End of the Year

The Representative Assembly works by the Japanese fiscal year, which means that, just as our term began in April last year, so the first year ends at the end of March. However, we don’t have a meeting in March, so the meeting on Sunday was the last of the first year.

In the Society and Daily Life subcommittee, we started out by looking at a new document about support for foreign students, describing an opportunity for them to meet Japanese people that had been organised by the city along with one of the schools in Kawasaki. However, there were no further questions or comments on the topic, so we moved on to housing.

Rental housing for foreigners in Japan is a difficult topic. Some landlords refuse to rent to foreigners (which is perfectly legal), and many of those who will require a Japanese guarantor, which is, obviously, rather difficult for a foreigner to find in many cases. Kawasaki has a system, set up after requests from the Assembly some years ago, that will provide a guarantor for people who cannot find one, in return for a relatively small fee. While foreign residents do use the system, most of the people using it are older people, who face much the same problem. In addition, Kanagawa prefecture, which includes Kawasaki, has set up a network to support foreigners looking for accommodation, including a scheme for estate agents. This scheme educates estate agents about the problems facing foreigners, and members are required to be positive in helping them to look. According to the personal experience of one representative, it does seem to work. Finally, the rental accommodation run by the city is all open to foreign residents, although there are no statistics on how many foreigners are currently living in it. That includes the low-rent flats aimed at poor people, as well as city-run accommodation aimed at people of more average income and at older people.

The general opinion was that the systems themselves didn’t have any major problems. However, getting the information that they exist out to foreign residents who might need it seems a bit harder. We can assume that the representatives know more about the city government than most foreign residents, but most of us did not know about these systems. Strictly speaking, information problems are being dealt with by the other subcommittee, but we did canvass some ideas. For example, the secretariat prepared a summary of the systems for us, and it was suggested that something similar could be distributed to all foreign residents. In addition, those foreigners who know about it could distribute the information to their contacts in the foreigner community. (Not that I really have contacts worth speaking of in the foreigner community, but some other representatives do.) Getting information to the people who need it is clearly a major problem, and one that many organisations face. If people don’t know that a system exists, they won’t think to look for it, in most cases, so a truly effective system needs to be proactive. Even then, a lot of people don’t read everything they are given, and most people don’t remember everything they read. I suspect that there’s no perfect solution, and that we just have to make the information available through as many channels as possible, in the hope that someone in the circles around people who need to know it will remember it and pass it on.

After that discussion, we looked at the five topics we’ve discussed so far, and decided that we might take the issues of immigration, support for foreign students, and support for housing to the final proposals, at the end of next year. From next time, we will start discussing the deeper issues, with pensions and labour. We’ll be looking at the pension system, and at the support the city provides for foreign residents who are looking for work.

This is about on schedule. I’d hoped that we’d be able to finish our discussions of the five short topics within the first year, and we have, so I think that there’s a very good chance that we’ll consider seven topics properly before picking the two we want to make concrete proposals about. There’s a fairly severe limit on what we can do with sixteen normal meetings over two years, so I think that will be a pretty good result. I hope next year’s discussions go as well as this year’s.

The Ōyama Kaidō: From Futagotamagawa to Nagatsuta

My scheme to walk the whole length of the ÅŒyama Kaidō, from Akasaka in central Tokyo to ÅŒyama, in Kanagawa, was last covered on this blog about a year ago. It was, in fact, suspended for quite a long time, first because we were moving house, then because we had one of the hottest summers for a long time, and then because people were coming for Mayuki’s Shichi-go-san. However, I finally managed to restart it last December, but I wasn’t able to write about it here because of the need to write about Mayuki’s Shichi-go-san, Nara, and the Representative Assembly. I’ve actually done two more stages now, the second two days ago, but I’ll write about the stage I completed in December first.

An ordinary Japanese urban streetscape

The Ōyama Kaidō behind Mizonokuchi Station

That stage took me past Mizonokuchi station, the one we normally use to go into Tokyo, so I passed a lot of very familiar places on the first half. However, it also took me along roads that I don’t normally use. For example, the ÅŒyama Kaidō crosses the road I use to get to Mizonokuchi just by the station, so although I’d been through the junction many times, I’d not been through it that way before.

The walking was very urban for the whole length of this stage, but there was still a lot of evidence that I was following the course of an old road. Some of it was in the prevalence of shrines, temples, and religious statues along the route. In many cases, these were established along the road, but in other cases the road may have diverted a little to go close to them. Another bit of evidence came when the current roads deviated slightly from the route of the old road: some of the older houses along the road were still aligned to face the Ōyama Kaidō, and so were at an angle to the current line.

A mountain visible on the horizon beyond an urban road

ÅŒyama

Another piece of evidence didn’t really come into view until a bit later in the walk, and in December it wasn’t consistently visible. That evidence was ÅŒyama itself, visible on the horizon, straight ahead, at the end of the road.

Because the ÅŒyama Kaidō was a major road in the Edo period (1603–1867), the route was largely followed by major roads after that as well, but because it wasn’t designed for cars (obviously), the major roads don’t follow it exactly. That means that walking along the ÅŒyama Kaidō takes you on and off major roads, so that you walk along a six lane dual carriageway for a while, then disappear up what looks like someone’s drive to go over a ridge and back down to the main road on the other side. As a result, I got a very varied view of this area, and it’s interesting.

For example, I visited all the Shinto shrines that I passed, and got the goshuin from the ones that were staffed (which was only two of them). Mizonokuchi Shrine was busier than I had expected, despite it being an ordinary Sunday, and I also visited a shrine where the tutelary kami of two villages shared one set of precincts, straddling the border, and another where the shrine had replaced a Buddhist temple in the Meiji period (1868–1912), and inherited its graveyard.

The precincts of a shrine, with the sanctuary visible in the background

Shitodomaekawa Shrine

The nicest shrine, however, was Shitodomaekawa Shrine, in Yokohama. The first part of the shrine’s name (“Shitodo”) is written with characters that would normally be read “Kamitori” or “Shincho”, so how they came to be pronounced “Shitodo” is a bit of a mystery to me. Although Yokohama is a big city, the shrine is in the northern part, where there are still a lot of fields, so the hill on which the shrine sits is surrounded by small houses and agricultural land, rather than being utterly hemmed in by tall blocks of flats. The precincts were also very clean, with a nice shelter for sitting in, and with many old trees around the edge. Over all, it just had a good atmosphere.

The whole stage was over twenty kilometres, so I was a bit tired when I got home, and had a nice warm bath to relax. However, my legs weren’t sore the next day, so obviously my habit of walking to the railway station rather than getting the bus is doing me good. That should help me to finish walking the ÅŒyama Kaidō this year.

Nara, Day Three

The pagoda and main Buddha hall at HoryujiThe third day was our last day in Nara, and the main stop was Horyuji, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan. It was Japan’s first World Heritage Site, and it is said to be the oldest wooden structure in the world. The temple is slightly older than Nara as a capital city, so it is already more than 1300 years old, which is extremely impressive for something made of wood.

Horyuji is some distance to the west of Nara, and you would have to rush around quite a bit to see both it and the Great Buddha in one day. That was why I hadn’t been to Horyuji before; the trip to Nara I went on from Yamasa was to the Great Buddha end. We took a taxi to get our luggage to the JR station in Nara, and then put the big items in coin lockers while we got the train out to the temple. We wanted to put Mayuki’s inflatable deer in the locker to wait for us, but Mayuki wasn’t having that. So the inflatable deer got to see the World Heritage Site.

Mayuki with her inflatable deer, in front of a wall at HoryujiThe temple is quite big, and the oldest part is only one section. It is, however, extremely impressive, and under constant maintenance, in the hope that it will last another 1300 years. While we were there, the roof of the rear hall, where the monks originally studied, was being redone. You could make a donation, and write your name inside a tile which would be used on the roof. We did, and I managed to mess up the katakana on my name. So, my bad Japanese will be preserved at Horyuji for at least a century. If I manage to get famous, it could well be preserved for ever. Must be careful about that.

Mayuki was very good most of the time we were at the temple, but she isn’t quite old enough to really appreciate historic buildings. She enjoyed being carried around on my shoulders, or standing on bridges to look into ponds, far more. Still, there was plenty for her to enjoy in the visit, and she did seem to have fun. It was only when she got tired that she started complaining, or falling asleep on my shoulder.

Nara, Day Two

On the second day of our visit to Nara, we started by visiting Todaiji, home of the largest bronze Buddha statue in Japan. Todaiji was founded in the mid-eighth century, to get the protection of Buddha for the Japanese state, but it was burned down a couple of times in civil wars, and the head fell off the Buddha, to be finally rebuilt by the Tokugawa Shoguns in its current state. The hall housing the Buddha is, apparently, the largest wooden structure in the world, even though it’s only two-thirds the width of the original version.

Mayuki coming out of the hole at the bottom of the pillar

Here I come!

As you might expect, it’s a major tourist attraction, which is why we planned to go fairly early in the morning, before it got too packed. We didn’t get out quite as early as I’d hoped, but the temple is only a short walk from Edosan, so we still got there quite early. There were, however, a lot of school parties. Todaiji is, unsurprisingly, a popular destination for school trips; as I mentioned, Yuriko went on a school trip last time. Just walking up the main road to the temple gave us the opportunity to see a wide-ranging sample of Japanese school uniforms; quite a lot of schools don’t use the sailor suits you see in anime.

Inside the temple, Mayuki was a bit scared of the big Buddha, and my mother and I agreed that the statue was rather more effective if viewed from off to one side, rather than straight on. Much like an English cathedral, the Buddha hall includes some exhibitions about the history of the temple and a gift shop. The other important site is one of the pillars supporting the roof, which has a hole through the bottom. It’s quite a big pillar, and a substantial hole, and the superstition is that if you can get through it, you will have good fortune. A group of elementary school students were being photographed coming through it by their teacher, and some of the boys found it a bit of a squeeze. Watching them overcame Mayuki’s initial reluctance, and she had no trouble at all. Obviously, the way to be lucky is to go to Todaiji when you’re young.

Mayuki running away from the camera, pulling the deer behind her

Let's go!

As we left Todaiji, Mayuki’s attention was caught by a red inflatable deer on wheels being sold in one of the stalls lining the path through the temple. Yuriko decided to buy one for her, a decision about which I was initially sceptical. However, Mayuki was really taken with the deer, pulling her everywhere for the rest of the day. It was nice to watch her when she reached obstacles that she couldn’t just pull the deer over, because she would stop and think about the best way to get herself and the deer round, and then, when she had succeeded, run off on the other side. It was only when Mayuki got sleepy and needed carrying that the additional item became a problem.

Yuriko, Mayuki, and my mother standing in front of the south gate to the palace complex

The rebuilt Suzakumon, the southern gate into the Imperial Palace

Our next stop, to which we got a taxi, was the site of the old Imperial Palace in Nara, which was also the main site for the celebrations of the 1300th anniversary. There is nothing original left at the site, although the outer gate to the palace has been reconstructed, as has the main hall, although one person told us that the main hall was a temporary structure; a very large one, if so. The Imperial Palace in Nara was enormous, as was Nara. It was built to the same pattern as the contemporary capital of Tang China, but on a larger scale. A fairly superficial knowledge of history will inform you that Tang China was the larger state, by a substantial margin, and I believe that Nara was never fully populated before the capital was moved again, to Kyoto.

One particularly interesting point at the palace site was a reconstructed garden. The site had been excavated, and the pattern of paths, ponds, and stones could be inferred from the results. Pollen and the like revealed the plants grown there, and provided hints as to where. Based on this information, the garden has been replanted, so that you can see what an eighth century Japanese garden looked like. It’s rather different from a contemporary one, but you can see where some elements have been continued.

In the evening, we went to the Nara National Museum. The Shosoin, which we visited on the first day, was a store room for items that had been used by, or important to, Emperor Shomu, dedicated by his empress when he died. For centuries it was opened once a year to air the items, and this created almost ideal conditions, so that even fabrics have survived in astonishingly good condition. Quite a few things have gone missing, due to rulers of Japan demanding private viewings and taking souvenirs, but the surviving items are priceless. These days, some of the items are displayed to the public once a year in the Nara National Museum. The exhibition is only on for three weeks, but we were lucky enough to be there during it.

We went in the evening because the staff at Aobajaya (the ryokan where we stayed the second night, which had absolutely nothing wrong with it but lost out in comparison to Edosan) told us that it wouldn’t be so crowded then, and they were right. We didn’t have to queue to get in, although the exhibit hall was still crowded. The central exhibit this year was a biwa, a musical instrument like a lute, decorated with mother-of-pearl, and still in good enough condition to be played, after about 1300 years. They don’t play it much, of course, but there was a recording of the last time it was played, about sixty years ago. I do suspect that the strings needed replacing, but things like that have survived in very good shape, so maybe not.

There are two classes of treasure from the Shosoin. One is the valuable and beautiful items that are displayed in the museum. The other is the bits of paper they were wrapped in, which were used records from the central government, and provide a staggering amount of detail on how that period worked. Obviously, they don’t look like much, but in historical terms they are far more informative. I’ve read quite a bit based on them, so I was about as excited to see them for real as to see the biwa.

Mayuki was getting a bit fractious by this time, so we called it a day after the museum.