Bamboo is a plant that for centuries has played a key role in the lives of people in Japan. You can make numerous everyday items from bamboo and even eat when young bamboo shoots appear in the spring. It is also an important material for implements used in the tea ceremony. Items made of it are durable and beautiful. Bamboo is also visible in many other aspects of traditional Japanese culture. Since ancient times, it appears in legends and fairy tales as a plant with unusual properties and to this day remains an important element in festivals and rituals. In Japan, the color of bamboo is associated with freshness and bamboo forests have a special, mysterious atmosphere. They are dense and quite dark but the sounds affect the senses most. In the bamboo forests you can hear the music when the leaves rustle in the wind and the empty bamboo stalks start to hit each other. And this melody, which the Bamboo Grove in Arashiyama (Sagano Bamboo Forest) plays, was included in the list of 100 Sounds of Japan by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment.
Bamboo is a group of plants that belong to the grass family. It grows throughout Asia, and in Japan there are over 60 species. Arashiyama is located on the outskirts of Kyoto, and Kyoto itself is located in a valley surrounded by hills. Summers are hot there, and winters are cold. These conditions are perfect for bamboo, that’s why in the vicinity of Kyoto we can find many species of this plant. Madake is the most common bamboo species in Japan. It is strong and flexible, which is why it is used in bamboo crafts and in the interiors of traditional houses. One of the more delicate types of bamboo is Hachiku. The stems are between three and ten centimeters in diameter and can be cut vertically into extremely thin strips. This makes it ideal for complicated craft work. Kinmei-moso has a golden color with green vertical stripes that disappear after cutting the stem. Kikko-chiku is a specialty of the Kyoto region. The stems bulge alternately on both sides between the joints, which resembles a turtle shell.
However, seeing all of these species in the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is not an easy task. You can walk there on a narrow path. As it is one of the most popular places in all of Japan, most of the day there are crowds of people there. Do not count for a quiet walk during which you will soak up the nature and sounds of the forest. It is crowded and loud, and among the visitors are unfortunately also barbarians carving their signatures on bamboo.
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Some green stuff to relax:
If you really want to feel the atmosphere of this place then I recommend you to go there in the weekday morning. Entry to the Sagano Bamboo Forest is completely free. Do not forget, however, that this is not the only bamboo forest in Japan. Yes, it is the most popular, but in Kyoto and Tokyo you will find many other similar places.
And why bamboo is magical?
Bamboo grows very fast, some species gain a meter or even more per day. This extraordinary vitality, as well as durability mean that from ancient times it is believed that bamboo has mysterious powers. The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, Japan’s oldest folk tale tells about it. Another magical issue is the fact that bamboo blooms only once every 100 years and after that begins to wilt and die.
To this day, bamboo is considered a symbol of happiness, which is why it is an important element of many ceremonies and rituals. At the end of each year, people put bamboo decorations outside their homes and workplaces. In December, craftsmen around the country are beginning to prepare decorations. It is believed that the deities of the New Year are attracted by them. When bamboo decorations are in front of your home, they will bring good luck in the coming year. In November, the Tori no Ichi festival takes place throughout Japan. Local people buy bamboo rakes with high-value symbols on them. Rakes are tools used to collect things in one place, and in this case they are meant to be used to capture happiness and good luck. These are also important amulets that bring success in business. These rituals reflect the belief that bamboo has special divine powers.
Bamboo in everyday life
Bamboo is light, strong and easy to process, which makes it a very versatile material. Since ancient times, it has played a major role in the lives of people in Japan. Once it was the main building material, next to wood. Today, due to numerous earthquakes, it is no longer used for this purpose but you can still see it inside and outside of traditional Kyoto homes. The walls of many houses have Inuyarai – low, curved fences that protect buildings from getting splattered with mud. Shisi-odoshi is a construction in which bamboo fills with water and falls under its weight, and then raises again while making a rhythmic sound. It was used to serve as a deterrent for animals, now shisi-odoshi is a decorative element of gardens and temples.
Bamboo is empty inside, which makes it relatively light, and joints at regular intervals make it very strong. When cut into thin strips, it also becomes elastic and resilient. Thanks to that, it can be work in many different ways to everyday objects. Baskets woven from bamboo lattice are used by farmers to carry crops. Woven bamboo sieves are used for washing food or serving meals. It is also very easy to make a cup from a bamboo because it does not leaking. Just cut the stalk in the right places. This is only a fraction of the percentage of possibilities that bamboo gives us when it comes to everyday objects. As it grows very fast, it is an ideal, fully ecological material that, in my opinion, should be used all over the world.
Kitchen items made of bamboo are not the only possibility of using it in kitchen. Young bamboo shoots are also a popular product to eat. The season lasts from March to May. Shoots should be dug out before they break through the ground, because after that they become too rough, hard and lose their taste. For this reason, you should also prepare them as soon as possible after digging. Takenoko, that’s how they call bamboo shoot in Japan, is one of the biggest delicacies of spring. You can fry them as tempura, cook and serve with rice or make starters for the main dish. The sheaths around outside of the shoots are also used because they have antibiotic properties. They prevent food from spoiling, which is why they have been used for a long time as a natural wrappers for carrying food products. The bamboo extract deters insects, has antibacterial properties and prevents the formation of mold
If you will ever be in Japan, you must go to a forest full of bamboo. I recommend you choose a less popular place to be able to fully appreciate the music that the bamboo forest plays. And if you decide to go to Bamboo Grove in Arashiyama, remember that there are many more beautiful places and attractions nearby. This is where you can take a Sagano Romantic Train or sail a wooden boat, chase with monkeys in Iwatayama Park, see the magnificent Togetsukyo Bridge. In the neighborhood there are streets with traditional houses, lovely Japanese restaurants and this is a place where you can eat golden ice cream.
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