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The peacock is the national bird of India, so how did it gain prominence in Japan? It's all about religion, and the blend between Hinduism and Buddhism.
In India, peacocks are known to be able to predict rain and kill snakes, sometimes even those of the poisonous variety. Due to these unique attributes, Hindus celebrated peacocks from the earliest times, and in their religion, they associated peacocks with the god Murugan, who travels on the back of a giant, mythical peacock.
Since Buddhism and Hinduism developed together, they share many traditions. The peacock became not just a Hindu symbol, but also a Buddhist symbol, related to the Buddhist Wisdom King (Queen), Mahamayuri or Kujaku. As Buddhism spread east to Japan, these Indian traditions followed. In Buddhism, Mahamayuri is known to prevent poisoning, both physical poisoning from things like snakes, but also spiritual poisoning.
In Japan the peacock also symbolizes the goddess of mercy, Kwannon. The peacock, like the goddess is known to be compassionate and empathetic, like the goddess. Theis stems from the peacock's supposed grief when it loses its mate.
Today, some Japanese temples keep live peacocks as part of this symbolism.
Updated Apr 20, 2013
Many Buddhist temples in Japan have an outer gate called niōmon. Inside the gate you will find statues of traditional Niō guards. These "benevolent kings" guard the temple and ward off evil spirits. The muscular figure with the open mouth is called "Agyō" or "Naraen Kongō," and he is said to be speaking the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet. The closed-mouth figure to the left is "Ungyō" or "Misshaku Kongō," and his closed mouth is said to be speaking the last letter of the Sanskrit alphabet.
Written Mar 6, 2013
The Tanuki is a Japanese raccoon dog, that is important in Japanese folklore. The tanuki is troublesome and happy, but absentminded. This animal is often displayed as a statue around Japanese restaurants and temples, and is oddly depicted with giant testicles, a sake bottle, and a bank ledger or promissory note. Supposedly the Tanaki is a sign of good fortune and money for the business.
A children's poem about Tanuki:
Tan Tan Tanuki no kintama wa,
Kaze mo nai no ni,
The Tan- Tan- Tanuki's testicles are,
Despite there being no wind blowing,
Swaying, swaying, swaying
Updated Mar 6, 2013
Cherry blossoms, or Sakana in Japanese, are a popular symbol of Japan and viewing these delicate flowers is a springtime tradition throughout the country. The Japanese have a term, Hanami, which means to have a picnic lunches with sake under a cherry blossom tree.
In Japan the cherry blossoms bloom at varying times each year, but it begins in Okinawa, usually in January, then it reaches Tokyo by late March or early April. Acres upon acres of cherry trees are planted in parks, at schools and government buildings, and around temples, and people flock to see them when in peak bloom.
The cherry blossom has become a symbol of Japan, and it can be seen in a number of places: on money, on kimono fabric, and on military uniforms. During Japan's colonial days, cherry trees were often planted as a way to claim occupied lands for Japan; therefore, you will find cherry blossoms in former colonies such as Korea and China. In more recent years, the Japanese diaspora has planted cherry trees where large numbers of Japanese live overseas including in Brazil and Canada. Japan has also given cherry trees to the US, Turkey, Germany, Australia and other countries as goodwill gestures or symbols of friendship.
Written Mar 3, 2013
Pachinko is Japan's version of a Western slot machine. Rather than matching shapes on spinning wheels, as in sots, pachinko players shoot steel balls into the machine in an effort to get more steel balls. When the play ends, any balls acquired my be redeemed for prizes. Some "special prizes" can be redeemed off premises for cash, which allows pachinko parlors to avoid Japanese laws that forbid gambling. In Tokyo the exchange locations are called TUC shops, short for Tokyo Union Circulation,
Pachinko parlors are similar to slots areas of casinos, except perhaps more loud and bright. There are about 16,000–17,000 pachinko shops in Japan, about 90 percent of which are owned by Zainichi Koreans, permanent residents of Japan.
Written Feb 6, 2013
The Buddhist religion has been observed in Japan since the Sixth Century and possibly earlier. About 70 percent of Japan's population claims to be Buddhist, but many are also Shinto, as the two religions have much overlap in beliefs. Buddhist temples are plentiful around Japan, and are primarily used to store sacred relics rather than as a place of collective worship. There are about 77,000 Buddhist temples in Japan, but they have been closing at a rate of 100 per year since World War II.
The entrance to a Buddhist temple complex is usually marked by a wooden gate with doors and a large wooden roof, but the entrance could also have a simple torii gate of Shinto origin. The gates typically have a pair of guardian statues. Most temples are constructed of wood, and dominated by a huge roof. Around the outside of the temple you will often find a wide veranda covered by the roof, but distinctly separate from the interior.
Written Jan 1, 2013
Kokeshi are traditional hand-made wooden dolls from Japan. The dolls were originally created in the Edo Period (around 1700 AD) in northern Japan. Some theories explain the dolls are substitutes for unwanted babies killed after birth, others believe the kokeshi were created as gifts for Japanese visiting the hot springs in the north.
The traditional dolls are made from a simple piece of wood, so the dolls have a thin, plain body, and a large head, but no arms or legs. Some simple facial features are usually painted onto the face, and the body usually has a painted floral design. The bottom of the doll has a signature or stamp of the craftsman.
Written Dec 14, 2012
Japanese people love granny bikes with wicker baskets, cargo racks, baby seats and only one gear. This is one of the most fashion-conscious countries in the world, but they ignore sense of style when it comes to transportation? While Japanese people might spend 3,000 Yen for a nice dinner, and even 15,000-20,000 Yen for tolls on a day trip, most spend only about 10,000 Yen on a bicycle.
Children, adults, even the elderly ride bikes in Japan, and they ride in all weather conditions; it is not uncommon to see a person riding a bike while carrying an open umbrella to block the elements. People ride bikes to work, to school, to the neighborhood bus or rail terminal, to get groceries and more.
The rules for bicycling in Japan are pretty lax, in a country that is know for following rules. Bicycles drive on the left side of the road, with traffic, but much more often, they are driven on sidewalks. In this case, the bicycle is normally ridden on the side of the sidewalk away from the buildings and closest to traffic (but to the left of oncoming bikes).
Perhaps the most unique thing about bikes in Japan are the bicycle parking garages and the automated, electronic bike racks. At larger train stations, some dedicated bicycle parking garages have multiple stories and can fit thousands of bikes.
Updated Dec 10, 2012
Michaya is the Japanese name for the traditional wooden houses found in many towns and cities across Japan, but are most well known in Kyoto. Michaya were first seen in Japan around 1000 AD, and were long the homes of merchants and craftsmen. The front of the homes was traditionally used as a storefront and the back as living quarters.
Written Nov 3, 2012
In Japan, the turtle is a symbol of longevity, good luck, and support.
The Japanese legend of Urashima Tarō is about a fisherman who rescues a turtle and is rewarded with a visit to Ryūgū-jō, the palace of Ryūjin, which is located under the sea. Urashima Tarō stays at the palace for three days but it is 300 years in the future when he returns to his home.
Lesson: don't take rewards from turtles.
Written Oct 28, 2012
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