Interactive online map of Kyoto lets you toggle between modern day and the 9th century

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RocketNews 24 (by Casey Baseel):

If you’re a history buff, or time traveler, this could come in handy.

With all apologies to Nara, nowhere in Japan can match Kyoto’s reverent connection to its history. The city served as the seat of imperial power for centuries, most gloriously during the Heian period of the 9th to 12th centuries.

Walking along the city’s streets can sometimes feel like taking a trip into the past, and if that’s where you’re going, you’ll want a period-accurate map, like the interactive one developed by Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University.

Called the Heiankyo Overlay Map, the clever navigational tool (which can be found here) works with Google map’s data for the city.

Animated GIFs illustrate traditional Japanese woodblock prints with humor

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Beautiful Decay (by Tamar Akcay): 

Segawa 37 pays tribute to Japanese art by creating GIFs from the original work of traditional Japanese woodblock prints, “pictures of the floating world’.

Originally, Japanese woodblock paintings, also called Ukiyo-e, were depictions of everyday scenes in Japan. Affordable, they represented the possibility for the mass to access art. Segawa 37 gives a new life to these prints by altering their core. From hyper realistic to surreal, the artist offers to the modern world a new way of looking at a classic form of art. 

The most emblematic representation of Japan, a contemplation of movements; calm and serene, but always intense remains within those wooden prints. The artist’s reinterpretation of Katsushika Hokusai’s images is disturbing the stillness and tranquility of the scenes… What is meant to be admired in almost a meditative state is now entertaining.

Discover Segawa 37’ series of Gifs on the GifMagazine award page sponsored by Adobe.

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Tokujin Yoshioka’s Kou-an Glass Tea House reinterprets the traditional Japanese tea ceremony

Edo and Meiji era Japanese artwork now available for free download

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Attention all designers, artists, fashion enthusiasts and people who just appreciate some nice Japanese artwork: The Smithsonian Libraries should be your best friends.

Among their thousands of other free artwork and books, The Smithsonian Libraries and the Freer and Slacker Galleries, Smithsonian’s Museums of Asian Arts now offer free downloads of thousands of beautiful Japanese prints.

Haven’t you ever wanted the simple yet colorful and whimsical prints of Meiji era (1868-1912) artwork as a digital file on your computer? Yeah, we have too and we’re really excited about this cool find.

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The collection is in fact a series of monthly design magazines, entitled Shin-bijutsukai.They were released in 1902 to show various designs by famous artists of the day. Artists featured include the editor himself, Korin Furuya, and his predecessor, Kamisaka Sekka. Sekka is known for being one of the first to incorporate Western tastes, styles and methods into traditional Japanese-style works. Furuya carried on this new, modern Japanese style and helped spread it around the world.

▼ Can you see the Western influence?

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If you want digital access to the pictures above and hundreds more, head to The Smithsonian Libraries website. There are two volumes of Shin-bijutsukai and both can be downloaded in their entirety by clicking the links towards the bottom of the website here.

Be aware, the files are kind of big, so you might want to stick with computers, not smart phones for this one.

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If you’re more into traditional artwork, the Freer and Slacker Museums also offer countless free downloads of artwork from all over Asia here. In the Japan section, you can find Edo period woodblock prints from world-famous artists, such as Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige.

▼ “Wood-block Print of Two Fish with Floral Sprays and a Poetic Inscription” by Utagawa Hiroshige.

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▼ “Merry Makers at Cherry Blossom Festival” by Yeisen

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Sometimes staring at pictures in museums just isn’t enough; you want to get them from the wall and onto your computer. Now you can and what’s even better, is that they’re available for free. Thank you technology and thank you Smithsonian Library.

Strapped for cash, 1,400-year-old Kyoto shrine leasing part of its grounds for condo development

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RocketNews 24:

One of the things that makes Japan such a compelling place is the country’s long cultural history. The upkeep of centuries-old buildings can be extremely expensive, however, especially since traditional Japanese architecture is mainly wood, reed, and paper, which aren’t exactly the sturdiest building materials.

As we’ve seen before, sometimes even sites of historical significance can struggle to make ends meet, and Kyoto’s famous Shimogamo Shrine is no exception. That’s why in order to raise the funds it needs, the institution, which was founded some 1,400 years ago, is planning to lease a section of its grounds for the construction of a complex.

Although it’s been around in some form since the 6th century, the Shimogamo Shrine has gotten a number of publicity boosts in the modern era. The shrine was designated a UNESCO world Heritage Site in 1994, and much of the surrounding forest is part of the Tadasu no Mori, an old growth nature preserve that’s listed as a national historical site.

In even more recent years, the shrine was depicted in in the 2013 Kyoto-set anime The Eccentric Family, and the shrine remains one of the most important Shinto sites in Kyoto, beloved for its fall colors and host of the Aoi Matsuri festival, held every year on May 15.

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This year, however, the shrine’s finances are looking bleak. Like many shrines, Shimogamo periodically takes part in a ritual called Shikinen Sengu, wherein new shrine buildings are constructed to replace the old ones as the homes of the gods. Shimogamo Shrine does this once every 21 years, and with Shikinen Sengu scheduled to happen in 2015, expects to incur related expenses of some three billion yen(US$25.2 million).

Government funding should provide about 800 million yen, and, like many shrines in Japan, Shimogamo is also likely to receive donations from major business entities. However, two months into the year, donations are not projected to be nearly enough to cover the necessary costs. In response, Shimogamo Shrine announced earlier this week that it is planning to lease out a section of its shrine grounds for the construction of a condominium complex.

Head Priest Naoto Araki said that the ordinary monetary offerings the shrine receives over the course of a year are applied to ordinary administration and maintenance costs, but points out that the latter are rising every year. Faced with the additional burden of finding a way to pay for 2015’s Shikinen Sengu, he has come to the conclusion that there is no other choice that will enable him to preserve the shrine for future generations but to build the condos. The 50-year lease is expected to bring in about 80 million yen annually for the shrine.

▼ A map of Shimogamo Shrine

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Conservationists will be partially relieved to know that the proposed construction site, while still on the shrine grounds, lies outside the World Heritage Site and national historic site boundaries. The 9,650-square meter (2.4-acre) plot, which borders the Mikage-dori road, was formerly the site of housing for the shrine’s priests. Following World War II, the area was repurposed as a golf driving range because of financial difficulties, and in the early 1980s became a parking lot, which saw less and less use as other lots were built in the area.

In keeping with Kyoto’s reverence for its past, any development will have to comply with a number of regulations meant to preserve the city’s traditional beauty, and the developers are currently in the middle of preliminary talks with Kyoto’s Municipal Beautification Council. The proposed 107-unit complex would be spread among eight buildings, each a modest three-stories tall and no more than 10 meters high so as not to mar the surrounding views, with traditional Japanese tile roofs. Within the complex, the same type of elms as those which grow in the Tadasu no Mori woodlands are scheduled to be planted.

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Despite these concessions, many online commenters still weren’t happy about the news.

“I was really surprised to hear about this. I don’t mind if they charge admission to the shrine, but I want them to call off the condo construction. It’ll ruin the scenery.”

“At first I thought, ‘That’s just wrong,’ but it looks like there’s no other way for them to get the funds they need, so it can’t be helped.”

“Even if they’re a World Heritage Site, is this the only way for them to survive?”

“Ah man…are they still going to be able to film samurai TV shows there?”

If approval processes go smoothly, construction is expected to start in November, with completion of the complex estimated in spring of 2017.

Company in Japan now hiring for the position of Ninja Master

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RocketNews 24:

One company in Japan has put out an honest-to-goodness help-wanted ad for a ninja master.

Twitter user Hojinga recently shared the job posting he came across on a government-run employment website. While it’s likely most visitors to the site are searching for office work, or perhaps positions in the service or industrial sectors, one lucky candidate can walk away with gainful employment as a ninja dojo instructor.

 

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The employer is listed as Koka Kanko Kaihatsu Kabushikigaisha, and while we’re not 100-percent convinced it’s not a cover for a clan of shadow warriors, the organization’s name translates out to Koka Tourism Development, Inc. According to the posting, the selected candidate will be working in Shiga Prefecture’s Koka City, the same town where last week some civil servants performed their duties dressed as shinobi, in honor of the local area’s ninja heritage.

Specifically, the professional ninja will be plying his or her trade at the Koka Ninjutsu Village, which houses a ninja-themed museum, ninja house equipped with trap doors and other contrivances, and a ninja training center where visitors can receive instruction in one of nine different shadow arts.

▼ If, for some strange reason, guests don’t already own their own ninja uniforms, rentals are available.

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It will be up to the newly hired ninja master to get these new recruits up to speed so that they can start carrying out acts of subterfuge for their samurai lords as soon as possible…or perhaps show just off their certificates of completion to their non-ninja-trained friends. As is often the case in Japanese employment listings, details are vague on exact responsibilities, but the successful applicant will be expected to participate in performances for visitors, and climbing stone walls is specifically mentioned as one of the employee work duties.

▼ Just another day at the office.

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The initial contract is for three months, with the possibility of an extension once the period is completed, with shifts lasting from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The ninja master’s skills will only be necessary on Saturdays and Sundays, leaving the successful candidate free to live weekdays under their secret identity.

Hourly pay is to be determined during the interview, but will be in the range of 750 to 1,000 yen (US $6.35 to $8.50). While that’s not a particularly high wage, this job still remains a rare and excellent opportunity to get your foot in the door of the shinobi industry, and may just be the first step to someday becoming Chief Operating Ninja of your own enterprise.

Utsurobune: The UFO of 19th Century Japan

RocketNews 24:

The image above is one of many illustrations of the Utsurobune no Banjo incident that happened in Japan in the early 19th century. Although there are various accounts of the event, it is believed by many to have been an encounter with extraterrestrials, and not just because the vessel fishermen found in the ocean looks like a flying saucer.

■ The incident

One day late in the winter of 1803, some fishermen located a vessel floating in the Pacific Ocean of the coast of Ibaraki Prefecture. They towed it back to the shore for further investigation.

It’s been described as a round “boat” with some iron plating and glass windows. On the windows were strange geometric shapes that they had never seen before. This craft, which was dubbed an utsurobune or “hollow boat,” measured somewhere between 5 to 10 meters (16.4 to 32.8 feet) across.

Upon opening the craft they found a woman inside. The woman was described as a banjo, a word which meant “barbarian woman” or simply referred to a white woman. Remember, political correctness was still ages away at this point.

However, this woman spoke a language that no one could understand and likewise she couldn’t understand them. She wore clothes like they had never seen and a long white colored hair extension. She also clung to a rather large box that no one was allowed to look inside.

With communication at an impasse the locals all decided the best course of action would be to put her back in the craft and into the ocean where she came from. That’s just what they did and the woman was never heard from again. You have to hand it to old-timey Japanese people. They really knew how to deal with a complex situation efficiently.

 

■ What was it?

The problem was solved for them at least. For the rest of us it just leaves one big question mark over what exactly happened there. The combination of strange clothes, language, symbols and boat leads many to envision an alien encounter. Added to that, all of the illustrations of the utsurobune certainly seem to resemble a flying saucer (bear in mind they are not drawn to scale).

However, a more likely explanation may have been a hot air balloon’s gondola. Ballooning was just becoming big in Western countries around this time and widely used. This French illustration depicts a hot air balloon from 1808.

Japan, on the other hand, was still a largely closed-off country and not too aware of these developments, especially in small fishing villages. It’s this same closed-off nature that might have made other nations really eager to take a peek inside. So, it might not be far-fetched to assume the utsurobune was just a spy balloon from somewhere like Russia that had crashed into the ocean.

That’s just a theory though, and there are still many mysteries about this incident. For example, stories of similar vessels found in the ocean have been recorded in years before along with other tales of people finding strange women alone in odd places. This year’s Oscar nominee The Tale of The Princess Kaguya is one such fable that was written almost a millennium before.

Unfortunately, with little else to go on, it’s hard to say whether the utsurobune encounter was an international incident, interstellar incident, or just a relatively modern rehashing of an old folktale.

Check out “The Delicate Art of Creating Bonsai Trees”

American Bonsai tree nursery Bonsai Mirai has commissioned filmmaker Ryan J. Bush to create a film featuring Bonsai master, Ryan Neil. The Bonsai master has been practicing the craft for over twenty years, perfecting the challenges that come with honing this historic art.

Check out the seven-minute film, and take a look into Neil’s mind and the broad and generally mysterious art of Bonsai tree planting.

February 22 is Ninja Day, as these cosplaying civil servants at Koka City Hall just reminded us

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Are you feeling bummed out that February’s two most high-profile holidays, namely Twin Tail Day and Valentine’s Day, are both already over and done with? Cheer up! While it may not necessarily tug at the heartstrings like February 2 and 14, what’s arguably the coolest holiday of the month is coming up this weekend.

That’s because February 22 is officially Ninja Day, and one town in Japan is helping people get into the spirit with a bit of shinobi-style cosplay at its city hall.

The kanji for Shiga Prefecture’s Koka City can also be read as “Koga,” which is a name Japanese history buffs might be familiar with. The Koga Ninja who were based in the area were one of the most formidable shadow warrior forces of Japan’s feudal era, and present-day Koka wholeheartedly embraces this part of its history.

▼ Even the floor of this Koka train station is decorated in a throwing-star pattern.

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Japan loves its puns, and someone noticed that ni, the Japanese word for “two,” is pronounced just like the first of the three syllables in “ninja” (yes, in Japanese, “n” is a syllable all of its own). Before long, support grew for February 22 (2-22) to be known Ninja Day, a designation now officially recognized by the Japan Anniversary Association (the same group which has given its nod of approval to the aforementioned Twintail Day).

In celebration, the five-employee team at the Koka City Tourism Promotion Office has spent the week commuting and working in attire that reflects their city’s claim to fame.

Just to be clear, their workspace isn’t located in the middle of an amusement park or museum. These civil servants go about their duties right smack in the middle of Koka City Hall, just a shuriken’s throw away from the sections of the municipal government responsible for registering marriages and official residence addresses.

Speaking of shuriken, this week the members of the Tourism Promotion Office have also been handing out origami throwing stars to visitors who’ve come in to ask for information about local attractions. On Ninja Day itself, they’ll also be onboard trains on the local Shigaraki Kohgen Railway, once again making paper versions of the tossable tools of the ninja trade.

▼ The mysterious shinobi keep their masks on at all times, even when doing desk work or talking on the phone.

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Obviously, the Tourism Promotion Office staff would be happiest if you celebrated Ninja Day by taking a trip to their lovely town, maybe to see Koka’s Minakuchi Castle. If you absolutely can’t make it to the home of the Koga Ninja, though, you’ll be happy to know that other organizations across Japan are also doing something special to mark the occasion, with specific details available here on the English-language version of the official Ninja Day website.

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