3 Cool Things You Might Not Know About Hokusai’s “Mount Fuji with Cherry Trees in Bloom”

In honor of the centennial of Japan’s gift of 3,000 cherry trees to the United States and the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington D.C., celebrate spring with Katsushika Hokusai’s “Mount Fuji with Cherry Trees in Bloom.” The print comes from a series depicting views of Mount Fuji; Hokusai’s most well-known print, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” comes from another series featuring the famous symbol of Japan.

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"Inception" Edition - 3 Cool Things (You Might Not Know) About Nijo Castle Wall Paintings

Nijo Hall_Pines

(Image source unknown / Corresponding newsletter)

Samurai warriors meet Leonardi di Caprio in imagery that displays opulence and asserts efforts to retain unstable power.

1. VIP room: To make a long story short, Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu dubiously usurped power (and eventually gave rise to a shogunal government lasting 2 centuries). Unsurprisingly, he had a pretty Draconian and paranoid way of ruling. The architecture and imagery of Nijo Castle reinforces his social control. His main audience hall (Great Hall) has different levels - he's raised up on a higher platform to show his higher status. Everyone else is on a lower platform, with people in his inner circle closest to him and betrayers relegated to the back. (Note: That isn't exactly Tokugawa in the image above, he lived from 1543 to 1616.)

2. Staying power: The shimmering gold walls and intricate lacquered ceiling shows Tokugawa's wealth. The pines show longevity - this is a clear message to any haters that Tokugawa's regime was here to stay.

3. Inception: The walls of Saito's quarters at the beginning scenes of the movie Inception bear a striking resemblance to these paintings (see for yourself below!). If you've seen the movie, I'll let you read into this : )


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3 Cool Things (You Might Not Know) About the Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal Sunset You gentlemen thought a Tiffany's necklace was enough for your lady. Upon the death of his favorite wife, Emperor Shah Jahan mobilized 20,000 workers to create a mausoleum for her that, centuries later, is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Taj Mahal Double Dome1. Double dome: The dome is actually made of outer and inner domes. The outer one is really big to impress onlookers of the exterior. The inner dome has a smaller volume so that the onlookers of the interior don't get overwhelmed by all that space. St. Paul's Cathedral in London has a similar setup.  Closer look: Significant gap between the volume of the inner dome and that of the outer dome
Taj Mahal By Day2. Subtleties: The Taj Mahal is made from high-quality white Makrana marble, named for the region in India where it is mined.  Apparently, the color changes throughout the day - transitioning from a hazy white in the morning, very bright white during the day, glowing at sunset, and pearl-like at night. Closer look: The Taj Mahal on the left (taken during the day) has a different look than in the main photo above (taken at sunset).
Slumdog Millionaire3. Who wants to be a millionaire? In the Oscar-winning hit Slumdog Millionaire, Jamal and Salim act as "tour guides" at the Taj Mahal. According to IMDB, there's a goof in the movie there - it was supposed to be 2002 and but Jamal is holding a $10 bill from 2006. (Also, pet peeves aside about Disney's cultural sensitivity, and how the movie Aladdin is an amalgamation of very different cultures, the Sultan's palace bears a striking resemblance to the Taj Mahal.)

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3 Cool Things (You Might Not Know) About Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat Cambodia

(Full-size imageAerial view of complex / Corresponding newsletter)

This majestic temple complex is the commonly considered the world's largest religious monument. Angkor Wat is modeled after the Hindu conceptual framework of the universe, from its overall layout to the imagery of the many intricate carvings.

Flag of Cambodia1. Mountains beyond mountains: The 5 big towers represent Mount Meru, which in Hindu tradition is the home of the gods. Their distinct shapes appear on the Cambodian flag. Closer look: There are only 3 towers on the flag - the towers are laid out like the 5 dots on the die (formally known as a quincunx) and from the front, the back 2 towers are hidden. The big photo is taken from off-center, so you can see all 5 towers.

Angkor Wat Close Up

2. Reverse, reverse: From big factors like the physical layout to the small details of the carvings, so many aspects of Angkor Wat have significance (similar to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona). For example, unlike other similar temples which face east, Angkor Wat faces west, towards the sunset. The incredible carvings, rich with imagery, tell a story. However, the Angkor Wat is unusual is that the narrative progresses counterclockwise instead of clockwise. These factors suggest to scholars that Angkor Wat is a funerary temple.

Lara Croft Tomb Raider Logo3. Action: Part of Lara Croft's (Angelina Jolie) adventure leads to Angkor Wat, which was among the filming locations for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. See for yourself, check out a video clip. Artist Binh Danh (Stanford MFA, '04) uses innovative photographic methods (such as printing photos onto the chlorophyll of leaves) to explore Angkor Wat and Cambodia's political past.

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Note: Ever wonder how art could be useful to you? Check out a new article "10 Things Art Can Do For You."

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3 Cool Things (You Might Not Know) About Samurai Armor

Before Iron Man and the Terminator, there was samurai armor. The samurai were Japan's warrior class from the 12th-19th century. Unlike European armor, samurai armor was made of "scales." The design of their armor also changed in response to the introduction of muskets to Japan. The code of the samurai included training in both warfare and culture, as indicated by their extravagant helmets.

  1. Agility: Unlike the big plated armor of medieval European knights, samurai armor is made of small pieces of leather or iron laced together, forming layers like the scales of a fish, thus enabling greater range of movement. Closer look: The blue and black patterns are actually scales (see below). In real life, they would look more like this.
  2. Build a better mousetrap: Around the 16th century, foreigners had introduced muskets and guns, so the samurai had to design armor to better withstand the new weapons. Therefore, those scales were soon made of iron and covered more of the body.
  3. Head gear: The code of the samurai included not only training in warfare but also in culture - "Culture and and arms are like two wings of a bird." One reflection of that is in their elaborate helmets, whose crazy shapes often reflected different themes in Japanese poetry or Buddhism, such as animals or other aspects of nature like waterfalls. These were passed down from generation to generation. Closer look: Crazy horn shapes protruding from helmet (see below). Check out more great pics of crazy helmets in the book embedded below, especially starting from page 35 (by the way I'm not getting paid to endorse any book I mention, I just found this book on Google Scholar).

Some talking points...

  1. Star Wars: It seems that Darth Vader's costume was based on samurai armor.
  2. Next time you're at a Japanese restaurant: The samurai ate dried abalone, a form of jellyfish, rice, and for seasoning had salt and vinegar. Try finding that on the menu of your favorite sushi place...
  3. Next time you're choosing movies: You can suggest "The Last Samurai," starring Tom Cruise. There's also the prehistoric TV series "Shogun," which was way before my time, but I am told that it is good.

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