Saturday, January 31, 2009

The way of the Japanese Samurai-Bushido

Samurai is a japanese word used for describing the ancient military aristocracy. It is derived from saburau, the japanese translation for the verb to serve. Through out the centuries this medieval warrior became the ultimate everlasting symbol of the japanese quest for perfection.

The Samurai were masters of rural domains and direct shogun's vassals. They had under their command warriors with strange habits, at least for a Westerner;
before each fight they used to perfume themselves, worn heavy make-up and blackened their teeth. All these strange customs were deserted in 1870.
The standards, known as the Samurai warrior code or, simply, Bushido weren't always followed; they foccused on the ideea of honour, of keeping up a promise, of protecting at any costs the suveran and contempt in front of death. This code of honour and absolute loyalty towards their shogun puts the samurai-s on the same level with the medieval european knights, with the only difference that in Bushido there isn't any reference towards religious conduct. During battles, the samurai was horse riding, carring heavy and somptuose harness. His armour was made out of iron plates; the iron helmet was heavy decorated, they wore footwear out of bear coat, a huge arch, a quiver, a dagger and two swords. The samurai kit wasn't complete without his flag and a fan used to make his gestures and military orders seem even more martial than they were. As a must, a samurai had to know to play at least one musical instrument.

Miyamoto Musashi, a samurai from the 17th century alleged that an oath signifies loyalty at any costs. The Bushido code enforced respect, honour and total contempt towards death. To avoid the shame of being taken prisoner and, much later, to prove his loyalty infront of the shogun or to protest against an unfair conduct of a superior, in the 13th century first appeared the Harakiri( which literary means "to cut through the stomach") or Seppuku, derived from a chinese word. When the samurais lost a battle, the mass suicides were extremely common, clan leaders compelling hundreds of men towards this desperate gesture. It is important to keep in mind that samurais weren't affraid of dying as they perceived death as a normal and beneficial process of reuniting the deceased's spirit with Mother Nature. The samurai caste came to its decay at the end of the 19th century, once Japan embraced the road to modernisation. Once the feudal system is abolished the samurais have lost their very reason of being. A large number of them improve their economic status by becoming merchants in Nagasaki, Osaka and Edo. Others followed an intelectual reconversion, some of which became well known in literature and arts.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


One of the symbols of Japanese culture, Gheisas are the first point of interest for every foreigner that enters this fascinating asian country.
A Geisha is, in a few words, a woman who's only job is to entertain guests. In order to become one, they have to meet multiple qualities: beauty, grace, artistic skills, charm, refinement and perfect etiquette.
Those women who are wishing to became a geisha have to take intense training in various japanese traditional domains, aslike ancient dancing, singing and playing different musical instruments; they also have to master the traditional flower arrangement tehnique, Ikebana, the tea ceremony, japanese calligraphy, conversation, manners and much more. Nowdays, Geishas are very well adapted to the modern way of living and many of them are studying English and even how to use personal computers.

The process of becaming a Geisha is quite difficult and it is a long term endeavour.
The conductress of a tea house discusses with the girl wanting to became a geisha and also with her parents. If the candidate is accepted after these preliminary talks, she will start living together with her matron immediately begin special training. Once the girl enters into the tea house she will not be able to leave this place in the next 4 or 5 years. By tradition, girls begin training at an early age. During childhood they are working as servants and carry on various household tasks. This stage is called shikomi. Once the wannabe geisha becomes expert in all required arts of this profession, she has to sustain a very difficult dancing exam. If she is successful she moves to the second stage of the long term training, that being minarai. During this period they continue focussing on studying arts, without carring on with household duties. After a few years, when it's considered they mastered all the required knowledge, they enter for a month in the tea house where they practice the arts of conversation and playing, which are impossible to learn just in theory. After this period of intense learning she will became a young geisha, or Maiko in japanese. This usually hapens when the girls are around 19 or 20 years old.
There are two types of geishas: Tachikata, her main skill being the traditional dancing- mai, and jikata, expert in singing or playing an instrument. Usually tachikata are the younger geishas, maiko-s, while jikata are the older geishas.
Geishas are usually hired to attend all sorts of feasts, inside tea houses or traditional japanese restaurants. There is a signifiant confusion regarding geishas, especially in the Western world, where these delicate creatures have been perceived as prostitutes. Confusion was created by real professional japanese prostitutes, who were using the image of geisha in order to raise their popularity.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

How to behave at a Japanese tea ceremony

If you are lucky enough as to be invited to a japanese tea ceremony, you have to study its history and meaning and expect to have a long relaxing adventure, if we only consider that a complete tea ceremony can go up to 5 hours. It consists of three major stages. For starters you will be served kaiseki- a kind of appetizer, then koicha- a dense thick tea and, at the end, usucha- a light tea. Considering it's duration, the tea ceremony usually is restricted to the last part.
Those who decide to follow exactly the ancient tea custom have to abide by a multitude of strict rules, even before the proper ceremony begins. The traditional Kimono is a must and the location of the ceremony( chashitsu- the tea house) has to be perfectly cleaned. None of the ceremonial utensils are randomly chosen: they are all cosiderably old, except the bamboo bowl and a napking used for wiping, who have to be immaculate white. You also have to pay attention to way of saluting, of sitting at the table or the way to pour out the tea into the tiny cups. Conversation also plays a key role and usually is centered on origins of the utensils, on prasing the beauty of the host's gestures, of the ceremonial and natural beauty in general.
The traditional japanese tea ceremony takes place in special arranged rooms; the guest's itinerary starts from a waiting room, followed by a garden and a further passage through a gate. Then they wash their hands and mouth, in order to purify themselves and after that they finally enter the chashitsu. There is no talking during this interval, so the guests are guided just by the host's gestures. The tea room is extremely simple, as it contains only a small table for serving tea, a traditional painted parchment and a few mats: the host and the most honoured guest sit on one mat, the rest of the guest on a second mat and utensils are all put on a third one. After all the guests have payed a close look to the parchment they are served appetizers, called chakaiseki. After that they are invited to the garden, as the host has an significant task ahead: preparing the tea and changing the parchment with a floral arrangement called chabana.
With 5 gong beatings or 7 bells( depending if the ceremony is taking place during the day or night time) the guests are called back into the chashitsu. While they are admiring the chabana the host brings all the utensils required for the tea ceremony: a large cup, a bamboo whisk, napking, a vase with water for washing, a silk handkerchief and a bamboo ladle.
But how is the tea prepared? The powder tea is poured into a cup and then you pour water heated at 60 degrees Celsius. Afterwards you mix it with a bamboo stick untill it turns foamy. The cup is then offered to the first guest. The later performs a bow, uplifts and rotates the tea cup, tastes it and then he gives it away to the next person, till the cup comes back to the host.

A short history of Sado, the Japanese tea ceremony

Sado or The Japanese tea ceremony is both the oldest and world renowed japanese traditions. Its charm resides in its spirituality and the simple and unharmed beauty of this staggering nectar which is the green tea. The very tea which is the key point of the century old ceremony for wich japanese people are known around the globe. Modern japanese learn it in special schools and tourists came from all corners of the world to see it.
The tea plant was brought to Japan from China, in the 12 th century, by Eisai, a Buddhist monk. He is nowdays known as "the father of tea". Used exclusively in the japanese temples, it started in the following decades to be more and more appreciated by laics, especially by noblemen and samurai. In order to become a tea cult ( chanoyu) it required to reach a higher level, and this was made possible by another buddhist monk, Murata Juko (Shuko) (1422- 1503). It was him who established the first principles of the future tea ceremony. Chanoyu was later updated by the great master Soueki, the one who shape it into the modern form we know today.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Kabuki, unique japanese theatre

Kabuki is an old traditional Japanese form of theatre which first appeared at the beginning of the 17 th century, in an era called kabuki-odori. In japanese language kabuki means eccentric, unusual, out of the norm. And that is exactly what kabuki theatre means, acting in an unusual manner.
At its beginning Kabuki was nothing more than a short dance performed by japanese women for the amusement of the merchants. With the passing of time performances grew in complexity, combining music, dance and theatre and slowly becaming the modern Kabuki.