Samurai! The Art Of The Japanese Warrior Comes To Boston

Samurai
The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is showcasing a large collection of samurai armor and art from one of the world’s leading private collections.

Samurai! Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection” opens this Sunday, April 14, and features more than 140 objects, such as this horse and rider. Visitors will learn about the complex typology of these elegant suits and how they developed over time. For example, this horse armor (bagai), horse mask (bamen) and horse tack (bagu) date from the early to mid-Edo period, 17th–18th century. They’re made of leather, gold, fabric, wood, horsehair and lacing. The armor is of the tatehagidō type and dates to the 17th century. It’s made of iron, leather, gold and fur.

Beside numerous suits of armor for men and horses, there are also weapons, military equipment and brilliant silk screens showing samurai in battle. The helmets are especially diverse and were used to show off the wearer’s status and individual identity, and as a way to put fear into the hearts of the enemy.

What’s remarkable about some of these suits of armor is that they were made long after the heyday of the samurai had finished, but Japan’s wealthy elite still hearkened back to the age when their ancestors fought in armor such as this. Europe, of course, went through a similar process of glorifying the medieval knights.

“Samurai! Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection” runs through August 4.

Photograph by Brad Flowers. © The Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum, Dallas. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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10 reasons to visit Kanazawa, Japan

artOne of the most overlooked destinations in Japan is Kanazawa. Although it is the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture, many tourists have not heard of the city or use it only as a quick stopover to other places. In reality, Kanazawa has a legacy in the arts, a rich cultural heritage, and many unique offerings that can’t be found anywhere else in the country. To help you learn a little more about the area, here are 10 reasons to visit Kanazawa, Japan.

A vibrant art culture

Kanazawa has a long history as a town of artisans, originally invited into the area by the Maeda clan during the Edo period from 1603 to 1868. Some traditional art forms still found in the area include:

  • Lacquerware and maki-e, which is lacquerware decorated with gold leaf or gold powder. You can see an example of lacquerware, created by artist Masaru Nishimura, above.
  • Pottery, including suzuyaki, a naturally occurring black “glaze” on pottery, and kutani-yaki, a five-colored glaze painted in flower and nature patterns
  • Silk weaving thanks to the production by silkworms that live in pairs in the same cocoon
  • Kaga yuzen silk dyeing, which involves the complicated but beautiful processes of pattern transfers, paste coating, coloring, steaming, and rinsing
  • Kaga-nui embroidery, the delicate stitching technique used to create kimonos
  • Zogan wood inlay, where different materials are laid on top of one another
  • Mizuhiki craft, which is comprised of paper-string weaving

One of the unique aspects of Kanazawa’s art culture is that there are so many types of local art and artisanal crafts in a relatively small area. If visiting the region, one good idea is to visit a studio and see a craftsman at work, which you can learn more about by clicking here.High gold leaf production

Kanazawa literally means “gold marsh,” and 99% of Japan’s gold leaf is produced here. In Ishikawa, gold leaf has historically been used to decorate artisanal crafts, particularly lacquerware, since the sixteenth century. Both the gold leaf and lacquer industries in Kanazawa boomed during the Edo Period (1603 to 1868) under the Maeda clan of daimyô (feudal lords), who encouraged the development of artisanal crafts in the region. Kanazawa gold leaf was used to repair the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto in 1987, and Marie Antoinette reportedly owned lacquer boxes and small objects from Japan decorated with gold leaf produced here. Gold leaf can also be used to decorate textiles and to gild Buddhist altars, and edible gold leaf can be found on local cuisine.

fishing Eco-friendly fishing opportunities

Teichiami, or fixed-net fishing, began in the seventeenth century and is still practiced in several areas of Japan, including Kanazawa. The nets, which never change position, stretch over 300 feet in diameter and are composed of several compartments. Fish enter through a hole that stretches many yards below the surface and are led through a maze of progressively smaller compartments until they reach “the vault,” which is the smallest compartment located at the end of the net. Fishermen visit the net each morning to pull up the fish.

Although commercial in scale, the practice is sustainable because the catch’s volume is determined by natural migration patterns instead of aggressive trawling. Furthermore, because migration patterns are seasonal, so is the catch. Like fruits and vegetables, the fish caught varies throughout the year: spring is known for squid, summer sees much mackerel, the fall catch has katsuo and giant squid, and winter is the season for Ishikawa’s famed buri – large yellowtail prized for their fatty flesh that many argue rivals even the finest tuna. If interested, visitors can opt to ride on the boats and try the fishing method for themselves by contacting Discover Kanazawa. In addition, you can watch a sushi chef prepare your catch before you enjoy it with a sake pairing.

Sacred mountains

The area surrounding Kanazawa is very mountainous. Mount Hakusan in southern Ishikawa is one of Japan’s three sacred mountains along with Mount Tateyama, in the neighboring Toyama prefecture, and Mount Fuji. Hakusan, whose name literally means “white mountain,” rises to 8,865 feet. The summit remains snowy throughout the year, and the mountain was once revered as the dwelling place of the gods. The Shirayama Hime Shrine, located in Hakusan City, is the main shrine of over two thousand Hakusan Shrines throughout Japan, including several near the summit of the mountain. From a practical standpoint, Hakusan protects Ishikawa from the typhoons that sweep along the prefectures south of the mountain in the late summer. There are some excellent hiking trails in this area, now designated as a national park, and the flora and fauna from late spring to early fall are especially beautiful. To learn more, click here.

foood Raw cooking

Kanazawa’s location between the mountains and the sea provides the area with a variety of delicious ingredients. The seafood – particularly the oysters and the winter yellowtail – is considered the best in Japan. There are 15 designated heirloom vegetables known as Kaga yasai, which include varieties of squash, cucumbers, potatoes, field greens, and herbs. The area is also home to many nihonshu (sake) breweries, which use the fresh water from Mt. Hakusan to create their unparalleled products. The local rice, particularly the koshihikari type, is prized throughout Japan. Sea salt is harvested from the shores of the Noto Peninsula using traditional techniques unique to the area, while more recent culinary endeavors include dairy farming and grape cultivation for winemaking. With the bounty of the fields, sea, and mountains, Kanazawa has a lot to offer visitors looking for fresh culinary experiences.

Beautiful landscape

Kanazawa is located in central Ishikawa between the Sea of Japan and the Northern Japanese Alps. The mountain range in the South of the prefecture and the rocky terrain of the Noto Peninsula in the North made the region historically difficult to access. However, during the reign of the Maeda clan from the late 16th-to-mid-19th centuries, present-day Ishikawa became one of the richest provinces in Japan, second only to the capital city of Tokyo. Rich in natural resources, the landscape boasts not only the sea and mountains, but also quiet bays, lush forests, expansive plains, and robust rivers.

museum The famous 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art

The main reason that people visit Kanazawa is to stop by the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. The museum aims to connect the region with the future of art by showcasing the “richly diverse art of our times [that] cuts across genres and transcends barriers of time and space.” People can expect pieces relating to the area of Kanazawa, newer works that propose new values, and art that can be used as a reference point for these values. Some current exhibitions include: The Swimming Pool, Blue Planet Sky, and Green Bridge.

There’s a well-preserved samurai district

Kanazawa’s samurai district is of particular interest as samurai families of varying ranks lived together in the same area. Kanazawa was spared from bombing during World War II, so the samurai residences, most of which are now private homes, remain intact. An excellent example is the Nomura House, now a museum open to the public. Although their garden is small, it contains all of the requisite features: waterfall, koi pond, stone lanterns, bridge, and pagoda. There is also an uguisubako (nightingale dovecote) displayed indoors, so the birds’ enchanting songs can be enjoyed. During winter, the mud walls of the houses are protected with komokake straw matting, making the area especially picturesque.

geishaThe city features the only active geisha district in Japan other than Kyoto

There are three historic teahouse districts: Higashiyama Chaya-gai, Nishi Chaya-gai, and Kazue-machi. All were created in the 1820s to regulate the entertainment and pleasure trades. Because the city and region were not damaged during the war, many of the original buildings have been preserved and restored. One can experience the architecture of the area with museums, geisha entertainment, or by visiting a restaurant or coffee shop housed in one of these structures. If you want to explore one with a local guide, Discover Kanazawa offers experiences with select teahouses in hopes of introducing visitors to this wonderful part of Kanazawa’s culture.

You can take part in special cultural festivals

There are numerous festivals and traditions to take part in during a visit to Kanazawa. First, there are the Kiriko Festivals. Kiriko are heavy rectangular lanterns made of wood and washi paper. The lanterns tend to be 3 to 16 feet high, built onto wooden carts or shouldered by festival participants who carry them through town streets – and sometimes into rivers and the sea. Typically held in July and August, these festivals are unique to the Noto Peninsula.

Kanazawa and Kaga in the southern region hold their own famous festivals from June-September, including light-ups, historical reenactments, dancing, fireworks, and a wide variety of lively rituals to pray for a good harvest of crops and fish. Abare Matsuri (the “fire and violence” festival) is perhaps the most famous due to wild ceremonies that include precariously maneuvering kiriko floats around bamboo stalks topped with blazing stacks of hay, and then smashing them in the river.

Another famous festival is the Hyakumangoku Matsuri in Kanazawa. The event takes place the first weekend of June and celebrates Lord Maeda Toshiie’s appointment as daimyô (feudal lord) of the Kaga province and entry into Kanazawa Castle in 1583. The festival is celebrated with a parade reenactment of residents in period costumes who march from the station to the castle. Hyakumangoku refers to the one million koku of rice that the domain was worth, which was about 5 million bushels. After sundown, hundreds of lanterns made of Kaga yuzen dyed silk are sent out to float on the river.

The ten toughest castles in the world

Castles make a pretty backdrop to any vacation. They conjure up images of brave knights and damsels in distress, but the reality was less romantic. Castles were fortifications built to defend important cities, ports, fords, or mountain passes. The best military minds in the world devised ways to destroy them, when they weren’t figuring out better ways to build them. Here are ten castles that proved almost too tough to take. Some took centuries before they fell, or cost the lives of hundreds of attackers. A few never fell at all.

Crac de Chevaliers
One of the best preserved Crusader castles in the Middle East, it protected the pass from the lowlands of Lebanon through the Anti-Lebanon Mountains and into the rich Orontes river valley of Syria. It’s on the Syrian side of the border but its turrets afford fine views of Lebanon. Originally an Arab castle that was taken by the French during the First Crusade in 1099, it became the headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller, a knightly order that protected pilgrims in the Holy Land. They protected themselves too, by strengthening the castle and putting up walls that were up to 100 feet thick. It withstood more than one siege and even the great Saladin couldn’t take it. It eventually fell back into Muslim hands in 1271 but remained the model for castle builders in Europe.

Masada
Facing the world’s biggest empire with only a ragtag group of dedicated fighters? Go to the middle of the desert, find a sheer mesa, and hold up in it. That’s what the Sicarii, Jewish resistance fighters, did when they rebelled against the Roman Empire in the first century AD. The location was perfect. The mesa had already been fortified by King Herod as a refuge in case of rebellion, but the Sicarii rebels got it instead. Sheer cliffs rise 300 feet (90 meters) above the desert at their lowest point, and in spots tower up to 1,300 feet (400 meters). The only way up are three winding paths that are exposed to arrows and rocks coming from above. The Romans, in their typical efficiency, built a rampart up the entire way so they could roll up battering rams to breach the walls. The Sicarii committed mass suicide rather than surrender. The Roman camps and walls used to cut Masada off from the rest of the world are still plainly visible.

Numancia
The Celts in Spain faced the same problem the Sicarii did. How to defeat the Roman Empire? Numancia was one tribe’s answer. This hillfort at the headwaters of the Duero River held out for twenty years until the inevitable end came. The defenders had run out of food and had been reduced to cannibalism. Like the Sicarii, the Celts chose death before dishonor and most of them committed mass suicide in 133 BC. Spain became a Roman province. Today you can see reconstructions of the fort and Roman siege techniques at the site’s musuem.

Osaka
The samurai were brave warriors ready to face death, but even they must have thought twice about attacking this castle. Completed in 1598, it was the base of operations for Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who made peace between Japan’s many warring factions by beating them into submission. It took 200,000 soldiers more than a year to take this place in 1615, and when you look at this photo of the bare face of the ramparts you can see why. The castle combines form and function and is beautiful as well as impregnable.

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Walls of Constantinople
OK, this isn’t technically a castle, but the massive walls of Constantinople (modern Istanbul) protected the capital of Byzantium for more than a thousand years. Byzantium was the eastern half of the Roman Empire and survived long after Rome fell. The Bulgars, Slavs, and Turks all failed to take the massive double land walls and moat. It took the invention of cannon to finally destroy them. The Ottoman Turks under Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 AD had a giant cannon that could shoot a 1,200 lb. stone ball a mile, backed up by an army that may have numbered as many as 200,000 men. The city still held out two months before falling and becoming the new Ottoman capital.

Sacsayhuaman

The Incas were master builders. Unlike most cultures, they didn’t build with regular blocks, but instead used irregularly shaped stones that fit together so precisely that not even a knife can be pushed through the cracks. Believe me, I tried. In the highlands around Cuzco, Peru, they built a series of temples and the giant fortress of Sacsayhuaman to protect them. The fortress has triple walls almost 20 feet (six meters) tall constructed in a jagged outline so the defenders could throw stones and spears at the attacking force from three sides instead of just one. It was finished sometime in the early 1500s, just in time for the Spanish to invade. The conquistadors were only able to take it after a fierce fight and the loss of Francisco Pizarro’s younger brother Juan.

Malta

Located smack dab in the middle of the Mediterranean at one of its narrowest points, whoever controlled Malta controlled trade. This, of course, led to lots of wars. Malta changed hands countless times, but one of its biggest battles came in 1565 when the Ottomans tried to take the island from the Knights Hospitaller. The Knights were ready with not just one castle but three. The Ottomans had an estimated 20,000-50,000 troops. Barely 500 knights and 5,600 helpers stood in their path, but they had the castles. The Ottomans landed and started a heavy bombardment with a large number of artillery on the first fort on their list, Fort St. Elmo. The castle was reduced to rubble but its 600 defenders went down fighting. The Turks lost more than 4,000. The attack then focused on Forts St. Angelo and St. Michael, and the Turks ground up their army against the walls. After losing at least a third of their force, they called it a day and retreated. Cannonballs from the bombardment can still be seen in the fields.

Burg Eltz
This castle has the distinction of still being the home of the same family that owned it in the 12th century. Built upon a 70 meter (220 ft.) high crag next to an important trade route, it was perfectly positioned to assert power. A river flows around three sides of the crag, making it almost impossible to take. The castle is an architectural jewel and much of the fifteenth-century interior is preserved. Burg Eltz has one of the best settings of all the castles in this list. The primeval Eltz forest encloses the castle on all sides, and several historic villages are nearby. Because of its commanding position and the political skill of its owners, it was only attacked once. In 1331, Archbishop Baldwin of Luxembourg tried to extend his territory by attacking the castle with catapults and an early cannon. After more than two years of bombardment, the archbishop admitted defeat and went back to Luxembourg.

Carcassonne

The high walls that ring this strategic town did what many French castles could not–resist the English throughout the Hundred Years War. The Romans had a fort on this hilltop in 100 BC and some of the original stones can still be seen in the walls. Later it was a stronghold of the Cathars, a Christian sect that was destroyed in a crusade led
by the bloodthirsty Simon de Montfort, who killed anyone who he found in Cathar-controlled territory, whether they were Cathars or not. He’s the origin of the saying, “Kill them all, God will sort them out.” In 1209 he took Carcassonne, but the city stood firm against later sieges, including a long and determined one by the English. Nowadays it’s a perfect view of Gothic spires and imposing medieval walls.

Bamburgh
This Northumbrian stronghold is like many of the castles on this list in that the present structure covers up centuries of history. Bamburgh was the capital of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria and there was a castle here from the 6th century AD. It survived a number of sieges and that’s hardly surprising when you see it standing proud on a little peninsula jutting out into the North Sea. A massive gatehouse and walls protect the landward side. In 1095, the owner Robert de Mowbray was captured by the attacking Normans but his wife took over the defense and continued to push back their assaults. She finally gave in when the Normans threatened to blind Robert. The castle fell again in 1464 during the Wars of the Roses when it became the first English castle to surrender because of an artillery bombardment. Modern technology succeeded where generations of swordsmen failed.

Museum Junkie: The Art of the Samurai at the Met

From the 12th to the 19th centuries, Japanese society was dominated by the samurai, elite warriors with a fierce code of honor. While wars were almost constant on the islands during this period, it was also a time of great artistic achievement, one that extended to the weapons and equipment of the samurai.

Starting on October 21, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City will host the largest collection of samurai artifacts ever assembled in the United States.

Art of the Samurai: Japanese Arms and Armor 1156-1868 brings together more than 200 masterpieces of traditional Japanese art, including swords, bows, armor, banners, and other equipment selected from public and private Japanese collections. Many of the items are not only beautiful but unusual, such as the rare example of 18th century woman’s armor pictured here. Also included are a series of Japanese sword blades that, despite the name of the exhibition, date as far back as the 5th century. An accompanying exhibition displays some related objects from the Met’s permanent collection that have been recently restored in Japan.

The exhibition includes 34 National Treasures, 64 Important Cultural Properties, and 6 Important Art Objects. The Japanese government has a hierarchy of designations for important objects. The most precious are labeled National Treasures, and this exhibition has three times the number of National Treasures of any previous exhibition outside of Japan. National Treasures can include buildings, objects, even artists. That so many of these one-of-a-kind objects have made it to New York is a major coup for the Met. You’d have to go to Japan to see a finer collection of samurai arms and armor.

The show runs to January 10.

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Big in Japan: Iaidō is the world’s most bad-ass martial art!

From Afro-Brazilian capoeira to Muay Thai kickboxing, there is no shortage of bad-ass martial arts out there…

However, although I can guarantee that you’ve never heard of Iaid? (??????), it’s probably the most bad-ass martial art ever!

Literally translated into English as the “the way of mental presence and immediate reaction,” Iaid? is a Japanese martial art entirely dedicated to the katana (???) or samurai sword.

Of course, unlike the slash ’em up antics of 1970s Kung Fu action flicks, Iaid? emphasizes controlled movements, quick unsheathes, deadly strikes, blood removal and quick sheathes.

So, to put things into better context, Iaid? essentially boils down to killing your opponent and cleaning his blood off of your sword in the minimal number of steps.

According to a friend of mine who studies the art, “Iaid? is a perfect martial art for honing your reaction time. It also teaches you how to eliminate three opponents in only seven moves, which can be executed with flawless precision in between sips of macha green tea.”

Awesome.

Intrigued about this deadly yet efficient martial art? Keep reading to learn why Iaid? clearly holds the title for the world’s most bad-ass martial art!

According to martial arts historians, a legendary samurai known as Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu is credited with establishing Iaidō sometime in the early 16th century.

However, the fine art of drawing the katana in battle, which is known in Japanese as battōjutsu (抜刀術), has its origins in the 15th century.

Literally translated into English as the “the technique of drawing the sword,” battōjutsu is a technical art form dedicated to slicing an opponent to death in battle.

In keeping with the tradition of restraint and control emphasized by Bushidō (武士道) or the samurai code, the ultimate goal of battōjutsu was to strike down your opponent in the minimum number of moves.

Of course, the term battōjutsu eventually gave way to Iaidō, a word that incorporates the suffix -dō, which implies philosophy and spirituality.

Thanks to this linguistic construction, the deadly art of honed, precision killing was elevated to a religious level.

As with all Japanese marital arts, Iaidō is a refined discipline that can take several lifetimes to perfect.

Students of this art must first learn to control their psychological state of being present. After they have mastered this, they must learn to respond to a sudden attack in a calm and collected manner. Following the vanquish of their opponent(s), they must return to their resting state as quickly as possible.

Beginners often practice these three pathways in combative postures or standing positions. However, advanced students expand on these forms by learning how to react from difficult starting positions, such as sitting with your legs crossed and drinking tea.

After all, a true samurai never knows when their tea time might be interrupted by hell-bent ninjas emerging from the shadows.

(I told you this martial art was bad-ass!)

** All images were courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons Project **