Island Life (Podcast Recap! S1E5)

Island Life (Podcast Recap! S1E5)

Introduction

Our fifth episode of the Nihongo Master podcast, we talk about island life in Japan. Japan is the largest island country in East Asia and the fourth largest in the whole world! But what not everyone knows is that Japan is not only one single island, but it’s made up a total of almost 7 thousand ones!

There are a total of 6,852 shima in Japan, and 430 of them are inhabited. They cover a huge range of longitude and latitude, ranging from the subarctic to the subtropical climates.

We looked at three different categories of islands: famous main islands, quirky tourist islands and some far-flung exotic islands which feel a world away from Tokyo — each with a few examples. 

Famous Islands

There are four main islands which broadly constitute the mainland, or ‘home islands’: Hokkaido up north; Honshu — the biggest part on which most major cities lie; Shikoku Island, known for its spiritual spots and laidback atmosphere; and southern Kyushu, the sunny stronghold of samurai culture.

To talk about all four would take hours on end, so we only headed to the far north and south, to Hokkaido Island and Kyushu Island. Despite both islands being part of the main Japanese archipelago, it’s incredible how different these two vast islands are: one a wild and wintery land with a unique indigenous culture, one a melting pot of foreign influences baking under the sub-tropical sun.

 

Hokkaido

Hokkaido is the second-largest island of Japan, after Honshu. In days gone by, this wild northern region was the last frontier of the Japanese home islands. Nowadays, it’s a snow sports Mecca and home to a huge proportion of the country’s wildlife species like the red-crowned crane. On top of that, Hokkaido has probably the best and freshest seafood in all of Japan. The capital city, Sapporo, is a famous destination for anyone looking to venture the north without straying too far off the beaten path. 

Hokkaido’s history is quite the story, especially when it comes to its past residents. I won’t go into detail — that’s where the podcast episode comes in, and over there we talked about it all — but ever so briefly, the island was home to an aboriginal group known as the Ainu who also inhabited far-eastern Russia. They were skilled at hunting and fishing, but these people largely faded into obscurity after their lands were conquered and culture suppressed.

However, the unique Ainu culture is still alive (but barely) in the legends, music and dance they created. Official statistics state that there are just 25,000 Ainu remaining to carry the torch of this legacy. 

Want to know more about the Ainu people’s physical appearances, customs, practices, language and culture? Head over to Spotify or Apple Podcast and give this episode a listen! We also talked about other unique factors of Hokkaido — food, weather, attractions and all.

Kyushu

The island of Kyushu is the southernmost part of the home islands. Its geographical location means it has a far warmer climate than the rest— some parts even reaching subtropical latitude. Kyushu doesn’t have its own indigenous people like Hokkaido, but this island’s history is just as rich — long story short, the very last samurai waged a war against the government on this very island. Want to know the long story (but not too long)? Go to the podcast, people!

The sun-soaked coasts of Kyushu were also once the only ones in Japan to welcome foreigners, bringing in foreign religions like Christianity and business to the country. There was quite a ruckus going on because of the whole religion thing — we talked about the whole banning of Christianity and restriction of foreigners’ movements all in the podcast episode. 

You might’ve seen this in the film if you’ve watched Martin Scorsese’s 2016 movie Silence, about two Catholic priests traveling to Kyushu from Rome to track down their mentor. It was based on a book by one of Japan’s greatest modern novelists, Shusake Endo, and it shows the real brutality of the shogun’s forces.

Kyushu has more to offer than just its religious and political history — its nature is top class. I mean, they’re known as “The Land of Fire” for a reason, mainly for their active volcanoes but their natural hot springs are must-visits too. 

To know more about Kyushu, like the food and unique dialect, give episode 5 of the podcast a listen! 

Quirky Islands

Other than looking at the major players among the islands, we also took a look at some of the unique and stranger ones: animal islands and art islands. 

Animal Islands

Image Credit: Addy Cameron-Huff

Why go to the zoo or visit a pet cafe when you can get up close and personal with some wild and friendly ones in their home territory? Japan has no shortage of these places that are dominated by furry creatures — places overrun by critters that were once domesticated, but have now conquered entire islands for themselves!

One of the most famous is Rabbit Island, but the island also goes by a different name: Okunoshima. This tiny island is overrun by over 1,000 fluffy bunnies. After a day spent drifting around fields feeding friendly bunnies, you might be inclined to think of Okunoshima as a total paradise, but it wasn’t always this way. This island has quite a dark past for both bunnies and people. Something happened during World War II…it’s a secret that we revealed in the podcast!

If for some strange reason you don’t like rabbits, why not head to a cat island instead? While there’s only one rabbit island, there are a grand total of 11 cat islands in Japan! Why are there so many? Well, there are a couple of myths and legends, but mainly they were simply a solution to rodent problems on these islands. 

Out of all the 11 cat islands, there are two that trump the rest: Aoshima and Tashiro-jima.

In Ehime Prefecture, Aoshima is the most popular cat island there is. Some even call it the Cat Heaven Island because of how the furry felines outnumber humans. We talked a bit about this island’s history and population — cat and human! Tashiro-jima tucked off the coast of Ishinomaki City in Miyagi Prefecture, has a similar story behind their excessive number of cats on the island. The difference is that Tashiro-jima completely and officially bans all dogs from visiting! 

I did mention other cool fun facts of these islands — check out episode 5!

Art Islands

Image Credit: Roger Walch

While some Japanese islands have been overrun by the animal kingdom, others belong to the avant garde. Art is business in Japan, and the country is home to some of the biggest private collections in Asia. The best art islands in Japan are Naoshima and Inujima. 

I won’t talk about them in detail here — there will be a separate post on that in the future (or you could just listen to the podcast if you can’t wait). But to get you started, Naoshima is probably the most popular art island out of them all, famous for its iconic ‘Pumpkins’ sculptures made by Yayoi Kusama, which are now an unofficial emblem of the island. Inushima, on the other hand, literally translates to “Dog Island” — but don’t get too excited — it’s not an island packed full of puppies; Inushima just got its name from a large rock on its coast, which looks like a sitting dog.

Both islands are home to unique museums, quaint cafes and exhibitions that you won’t get on the mainland. We went into detail what both islands have in the podcast episode.

Far-Flung Islands

The last category is for the remote Japanese islands flung far out into uncharted waters. They’re so  far from the mainland, they often don’t even feel like Japan at all, and which had their own isolated societies and unique culture stretching for millennia.

There are two groups of exotic islands we looked at: the Okinawa Islands (including the remote outer reaches) and the Ogasawara Islands.

Okinawa Islands – Ryukyu Kingdom

Image Credit: 8 Kome

To the southwest of mainland Japan is sunny Okinawa — a famous beach vacation spot that hardly qualifies as remote anymore, but the name itself actually refers to a few different things. It’s not only the name of one island that is capital to a vast prefecture of the same name — with over 150 islands spread out right throughout the Pacific Ocean!

These islands can also be collectively referred to as the Ryukyu Islands, named after the historic kingdom which ruled here for centuries before it was invaded by the Satsuma Kingdom of Kyushu in 1609. Listen to the podcast episode to know more about what happened.

Anyway, to this day, quite a number of the outer Ryukyu islands only have a few hundred residents, while others are virtually uninhabited. Because of their remote location and unspoiled nature, this cluster of islands is a haven for unique wildlife, genuinely undisturbed white sandy beaches in the world, and complete with colorful marine life and lively coral reefs.

In the podcast episode, we elaborated more on the subtropical weather of Ryukyu Islands, its wildlife species you won’t find anywhere else in the world, and of course, their unique language, culture and cuisine!

Ogasawara Islands – Galapagos of Asia

Image Credit: Lee Render

A lesser-known and more remote group of islands are the Ogasawara Islands. While they’re a sub-prefecture of Tokyo, it takes about 24 hours to go between the two!  Named after the Japanese explorer who discovered them, Sadayori Ogasawara, they are also known as the Galapagos of Asia. Like the actual Galapagos, these islands were formed by an isolated chain of underwater volcanoes. Because of this isolation, the Ogasawara Islands developed their own ecosystems with unique flora and fauna calling them home.

Previously, this group of islands was known as Bonin Islands. There are a few reasons why it was named that — we looked into it deeper in the episode. Another interesting fun fact about this group of islands is that the first settlers there weren’t Japanese — they were British! And others joined in before the Japanese came into the picture. Throughout the years, a unique culture was built — a mix of Japanese, Western and the Pacific Island culture in everything from customs to linguistics. 

It wasn’t all fun and games — original settlers were treated like second-class citizens during the wars. I won’t go into it — but if you’re interested as to what happened, we talked about it in the podcast episode!

Also in the podcast episode, we highlighted the best parts of Ogasawara — obeikei culture, cuisine, unique wildlife unlike you’ve ever seen before and, of course, the untouched nature. 

Vocab Recap

If you listened to the podcast and didn’t manage to catch some words, here’s a list of them:

Tanchou (丹頂) — the famous red-crowned crane

Kaisen don (海鮮丼) — Hokkaido’s specialty seafood rice bowl

Kani () — crab

Uni (海胆) — sea urchin

Gaikokujin (外国人) — foreigner (also known as gaijin外人)

Kazan (火山) — volcano

Onsen (温泉) — Japanese hot springs

Usagi (ウサギ) — rabbit

Neko () — cat

Inu () — dog

Jinja (神社) — shrine

Hakubutsukan (博物館) — museum

Goya (ゴーヤ) — bitter melon

Youkoso (ようこそ) — a formal word for welcome, most often seen in writing

Butaniku (豚肉) — pork

Umi-budo (海ぶど) — Okinawan sea grapes

Buninshima (無人島) — uninhabited islands

Umigame (海亀) — sea turtle

Conclusion

So if you’ve realized, in episode 5, we toured Japan from its very far northern reaches right down to the Pacific south. Along the way, we’ve taken a look at native peoples and languages, unique wildlife, culture both modern and ancient, and indigenous foods to add to your must-try list. So if you’re into any of the things I’ve mentioned, why not give the episode a listen?

Island Life (Podcast Recap! S1E5)

Podcast Recap! The Art Culture of Japan (S1E10)

Introduction

If you love art, you’d love this episode where we talked about the rich art culture of Japan. Art is one of the best windows into the character of a nation and culture, and Japan has one of the richest artistic traditions in the world.

It’s here that probably the most famous image in the world was created: Hokusai’s The Great Wave. But in this episode, we looked at more than just the big names — we explored some of the most significant styles of art styles that were cultivated in the courtly halls and artisanal workshops of this unique island nation.

We focused on four iconic Japanese arts that shaped the Japanese aesthetic tradition the most: ukiyo-e woodblock prints, shodo calligraphy, shikki lacquerware, and ikebana flower arrangement. 

Ukiyo-e – Woodblock Prints

Image Credit: Katsushika Hokusai, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

We started the episode off talking about ukiyo-e, which is an art style hugely popular in the Edo Era that involves the use of woodblock printing for mass production of paintings. The word Ukiyo itself actually means “floating world”: a term used to describe the pleasure-seeking life of Japan’s medieval urbanites.

Ukiyo-e started off as simple as it could get: black and white prints used for illustration inserts found in books. It wasn’t until the mid-Edo Era when the people demanded for more that coloured woodblock printing became a thing. In those days they were most often made to advertise beauty products or kabuki shows! 

And they were introduced to the West as…wrapping papers!

We talked a bit about the evolution of ukiyo-e and the process of woodblock printing in detail in the episode, so give it a listen for the full rundown. But here’s a basic overview of how it goes: there are publishers who commission the prints to artists, who then give their painted pictures to woodcarvers, who then give their craft to printers. 

As we said, it’s a method of mass production — so why are some prints more valued than most? Listen to the episode to find out!

What I can tell you is that Hokusai broke away from the tradition of printing beautiful women or kabuki actors, and started painting religious figures and landscapes instead. Ukiyo-e has travelled a long way since its early days — from being just a quick, simple piece of mass entertainment for the locals to inspiring the best Western artists of their generations.

Shodo – Calligraphy 

Image Credit: Ángel Medinilla

The next Japanese art we looked at has been around since the early 5th century — Shodo calligraphy. It has its own set of philosophies: to connect the mind and body through art. Even though skill and practice is important in Japanese calligraphy, artists have to also master mushin (無心), a state of mental rest and zero thoughts when your heart is free of any disturbances. This is a concept lifted straight out of Zen meditation. 

We talked a bit about how calligraphy came to Japan in the first place and how it became a hot new fad at the time — but I won’t go into it in this summary article; you’d have to listen to the episode!

Anyway, we also looked at the various styles of shodo, with each style reflecting the trends of the time it was created, or even just of the ruling ruler of the time.

The first one is kaisho, the most basic style of shodo, and it translates to the “square style” that became the standard style of Japanese calligraphy. These brushstrokes are the closest to the original style of Chinese calligraphy but it’s also the easiest to read because of the clear-cut, box-ey aesthetics.

Gyōsho is where cursiveness comes more into play. The strokes aren’t as clearly defined and deviate quite a bit from the standard printed characters, This “moving style” is like the calligrapher’s style of how writers write on paper: without lifting the pen, or brush in this case. 

The last one, sōsho, takes the extreme end of cursive and resembles the wind-blown grass — this style looks pretty abstract to say the least. Sōsho’s technique is to convey the smooth and flowy sensation of writing, with each character integrating with the next. 

There’s a bit more elaboration in the episode, and we emphasize how shodo is more of getting into the right state of mind. Whether you’re a master painter, or your handwriting looks like a toddler’s scrawl, this ancient Japanese art can be a lot of fun to practice. 

Shikki – Lacquerware

Image Credit: Dennis Amith

We then went on talking about shikki, Japanese lacquerware. These are covered with layer upon layer of sap from poison oak trees used to make the lacquer. Shikki has quite a history; it’s probably the oldest Japanese art on this list. Long story short (the long story being in the podcast episode), it goes back to the Jomon period (14,000-300BC) and crimson red and black were the most common historical colours. 

Each prefecture has their own unique method of production, and because you can’t get that kind of lacquerware anywhere else except there, these pieces became the perfect souvenir. How is one prefecture different from the other? We highlighted a few areas in the episode! 

Anyway, back in the olden days, getting the materials for this art required some real creativity. Red lacquer was created with refined tree sap and red pigments, while the black lacquer is from the soot of burnt pines, canola oil and sesame oil. The Heian period saw a shift in shikki technique — a new style called Makie to make gold or silver lacquerware. It was regarded highly back in the day and today it’s a prized artifact. How is it done? Episode 10, people! 

One thing’s for sure, though — it sounds like an intense process that requires truckloads of patience, but without a doubt, the results are more than impressive — Japanese lacquerware is said to be able to endure the harshest of conditions and last for decades of constant use. The 1998 Winter Olympic medals even used shikki techniques!

Ikebana – Flower Arrangement

Image Credit: Robyn Jay

This last Japanese art is my personal favourite: ikebana is the traditional Japanese art of flower arrangement. The name is a combination of the Japanese word ikiru (生きる, to live) and hana () for flower.

Ikebana is just as beautiful on the outside as it is on the inside — ikebana compositions are more than throwing a few stems into a bowl and calling it a day— they’re tied to the ideas of reflection and inner peace. Ikebana is practiced in silence, allowing the ikebanaists to concentrate fully and only on the nature in front of them. 

What’s the history? It’s tied to religious practices, both Buddhism and Shinto. So, if you’re interested, go check the episode out for the full backstory!

What I will tell you here are the different ikebana styles. It all began with Rikka, which translates to “standing flowers”. This is the orthodox style — very orderly, with the tallest flowers in the centre.

The Nageire style is a bit more like punk than classical, and the name literally means to “throw in”. This was an extension of Zen Buddhism; more particularly the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi-Sabi, in which imperfection is considered beautiful.

The Moribana style came after, and has stuck as the most popular one of them all. There are three elements in a Moribana composition and they can represent one of three things: heaven, man and Earth. 

What’s consistent throughout all ikebana styles is the importance of seasonality and the flowers’ symbolism. Pick a size too small and it completely disrupts the flow of the whole composition. 

Vocab Recap

Here’s our list of vocabulary words from the episode:

 

E (絵) — painted pictures, sketches, and book illustrations

Hanmoto (版元) / Shuppansha (出版社) — publisher

Eshi (絵師) / Gaka (画家) — artist

Bijin (美人) — beautiful woman

Haiyuu (俳優) / Yakusha (役者) — actor

Kaku (書く) — to write

Bungaku (文学) — literature

Egaku (描く) — to paint 

Kami (紙) — paper

Washi (和紙) —Japanese handmade paper 

Fude (筆) — writing brush

Efude (絵筆) — paintbrush

Shokki (食器) — tableware 

Chawan (茶碗) — rice bowl

Hashi (箸) — chopsticks

Omiyage (お土産) — Souvenir

Washoku (和食) —traditional Japanese cuisine

Kin (金) — Gold 

Gin (銀) —silver

Ikiru (生きる) — to live

Hana (花) — flower

Kabin (花瓶) — vase

Kudamono (果物) — fruit

Wabi sabi (侘び寂び) — the Japanese aesthetic basically meaning “perfect imperfection”

Saizu (ザイズ) — size

Iro (色) — colour

Conclusion

We can always learn something new from history — like taking away a thing or two from the ikebana art to construct the perfect bouquet, and match it with a handwritten letter using the techniques of shodo calligraphy. There’s so much we can take away from Japanese art no matter your level, so why not dip your toe into it by listening to Nihongo Master Podcast episode 10?