuming sake with the deities. Therefore, sake is indispensable as the gift on festival days.

Also since ancient times, sake has been used as the expression of sympathy and condolences. It was especially important to give sake as an expression of sympathy in the case of fires and disasters. It was custom for neighbors to help clear debris of fires and disasters. It was also custom to bring sake to encourage good feelings and restore good luck. As such, the custom of bringing sake as the expression of sympathy after fire and accidents was established.

There are other Japanese unique gifts called o-chugen in summer and o-seibo at the end of the year. These are gifts from one person to another to express gratitude for their help. The gift-giving custom of o-chugen and o-seibo started during the Edo period (17th to 19th century) when subordinates gave gifts to superiors as a token of their gratitude. In return, the superiors would give back a gift, twice of value, called baigaeshi. Soon after, this custom became popular regardless of social rank. The main gift was sake.

Although modern society has a variety of items for gift giving, the custom of giving gifts as religious offerings, expressing sympathy, and o-chugen and o-seibo are deeply rooted in Japanese society. Sake still shows its presence as one of the main gift items.

Development of Sake and Its Distribution

Originally, sake was brewed in each region throughout Japan as local production for local consumption. From the late Muromachi period (16th century) to the early Edo period (17th century), the brewing industry was concentrated in the Kinki region such as Nara, Fushimi, and Itami.

This changed during the Edo period (17th to 19th century) because of a peaceful 300-year reign of the Tokugawa shogunate and a developing economy. Since the population of Edo (present-day Tokyo), the center of politics, was already over one million, there was a strong demand for sake there. In addition, the shogunate and related domains strictly controlled the licensing system for production and sales of sake.

Present-day Nada in Hyogo Prefecture, the largest sake-producing district, grew as the largest sake supplier for Edo. Originally, the Kansai region had the concentration of sake brewing techniques from the Nara period (eighth century). Also, the extremely cold winter climate was suitable for brewing sake. In addition, an abundant supply of hard water called miyamizu, suitable for brewing sake, was discovered there.

As it was located near Osaka, the center of the nation’s economy, a special sea route using a ship called tarukaisen was established for shipping the sake to Edo. Although it had several sea routes surrounding the Japanese archipelago, throughout the Edo period, the original purpose was for the transport of sake.

The sake wholesale district in Edo, Shinkawa, which was established as the shipping discharge base in Edo, became the largest base of sake distribution in eastern Japan. Sake brewing in Nada was developed to the taste of urban residents of Edo. Nada thus grew as the representative sake-producing district in Japan. Because of the abundance of sake shipped to Edo, it was easily available to the population.

Since the main distribution system moved from maritime to railroad in the Meiji era (19th to 20th century), several sake brewery districts were established mainly for selling outside of their own area: Fushimi in Kyoto Prefecture, Saijo in Hiroshima Prefecture, and Jojima in Fukuoka Prefecture.

Nowadays, people can drink various locally brewed sake quite easily throughout Japan owing to the development of reliable logistics systems. Presently, the most productive districts of sake are Hyogo Prefecture, Kyoto Prefecture, Niigata Prefecture, Saitama Prefecture, Akita Prefecture, and Aichi Prefecture.

Sake as the National Alcoholic Drink of Japan

Presently in Japan, people can drink various types of alcohol such as beer, wine, and whiskey along with various foods from all over the world. It was important for us to understand and respect the cultural backgrounds of each country as we consume a variety of traditional food and drink of each of those countries.

Although the Japanese diet has undergone many changes, the conventional Japanese cuisine and sake are being seen in a new light. At the same time, the cultural and historical significance of Japanese cuisine and sake have come to attract people’s attention as well.

The reasons why sake qualifies as “the national alcoholic drink of Japan” are the followings: it is made from rice and water, the blessings of Japanese climate; it has the unique technique of using koji-kin (aspergillus mold) grown by the blessed climate of Japan; it has the history that people have consumed it for a long time throughout Japan; it has the strong connection with Japanese native beliefs, traditional annual events, and lifestyle; and it is brewed all over Japan.

Therefore, cherishing “the national alcoholic drink of Japan” is none other than being proud of Japanese culture. Of course, it is also important to deepen the mutual understanding by respecting foreign cultures, histories, foods, and alcoholic drinks. Japanese sake has been recognized overseas as the word, “sake.” Furthermore, recently the words such as ginjo (special brew sake) and junmai (pure rice sake) have become popular as well. In recent years, the export volume of sake for overseas has increased favorably.

The Japanese have promoted sake overseas as the representative of Japan, in other words, “the national alcoholic drink of Japan.”

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China’s Relexed One-Child Policy: Baby Boom in China?

China's Relexed One-Child Policy: Baby Boom in China?

China’s implemented a much-criticized state-mandated family planning policy in 1979 to control the swelling population of a then-poor nation. The stipulated that every couple may have just one child. Ethnic minorities were allowed to have two children. Couples in rural areas were allowed have a second child if their first child was a girl.

Over three decades, the one-child policy worked too well and has produced a gender imbalance and a shrinking work force. Sex ratio in China is now 117 males for every 100 females. The policy has also resulted in an elderly population that rivals Japan’s in percentages and costs for caring for the elderly.

Under the latest change to the policy, urban couples will also be allowed to have two children, if at least one spouse is an only child. This change is estimated to produce ten million additional babies over the next five years.

'China, Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World' by Ted Fishman (ISBN 0743257359) The trend of more babies, however, doesn’t look enduring. Most forecasts only account for an increase in births over the next five years. After that, as China gets richer, birth rates are likely to continue dwindling.

Wealthier countries simply have fewer kids. This trend has been corroborated with similar demographic developments in Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia. Consider South Korea, where fertility rates continued its four-decade downward trend after the government abolished the family planning program in 1996.

The United Nations estimates China’s population aged 64 and under will fall dramatically over the next 20 years because of lower birth rates.

Some estimate that there’s even an actual upside if China’s birth rate continues falling. Ted Fishman, author of ‘China, Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World’, estimates that China will, nonetheless, remains competitive: “you get more and more resources pushed into children and education, and productivity will go up enormously as a result”

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Unwind at the Secluded Mountainside Hoshinoya Resort, Japan

Hoshinoya Resort and Hot Springs, Nagano Prefecture

“The most essential elements of an onsen ryokan are its location and quality of onsen water.”
— Hiroshi Ebisawa, Architect and Designer

The ritual of bathing has never been more awe-inspiring than at the new, stylish Hoshinoya Resort in Japan’s Nagano Prefecture. Located one hour from Tokyo by bullet train, in Nagano Prefecture, the Hoshinoya Resort is a secluded resort surrounded by mountains and forests.

This is no traditional onsen (hot spring); Hoshinoya sits firmly in the twenty-first century. Green geothermal energy supplies the underfloor heating, and the surroundings are sincerely present-day. Dark wood and stone floors replace the familiar tatami mats. As well as open-air baths, a labyrinth of low-ceilinged indoor baths leads to a meditation bath lit by underwater spotlights. Calming music works well with the heat and sulfurous vapors to give a unforgettable bathing experience.

Hoshinoya in Nagano Prefecture Outside, lush terraces and waterfalls are a feast for the senses, surrounded by Karuizawa’s thick forest of Japanese maple, which turns splendid shades of gold and crimson in the autumn. Near Nagano, in central Honshu, the resort’s cottages are arranged around a small river. No two rooms are the same, even though each one has a private bathtub that looks out over the river and lavishly fills with onsen water at the touch of a button. Walls are the comforting color of green tea, and bedrooms have grandiose cathedral ceilings.

Away from the onsen, there are guided eco-tours of the forest and stargazing evenings. Curl up in the library with a good book or join other guests for tender morning stretching exercises at the Chaya wooden tea house pavilion. Hoshinoya is hot spring heaven and refreshingly new class of Japanese resorts infused with modern style, and is dedicated to keeping the traditional Japanese hospitality.

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The Economic Impact of Aging Japan

The Economic Impact of Aging Japan

The saving rates in Japan will fall dramatically by 2024 and make Japan’s financial wealth decline. There are two direct reasons for this fall: one is that by 2024, more than a third of Japan’s population will be over the age of 65, which will lead the retired household to outnumber households in their prime saving years. Another reason is that the younger generation is saving far less than older generations have, and this truth will amplify the effects of a decline in the number of savers.

This trend will decrease the accumulation of wealth and erode Japanese living standards. What’s more, since Japan has played an important role in financing the massive US current-account deficit, as Japanese funding dries up, this damage may extend to other countries and bring negative impact for economic system of America. For example, if other rapidly industrializing countries could not step up to fill the gap in savings as Japan’s savings rate declines, the United States will probably be forced to trim its trade deficit and this could have enormous repercussion for the global economy.

There are only two ways to mitigate the coming demographic pressure in a meaningful way: increasing household savings and boosting the returns earned on them.

  • Increasing savings: Given the significant increase in average life spans during the past 50 years, rising the retirement age is a way to extent the period when households are most prone to save. In addition, encouraging younger Japanese households to save more is also a helpful step to increase household savings.
  • Raise the rates of return: The most effective change for Japan would be to raise the rates of return on its financial assets. To do so, Japan will have to raise productivity throughout the economy and increase the efficiency of the financial system in allocating capital.

On one hand, basic structural reform, such as elimination of market regulations that would increase competition and spark innovation, tax policies protecting inefficient companies, and ease zoning and land regulations that reduce large companies’ expanding and creating jobs to protect start-ups to do business, could increase the economic-wide productivity.

On the other hand, increasing the financial system’s efficiency ensures the savings are channeled to the most productive investments and improves legal protection for investors and creditors. The diversification of Japan’s household financial assets is also an important means of increasing the efficiency of capital allocation.

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