Ninja Fighting in Snow

August 24, 2011 in Clover

Ninja were mercenaries hired by feudal lords in ancient times to act as spies, raiders and arsonists. Their primary roles were those of espionage and sabotage, although occasionally they were also hired as assassins.

Before an impending battle, ninja could infiltrate an enemy’s castle, sometimes under disguise, to gather information on enemy terrain and building plans, as well as to obtain passwords and other details which would aid in the planning of attacks.

The threat posed by the ninja was so feared that a variety of countermeasures were specifically devised to be used against them. For example, weapons were concealed in lavatories or under removable floorboards, while traps and trip wires attached to alarm bells were constructed as security measures. Supposedly, to help in detecting ninja, the floors in buildings of interest were also specially designed to squeak loudly when walked over.

The skills of the ninja, known as ninjutsu, centered around espionage and survival skills. The ninja tradition was passed down through family ties, with training starting from childhood. Apart from physical and martial arts training, the ninja also had to be equipped with knowledge about poisons, explosives and sometimes even medicine. They also had to study about various professions in order to take their guise for the purposes of infiltration and escape.

The ninja’s covert and secretive methods of combat were in stark contrast to the samurai’s strict rules about honour and dueling openly, but their mysterious nature only served to capture the imaginations of many, even to the present day.

Okinawa Prefecture: Shuri Castle

August 24, 2011 in Clover

Shuri Castle, a compound of several buildings situated in Naha City, is said to date back to the 12th century or earlier. It was the focal point of foreign trade and also the political, economical and cultural center of the Ryukyu Kingdom. The castle was also the residence of the Ryukyu kings for several centuries until Okinawa became a Japanese prefecture in 1879.

As an independent kingdom sandwiched between Japan and China, Ryuku developed a unique architectural style reflecting Okinawa’s active exchanges with its neighbouring countries at different periods of time. China’s influence manifested itself in the use of its construction techniques to build part of Shuri Castle in the 14th century when Okinawa was actively involved with China. By the 18th century, when Okinawa had come to have relationships with Japan, Korea and its other neighbours, some of Shuri Castle’s new additions were built in the architectural styles of these countries. For example, a building to the south of the front court was said to be used for receiving Japanese officials whereas a building to the north was used to entertain envoys from China.

Time has not been kind to Shuri Castle; most of its original buildings have been heavily destroyed by wars and fires. Today, the current buildings there are largely reconstructions on the original site based on old photographs and historical records. Shuri Castle has now been made into a historical park and the popular tourist destination was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

For more information please visit JNTO’s website.

Kagoshima Prefecture: Ibusuki Sunaburo

August 23, 2011 in Clover

Ibusuki Sunaburo is a sand bath spa in the city of Ibusuki. The city faces Sakurajima, an active volcanic mountain island that is responsible for the black volcanically heated sand on the shores of Kagoshima bay.

Customers at the spa have to change into yukatas before lying on a trench where men with shovels cover up their bodies with sand up to their necks. This “sand bath” lasts around 15 minutes and is normally followed by a hot-spring bath or suana. The sand bath is said to detoxify the body and improve blood circulation, among other medicinal effects. Its effects are said to be 3 to 4 times more effective than the usual hot spring; that probably explains why people are so eager to get buried in the burning hot sand!

For more information please visit JNTO’s website.

Miyazaki Prefecture: Miyazaki Chicken (Jidori)

August 23, 2011 in Clover

Miyazaki Jidori, also known as Miyazaki Jittokko, refers to an indigeous breed of free-range chicken found in Miyazaki prefecture that is known especially for its chewy texture and rich flavour.

The Miyazaki Jidori breed was created through agricultural research and cross-breeding experiments that began in the 1960s. While regular chicken is speed-raised in just 90 to 120 days, the Miyazaki Jidori is raised over 180 days without the use of growth hormones. The result is a superior chicken whose flesh is considered to be of premium taste and texture, and yet which carries no game odour whatsoever.
The Miyazaki Jidori brand has been so carefully groomed and protected by farmers as well as their related industry associations that it is common to find specialty restaurants today that serve only Miyazaki Jidori. The chicken stocks in these restaurants are usually very fresh,  which enables them to serve dishes of half-cooked or even raw meat (sashimi). An example of such a dish is Jidori Tataki, which is a lightly seared chicken that is finely sliced and eaten with a dipping sauce. More adventurous eaters can try the fully raw sliced chicken meat and organ dishes that are served there like any fish sashimi dish. Just like their fish based counterparts, these are served with sliced daikon and wasabi as condiments.
While there are countless ways to prepare the Miyazaki Jidori, the most popular recipe is to have it cooked over charcoal as “sumibi-yaki” chicken. A dish of deep-fried chicken marinated in Namban vinegar and tartar sauce, “Chicken Namban”, is also another popular recipe.

For more information please visit JNTO’s website.

Ooita Prefecture: Bloody Hell Pond

August 22, 2011 in Clover

Located near several volcanoes, Beppu city in Ooita prefecture is perhaps the hot spring paradise of Japan, famous for its wide variety of extraordinary hot springs.

Among these hot springs are several jigoku, or hells, which are bubbling open springs of water with distinctive colours, so named because they evoke scenes of the underworld. The most famous of these is the Bloody Hell Pond (Chinoike Jigoku), a pool of bubbling red hot mud whose name is derived from descriptions of hell based on Buddhist beliefs. The Pond is said to be over 1,300 years old, and it is not only the oldest but also the most photogenic of the nine hell ponds in Beppu. Its bright red waters are composed of a unique composition of ferrous oxide, magnesium oxide and aluminum oxide. Boiling at 200 °C, the steam from the pond is also blood-red in color.

Visitors can take home a bit of the Bloody Hell Pond in the form of a bottle of Chinoike Ointment, an effective balm for skin diseases made from the red clay extracted from the pond.

For more information please visit JNTO’s website.

Kumamoto Prefecture: Mount Aso

August 22, 2011 in Clover

While the Japanese peninsula is laced with volcanoes, there is one that commands awe for its sheer size and raw beauty. With a diameter of 25 kilometers and a circumference of over 100 kilometers, Mount Aso is the largest volcano in Japan and ranks amongst the world’s largest as well. Boasting the largest caldera in the world, Mount Aso paints an idyllic picture of Japan’s countryside charm. The smoldering top of active peak Nakadake, with its occasional spurts of ash and sharp odor of sulphur, is the symbol of Aso.

Despite the risk of an eruption from the active volcano, it is not hard to see why 100,000 people still choose to live in its caldera: the black volcanic soil of Aso gives birth to all kinds of produce, from rice, vineyards, fruit orchards of every variety, and so on. In summer, Aso’s hillsides are covered with blankets of lilies, orchids, bellflowers and countless other flowers. Cattle roam freely on the vast green plains underneath clear blue skies. On top of that, Aso is also well-known for its unsurpassed spring water at famous Aso springs. The crystal clear water is in such excess that the whole city’s water needs are met entirely by Aso’s natural underground springs. Not surprisingly, hot springs are also a luxury easily taken for granted due to its easy availability in the region.

Yet, despite the abundance of food and water, the Mount Aso region and Kumamto Prefecture in which it rests is nicknamed “Hi no Kuni”, meaning “Fire Country”. It is aptly named so, not only for the active volcano, but also for the famous annual burning of withered grass to eradicate harmful insects and promote fresh growth over summer. The fires are arranged on high mountain ground in the shape of gigantic Kanji characters and set ablaze at night, usually to the frenzy of cameramen from all over Japan. This annual spectacle is but one of the famed sights at picturesque Mount Aso.

For more information please visit JNTO’s website.

Nagasaki Prefecture: Oura Tenshudou Catholic Church

August 22, 2011 in Clover

Oura Tenshudo Catholic Church is the oldest church in Japan and one that tells a troubled history of religion in Japan. In 1596, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who unified Japan after a century of war, banned Christianity. During his reign, he captured 26 Christians in Kyoto and Osaka, and sent them to Nagasaki where they were crucified at Nishizaka hill. In 1864, the Ouran Tenshudo Catholic Church was built facing this hill to commemorate the 26 martyrs. It was originally built for the French community living in Nagasaki, when a group of peasants come to the church soon after it opened to confess their faith. Before long, tens of thousands of hidden Christians followed suit and the religion was once again revived. The fact that Christianity had survived despite centuries of persecution was so moving that a white marble statue of the Virgin Mary was built in commemoration of this dramatic discovery at the Church’s entrance. The breaking news that Christianity had been alive in Japan for over 250 years despite the Anti-Christian Edicts in 1612 led to then Pope Pius IW to call it ‘the miracle of the Oriental’.

During the Edo Period when Japan closed itself from the rest of the world, Nagasaki, seated at the northwest tip of Kyushu close to Korea and China, was the only place open to foreigners. Till today, foreign culture and influence are evident in this city, and the Ouran Tenshudo Catholic Church built in Gothic European style is a prime example. Today, the church is the only western-style architecture that was appointed a National Treasure and draws both tourists and worshipers alike.

For more information please visit JNTO’s website.

Saga Prefecture: Arita-Yaki

August 21, 2011 in Clover

Arita-Yaki is a world-renowned style of Japanese pottery, and also the name given to the porcelain wares made in its style. Arita is a city in Saga prefecture where the style originated; yaki is short for yakimono, which means pottery. Arita-yaki was created by a Korean potter who was abducted by the Japanese army when they withdrew from their invasion of Korea in 1592. The potter, Yi Sam-pyeong, discovered a type of clay called Kaolin clay in the mountains in Arita, and produced Japan’s first porcelain wares with it.

Early Arita-yaki were made with the traditional Korean stylings of blue and white, but new techniques and styles were soon created from studying Chinese porcelain, and Arita-yaki became more colourful since then, with red becoming the predominant colour. Some Arita-yaki were exported to Europe through the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century, and played a part in influencing the styles of famous European porcelain brands. As Arita-yaki is exported through the port of Imari in Saga prefecture, the style is also known as Imari-yaki, although this word also refers to Arita wares specifically catered to European tastes.

Sought after for its durability and richness of color, the charming antique art of Arita-yaki remains popular to this day.

For more information please visit JNTO’s website.

Fukuoka Prefecture: Nakasu Yatai

August 21, 2011 in Clover

Yatai, or open air food stands, are perhaps one of the symbols of Fukuoka. There are over 150 yatai across the city, most of them in the Nakagawa and Tenjin districts, that spring up on busy pedestrian walkways when the sun begins to set. Famous yatai food include yakitori (grilled chicken skewers), oden (stewed finger foods), and the famous Hakata Ramen – a local version of ramen featuring thin strands of noodles in a pork bone based (tonkotsu) soup. A typical yatai is a movable one square meter cart where diners can seat around three sides of its perimeter, facing the cook who prepares the dishes in the middle. Sometimes the outer edges are covered with curtains for a cosy ambience. In such an enclosed and casual atmosphere, it is not hard to strike up a friendly conversation with the person sitting next to you.

The biggest yatai strip is in Nakasu, and the more famous yatai stalls gather there. Located between the Naka-gawa and Hakata-gawa rivers, Nakasu is said to be the busiest street in Kyushu. With more than 3,000 restaurants and a concentration of large shopping centers in this entertainment district, Nakasu Yatai offer an alternative dining experience to visitors, and a window to the more local side of Japan?

For more information please visit JNTO’s website.

Kouchi Prefecture: Pole Fishing

August 21, 2011 in Clover

Kouchi prefecture is the largest city in Japan facing the Pacific Ocean, known especially for its fishing industry and a unique fishing technique. The port waters along the coast are usually filled with small fishing boats engaged in traditional pole-and-line fishing. A pole-and-line vessel has special platforms for fishermen to stand on and fish with poles, often using live bait. This technique may be labor-intensive and less productive then net fishing, but it is said that fish caught by this method are less likely to get damaged, and can thus fetch a higher price then commercially caught fish.

The bonito fishing industry is particularly prosperous in Kouchi, due in part to the fact that the locals are the biggest bonito consumers in Japan. Nationwide, the bonito is considered one of the most important fish in Japanese cuisine due to its use in many dishes: flakes made from the bonito are an important ingredient used as a topping in many dishes, and the dashi (soup stock) which forms the base for many soups, including miso soup, are made using bonito flakes as well. Not surprisingly, bonito flakes most highly regarded for their quality and flavour come from Kouchi. Although bonito is commonly eaten as sushi and sashimi, the favourite bonito dish of Kouchi is katsuo tataki (lightly broiled sliced bonito). As a sign of its popularity with the locals, bonito-related products are available in almost every restaurant and souvenir shop across the city.

For more information please visit JNTO’s website.