Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

January 27, 2012

Sake from Iwate Prefecture (Sake by Region)

Iwate, the largest prefecture in North-eastern Honshu (and the second largest in Japan after Hokkaido), has interesting crafts and folklore and in Hiraizumi also boasts the ruins of an ancient cultural capital. It has great scenery and its unspoiled nature provides excellent water. But it is not a large rice-growing prefecture, the main sake rice being Miyama Nishiki which was originally developed in Nagano (Iwate's own sake rice also exists and is called "Ginginga").

Although Iwate has a respectable number of sake breweries (22 in 2015), these are far outnumbered by the large number of toji or master brewers. The well-organized Nambu toji ("Nambu" is the old name for Iwate) form the largest group of toji in the whole of Japan. If you wonder how that is possible, well, people from poorer areas in northern Japan were accustomed to leave their villages and find work elsewhere. That is why you find the Nambu toji everywhere in Japan, with the highest concentration in the north and east. The Nambu style is light and crisp, technically the Nambu toji are among the best in the country. They also excel in the ginjo style. There are more than 300 Nambu toji.

Iwate breweries win regularly prizes at the National Sake Competition and their ginjo style has been fortified by the development of the Iwate No. 2 Yeast. The Iwate style is like the Nambu style (naturally, as the toji guilds are the major influence on local styles), light and mild. Main brewing areas are at the same time the areas where the Nambu toji hail from, such as Shiwamachi and Ishidoriyamachi just south of the capital Morioka. In that last village, the Nambu Toji headquarters is located. Visitors can also enjoy seeing the Nambu toji museum called "Nambu Toji Denshokan" in Hanamaki.

Some of the main breweries are (in alphabetical order):
  • Asabiraki (Asabiraki Co., Ltd., Morioka). Founded 1871. ”Asabiraki" is used in the Manyoshu for a "ship leaving port at dawn." The name was selected symbolically by Murai Genzo, a samurai of the Nanbu clan who in the early Meiji Period set out on the new endeavor of sake brewing. Largest producer in Iwate with computer-controlled new Kura (besides a traditional one for handmade sake). Emphasis on junmai. Also experiments, such as sake with grape juice. Brewery visits welcome (10 min by taxi or bus from Morioka Station. Also runs a restaurant, "Stella Monte," where micro-brew beer is available.
  • Hamachidori (Hamachidori Co., Ltd., Kamaishi). Small brewery founded in 1923 in steel town Kamaishi. The name means "plover", fitting a company on the Rikuchu Coast. Uses the local sake rice Ginginga. Besides water from its own well, also uses water from a well in the old iron ore mine (sake made with this water is branded as Sennengo).
  • Nanbu Bijin (Nanbu-Bijin Co., Ltd., Ninohe; English website). Set up in 1902 in Ninohe, in the northern part of Iwate, a historical town also famous for its Joboji lacquerware. The name means "Beautiful Woman of Nanbu" and was selected in the 1950s because the company wanted to promote the clean and beautiful taste of its sake. Probably the best known brand from Iwate. Also makes All Koji sake, where instead of the usual (about) 20%, 100% of the rice used is koji rice. This results in a velvety sweet brew. From November to March brewery visits are possible, but advance reservation is necessary. 
  • Shichifukujin and Kikunotsukasa (Kiku no Tsukasa Co., Ltd., Morioka & Ishidoriyamachi). ”Shichifukujin" are the Seven Deities of Good Fortune, a group that became popular in folklore in the Edo-period. The same company also makes the brand Kikunotsukasa (at another location). Originally set up as sake brewery in 1772 by the Hirai family, founded as modern company in 1929. "Daiginjo Tezukuri Shichifukujin" is a long selling sake that helped develop the market for ginjo sake in the past. Uses local Sasanishiki rice. Also brews a few sakes with Kame-no-o rice.
  • Tsuki no Wa (Tsukinowa Shuzoten, Shiwa Town). Founded 1886 by the Yokozawa family. "Full Moon" (named after a moon-shaped island in a local pond with historical connotations). Small brewery with lovely buildings. Uses local organic rice and Iwate No. 2 Yeast. All sake is hand work. Has an ice cream garden where it sells ice made from rice, koji and milk. The owners used to act as toji (now the daughter of the owner).
Iwate Prefecture Sake Brewers Association

When planning a brewery visit, check in advance whether the brewery accepts visitors and whether it is open on the day and time you plan to go, especially if a long trip is necessary to get there (see the brewery's website for tel. no or mail address). Note that brewery tours, if available, always have to be booked in advance. Many breweries, however, do not allow visitors in their production area, or only in certain seasons / for certain sizes of groups. In contrast, if a sake museum or brewery shop is present, this is usually open without reservation.
Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa
Hokushinetsu: Yamanashi - Nagano - Niigata - Toyama - Ichikawa - Fukui
Tokai area: Shizuoka - Aichi - Gifu - Mie
Kansai area: Shiga - Kyoto - Osaka - Hyogo - Nara - Wakayama
Chugoku area: Tottori - Shimane - Okayama - Hiroshima - Yamaguchi
Shikoku: Tokushima - Kagawa - Ehime - Kochi
Kyushu/Okinawa: Fukuoka - Saga - Nagasaki - Kumamoto - Oita - Miyazaki / Kagoshima / Okinawa
Reference materials: Kikisakeshi Koshukai Tekisuto by Sake Service Institute (Tokyo, 2009); Nihonshu no kyokasho by Kimura Katsumi (Shinsei Shuppansha: Tokyo, 2010); Nihonshu no Tekisuto (2): Sanchi no Tokucho to Tsukuritetachi by Matsuzaki Haruo (Doyukan, 2005); The Book of Sake by Philip Harper (Kodansha International: Tokyo, New York, London, 2006); The Sake Companion by John Gauntner (Running Press: Philadelphia & London, 2000); The Sake Selection by Akiko Tomoda (Gap Japan: Tokyo, 2009).
The blog author Ad Blankestijn works for the Daishichi Sake Brewery and is an accredited sake sommelier and sake instructor. He also hosts independent sake seminars to propagate knowledge about his favorite drink. The above text reflects his personal opinion.

January 24, 2012

Sake Files: The enjoyment of warm sake

There are so many types of sake today that should be drunk cold, that we almost end up thinking cold is the only way to drink sake. No: sake is a drink that can be enjoyed at a wide variety of temperatures, from 0 degrees Celsius ("ice sake") to 55 degrees. As such, it is probably unique in the world. Shaoxing wine from China is also delicious when warmed, but I do not know whether that can be drunk very cold. And there are some wines that can be had warm, but that are inferior types like Glühwein. The sake that is also delicious when warm, is high quality junmai sake.

What has made the image of warm sake bad, is the custom to drink cheap sake very hot. This not only happens abroad, but also in Japanese izakaya where piping hot sake ("tobikiri-kan") is served to hide the fact that it is rather tasteless stuff with lots of diluted brewing-alcohol added for volume plus sugar for taste. The result is a sort of jet fuel, of which the alcohol fumes blow in your face. Good sake should never be made really hot - just above body temperature, or lukewarm (40 degrees), is the best. In that case, it gives a very comforting feeling.

Where does the custom to drink sake warm come from? It has been recorded that when Emperor Saga (785-842) went out to hunt on a certain autumn day, the weather suddenly turned cold and the Minister of the Left, Fujiwara no Fuyutsugu (775-826), offered him warm sake. The Emperor was so delighted at this (according to the story) new way of drinking sake that he ordered that from then on in autumn and winter sake should be served warm in the palace. The idea may have come from China, where the custom to drink wine warm goes back to at least the Tang-period .

The best sake to drink warm is junmai, or a sturdy honjozo. Also Kimoto and Yamahai type sakes are delicious when warm. Perhaps not by coincidence, these are also the sakes that normally are better at room temperature than cold.

January 23, 2012

Sake & Food Pairings (2): Cheese

Some people still have to get used to the idea, others already know it is a heavenly combination: sake and cheese (something which, being Dutch, makes me really happy!). It is true that Japan in the past did not know dairy products. These were introduced in the Meiji-period, in the late 19th c., and during the last century, gradually have become a normal part of the Japanese diet. That being said, in Japanese supermarkets you will mainly find processed cheese and natural cheese is rare and expensive (and sold in very small pieces as it is meant to be eaten as a snack and not on bread) - although there are some specialized cheese shops in Tokyo as well.

The reason cheese goes so well with sake can be found in one word: umami. Sake is full of umami, thanks to the ingredient rice, and cheese is also umami-based. So that is where both sides meet. But just as you can't plunk down just any piece of cheese and expect it to fit just any glass of wine, so in the case of sake there are also certain pairings which are better than others.

As we are talking about umami, the general rule is that sakes that are higher in umami are best with cheese, in other words, junmai sakes rather than honjozo or ginjo sakes. Also long-matured sakes will do well. Why does junmai sake contain more umami? Well, for one thing no alcohol is added to make the taste lighter, and above all, the rice is polished to a lesser degree than in the case of a (dai-) ginjo; when polishing, proteins are removed, and proteins are changed into amino acids during the brewing process, and amino acids of course provide the umami.

Another very suitable type is a Kimoto or Yamahai sake: thanks to the natural lactic acid with which the yeast is cultivated for these types of sake, some yoghurty taste remains, providing a "bridge" to the cheese. If it is a Kimoto sake, even a Junmai Ginjo or Junmai Daiginjo would be suitable for cheesy combinations - although the rice is polished further than an ordinary Junmai, the Kimoto character (and non-addition of alcohol) fully make up for the polishing away of proteins.

Keeping that in mind, it comes as no surprise that the Sake Service Institute during the Jizake Dai Show of 2011 has selected the Junmai Daiginjo "Minowamon" made with the Kimoto-method by the Fukushima sake house of Daishichi as the No. 1 combination with cheese - they used classic French Comte cheese for the pairing.

Interesting is also the second choice of the S.S.I.: a Kijoshu from the Wakatsuru Brewery. Kijoshu is "sake brewed with sake," like port wine, it is thick and sweet and has usually also been aged for many years (five or longer), so it is not difficult to imagine this would taste good with stronger cheeses.

Here are some other ideas:

- Kimoto or Yamahai sake also fits well with Mozzarella cheeses.
- In general, aged sake such as koshu goes well with aged cheese.
- Also unpasteurized (nama) sake, or even nama genshu (unpasteurized and undiluted sake) generally goes well with cheese - again, especially when this is a junmai.
- Try Camembert cheese with the mild, somewhat fruity taste of a Tokubetsu Junmai (polished to 60%)
- The blue mold Roquefort fits a Junmai Daiginjo admirably (not necessarily only Kimoto).
- Goat's cheese is great with a sparkling sake. But it also goes very well with the Kimoto Umeshu, plum wine on the basis of Junmai sake (and not shochu liquor, as is more common) made by the Daishichi sake house - and winner for three consecutive years of the platinum prize in the liqueur category the Jizake Dai Show (in 2011, it was the Daiginjo-based version of this plum wine, to be exact).

[Daishichi Kimoto Umeshu]

[Some of the final cheese suggestions are based on The Sake Selection, Brands of Distinction, by Akiko Tomoda, 2009]

January 17, 2012

Sake & Food Pairings (1): Tuna (Maguro)

What sake can you drink with sashimi of tuna (maguro)?

At the Jizake Dai Show of SSI in 2008, Kokushi Muso's Junmai Daiginjo (Takasago Shuzo) and Jozen Nyosui's Shinmai Shinshu (Shirataki Shuzo) received the first (platinum) prizes for the combination with tuna. This is a selection by sommeliers of the Sake Service Institute in Tokyo. In general, these colleagues of mine (I am also a sommelier certified by the SSI) advise a light and delicate sake for tuna. Tuna is fatty red meat and tastes stronger than white fish. The reason to drink this type of sake is that it refreshes the mouth, more than a fear to obliterate the taste of the fish. And both recommended sakes are indeed light: it is a characteristic of sakes both from Hokkaido (Kokushi Muso) and Niigata (Jozen Nyosui) to be very dry and light. On the same note, in the case of pairing with wine, I would recommend a very dry white wine or a light red wine.

But other types of sake fit as well. Red tuna meat has a certain sourness, so a sour Junmai made with the Yamahai-method would also fit, especially if drunk cold.

So far we have been talking about Akami, the top loin of the Bluefin Tuna, which is the most common and least expensive tuna meat. There are two more types of tuna which you will find in sushi shops: Chutoro, medium fat Bluefin Tuna belly and Otoro, the fattiest portion of Bluefin Tuna belly.

Otoro is fat and creamy, with little umami - in fact, rather like foie gras -, and its popularity is a relatively recent phenomenon in Japan. It is difficult to combine with both wine and sake. The most logical choice would probably be a cold Honjozo Reishu, to wash away the fatty taste. But Japan's top sommelier Tasaki Shinya (in: "Wa" no shokutaku ni niau osake, Chukoshinsho, 2010) in contrast also suggests an aged sake, like a sweet and nutty koshu. The same pattern is repeated in the case of wine: I would suggest either a very dry white wine, or a very sweet one made with the Sémillon grape.

Nakatoro, finally, holds the middle field between the sour "iron-holding" taste of Akami and the fat, creaminess of Otoro, so wine or sake with the same balance between sweet and sour would be nice. Mr Tasaki in fact advises a Yamahai Junmai, but this time drunk warm at 40 degrees (to bring out the flavors), or in the case of wine a sparkling rose - those from the Champagne region are best, he writes.

It is a pity neither such sakes nor such wines are available in sushi shops, even in Japan, but you can try it out at home!

January 6, 2012

"Ornamental Hairpin" (1941) and other films by Shimizu Hiroshi

Shimizu Hiroshi (1903-1966) was a contemporary, colleague and friend of Ozu Yasujiro, but history has dealt undeservedly harshly with him. He made realistic films about daily life that share Ozu's "Ofuna flavor" and also resemble Ozu technically in the preference for a static camera, long shots, distance shots and low angles. Despite my interest in things Japanese, I didn't know his name until last year when I happened to came across the Criterion edition with four of his films. I have already written about one of these, Mr. Thank You - here follows Ornamental Hairpin (1941; Kanzashi) plus a short note on the other two films.

Shimizu's films are really about nothing, they are probably the most wonderfully plot-less films that exist. Ornamental Hairpin shows the daily life of a group of people staying at a hot spring resort in the scenic Izu Peninsula: a grumpy professor (Saito Tatsuo, the father from Ozu's  I Was Born But...); a married couple, of whom the husband has the annoying habit of always putting words in his wife's mouth; a grandpa who likes to play go and two boys. There is also a soldier who is recuperating from a leg wound, Nanmura (a very young Ryu Chishu) - in 1941 the war in Asia was in full swing.

When the soldier incurs an additional wound by stepping on a sharp hairpin that has fallen into the communal spa bath, the woman who lost that ornamental pin during a brief stay at the inn (Emi, played by Tanaka Kinuyo), returns all the way from Tokyo to apologize in person. She stays on to help Nanmura recuperate and learn to walk without crutches.

Emi is a geisha who by returning to the spa resort is escaping from her life in Tokyo, where she presumably was supported by a man she is fed up with. Her occupation is only slightly indicated at the beginning of the film, when she is shown walking in a sunny landscape with her friend Okiku, remarking how nice it is not to have to wear oshiroi. This is the powder used to whiten the faces of geisha. And a kanzashi, ornamental hairpin, was worn with a traditional hairdo, and was therefore around this time also in the first place an ornament of a geisha.

As Emi is beautiful, it is a foregone conclusion among the other guests that love will blossom between her and the unmarried soldier. Nanmura even doesn't mind the additional wound and calls it "poetic." They are everyday together, while Emi and the boys help him exercise his leg (with many shouts of "Gambatte!", "Do your best!"). But by the time he is recovered, the other long-staying guests are leaving for Tokyo and Nanmura joins them, presumably to go back to the battlefield. Emi stays behind alone...

Shimizu's films are seemingly very light, but you have to watch attentively. Important facts are often only suggested slightly, and they are very non-verbal, so you have to be on the look-out for the slightest gesture and facial expression. As Mr. Thank You, Ornamental Hairpin has been filmed on location in the Izu Peninsula.

Some commentators remark on the absence of the war in this film, and interpret the escape of the protagonists to the spa hotel as an escape and therefore criticism of the war Japan was waging. I think this is not the case. In the first place, we are still in 1941, before the attack at Pearl Harbor, when in general films about the war were nor very strident yet - showing more the sufferings of ordinary Japanese than the victories of the army. And in the second place, Ornamental Hairpin does have one clear patriotic episode, which must have been enough to convince the censors to let the rest of the film pass as well: the effort of Emi and the boys to help the wounded soldier exercise and as soon as possible learn to walk without crutches. In the film, Emi may have had another motivation - to be close to Nanmura as she was in love with him - but these scenes can also be interpreted as support for the army and its fighting men - think of all the "Gambattes!"

That nod to the censors, by the way, does not diminish the humanitarian values of this beautiful film.

Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933) is a silent film, a minor melodrama made in the then popular "modernist style." The modernism appears in the experimental shots and strange camera angles, the Western names of the protagonists and the appearance of a church - not as a symbol of religion, but of the modern West! But this film has a plot, and a rather melodramatic and traditional one at that, so this is the least film in the set.

The Masseurs and a Woman (1938) is very much akin to Ornamental Hairpin, as it is also situated at a hot spring resort. Masseurs were usually blind and here they travel from inn to inn to offer their services. One of them develops a bit of a crush on a mysterious woman from Tokyo staying alone at a resort (Takamine Mieko). Like Hairpin, this film is almost plotless, just showing small daily events.

January 5, 2012

Japanese Film: "When a Woman Ascends the Stairs" (1960) by Naruse

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960; Onna ga kaidan wo agaru toki) by Naruse Mikio (1905-1969) is a film set in the milieu of bars and hostesses, and the men who visit such bars. Keiko (Takamine Hideko) is a beautiful hostess who manages a bar in Tokyo's Ginza district as the "mama-san" although she does not own it. In her behavior, she is demure and conservative, seldom showing her feelings; she is always impeccably dressed in kimono. She is in her thirties (she is a widow) and it is therefore time to settle down, by either acquiring an establishment of her own, or by leaving the water trade through a second marriage. Her present bar is on the second floor, and every evening she has to climb the stairs (today, there are elevators in even the smallest buildings!). She hates the look of those steep stairs, and the grind work that awaits her at the top of them, but once she is inside her bar, she shows an impenetrable smiling face - a professional accessory - and can take everything that comes her way. She also keeps her style. In her own words: "Around midnight, Tokyo's 16,000 bar women go home. The best go home by car. Second-rate ones by streetcar. The worst go home with their customers."

Keiko's search for happiness is not an easy one. The work is hard: every night showing a friendly, smiling face and courteously flattering the guests with disregard for her own personality, even if they talk nonsense (which is most of the time). Her poor family, a good-for-nothing brother and an aging mother, depend on her financial assistance, but they give little back.

Other disasters happen. Her most popular hostess leaves to start her own bar, and pulls along many clients. Keiko also tries to get money together for her own bar by selling "subscriptions" to her most favorite customers, but the amounts they are willing to invest are pitifully insufficient. She could of course look for one, sole financier, but then he would "own" her and also expect other, repugnant services from her. She wants to keep her independence.

When the subscription plan doesn't come off the ground, she tries to find a man to marry. There is a wealthy, soft-spoken man who showers her with presents and proposes marriage. But just in time Keiko finds out that he is an impostor, and known for such proposals to other women as well. She secretly loves a handsome (and married) banker, but after they spend the night together - she breaks her own rules here - he tells her he will be transferred out of Tokyo the next day, showing that she has been used by him. She takes revenge by going to Tokyo Station to say goodbye to him while he sits in the train with his wife and child.

This event also means the break-up with her bar manager Komatsu (Nakadai Tatsuya). Komatsu always kept in the background, taking care of the bar with a strong guiding hand, but secretly was in love with her. But he despises her now she has fallen for a customer (or is just jealous).

So, with each man in her life deserting or disappointing her, in the evening, resigned but tenacious, she again climbs the stairs to her bar to spend another night serving selfish and exploitative customers. The human spirit can be strong. Although Keiko is not a prostitute and a very different character from a very different culture, I was reminded of Fellini's Cabiria, which ends on the same note.

The B/W film is imbued with a gentle sadness, and fittingly filmed in noirish tones. Dialogues are minimal, non-verbal communication plays a large role. The camera-work is unobtrusive. Naruse is the least known of the great, classical directors, even in Japan, but it is heartening to see that in recent years his fame is worldwide on the increase.

Some cultural points:
  • The night-time entertainment business of snack bars, bars, and cabarets where hostesses provide entertainment, is called "water trade" (mizu shobai) in Japan. 
  • "Mama" is not a name or designation for a particular person, as is wrongly implied in the IMDB and several reviews. It is not a "special term of honor" for Keiko in this film! Rather, "Mama" or more politely "Mama-san" is the general designation for all (tens of thousands) of women who are the manager of an establishment in the "water trade." Although this designation may have originated in the sentimental whimperings of male visitors, who wanted to pour out their hearts to a surrogate mother, it now is just a title, for example like "Shacho" for "Company President." Not only the clients, but also the women and other staff working in the bar as well as caterers, etc., will call the owner by this title.
  • The modern bar hostess is an entertainer like the geisha of old: she sits with her guests and serves the drinks and snacks, but more importantly, it is her task to create a pleasant atmosphere and keep the conversation going. This means she has to do a lot of flattering of the egos of her customers. She may also dance or sing karaoke with the clients. Although sexual innuendo is used in the conversations, especially from the side of the male customers, providing such services is not part of her job. 
  • The Ginza area in the film is the district in Tokyo were countless hostess bars of various types can be found (in the side streets and streets running parallel to the main street) - it is regarded today as the most classy such area. The Ginza is also one of the few areas in Tokyo where you still find some hostesses in kimono (like Keiko in the film, but that was in 1960). 
  • There are usually many bars in one building, even several on the same floor. You can tell their presence by the many colorful neon advertisements outside on the building. 
  • Persons working in the water trade will go to work in the early evening and then greet each other with "Ohayo gozaimasu," "Good morning!"
  • Customers come to bars after their dinner, which is always early in Japan: starting at five or six and finishing around eight or nine. The bars are open till the small hours of the morning. 
  • Most customers are businessmen, either owners of companies (the wealthiest sort) or corporate managers with an expense account. 
  • Some bars are only for members, others refuse foreigners if only out of fear of language problems, and on the other hand there are also shady bars, so visitors to Japan are advised not to explore on their own, but only go when invited by a Japanese business partner.  

January 1, 2012

Japanese Literature: New year's haiku

New Year's haiku by Issa

my happiness 
just about average 
at my New Year 

medetasa mo | chuu gurai nari | oraga haru 

Planting my stick
in the quagmire -
the first sun of the year

nukarumi e | tsue tsupatte | hatsuhi kana

New Year's Day
my hovel
the same as ever

ganjitsu mo | tachi no manma no | kuzu-ya kana

even my shadow
is safe and sound
this first morning of spring

kageboshi mo | mame sokusai de | kesa no haru

New Year's haiku by Basho

has spring already come?
I feel wealthy this New Year
with five sho of old rice

haru tatsu ya | shin-nen furuki | kome go-shoo

New Year's Day
I feel lonely just like
an autumn evening

ganjitsu ya | omoeba sabishi | aki no kure

New Year's haiku by Shiki

New Year's Day
nothing good or bad -
just human beings

ganjitsu wa | ze mo hi mo nakute | shujoo nari

New Year's haiku by Shigyoku 

New Year's Day
whosoever face we see
it is carefree

ganjitsu ya | taga kao mite mo | nen no naki

Cited - with corrections - from R.H. Blyth, Haiku Vol. 2, Spring. The first Issa haiku is my own translation.

Japanese Customs: The Year of the Dragon

2012 is the Year of the Dragon. The dragon is the symbol of renewal and in Japan it is omni-present.

"In Japan and China, the dragon is not the gruesome monster of the Western, medieval imagination, but a genius of strength and goodness. He is the spirit of change. Hidden in the caverns of inaccessible mountains, or coiled in the unfathomable depth of the sea, he awaits the time when he slowly rouses himself into activity. He unfolds himself in the storm clouds; he washes his mane in the blackness of the seething whirlpools, His claws are in the fork of the lightning, his scales begin to glisten in the bark of rain-swept pine trees. His voice is heard in the hurricane, which scattering the withered leaves of the forest, quickens a new spring." (Okakura Tenshin, The Awakening of Japan)

The dragon is the symbol of the productive force of nature, of renewal. It is also the emblem of vigilance and safeguard. In its claws it carries the "night-shining pearl," a gem of omnipotence. The Chinese imperial coat from the Han to Qing dynasties consisted of a pair of dragons fighting for such a pearl. It was the emblem of imperial power and of the throne (called "dragon throne").

In Japanese myth, the deity Susano-o fights Yamato-Orochi, an Eight-headed dragon. After slaying him, he finds the sword Kusunagi in the tail of the beast. This is now one of the Imperial regalia. The Sea God is also called Dragon God and lives in a Dragon palace below the waves. This visited by Hikohohodemi, who marries Toyotamahime, the Dragon King's daughter - and after she joins her husband on the land, she becomes the ancestor of Ninigi-no-mikoto, the mythical progenitor of the imperial house. Also the Utsukushima Shrine on Miyajima was believed to be the abode of the Dragon King's daughter. On a different note, in a folktale, Urashima visits the Dragon Palace on the back of a trutle and also marries the dragon kings daughter, but when he leaves the underwater world, he has return alone.

Dragons figure in the names of Zen temples, as Ryoanji ("Dragon Peace Temple") and Tenryuji ("Heavenly Dragon temple") in Kyoto. When the Kannon statue that is the object of veneration in the Asakusa temple (Sensoji) appeared from the sea in the nets of two fishermen in 628, golden dragons ascended to heaven - for that reason the temple celebrates an annual Golden Dragon Dance. And in popular culture dragons can be found from  Dragon Ball and Dragon Quest to the Chunichi Dragons, and not to forget, King Ghidorah, the three-headed golden dragon who appears in several Godzilla films.

Have a good Dragon Year!