David Chart's Japan Diary

June 13th 2004

This week I managed to finish all the latest tight-deadline bits of freelancing, so I should be able to start doing homework again from today. As I've mentioned before, I'm not sure that doing a lot of specifically set homework is a good use of my time, but I will be doing more Japanese study. To move towards that, I've started reading Harii Pottaa to Kensha no Ishi, possibly better known to most readers of this diary as Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. The really encouraging thing is: I can read it. I don't need a dictionary. It's still a lot slower than reading English, taking about five minutes per page, so that at this rate it will take me about forty hours of actual reading time to finish the book. I'm hoping that I'll get faster... Of course, I also encounter words I don't know, but not so many that I can't work out roughly what they mean from context, including the context of knowing that there were lots of owls flying about in the original, so a fukurou is probably an owl. Another bonus of reading a children's book is that there are lots of furigana, small phonetic characters giving the readings of the kanji. I don't need all of them, but I need enough to be glad they're there. I'm hoping that this reading will start giving me a sense of the shape of written Japanese.

I had another trial lesson with a new student on Monday. He's decided to do another couple of trial lessons before deciding whether to continue for a sustained period, which is fine by me; he's paying for the trial lessons. I think he's trying another teacher at the same time, too, because one of the days that were free when we made the initial arrangements isn't any more. That's sensible, really, so I can't complain. I also had the second lesson with another of my students on Monday, so this teaching lark seems to be getting going.

On Wednesday, I had dinner with Hang, my Vietnamese classmate, and on Friday I had lunch with Natasa, who's in K class, so we have to speak English. She's Swiss, of Serbian descent, so she speaks German, Serbo-Croatian, English, French, Italian, and Spanish (if I recally correctly). Some people...

Yesterday was very nice. It was my first day off for several weeks, and I spent most of it reading The Last Light of the Sun, by Guy Gavriel Kay. It's a very good book. Not Kay's best work, but then his best work is absolutely fantastic. This one is merely very good, so I had a very enjoyable day. Today, the weather is glorious, and excellent drying weather, so much so that I've been able to do an extra load of washing. The rain and humidity will doubtless kick in again soon.

Apart from that lot, most of this week was taken up with school, and with getting the various smaller freelancing jobs finished, to tie up the loose ends. Next week we have tests, so I'm going to try to do a bit of revision this afternoon.

Takayama and Okazaki

Back to the holiday. Looking at the photographs I have left, I might just finish the account of the first family visit before the second one. Of course, there's Sheila's visit in between to write up, as well.

Anyway, from Kyoto we headed to Takayama. Takayama is in the Japan Alps (Nihon Arupusu, in Japanese), so the train ride there is really quite spectacular. The first bit is rather ordinary, but once the train heads into the mountains, following a river valley, the views become truly spectacular. This journey partially reconciled Silver to the idea of my living in Japan long term, just so long as I lived in one of those unfeasibly pretty villages. I have to say that, in many ways, I quite like the idea.

Takayama itself is in a bowl in the mountains, so it's suprisingly flat. We were staying at the Rickshaw Inn, which was fairly cheap. The rooms were great. Because it was high season, Silver and I had to share, so we had two twin rooms between us. The rooms were a good size, with private bathrooms attached, and very comfortable. The location is also convenient. Breakfast, however, wasn't up to very much at all, so if I go there again, as I might, I suspect that I will eat breakfast elsewhere -- it is optional. Great place to sleep, not such a great place to eat.

We arrived around midday, and so after dropping off our baggage we set off to look around the town. Takayama was an administrative centre in the Edo period, and is unique in that the government offices from the period survive almost entirely intact. There is also a substantial amount of old town left, near the river, making the town a charming place to walk around.

The family just inside Takayama Jinya Silver, Ray, and Mum, just inside Takayama Jinya. The gate behind them is the main entrance to the compound.

The first place we went was the government offices (jinya). You had to walk around these with your shoes off, and the floor was cold. There was still snow on the ground, in fact, in some of the shaded areas. The building was fascinating, though, with lots of rooms for offices, as well as living quarters and private gardens for the governor/mayor and his family. I commented to Ray that it would be nice if Thetford could manage something similar, but he thought that would be a bit beyond the town's budget.

Snow in April Snow on the ground in one of the small gardens in the Jinya.

The whole building was wooden, with tatami mat floors, and the nail heads in the beams were covered with bunny rabbits. Seriously: metal bunny rabbits with enormous ears. Japanese standards for what it is reasonable to put on various things have always been a bit different from Western standards: I've seen samurai helmets with bunny rabbit ears and with butterflies. Just one of the things that makes Japan fun.

One of the most amusing bits of the jinya was the fact that all the original toilets were still in place, and every single one had a sign saying "This toilet is not for use". I mean, aren't people likely to guess that?

The old storehouse, where rice taxes were kept before despatch to Edo (now Tokyo), has been turned into a museum, which is quite interesting. Silver translated a bit of Japanese while we were there. It was printed on a picture of the jinya with snow falling, and after some consideration she decided it meant 'Takayama in Winter'. She was right, too... The cold feet problem and the fact that all the labels were in Japanese meant that we didn't dawdle too much in the museum, which was good because it meant that we were able to go somewhere else.

That was one of the old merchant houses, which are now open to the public as museums. We walked there through the length of the old town, which is, indeed, extremely charming, if now full of shops catering to tourists -- Takayama is one of the main tourist attractions for travelling Japanese people, as well as for foreigners. Some of the wood carvings sold in the shops are truly beautiful, though.

We only had time for one of the old houses, but it was quite lovely. The rooms had paintings on the sliding panels, and the whole place seemed quite charming. I have a sneaking suspicion that parts of a TV series we saw in class this term were filmed in one of the two houses in Takayama; it did look rather familiar.

We walked back to the hotel from the house, managing to lose Mum and Ray on the way. Fortunately, they found their own way back after a little while, after asking for directions, and it was good practice for the following week, when they were on their own all the time. We had dinner at a restaurant serving the local specialities. It had a nice atmosphere, and I had a beef and miso dish, served, and cooked, on a big leaf. A couple of hundred years ago, Takayama was in a very poor area, as the mountains aren't the best area for rice, so people used the leaves in place of crockery. As an added benefit, it saves on washing up.

Family at the school Silver, Mum, and Ray in the main front lobby at Yamasa.

The next morning we left fairly early, as the plan was to get to Tokyo, via Okazaki, within the day. We did manage it, and even had time in Okazaki to pop into the school and look around. Hoshino-san in the office, who I think is the office person with general responsibility for people on the AIJP, specifically came to say hello, and I tried to do introductions in the appropriate languages, failing slightly. It's a good job I don't plan to be an interpreter. One of the staff commented that he could see the resemblance between me and Ray, which is, well, interesting.

We ate lunch at the ramen shop round the corner, and Silver claimed that the fried rice there was probably the best food she'd had in Japan, not excluding the fantastic kaiseki meal in Kyoto. I can see her point; it really is rather good. Then Mum and Ray rushed around quite a bit repacking their cases ready for the next stage of the trip. They left two cases with me; one for me to bring when I met up with them in Nagoya, and another for when I met them on the train on their way back to Tokyo to leave. The plan was to minimise the amount they had to maneuver at any one time, and it did, in fact, work out.

We left Okazaki on time, and went via Toyohashi to get the shinkansen to Tokyo. The journey was no problem, and we were soon back in Tokyo, at Sawanoya. If I remember correctly, we had dinner that night at Tagosaku-ya, the fried meat shop fairly close to the ryokan. There were, fortunately, some things that Silver could eat.

And that's where I'll leave us for this installment, ready to do some proper sight-seeing in Tokyo.